An eccentricity issue

Judgments in which a mechanical engineering patent is revoked for insufficiency of disclosure are few and far between. Typically, insufficiency problems tend to arise in the context of chemical or medicinal inventions – although they are not unheard of with mechanical inventions.

So, today’s decision may be viewed as somewhat eccentric in this respect. But the best part is that the feature which was found to be problematic revolves around… an eccentric (mechanism). End of pun.

In the case at hand, the patent (EP 1023111) was commonly owned by its three inventors, and licensed to a company called LPG Systems. LPG are the initials of one of the inventors, who, not unexpectedly, was a partner of the licensee.

At some point of time, things must have gone wrong, as LPG put an end to the license agreement. As a result, the two other owners of the patent filed suit for wrongful termination. And as a counter-strike, LPG filed a patent nullity action.

The patent was revoked for insufficiency of disclosure in first instance. This was confirmed in a judgment by the Cour d’appel de Paris dated September 9, 2014. The two disgruntled patent proprietors filed an appeal on points to law with the Cour de cassation (judicial supreme court). This final appeal was dismissed in a judgment dated October 4, 2016.

In order to properly understand what was wrong with this patent, it is easier to go back to the 2014 appeal ruling, as judgments from the Cour de cassation have this tendency to be somewhat cryptic and in particular to only partially recall the relevant facts.

The patent at stake relates to an apparatus for restoring the balance of the human body.

Due to various medical conditions, patients sometimes need to have their balance corrected or restored. This can be achieved owing to a training apparatus, such as the one claimed in the patent:

Apparatus for restoring the balance of the human body, consisting essentially of a mobile circular platform intended to support the subject to be treated and which can have an oscillatory movement imparted to it, and in which the said platform has its oscillatory movement imparted to it about a central support point, this movement being combined with a reciprocating rotational movement, by means of a single motor connected to transmission means and without the intervention of the patientthis being in the plane of the platform supporting the subject, about the geometric axis perpendicular to the said platform and passing through its centre, the amplitude and speed both of the oscillation and of the rotation being adjustable and capable of being varied during use, means being associated with the said apparatus so that the subject can be held on the platform either in a standing position or in a crouched or seated position.

The expressions highlighted above are probably the most significant ones for the decision.

LPG claimed that the patent at stake does not disclose appropriate means for adjusting the amplitude of the oscillation and rotation during use and that the skilled person would not be able to implement this feature of the claim.

The Cour d’appel agreed. The court reviewed the description of the patent. Said description does disclose a mechanism for providing the claimed oscillatory and rotary movement of the platform: the platform is mounted at the extremity of a shaft of a cylinder, which imparts the desired oscillations. And rotation can be generated owing to another shaft connected to an eccentric.

The court stated that both the rotation amplitude and the oscillation amplitude could be adjusted by acting on respective relevant parts (cylinder shaft and eccentric). However, it was only possible to do so when the apparatus was not working. But the claim required the possibility to adjust this amplitude in use. Such possibility was not taught in the patent.

The appellants submitted two expert opinions aiming at showing possible ways to implement the claimed feature. The description of the opinions is very brief in the judgment. It seems that the first one suggested to use an electric or hydraulic cylinder for the eccentric itself, so that the patient could actuate it during use; and that the second one offered to mount an electric or hydraulic cylinder on the eccentric so as to actuate it and rotate with it.

The court dismissed these expert opinions. They noted that the first opinion called for the intervention of the patient; and that both relied on the presence of an additional motor. And this was not consistent with the teaching of the patent. They also added that the technical solutions contemplated in the expert opinions required more than mere implementation steps.

Eccentricity can sometimes be brilliant.
Eccentricity can sometimes be brilliant.

In order to challenge an appeal judgment in front of the Cour de cassation, it must be shown that the law was not correctly applied. This is seldom an easy task. It is often said that appeal courts are skilled in drafting judgments relying almost entirely on facts (and not on any particular interpretation of the law) in order to reduce the risk of being overturned. Conversely, cassation appellants tend to artificially disguise arguments that the Cour d’appel erroneously assessed facts as arguments that the Cour d’appel violated the law. An interesting game indeed.

In the present case, first the appellants stated that the Cour d’appel had come up with an argument of its own (which they are not supposed to do) without hearing the parties on it (which they are not supposed to do either). The argument in question was that the adjustment at stake could not possibly be made by the patient him/herself. The Cour de cassation disagreed because this argument made by the appellate judges was actually derivable from the main claim itself.

Second, the appellants submitted that the patent does not require the claimed adjustment to be made without the intervention of the patient, and with a single motor – as asserted by the appellate judges. The main claim requires on the one hand that the oscillatory movement is “combined with a reciprocating rotational movement, by means of a single motor“; and on the other hand that “the amplitude and speed both of the oscillation and of the rotation [are] adjustable and capable of being varied during use“.

In other words, there is no explicit limitation in the claim to an adjustment by means of a single motor, without any intervention of the patient. Paragraph [0026] of the description mentions an “oscillatory movement around a central support point, which is combined with an alternate rotation movement, owing to a single motor connected to transmission means and without any intervention of the patient”. Here again, it is not explicitly stated that the requirements of a single motor and of the absence of intervention of a patient apply to the adjustment of the movement.

Here is how the cassation judges dealt with the argument:

This description is not clear and accurate. It does not mention that the single motor does not provide the adjustment of the speed and amplitude of oscillation or of the alternate rotation. Nor does it mention that another means should be used for that purpose. The Cour d’appel held that the addition of a supplementary motor was contrary to the teaching of the patent based on an interpretation which had to be made due to the ambiguity of the description – and therefore the decision was correctly reasoned. 

In other words, the appellate judges were at a liberty to interpret the claim in a restrictive manner because the description of the patent did not clearly and unambiguously lead to a different interpretation. Again, it is not the Cour de cassation’s job to redo the work done by the Cour d’appel. They only focus on possible errors of law. I figure that a blatant interpretation mistake could be considered as misapplying the law, but this was not the case here.

The appellants also blamed the Cour d’appel with not sufficiently taking into account the experts’ opinions in its reasoning. But the Cour de cassation considered that the reasoning was sufficient: based on the above claim interpretation, the movement adjustment was supposed to be performed owing to the single motor – according to the patent. Since the experts’ opinions relied on an additional motor, the Cour d’appel did not err in rejecting those.

I guess this is one of those cases where it is in fact a lack of clarity of the claims which made the patent fall down the abyss of insufficiency of disclosure.

Probably not that eccentric an outcome, if you ask a chemical engineering patent attorney.

CASE REFERENCE: Cour de cassation, ch. com., October 4, 2016, Bardon & Tudico v. Guitay & LPG Systems, appeal No. Y 15-12.294.

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