Thursday, 25 January 2018

A Patent for a Hairdressing Salon in a Shipping Container - Really?

A while ago I wrote about a patent that was granted by the EPO in August 2016 which, it seemed to me, should not have been granted because it was clearly invalid. The patent, EP2700769B1, claimed the following:
1. A hairdressing salon (1) comprising at least one styling station (3), which is embodied in a room (5), wherein the room (5) is arranged in a mobile structure (7), which can be displaced by means of a lifting tool, characterized in that the mobile structure (7) has at least one window (13).
A South African barbershop,
in a repurposed shipping container.
Anyone remotely familiar with patents would immediately recognise that the claim, which effectively defines a hairdressing salon in a shipping container, would have fairly obvious validity issues. Even if nobody had thought to repurpose a shipping container in this way before (which on the face of it sounds implausible), there would be a question to be asked about what particular technical problem the invention solved that was not obvious. The claim therefore seemed, even before doing any kind of search, either not novel or lacking inventive step. How it got through the EPO's examination system, with the examiner not really finding anything of relevance and then allowing the application on the basis of the characterising clause being to add a window, is a mystery (at least to me), and is unfortunately something we will probably never find out.

As I wrote in my previous post about the patent, I did a quick search for prior art (taking no longer then 5 minutes) and found something that seemed to me good enough to knock out at least claim 1 for lack of novelty. The prior art I found is available here, from which I have copied the most relevant photograph. The webpage refers to a book that was published in 2011, which has all the photographs in. There was therefore no doubt that the photograph, described on the webpage as a "Boyz & Girlz Salon (in a shipping container)", was available before the August 2012 priority date of the patent.

Being a bit annoyed that something so obviously invalid could get through the EPO's supposedly high quality examination system, and also a bit of a fan of the UK IPO's opinions service, I thought I would have a go at seeing what a UK examiner thought of the patent. After waiting for the opposition period to expire (I wasn't going to file an opposition, given the high fee and the long wait for a result), I prepared and filed a quick request for an opinion on validity at the UK IPO, using selections from the book as my prior art.

A couple of days ago, just short of the usual 3 month timescale after filing the request, the opinion issued. In brief, the examiner agreed with me on every point and found all of the claims to be invalid, either for lack of novelty (as in claim 1) or lack of inventive step. The only claims that were found to be novel were those that added a staircase to access the walk-on roof (claims 7 & 8), which were unsurprisingly found to be lacking in inventiveness. As a result, the patent was found to be entirely invalid.

It is a little disappointing that the patent proprietor decided not to file any observations in reply to the request, but since they had failed to pay the latest renewal fee it seemed they might have already lost interest in it, or had perhaps discovered after getting it granted that it didn't stand much chance of surviving any attacks. The request did provoke observations from another quarter though, from someone calling themselves "The Patent Labrador". Unfortunately, these observations could not be taken into account by the examiner as they raised new issues that were not mentioned in the request, although they were mentioned in the opinion as having been filed, by "an anonymous observer". Perhaps the Labrador needs to have a look at Rule 96 before having another go.

Along with proving a point that was previously only made by me in a fairly obscure and esoteric blog, this little exercise has shown how easy, and potentially quite powerful, it can be to get something on the public record relating to an invalid patent that would make anyone wanting to enforce it think very hard before doing so.

Regular readers of this blog will, of course, already know that this is not necessarily the end of the story. The next step the UK IPO can take is to initiate revocation proceedings under section 73(1A), provided they agree with the examiner that the case is sufficiently clear cut. If, as I suspect, the proprietor does not contest the opinion, my guess is that this patent will, in due course, be got rid of in the UK and will, in effect, never have been granted, which is of course what should have happened in the first place.


  1. Interesting, I was not familiar with this route in the UK. I guess it has been designed as a low-cost alternative to court proceedings for invalidating a patent after expiration of the opposition period?

    1. That's roughly correct. It's certainly a low cost way of potentially getting rid of invalid patents, but it doesn't always work. Have a look at some of my other posts with the same tag of patent office opinions and you will see.

  2. Proof of the pudding2 February 2018 at 12:08

    Nice work. I understand why you were motivated to do this. However, I find it particularly depressing that the patent was granted in the first place.

    My experience teaches me that this is far from an isolated incident ... of EPO policies meaning that examiners are far less likely than before to be spending enough time on a case to filter out such clearly invalid dross.

    Does this mean that the recent jump in grants will inevitably be followed by a jump in the percentage of patents being limited or revoked after opposition and appeal? I guess so, despite attempts by the EPO management to "knobble" the Boards of Appeal (and discourage appeals by huge hikes in the appeal fees). But with the effect coming so many years after the cause, will anyone on the Administrative Council ever join the dots (and thereby ensure that policies are put in place that allow examiners sufficient time to do their job properly)?

  3. Here's something relevant. If you visit the Kluwer blog, Link below, you can read this reader comment in the thread:

    "Another explanation for the sudden increase of A84 objections might be this one:
    If I am examining an application on a field that I do not know well (and this happens rather often lately) the easiest objection to raise is for lack of clarity. In many cases it may just mean that we are not skilled persons in the field of your application.
    How can I possibly write a well-sound reasoning for lack of novelty on a subject-matter that I only understand in part? Inventive step & problem/solution?? Not even try that: your claims are not clear.
    Very sad. It took decades to create the fine-tuned system we used to have at the EPO, where the right person would search and examine each patent application. This president has managed to demolish it in less than 3 years."