This blog has been silent for a number of weeks now. Hopefully, regular posting will resume soon.
In the meantime, here is a very brief post today, to make all readers (on the beach or not) aware of a new referral to the Enlarged Board of Appeal, on a topic which enthralls the pharma patent crowd – and beyond – in every season, namely: plausibility.
The case of interest is T 116/18, pitching Syngenta Ltd. as the opponent against Sumitomo Chemical Company, Ltd. as the patentee. This case actually relates to an insecticide composition and not a pharmaceutical one.
Oral proceedings took place on July 22, 2021, and based on the minutes issued on July 30, 2021, it appears that the Board intends to submit three questions to the Enlarged Board, which are provisionally phrased as follows:
If for acknowledgement of inventive step the patent proprietor relies on a technical effect and has submitted data or other evidence to proof such effect, such data or other evidence having been generated only after the priority or filing date of the patent (post-published data):
1. Should an exception to the principle of free evaluation of evidence (see e.g. G 1/21 reasons 31) be accepted in that the post-published data must be disregarded on the ground that the proof of the effect rests exclusively on such post-published data?
2. If the answer is yes (post published data must be disregarded if the proof of the effect rests exclusively on these data): can post-published data be taken into consideration if based on the information in the patent application the skilled person at the relevant date would have considered the effect plausible (ab initio plausibility)?
3. If the answer to the first question is yes (post published data must be disregarded if the proof of the effect rests exclusively on these data): can post-published data be taken into consideration if based on the information in the patent application the skilled person at the relevant date would have seen no reasons to consider the effect implausible (ab initio implausibility)?
Let’s wait for the written referral decision and the final form of the questions, but it can already be guessed that the stakes will be very high for pharmaceutical companies and the so-called “chemistry” segment at large.
Thank you to my colleague Horst Vissel for first drawing my attention to this referral on LinkedIn. I seldom do breaking news, but it is the heart of the summer, everything is probably somewhat quieter on the big blogs, so it was now or never!
At this time, all readers are probably already aware of the issuance of opinion G 3/19 of the Enlarged Board of Appeal on May 14, 2020.
I know, twelve days is a long time in the internet era.
But trust me, Lionel Vial’s below report on this topic is worth reading. Lionel loves making predictions, and his forecast on plants and animals obtained by essentially biological processes is that this hot topic is not about to cool down and that we are in for ongoing legal controversy – and possibly one or more future referrals.
Here is Lionel’s report.
As this blog has consistently strained to keep pace with the seemingly never ending developments regarding the patentability of plant and animals obtained by essentially biological processes, as reported here, here and here, we felt compelled to comment on opinion G 3/19 of the Enlarged Board of Appeal (EBA) of the EPO, which was rendered on May 14, 2020.
To make a long story short, G 3/19 (Pepper) follows from a referral pursuant to Article 112(1)(b) EPC of the President of the EPO, itself following from decision T 1063/18 of Board of Appeal 3.3.04 of December 5, 2018, which decided that in accordance with Article 164(2) EPC, the interpretation of Article 53(b) EPC by the EBA in decisions G 2/12 (Tomatoes II) and G 2/13 (Broccoli II) prevailed over Rule 28(2) EPC.
In other words the Board of Appeal decided plants and animals obtained by essentially biological processes were not to be considered exceptions to patentability pursuant to Article 53(b) EPC in spite of Rule 28(2) EPC, which was introduced by a Decision of the Administrative Council of June 29, 2017 and entered into force on July 1, 2017. Rule 28(2) EPC provides that under Article 53(b) EPC, European patents shall not be granted in respect of plants or animals exclusively obtained by means of an essentially biological process.
There are two parts in opinion G 3/19, a part which relates to institutional provisions and a part which relates to substantive provisions.
Turning first to the substantive part of the opinion, which directly impacts daily practice at the EPO, the EBA, adopting a “dynamic interpretation” of Article 53(b) EPC for the circumstance, has abandoned the interpretation of Article 53(b) EPC given in decision G 2/12 and G 2/13, in the light of Rule 28(2) EPC.
As a consequence, this new understanding of Article 53(b) EPC has a negative effect on the allowability of product claims or product-by-process claims directed to plants, plant material or animals, if the claimed product is exclusively obtained by means of an essentially biological process or if the claimed process features define an essentially biological process.
It is to be noted that the EBA goes beyond the wording of Rule 28(2) EPC and also excludes plant material exclusively obtained by means of an essentially biological process. This may call for future clarification (see below).
Besides, in order to ensure legal certainty and to protect the legitimate interests of patent proprietors and applicants, the Enlarged Board ruled that the new interpretation of Article 53(b) EPC given in G 3/19 has no retroactive effect on European patents containing such claims which were granted before July 1, 2017, when Rule 28(2) EPC entered into force, or on pending European patent applications seeking protection for such claims which were filed or have a priority date before that date.
This contradicts the Decision of the Administrative Council which provided in its Article 3 that Rule 28(2) EPC applied to European patent applications filed on or after July 1, 2017, as well as to European patent applications and European patents pending at that time.
At this stage of the post, we should self-congratulate for having foreseen in our previous post on the subject of July 3, 2017 that the consequence of the Decision of the Administrative Council would be that plants and animals exclusively obtained by means of an essentially biological process are exceptions to patentability, but that the new Rule 28(2) EPC could not apply to patents and applications filed before July 1, 2017. However, to be frank, at that time we had not anticipated that a Board of Appeal would refuse to apply Rule 28(2) EPC pursuant to Article 164(2) EPC because it was in contradiction with the interpretation of Article 53(b) given by the EBA.
This brings us to the institutional part of the opinion of the EBA.
The EBA does not consider that there would be a general prohibition on adopting secondary legislation [by the Administrative Council] which concerns the interpretation of a provision of primary legislation given by itself (see point XXV.3.1).
Besides, the EBA considers that the exception to patentability brought by Rule 28(2) EPC is not incompatible with the wording of Article 53(b), which does not rule out this broader construction of the term “essentially biological processes for the production of plants or animals” and that Rule 28(2) EPC could be considered to reflect the Contracting States’ intention to give a special meaning to that term (see point XXVI.6).
As such, the new Rule 28(2) EPC has to be taken into account in the dynamic interpretation of Article 53(b) as seen above.
It follows that the content of Rule 28(2) EPC does not stand in contradiction with the new interpretation of Article 53(b) EPC given by the EBA and that there is no conflict between these provisions. Hence, Article 164(2) EPC is not relevant (see point XXVII of the opinion).
As far as we are concerned, we are not sure if it was ever the initial intent of those who drafted the EPC to have the substantive patent law provisions of the EPC, especially Chapter I Patentability, interpreted by the Implementing Regulation, but let’s not be more Catholic than the pope.
So, is this the end of tomatoes, broccoli or pepper decisions? Let us take another bet here: No, in our opinion, other questions will need to be answered by the Boards of appeal of the EPO and perhaps by the EBA.
Here is a short list, probably not exhaustive, of likely questions:
Can parts of plants, such as fruits, be considered to be exclusively obtained by means of an essentially biological process?
Are plants or animals which are obtained by means of an essentially biological process but which can also be obtained by a non-essentially biological process exceptions to patentability?
Are plants or animals which are obtained by a process comprising an essentially biological process and a further step of a technical nature which does not serve to enable or assist the performance of the steps of sexually crossing the whole genomes of plants or of subsequently selecting plants exceptions to patentability?
Eventually, this leads us to our concluding riddle: After tomatoes, broccoli and pepper, what will be the name of the plant attached to the next decision, or opinion, of the EBA?
CASE REFERENCE: Enlarged Board of Appeal of the European Patent Office, G 3/19, May 14, 2020, Pepper (follow-up to “Tomatoes II” and “Broccoli II”).
Rulings from the Enlarged Board of Appeal of the EPO are scarce – this is what makes them so eagerly awaited by the patent profession.
2019 may turn out to be an exceptional year in this respect though, with already three official referrals so far and an imminent fourth one which has not yet been officially issued as of today.
But sometimes I wonder whether these rulings are not in fact too scarce. Overall, the case law of the Boards of Appeal is consistent and contradictions between decisions are infrequent. But there is always room for improvement, right?
Case in point: sufficiency of disclosure and the issue of so-called unclear parameters.
If you read sections II.C.4.5 (“Parameters“) and II.C.7.2(“Article 83 EPC and Clarity of Claims“) of the EPO case law book, and if you are able to summarize the standard to be applied regarding this question, you will deserve some kudos.
The issue is the following. Some claims contain parameter features, such as “Property X is more than threshold Y“. There are cases wherein the application or patent at stake does not explain in a satisfactory manner how to measure property X. As a result, property X may be close to impossible to measure for the skilled person; or the skilled person may be aware of different possible ways to proceed, leading to wholly different results.
There is little doubt that this can give rise to an objection of lack of clarity of the claims (art. 84 EPC). The real head-scratcher is whether it also gives rise to an objection of insufficiency of disclosure (art. 83 EPC), or can give rise to this objection in some special circumstances.
This is of course extremely important because insufficiency of disclosure is a ground for opposition (and nullity, for that matter), whereas lack of clarity is not. In other words, if the answer to the above question is no, then an ill-defined parameter already present in the granted claims cannot be challenged after grant, no matter how serious the problem is.
Let me just state, incidentally, that on a practical standpoint this can be a major concern for third parties, who can be at a complete loss as to whether they infringe or not, and what to do in order not to infringe.
A large number of Board decisions have addressed this question, in various ways. The question has however never been referred to the Enlarged Board of Appeal.
Only the Boards of Appeal or the President of the EPO can refer a question to the Enlarged Board “to ensure uniform application of the law, or if a point of law of fundamental importance arises” (art. 112 EPC). Parties can only request a referral but without any power whatsoever to force a referral.
Can the case law of the Boards on the relationship between art. 83 and art. 84, in particular as far as ill-defined parameters are concerned, be considered as uniform or not?
My personal impression is that there is some degree of divergence, although this is in fact denied in some decisions.
One approach in particular that has been applied is that the impossibility for the skilled person to know whether he/she is working within the scope of the claims (“forbidden area“) is tantamount to an impossibility of carrying out the invention.
In T 1811/13 (November 8, 2016), Board 3.2.05 noted that this approach originates from decision T 256/87 and “appears to have gone unnoticed until 2003” (reasons 5.1); that it was adopted by four decisions issued by Board 3.2.06 between 2004 and 2007, including in particular T 464/05; and that on the other hand many other decisions have rejected this approach since 2003, because “the definition of the scope of a claim was related to Article 84 EPC rather than Article 83 EPC“.
Board 3.2.05 concluded (reasons 5.1) that:
It may, therefore, be said that today there is agreement or at least a clearly predominant opinion among the boards that the definition of the “forbidden area” of a claim should not be considered as a matter related to Article 83 EPC. The present board shares this opinion.
Decision T 647/15, issued by the same Board 3.2.05 almost contemporaneously (September 8, 2016), states pretty much the same.
So far so good. Except that Board 3.2.06 in fact stands by its earlier case law.
This was notably illustrated in T 1188/15 of November 24, 2016.
In T 626/14 of May 24, 2018, Board 3.2.06 explicitly disagreed with the comments made by Board 3.2.05 in T 1811/13 and T 647/15 regarding the earlier 3.2.06 case law, embodied by T 464/05. Said the Board (reasons 1.4.1):
Yet, T1811/13 and T647/15 themselves concentrate only on an individual aspect in e.g. T464/05, namely ‘the area covered by the claim’ without addressing the actual findings in that decision regarding the issue of Article 83 EPC. In fact, T464/05 draws a distinction between the two objections under Articles 83 and 84 EPC respectively and explains the significance thereof. For example, T464/05 considers in Reasons 3.3.2 not the boundaries of the claimed subject-matter which was the subject of T1811/13 and T647/15, but the lack of indications in the patent concerning the measurement of a particular parameter. This is stated in T464/05 as resulting in ‘an undue burden for the skilled person trying to reproduce the invention’. Likewise, in Reasons 3.2, the crucial issue in respect of sufficiency of disclosure concerns the issue of whether a skilled person ‘is capable of reliably measuring (the) parameter’. Thus, T1811/13 and T647/15 do not cause the present Board to see anything which would undermine the reasoning in T464/05 concerning Article 83 EPC. In the sense that a parameter to be measured was at issue in T464/05 with regard to Article 83 EPC, the Board in the present case is faced with the same issue, i.e. the undue burden created by the lack of any information allowing the skilled person to reliably measure the defined thickness. This, as explained supra, results in the skilled person being unable to know whether he has arrived at the invention or not, such that the invention is not sufficiently clearly and completely disclosed.
In summary, Board 3.2.06 in T 626/14 maintains its position, and insists that if the skilled person is unable to know whether he or she has arrived at the invention, due to a lack of information in the patent, this amounts to an insufficiency of disclosure.
How did the other Board 3.2.05 react? In case T 250/15 (July 20, 2018), one of the opponents requested that the Enlarged Board of Appeal be consulted regarding the question of sufficiency of disclosure in the case of an ill-defined parameter. The Board found the requirements of sufficiency of disclosure to be met in the case at hand, and rejected the request for a referral.
In particular, the Board had this to say regarding the latest comments by Board 3.2.06 (reasons 2.6, translated from French):
The present Board notes that decision T 626/14, just like case T 464/05, concerns a particular constellation in a certain technical field. The present case is however different in that the parameter of the number-average molecular weight Mn relates to a clearly defined property which is inherent to the material. Besides, it has not been challenged that the skilled person has a limited number of appropriate and generally known measurement methods. Therefore, T 626/14 cannot put into question the conclusions expressed above regarding the sufficiency of disclosure of the invention, and the request for a referral to the Enlarged Board of Appeal which was orally presented by respondent I must be rejected.
In a nutshell, for Board 3.2.05, the facts of the case are different from those of T 626/14, and the parameter at stake here does not raise any difficulty for the skilled person.
Again, so far so good. But the comment on “a particular constellation in a certain technical field“, on the other hand, is puzzling.
The technical field of T 464/05 and T 626/14 is that of sanitary articles, such as diapers and the like.
What could be so special about this technical field? In T 464/05 the contested parameter was a “weighted average mass vapor transmission rate (MVTR)” and in T 626/14 it was simply a thickness which is nevertheless difficult to measure as it relates to a fibrous layer, so that a certain pressure needs to be applied in order to make the measurement.
Admittedly, these two parameters were very specific ones, but there is no doubt that other problematic examples can be found in many other technical fields. There is nothing unique about the diaper constellation.
A divergence of approach between some Boards, each one consistently applying its own case law, is not unheard of.
For example, novelty of dosage regimen claims led to disagreements between Boards 3.3.02 and 3.3.04, before the Enlarged Board issued its decision G 2/08.
Is it fair to say that there is such a similar divergence nowadays between Board 3.2.06 and (at least) Board 3.2.05?
If so, would a referral to the Enlarged Board of appeal (in a case fit for this purpose of course) not be a much better solution than putting any divergence under the rug?
The legal standard to be applied to a patent should not depend on its IPC classification and the business distribution scheme of the Boards.
As a disclaimer, what is discussed above is not the full picture of ill-defined parameters. Yet further legal standards have been suggested and debated.
For example, in T 1845/14 of November 8, 2018, Board 3.3.03 analyzed another line of case law, embodied by T 593/09, T 608/07, T 815/07 and T 172/99, according to which “the criterion applied for assessing sufficiency of disclosure was whether the unclear parameter of the claim was so ill-defined that the skilled person would not have been able, on the basis of the disclosure as a whole and using their common general knowledge, to identify (without undue burden) the technical measures (e.g. selection of suitable compounds) necessary to solve the problem underlying the patent at issue“.
After a very thorough analysis, Board 3.3.03 came to the conclusion that this “is not a suitable criterion for assessing sufficiency of disclosure when the problem or an effect derivable from it are not explicitly or implicitly part of the definition of the claimed subject-matter” (reasons 9.8).
The Board then added (reasons 9.9):
The view expressed above could be perceived as a deviation from the above cited decisions or other decisions of the Boards of Appeal in which a criterion for assessing sufficiency of disclosure was whether the ambiguity of a parametric definition deprived the person skilled in the art of the promise of the invention. However, there is no need to refer a question to the Enlarged Board of Appeal as the diverging views arise from a different approach regarding the meaning of the term “invention” in relation to the issue of sufficiency of disclosure and the approach taken in the present decision is supported by the decisions of the Enlarged Board of Appeal G 2/98 (see above) and G 1/03 (see above).
Interestingly, the Board in this case did find the claimed invention to be insufficiently disclosed despite setting aside a legal standard which would have been more demanding for the patent in suit. Said the Board (reasons 11.3):
The ambiguous definition of a parameter in a claim may result in the scope of the claim to be broader than the patentee might have intended. In such a case the question arises whether the teaching of the patent in suit, which was directed to the claimed subject-matter having regard to a specific meaning of that parameter (which, however, was omitted), would nevertheless have enabled the skilled person to carry out the invention outside of the scope intended by the patentee, using common general knowledge and a reasonable amount of experimentation.
It was decided that the teaching was insufficient in this respect.
Anyway, this was another example of a criterion previously applied in the EPO case law, now said to be erroneous by a Board, on the same topic of unclear parameters.
Time will tell whether T 1845/14 will be followed or not, and whether a unanimous frame of reasoning regarding ill-defined parameters will finally emerge from the case law, with or without the involvement of the Enlarged Board.
In the meantime, we may have to deal with a constellation of approaches.
As I have already mentioned here, one reason why I do not often comment on decisions from the Boards of appeal of the EPO on this blog is that any interesting decision that comes out is instantly shot at by all good bloggers around the place before I even get a chance to draw my metaphorical gun.
So, sorry folks, no breaking news from me today, as Laurent Teyssèdre has already been here, as well as others.
But I could not let this one decision T 1914/12 go without a comment or two.
First, because it is highly interesting. Second, because it is in French (so, maybe some non-French speaking colleagues would benefit from further highlights). Third, because I was involved in the case at hand in the first instance proceedings, so this one brings back a number of memories.
The catchword of the decision can be translated as follows:
Boards of appeal do not have any appraisal power with respect to the admissibility of late arguments which are based on facts that are already part of the proceedings (decision diverging from T 1621/09).
A brief presentation of the facts of the case will probably suffice, before summarizing the very thorough legal discussion in the decision.
The patent at stake is entitled “Method of adhesively bonding a strip of flexible fabric to a substrate“. It was opposed after grant and revoked by the opposition division, for lack of inventive step (as well as extension of subject-matter as far as some of the auxiliary requests are concerned).
In the course of the appeal proceedings, the opposition was withdrawn, and the patent was transferred to the previous opponent. Not that this circumstance is really critical.
The key issue is that, for the first time on appeal, the new patent proprietor identified a further distinguishing feature relative to one of the main cited prior art references.
In a written communication, the Board expressed the preliminary opinion that this was a late argument and that its intention was not to admit it into the proceedings. But the Board, for once presided by the legal member, later changed its mind and came to the opposite conclusion. As a result, the first instance decision was set aside, and the case remitted to the first instance for further prosecution.
But before reaching this conclusion, the Board performed a very thorough analysis of the law pertaining to late facts and arguments.
The starting point for the discussion is article 13(1) of the Rules of procedure of the Boards of appeal (RPBA), per which:
Any amendment to a party’s case after it has filed its grounds of appeal or reply may be admitted and considered at the Board’s discretion. The discretion shall be exercised in view of inter alia the complexity of the new subject matter submitted, the current state of the proceedings and the need for procedural economy.
So the question is: does the discretionary power of the Board apply to a situation such as the one at hand, where a new distinguishing feature is identified by the proprietor at a late stage?
As a first step (section 7.1 of the reasons), the Board reviewed in great detail the notions of “facts” and “arguments” and their respective definitions, based on the common understanding of the terms, of the legal understanding of the terms, and on the specific use of the terms in the EPC and case law.
Clearly distinguishing between facts and arguments is not just a matter of hair-splitting. Depending on whether a late submission is viewed as a fact or an argument, the fate of the submission may differ – even in first instance.
As a side note, in one opposition I have handled, a new inventive step attack based on a timely filed document only later identified as a possible closest prior art document was considered by the opposition division as pertaining to a “new fact” and not merely a “new argument” and it was thus not admitted into the proceedings. The Board set aside the first instance decision – but I don’t know yet if this point will be discussed in the reasons or not.
Anyway, the definition offered by the present Board (reasons, 7.1.4) is the following (in my own translation as always):
A “fact” can be understood as a factual (or allegedly factual) element or a circumstance on which a party bases its case, whereas an “argument” designates a proposition that a party bases on one or more facts and which supports the case that it puts forward.
The Board then gave the example of a lack of novelty attack:
The party’s case (“moyen” in French) is that the claimed subject-matter is comprised in the state of the art.
One argument is e.g. that the subject-matter is disclosed in paragraph  of D1.
Another argument is e.g. that the skilled person understands the paragraph in a certain manner, in view of common general knowledge, and thus views a certain feature as implicitly disclosed.
The textual content of the paragraph is a fact.
The copy of the document or of its translation is a piece of evidence.
As a next step, the Board addressed the central issue of whether late arguments can be disregarded or not.
Here, the first interesting remark is that the text of the EPC is not the same in the three official languages.
The English version of article 114(1) reads:
In proceedings before it, the European Patent Office shall examine the facts of its own motion; it shall not be restricted in this examination to the facts, evidence and arguments provided by the parties and the relief sought.
Note the term “arguments” here. But the French version is in fact quite different, as it solely refers to “moyens invoqués” and “demandes présentées“. I would tend to translate the general term “moyens invoqués” by “the party’s case“. The German version does not specifically mention arguments either.
The Board noted that the English version seems to more accurately express the intentions of the drafters of the EPC (is that generally the case? the Frenchman asks), and therefore adhered to this English version in the rest of the reasoning.
Now the key part of the reasoning is that the English version of the second paragraph of article 114, on which the discretionary power of the EPO to disregard late submissions is based, does not refer to arguments:
The European Patent Office may disregard facts or evidence which are not submitted in due time by the parties concerned.
This is in contrast to the first paragraph mentioned above, which deals with examination of the EPO’s own motion.
Based on the difference between the two paragraphs, the Board concluded that the discretionary power of the EPO is strictly limited to facts and evidence and does not extend to arguments.
Now going back to article 13(1) RBPA, there is a reference here to an “amendment to a party’s case“, which is not very explicit. But the notion of a party’s case is further defined in article 12(2):
The statement of grounds of appeal and the reply shall contain a party’s complete case. They shall set out clearly and concisely the reasons why it is requested that the decision under appeal be reversed, amended or upheld, and should specify expressly all the facts, arguments and evidence relied on. […]
So, on the face of it, it can be surmised that article 13(1) RPBA, via its implicit reference to article 12(2), empowers the Board with the right not to admit a late modification of the arguments of a party on appeal.
But, reviewing the Travaux préparatoires for the current version of the RPBA, the Board found that a proposed article 13(1) containing an explicit reference to arguments was rejected in the drafting process.
Thus, the Board held, the intent seems to have been in fact not to encompass arguments within the purview of article 13(1). See section 7.2.1 of the reasons.
Then, the Board reviewed the relevant case law in detail (section 7.2.2 of the reasons), and found a number of decisions pursuant to which arguments are not subjected to the Boards’ discretionary power.
But then there are T 1069/08 and above all T 1621/09, which decided otherwise. Especially in T 1621/09, an analysis of the travaux préparatoires was performed but the deletion of the word “arguments” in the drafting process of new article 13(1) was not noted.
In the wake of these two decisions, the Board counted 17 later decisions which relied on the principles set out in T 1069/08 and T 1621/09 without questioning them. A couple of recent decisions have however decided the other way around.
As a conclusion, the Board expressed its disagreement with the approach of T 1069/08 and T 1621/09 (section 7.2.3 of the reasons).
The final reason put forward by the Board for such disagreement is that the RPBA should not “lead to a situation which would be incompatible with the spirit and purpose of the Convention” (article 23), which would precisely be the case if article 13(1) RPBA were to be interpreted as encompassing arguments, although article 114(2) EPC, which prevails, does explicitly not refer to arguments, among the late submissions which may be disregarded.
One first question immediately comes to mind: is this question ripe for a referral to the Enlarged board of appeal?
After all, there are a number of diverging decisions, it seems. I guess the answer may depend on whether the Boards which issued T 1069/08 and T 1621/09 will stand their ground or change course.
The second question that I have is: what about the upcoming revised version of the RPBA?
A few months ago, there was a public consultation at the EPO on a draft. I do not know where this project stands right now. But, for what it is worth, there was a new paragraph 2 in article 12 in this proposal, which reads:
In view of the primary object of the appeal proceedings to judicially review the decision under appeal, a party’s appeal case shall be directed to the requests, facts, objections, arguments and evidence on which the decision under appeal was based.
Beside the fact that there is a new concept here (namely “objections“), this provision seems to introduce a limitation to what kind of arguments a party is allowed to file on appeal – namely, those on which the decision under appeal was based.
If one follows the reasoning of T 1914/12, wouldn’t this proposed provision breach article 114 EPC?
CASE REFERENCE: T 1914/12, Board 3.2.05, June 13, 2018, Gaztransport et Technigaz.
Thanks to Jérôme Tassi, I was made aware of a new French decision revoking a patent due to extension of subject-matter.
As I mentioned no earlier than in last week’s post, this is a ground for nullity that needs to be taken very seriously nowadays. There may previously have been a perception that added matter objections were deemed to fail in front of a court of law, and that painstaking dissections of the exact wording originally used in patent applications should be reserved for hearings taking place at Erhardtstrasse. But if so, this perception is no longer accurate.
The patent at stake is EP 2179917 to the Swiss company Createx SA.
This patent (EP’917) was filed as a divisional application stemming from EP 1531979, itself originally filed as a PCT application published under No. WO 2004/005009.
The technical field is the manufacture of fabric for sails. Yes, as in sailing boats. This is about as exotic as you can get when dealing with patent case law.
On December 31, 2015, Createx and its licensee, the U.S. company North Sails Group LLC, filed a patent infringement complaint against the French companies Incidences La Rochelle and Incidences Technologies.
On August 22, 2016, Createx filed a request for limitation of the French part of EP’917 with the INPI. It can be assumed that this was a reaction to some invalidity arguments brought forward by the defendants. The limitation was granted by the INPI on September 27, 2016.
The defendants counterclaimed for nullity of the EP’917 patent and as announced at the beginning of this post, the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) did in fact hold the patent invalid for extension of subject-matter beyond the content of the parent application as filed.
The patent as limited contains two independent claims, namely claim 1 directed to a fabric and claim 13 directed to a sail. Let’s focus on claim 1 only:
A fabric comprising:
a plurality of strips, each of the strips being formed from a plurality of substantially parallel reinforcing elements formed of threads arranged in a unidirectional manner, the threads being made of thousands of filaments distributed over the width of each strip, each of the substantially parallel reinforcing elements comprising said substantially parallel filaments; and an activated resin encasing the filaments to form a fabric;
wherein part of each strip is disposed on the juxtaposed strips;
wherein at least some of the plurality of strips partially overlap adjacent strips, at least some of the strips substantially overlap over a length of each strip, at least some of the strips are arranged in parallel, so that a first end of a strip substantially overlap with a first end of another strip.
The key issue here is that the parent application as filed did not contain any claim directed to such a fabric or to a sail as recited in claim 13. All original claims related to a method of manufacturing a fabric, using a particular system.
Here is original claim 1 by way of comparison with the limited claim in the divisional patent:
A method of manufacturing shaped and reinforced fabrics, characterized in that it consists in making a fabric made of a membrane which encases continuous alternated reinforcing elements in a press which comprises an upper vessel the lower part of which is made of a supple element and a lower vessel the upper part of which is made of a supple element, the upper vessel comprising a shaping lath the shape of which can be adjusted by setting rods and the adjusting shape of which causes the three-dimensional elastic deformation of the supple elements and thus of the membrane and reinforcing elements within the press, into an active position in which the lath has a shape and an inactive position in which the shaping lath is inactive and does not cause any deformation of the membrane and reinforcing elements which are pressed flat, in that the portions of the membrane and of reinforcing elements are prepared before pressing on a conveyor belt which is disposed on a preparation table which then places these portions under the press with pressure and heat, and in that the portions of membrane and reinforcing elements overlap during the preparation so that they make a homogeneous fabric at the outlet of the press, which comprises flat portions and three-dimensional-shaped portions according to multiple shapes determined by the setting of the shaping lath upon pressing each membrane portion and reinforcing elements, the length of which is determined by the width of the press and preparation table.
Here is the court’s take on this:
Through this rule [of the prohibition of extension of added matter], it is to be ensured that the patent proprietor cannot improve its position by adding elements that are not disclosed in the application as filed, which would be such as to confer an undue advantage by obtaining a different monopoly from the one initially claimed, which may harm legal certainty for third parties who rely on the content of the initial application.
In this case, the [parent] application as filed […] is exclusively directed to an invention which relates to a manufacturing method […]. It thus clearly derives from this initial application that the subject-matter of the protection does not relate to the product “fabric”. The EP’917 patent […] is no longer directed to a manufacturing method but expressly to products, and more particularly a “fabric” […] and a sail […].
[…] By altering the subject-matter of the patent […], the patent proprietor may now have a protection on any identical product independently of its manufacturing method.
Thus, the patent proprietor necessarily increased the scope of protection initially requested, since this patent makes it possible to include within the scope of the patent products why may be obtained by different methods than the one claimed in the initial application. It is further noted that this modification also led the proprietor to encompass within the scope of protection of the patent […] a product which was not explicitly mentioned in the initial application, namely a “sail”, which cannot be entirely assimilated to [a fabric] and which was not within the subject-matter of the initial invention except through a mere reference to the prior art, which is not sufficient to include it within the perimeter of protection.
The content of the (parent) application as filed has to be considered as a whole, including the claims, description and drawings. Due to some of the words used by the court in the above quote, there could be a suspicion that the court really focused on the claims only and confused extension of subject-matter with extension of scope of protection. But I doubt that this suspicion would be well-founded.
Indeed, not only did the original set of claims not contain any claim to a fabric or a sail, but also the original description did not recite a fabric or a sail as such as subject-matter of the invention.
Thus, it was considered that the shift in scope of protection could not be expected by third parties relying on the original application documents, which offended legal certainty. This is reminiscent of a Nestec decision already discussed on this blog.
In this earlier case, a claim to a device for the extraction of a capsule plus the capsule itself, in combination, was found to offend article 123(2) EPC because this category of product was not originally claimed, and could only be indirectly derived from the application based on how the capsule interacted with the device in operation.
I must say that, upon reading the claims of EP’917 (even before the French national limitation) and comparing them with the parent PCT as filed, I was curious about the examination process. Indeed, it seems that the divisional claims were completely drafted from scratch, combining pieces of wording from several passages of the original disclosure. This is not to say that such thorough redrafting necessarily adds matter. It may be allowable in some cases. But in my experience the EPO almost always at least requires detailed justifications that the skilled person would indeed directly and unambiguously derive the new claims from the original disclosure, which must not be treated as a reservoir from which you are allowed to pick and choose any combination of features.
To my surprise, it seems that the applicant did not submit any indication of a support for the claimed features when filing the divisional application, and that the examiner did not ask any questions and directly agreed to grant a patent.
So I wonder what happened here, and why the applicant was not even asked for any clarification by the EPO. This took place in 2009-2010, which is not that long ago.