Opposition guidelines – part 2

As promised by the INPI, the second and final part of their patent opposition guidelines has now been released. Here is the link to download the full pdf document. And as promised by me, here is now a summary of this new installment. As you will see, we now have a much clearer view of what the opposition à la française is going to look like. As a reminder, the presentation of the first part can be found here.

The opposition procedure consists of an admissibility phase, an instruction phase and a decision phase. I will pick up my comments again at the instruction phase, which starts after the expiry of the 9-month opposition time limit and after the end of the admissibility phase.

Notification of the opposition(s)

The INPI will “immediately” (French text: “sans délai”) notify all admissible oppositions to the patent proprietor and invite them to reply. As a side note, the admissibility phase seems to be ex parte, solely between the opponent and the INPI. I wonder whether the proprietor will be able to challenge the admissibility of the opposition after the so-called admissibility phase.

As to the notion of immediate notification to the patent proprietor, my understanding is that the notification will anyway not take place before the expiry of the 9-month time limit (even if an admissible opposition is filed a few days after the grant of the patent), as the instruction phase only starts after this expiry. Besides, in the case of multiple oppositions, the proceedings are supposed to be consolidated.

Overall timeline of the opposition proceedings

  • In its official communication to the patent proprietor, the INPI will invite the proprietor to respond to the opposition within a 3-month deadline, designated as “the first deadline“.
  • Within three months from the proprietor’s response, the INPI will communicate to all parties its preliminary opinion on the case, and invite all parties to file further observations within a 2-month deadline, designated as… “the second deadline“.
  • If one or more parties file observations within this second deadline, a so-called “written phase” begins. Each party will be invited to comment on the other parties’ submissions within another 2-month deadline  – yes, “the third deadline”, you nailed it!
  • Then the back and forth stops: no invitation to respond to submissions made within this third deadline will be sent.
  • An “oral phase” will take place upon request of one the parties, or on the INPI’s own motion (the expression “oral proceedings” was probably copyrighted).
  • If an oral phase takes place, summons to the oral phase will be issued, together with an additional opinion listing the main points to be addressed during the oral phase.

The first, second and third deadlines are not extendable. This means that the timeline is going to be tight, and the parties will have to be very quick.

Never play a game before carefully reading the rules.

Oral phase

The oral phase will take place at the INPI, in front of the “opposition commission” (the expression “opposition division” was probably copyrighted). As a reminder, this commission comprises three examiners. The chairperson can decide to add a legal member to the commission. The oral phase is public and will be conducted quite similarly to oral proceedings at the EPO. In particular, the opposition commission may interrupt the oral phrase for an interim deliberation, and the chairperson may then announce an intermediate opinion on one particular aspect. At the end of the oral phase, the chairperson will close the instruction phase of the opposition. It is not clear whether the final decision will be announced orally or not.

For the time being, the guidelines do not mention the possibility to conduct the oral phase by videoconference. I expect that the first hearings will likely not take place before approximately one year from now, which leaves some time for the INPI to decide to add this option, if they so wish.

Decision phase

If an oral phase takes place, the instruction phase ends once the oral phase is closed. In the alternative, the instruction phase ends:

  • at the expiry of the second deadline, if the parties have not replied to the invitation and have not requested to make oral observations;
  • or at least at the expiry of the third deadline, if the parties have not requested to make oral observations.

The end of the instruction phase is communicated to the parties. Then starts the decision phase, in which the INPI will draft and notify a reasoned decision on the opposition. If a decision is not issued within four months, the opposition will be rejected by default (the infamous “silence vaut rejet” principle). As already mentioned on this blog, the INPI will certainly make every effort so that this never happens.

The appeal deadline will be triggered by the receipt of the decision. As a reminder, the appeal will have to be filed in front of the Paris Cour d’appel, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. The appeal deadline is one month for a party residing in mainland France, two months for a party residing in the overseas territories, and three months for a party residing abroad – a rather unfortunate inequality. Appeal submissions must then be filed within three months after the notice of appeal.

Possible outcomes

The possible outcomes of the opposition are: the rejection of the opposition, the full revocation of the patent, the maintenance of the patent in amended form, but also… the partial revocation of the patent.

This fourth possible outcome is ambiguous in the statute and has given rise to some speculation. The guidelines give the example of an opposition challenging only claim 1, and a proprietor not filing any claim amendment. The INPI could then revoke claim 1 only. I wonder if this situation of partial revocation would also occur if the opponent challenges all claims, but the INPI concludes that only claim 1 is invalid.

In case of a partial revocation, the patent proprietor will be invited to file a request for modification of the patent in keeping with the decision of partial revocation. However, there is no deadline for doing so and no negative consequence if the patent proprietor remains inactive.

Commentators’ suspicions are thus confirmed: the partial revocation procedure does seem kind of messy.

Modifications of the patent 

The patent proprietor may file a modification of the patent at at least three stages: within the first deadline, the second deadline and the third deadline set out above. Any modification filed later, especially during the oral phase, will be deemed late-filed. Once the instruction phase is over, no more modification will be allowed.

Any modification of the patent must be occasioned by a ground for opposition raised by the opponent. This is more restrictive than at the EPO, where a modification may be filed to address a ground for opposition not raised by an opponent.

Naturally, amended claims will have to comply with all of the requirements of the Code de la propriété intellectuelle.

Interestingly, the description can only be amended to address the ground for opposition of insufficiency of disclosure. This provision is surprising. I do not expect that an objection of insufficiency of disclosure can frequently be overcome by amending the description – without adding new matter. What this also implies is that the description will not need to and actually cannot be adapted to amended claims. This is partly consistent with the examination guidelines, which do not require – but allow – an adaptation of the description when claims are amended in response to the search report.

Claim amendments can be filed in the form a main request and one or more auxiliary requests, which will be assessed in the order of preference stated by the proprietor, provided that their number is reasonable.

Late-filed submissions

The scope of the opposition and the grounds for opposition cannot be extended after the 9-month opposition deadline. This is more severe than at the EPO, wherein a late ground for opposition may be taken into account by the opposition division if it is prima facie relevant.

Facts and evidence which are not filed in due time by the parties may be admitted into the proceedings, at the INPI’s discretion. Factors to be taken into account include the relevance of the late-filed submission, the circumstances of the late filing and the possibility for all parties to debate it. This will apply in particular to new requests filed on the day of the oral phase.

A new submission made in the instruction phase as a direct and timely reaction to a submission of another party will not be considered late-filed.

It seems that new arguments may not be considered as late-filed. There is even a statement in the guidelines per which the parties should not merely repeat arguments already made in writing, during the oral phase – which sounds like an invitation to submit new arguments on the day of the oral phase.

That said, the boundary between new facts and new arguments probably remains to be determined. For instance, if a novelty objection based on D1 and an inventive step objection based on D2+D3 are raised within the 9-month period, will a new novelty objection based on D2 be considered as a late fact or a late argument (which would therefore be necessarily admissible)? How about an inventive step objection based on D2+D1? or based on D1+D3?

Language 

The language of the proceedings is French. Submissions must be filed in this language, otherwise they are inadmissible. French will also be the language used in the oral phase. The parties may bring their own interpreters to the oral phase.

Any exhibit or evidence should in principle be in French or translated into French. Otherwise, the INPI can invite a party to provide a translation within a deadline. It will be interesting to see how this provision will be implemented in practice. The majority of evidence filed in French opposition proceedings will likely be in English (or be translated into English). And it is a fact that all patent professionals, including INPI examiners, are able to read technical documents in English. We will see whether a French translation will be required for documents in the English language.

Stay of proceedings

There are several circumstances in which the opposition proceedings may be stayed: notably in case an ownership claim is filed in court, or if a nullity action is pending (although the judge may order a stay of the nullity suit, in which case the opposition can proceed).

As a more uncommon feature, the INPI may stay the proceedings if information is expected which may impact the outcome of the proceedings; or upon joint request of the parties, for a duration of four months, which can be renewed twice (thus for a total duration of 1 year). This may be useful in case the proprietor and the opponent need time to negotiate.

Apportionment of costs

For reasons of equity, for instance in the case of unjustified late submissions leading to additional expenditure, the INPI can order an apportionment of costs. However, the maximum amount to be apportioned is limited according to the following schedule:

  • 600 euros for costs incurred in the written phase.
  • 100 euros for costs incurred in the oral phase.
  • 500 euros for representation costs.

So the grand total would be 1200 euros, and it would likely only be possible to reach this amount in rather exceptional circumstances.

Therefore, it seems fair to say that parties may just as well completely forget about apportionment of costs, which will not be a factor – except for natural persons. The mere fact of requesting and arguing apportionment of costs may cost more than what may be finally apportioned.

* * *

These are the salient points that I have noted in the second part of the new guidelines.

Now that the first few oppositions have been filed – extremely few in fact, as far as I can tell based on recent issues of the Bulletin Officiel de la Propriété Industrielle – the opposition system is live. I hope readers will share updates on how it goes in practice.

A patent up in the air

With all the recent renewed talk about the UPC, the decision commented upon today reminds us how fragmented the European patent litigation landscape still is at this time.

The case at hand was in fact already mentioned on this blog a few months ago, when the judge in charge of case management, in an unusual move, decided that the court should hear a patent invalidity defense and rule on it first, before dealing with confidential exhibits in connection with the infringement claim, if necessary.

It turns out that this may have been the most efficient way to proceed after all, as the court has now declared that the claims of the patent in suit are invalid – so that the infringement claim no longer needs to be examined.

In this case, the patent proprietor is Lufthansa Technik AG, and the defendants are Thales Avionics Inc., Astronics Advanced Electronic System and Panasonic Avionics Corporation. The patent is EP 0881145, expired since May 2018, directed to a voltage supply apparatus for supplying voltage to electric devices in an airplane cabin.

The Paris Tribunal judiciaire deemed that the asserted claims are novel, but lack inventive step.

The reasoning does not lend itself to a full summary in a blog post such as this one; analyzing it in detail would require taking a hard look at the patent and the prior art.

What I do find interesting to note, though, is how the court commented on foreign decisions previously issued in connection with the same European patent.

Indeed, the patent was also asserted in Germany and in the UK against one of the same co-defendants.

In Germany, back in 2012, the patent was upheld by the Bundespatentgericht in amended form, with a combination of claims 1 and 2. The Mannheim Landgericht then found that the amended patent was infringed.

In the UK, the High Court found the same patent valid and infringed, in a judgment issued on July 22, 2020.

For the sake of completeness, I should add that Lufthansa was not so lucky on the other side of the pond, as the corresponding U.S. patent was held invalid for indefiniteness in a summary judgment issued by the district court of the Western district of Washington (upheld on appeal). But this is somewhat less relevant for us, since U.S. law is an entirely different story.

Going back to Europe, it thus appears that the French court came to a different conclusion from its German and British counterparts regarding the validity of the patent. Interestingly enough, the French judgment does not shy away from a comparison with the foreign judgments. On the contrary, it contains a couple of references to these foreign judgments.

The ups and downs of patent litigation.

First, in the novelty discussion, the court explicitly agreed with a portion of the British judgment, and relied on an admission made by one of the defendants’ experts in the UK to interpret a prior art document.

However, when examining inventive step of claim 2, the court expressed its disagreement with the position of the German and British courts, and more specifically with their interpretation of a prior art document called Neuenschwander. Let’s have a closer look at the point of contention.

Claim 1 of the Lufthansa patent is the following (with particular emphasis on the most important features for the discussion):

A voltage supply apparatus for providing a supply voltage for electric devices in an aeroplane cabin, comprising:
a socket to which the device is connectable by means of a plug and to which the supply voltage can be applied,
the socket comprising a socket detector detecting the presence of a plug inserted in the socket, and
a supply device being provided remotely from the socket and being connected to the socket via a signal line and via a supply line for the supply voltage,
the supply device applying the supply voltage to the socket when the plug detectors indicate the presence of the plug via the signal line to the supply device, characterized in that
the plug detector is formed such as to detect the presence of two contact pins of the plug in the socket, and the supply device only applies the supply voltage to the socket if the presence of two contact pins of the plug is detected simultaneously.

Claim 2 adds that:

[…] the supply device only applies the supply voltage if a maximum contact time is not exceeded between the detection of the first and the second contact pin of the plug.

A prior art document called Neuenschwander discloses a contact system for use at an outlet end of an electric supply line, comprising “two barrier portions, each of which is associated with [a connector end] and arranged between its associated connector end and [one opening] so as to operate [a] relay for connection of [a] supply line with [the] connector ends only when contact pins of an attachment plug are moved substantially simultaneously toward, and into contact with, said connector end (claim 3 of Neuenschwander).

One key issue was whether this teaches the claimed supply of voltage depending on a maximum contact time not being exceeded.

The TJ carefully looked at the analysis made by foreign European courts:

The meaning of this expression and the disclosure or not of a time out function by this prior art are extensively addressed in paragraphs 149 to 162 of the High Court judgment. Lufthansa Technik asserts, in keeping with the British judge’s ruling but also with the position adopted by the German court, that the notion of substantially simultaneous introduction of the contact pins is not mentioned as a condition for the supply – and thus as an additional level of desired safety – but as a fact related to the normal configuration of a plug. 

The Bundespatentgericht also rejected the assumption of a time out required by claim 3 of the Neuenschwander patent, because no time measurement is mentioned and none of the disclosed embodiments has a configuration including this timing function. […]

But the French judges disagreed with this assessment:

However, as rightly mentioned by the defendants, on the one hand this interpretation is remote from the literal wording of […] claim 3; and on the other hand, the EP’145 patent is not more explicit as to the implementation of this feature, since the scope of the invention is limited to a time measurement condition, or timing “concept”, irrespective of the technical means enabling its application, which leads to the conclusion that the skilled person was in a position to adapt the device by integrating such a function owing to their common general knowledge. 

The court went on with analyzing further documents to be taken into account in the inventive step assessment, and added the following general comment:

The implementation of this timing criterion involved operations of adaptation of the electric circuit within the skilled person’s reach, which Lufthansa Technik does not deny in its argumentation regarding the auxiliary objection of invalidity of claim 2 for insufficiency of disclosure, and which can be deduced from the very wording of the EP’145 patent which does not provide any indication in this respect.  

Lack of judicial consistency in pan-European patent litigation is usually considered a bad thing and one of reasons why we badly need the UPC.

On the other hand, since we do have a divided court system in place, I find it rather reassuring that each court pays close attention to reasonings developed abroad but still makes its own independent assessment of the case. Reasonable minds can differ, after all.

As another remark, and with the caveat that I have not looked in detail at the patent and the prior art and have thus not formed a personal opinion on this matter, it is interesting that the court has taken into account the extent of actual disclosure in the patent when determining whether a claimed feature is actually distinguishing over a similar general statement in the prior art.

It would appear that there is room for so-called squeeze arguments in France.

A big thank you to Sandrine Bouvier-Ravon and Jean-Martin Chevalier for sending this decision!


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal judiciaire de Paris, 3ème chambre 2ème section, December 4, 2020, Lufthansa Technik AG v. Thales Avionics Inc. et al., RG No. 18/04501.