Betting the farm on inventive step

After several posts dealing with the intricacies and oddities of SPC law, I thought we might as well take a break, look at a simple, straightforward case for a change – yes, there are some – and get a post completed in fewer than 1,500 words .

I don’t know whether this will be a breath of fresh air, but the patent in suit, EP 0899518, relates to a ventilation system for a building containing (especially porcine) livestock.

The patent proprietor, I-Tek, based in Saint-Malo, sued Heughebaert Danièle et Philippe, in Evreux, for alleged infringement of the patent. Bretons and Normans: little wonder this got contentious.

In November 2018, the Paris TGI granted the defendant’s invalidity counterclaim and revoked claims 1-4 of the patent for lack of inventive step. I-Tek appealed, so that the issue was revisited by the Paris Cour d’appel.

Here is claim 1:

Ventilation system for a building containing at least one row of compartments intended to be occupied by at least one animal, the said system including at least one air intake interconnecting, beneath the said compartments, with lower intake apertures for each of the shafts, at least one air outlet in the said building connected to air suction devices intended to create negative air pressure inside the building so as to provide for the suction through the said shafts of air let in through the said or each inlet, the said or each air outlet being positioned above the said compartments, an outlet aperture from each shaft being positioned beneath a ceiling of the said building and each shaft being fitted with means of regulating the velocity of the air sucked through its outlet aperture to a set value so that the said value provides for ventilation of the said ceiling above each shaft, the system is characterized in that the outlet aperture from each shaft is located appreciably above the floor.

The court started with recalling that the question is whether

[…] taking into account the state of the art, the skilled person, in view of the problem that the invention purports to solve, would achieve the technical solution claimed in the patent using their professional knowledge and making simple operations. Inventive step is defined relative to the specific problem with which the skilled person is confronted.

A less intensive form of farming not requiring any ventilation system.

The court added:

The closest prior art to be selected must be relevant, i.e. it must correspond to a similar use and require the minimum of structural and functional modifications to achieve the claimed invention. This closest prior art must therefore aim at reaching the same objective or achieving the same effect as the invention or at least belong to the same technical field as the claimed invention or a field which is closely related. 

Most readers have probably recognized an almost verbatim quote of the EPO’s case law and guidelines on the problem and solution approach.

The next sentence in the judgment is thus somewhat surprising:

Article 56 EPC does not necessitate, in order to determine if a patent involves an inventive step, to proceed according to a problem and solution approach requiring first defining a closest prior art […], as this is specific to the EPO’s Boards of appeal and is not mandatory for French courts.

There is some contradiction here, but I think the message may be: please do not tell us what we should do; but we will do it anyway.

The court then identified three relevant prior art documents, designated as G, D and S.

Document G discloses a ventilation system according to claim 1, except that it fails to disclose that each shaft is fitted with means of regulating the velocity of the air sucked through its outlet aperture to a set value.

Document D discloses a ventilation system for avian livestock comprising lateral active air inlets equipped with closing means adjusting the air inflow rate to a constant value, based on measurements made by a detector.

Document S discloses a ventilation system for porcine livestock including an axial shutter and shafts having motor-controlled openings.

The court identified G as the closest prior art, which confirms that they did apply the problem and solution approach.

The problem to be solved, they said, was the provision of a ventilation system comprising shafts and air flow regulation means, to achieve good ventilation of the entire building. This formulation could be criticized as already containing a pointer to the solution – but I am not persuaded that this really had a bearing on the outcome.

The important point, I think, is that the court found that documents D and S were combinable with G, “by simple technical operations and based on common general knowledge“.

It seems that I-Tek argued that document D would not have been taken into account as the regulation of air flow is different in this prior art. In particular, the air flow is horizontal in D but vertical in G (and the claimed invention). The court disagreed. They concluded that claim 1 corresponds to a mere juxtaposition of known means, not to an inventive combination having a novel function – thus confirming the findings of the court below. Dependent claims 2-4 shared the same fate as claim 1.

Interestingly, the patent was opposed at the EPO by another third party, more than fifteen years earlier.

The opposition was quite minimal, and it was rejected without oral proceedings. Document G was also considered as the closest prior art in the opposition decision but another document was cited as a secondary reference instead of D and S. The opposition division held that the skilled person starting from G would not achieve the claimed invention as this secondary reference did not teach the distinguishing feature.

The court therefore simply discarded this decision by noting that the opposition division was not presented with prior art D and S. Based on a very quick look at the documents, it does seem that D may indeed be more relevant than the secondary reference filed by the opponent at the EPO. The latter mentions some regulation means but D seems more specific in that it calls for a regulated constant air flow.

In my opinion this decision is an illustration of how flexible the problem and solution approach can be.

Criticisms have been raised against the problem and solution approach over time, including on this blog. But I would submit that the unconvincing inventive step reasonings that we sometimes see in EPO decisions are not really due to the approach itself, but rather to an objectionable, sometimes overly rigid, application of the approach.

In this respect, the selection of the closest prior art and the formulation of the objective technical problem are more often than not hotly debated.

But let’s not forget the third stage of the approach, namely the appraisal of (non-)obviousness, which probably gives the most leeway to the deciding body.

Case in point: for a narrow-sighted skilled person, the airflow rate regulation means of document D would not be obvious to incorporate into the ventilation system of the closest prior art G, as the positioning of the openings and direction of airflow are different. But if the skilled person has just a little bit more imagination, then the modification of the closest prior art becomes perfectly obvious.

In summary, IP courts have full discretion in deciding how high or low the inventive step bar should be, even if they follow the problem and solution framework, which can thus be viewed, at its core, as a convenient common language for the entire European patent profession.

CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5 chambre 1, January 19, 2021, I-Tek v. Heughebaert Danièle et Philippe, RG No.18/28089.

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