Seeing the patent half empty

As an introduction, I am pleased to pass on the announcement of the upcoming patent seminar of the Institut de Boufflers, which will take place next week – online as you may guess.

The program is here, it looks great as usual, and I personally will be honored to participate in a panel discussion on the second day of the seminar (Nov. 25), dedicated to the evolution of European patent law. See you there.

Moving on to today’s case law report, I rarely miss an opportunity to comment on a decision touching upon a serious point of insufficiency of disclosure.

As a matter of fact, this ground of nullity is so seldom successful that it suddenly becomes quite interesting when it is – especially in the non-medical arts.

Directbuy is a French company specialized in electronic cigarettes and related liquids and accessories. It is located in Heillecourt, Lorraine, 5527 inhabitants (says Wikipedia). It filed a French patent application in April 2015, which was granted on November 3, 2017 under number FR 3034627. The patent relates to a device for assembling an e-cigarette and filling it with liquid.

In January 2018, Directbuy initiated infringement proceedings based on this patent against LCCF Distribution, another company located in Saint Martial d’Albarède, population of 467, (yes, that would be more than 10 times fewer than Heillecourt) in Dordogne. What would I do without Wikipedia indeed.

LCCF Distribution filed a nullity counterclaim, raising several grounds of nullity.

Had they prevailed on their first ground of nullity, the decision of the Paris Tribunal judiciaire would have been even more remarkable – but they did not.

This first ground of nullity was indeed that the patent did not relate to an invention.

Here is claim 1 of the patent:

A device for assembling and filling a vial with liquid for an electronic cigarette comprising at least one means for filling said liquid to which means are connected for supplying this liquid, characterized in that said means for filling are connected to means for supplying at least two liquids of different compositions through selection means to select, under the impulse of appropriate control means, the distribution of a liquid or a mixture of liquid in varying proportions.

Liquid selecting means – so pre-Covid…

LCCF’s argument was that the claim merely recites results to be achieved and that the structural and functional means allowing to obtain these results were not disclosed. In other terms, only a technical problem was claimed.

As you can see, this argument already had a flavor of insufficiency of disclosure. It was squarely rejected by the court as follows:

It is recalled that, in order to determine whether a patent application relates to an invention falling within the scope of patents, it is necessary to examine the nature of the problem that the patent application proposes to solve and the solution it intends to provide therein. Patentability can relate only to solutions having a technical character, while an immediate technical result in the industrial field is necessary, even though this result is weak and of weak interest.

The patent in dispute, highlighting the shortcomings linked to the traditional method of making manual mixtures of liquid, sometimes dangerous for the user and with imprecise nicotine concentrations, intends to solve these difficulties by implementing a device for assembling and filling a liquid vial by methods providing for mechanical filling by means of supplying at least two different liquids through selection tools.

The patent, which does not simply describe results, therefore proposes a technical solution to solve a technical problem.

However, turning to the second ground of nullity, insufficiency, the court noted that the description of the patent was excessively empty:

The description is particularly limited as to the described device. It merely reproduces the wording of claim 1 of the patent to explain the only including figure which is extremely schematic.

No details are given on the nature of the filling means and the liquid supply means. The means of selection invoked are not described. No explanation is given on the means of calculating the nicotine concentration of the liquid mixture which are only mentioned.

The description does not include any embodiment of the invention which may clarify the claims. 

Consequently, the patent is not sufficiently described for a person skilled in the art to be able to implement the invention (with the sole assistance of the description and the drawing).

Therefore, the patent was revoked in its entirety, without examining the other grounds of nullity of lack of novelty and lack of inventive step.

I have had a look at the patent at stake, and it is true that the description is rather succinct. The description is only two and half pages long, of which one page is dedicated to the prior art. In the rest of the description, the various “means” recited in claim 1 and its two dependent claims are mentioned, but without much in terms of additional explanations.

In other words, the court’s analysis of the patent appears to be correct. What they did not address, though, is common general knowledge. Could it somehow make up for the shortcomings of the description?

That said, even if sufficiency had been acknowledged (taking into account common general knowledge), there may have been serious issues concerning novelty and inventive step as well – which may be why the court directly went for the jugular.

In fact, looking at the preliminary search report issued by the EPO (on behalf of the INPI), all three claims as filed were deemed to lack novelty over a D1 document and to lack inventive step over a D2 document combined with a D3 document.

In its response to the search report, the applicant did not amend the claims and argued thusly:

The prior art is analyzed as follows: 

Document D1 is an article published online and reviewing the state of the art in the field of electronic cigarettes and machines for filling vials with liquid for these cigarettes.

Document D1 does not disclose all the technical features recited in claim 1 of the invention. 

Document D2 is a patent application publication relating to a method for filling vials for electronic cigarettes and the related device .

Document D2 does not disclose all the technical features recited in claim 1 of the invention. 

Document D3 is a patent application publication describing a device for filling containers in the pharmaceutical field. 

Document D3 does not disclose all the technical features recited in claim 1 of the invention. 

These three documents are therefore not relevant for the appraisal of novelty. 

The applicant’s comments on inventive step were of the same nature. As a next step, the patent was granted.

As I am sure all readers are well aware, the French patent statute has been recently amended by the PACTE law. One major aspect of the reform was to strengthen examination of national patent applications in France. The patent at stake was granted under the former, pre-PACTE provisions, which, obviously, made it possible to obtain a patent without spending much effort on setting out why exactly the invention deserved one.

I have heard, and even expressed myself, concerns that the PACTE reform may hurt local applicants wary of the higher costs typically associated with more serious, EPO-type prosecution.

On the other hand, maybe today’s decision could be viewed as an example of why raising the bar, while not a perfect solution, was in fact necessary.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal judiciaire de Paris, 3ème chambre 1ère section, February 6, 2020, Directbuy v. LCCF Distribution, RG No.18/02372.

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