Tuesday 7 June 2016

G 1/15: The wait is nearly over

The EPO Isar building in Munich on a lovely sunny day. 
As I mentioned in an earlier post a couple of months ago, I arranged to get out of the office to attend the oral proceedings for the Enlarged Board (EB) case of G 1/15 on partial priority that were scheduled for 7 & 8 June 2016. As it turns out, the second day is not now going to be needed, because the EB concluded the proceedings at just before 3pm today, following just a few short hours of submissions and brief discussions from each side.

Although the EB did not give any clear indication of how they were going to decide the matter (unlike in lower board of appeal cases, where a decision is normally announced at the end of the proceedings), there were some clues as to how things might turns out. What follows is a brief, and necessarily biased, view of how the proceedings went. It is biased, not only because I have a clear opinion on how the issue should be settled, but because the respondent spoke only in German, with interpretation not being provided for attending members of the public (I even asked, and was bluntly refused, even though there were several spare headsets available), and my understanding of German was just not good enough to closely follow the respondent's speeches. Thanks to other attendees, however, I managed to get at least the gist of what the respondent's arguments were, and they did not seem to be much different to what had already been presented in written arguments and elsewhere. Following several years of discussing the various arguments regarding partial (and poisonous) priority, there was in any case unlikely to be anything that came up today that hadn't already been said somewhere.

The issue, just to remind those that haven't been following this for the past few years, is about whether a claim in a European patent (or application) that does not have a full right to priority can be knocked out by publication of the priority application as another European application. If the European application claims something more broadly than is disclosed in the priority application, can this narrow disclosure be Article 54(3) prior art for the later application? The issue was first set out in 2011, and has been discussed many times on this blog, so I won't say any more about it (you can in any case view all of the relevant posts here if you want to catch up).

Following submissions on the case that were provided by the appellant (Infineum), the opponent/respondent (Clariant) and on behalf of the EPO President, along with quite a few amicus briefs, all of which are summarised in my earlier post here, the EB invited all these parties to the hearing to set out their case. They did not, however, set out any preliminary opinion or agenda of things they wanted to discuss, which was fairly unusual for any Board of Appeal case. Whether this meant that they had already made up their mind and were just going through the motions is impossible to tell, but might I suspect be fairly close to the truth, given how things turned out on the day.

The EB was made up of seven members, with F. Blumer and I. Beckerdorf as legally qualified members, W. Sieber and H. Meinders as technically qualified members, P. Carlson as an external legally qualified member, C. Vallet as a further legally qualified member and rapporteur, and W. van der Eijk as chairman. The chairman kicked off proceedings just after 9am by reading the questions that had been referred to them in decision T 557/13 of 17 July last year (which I wrote about here). These are:
1. Where a claim of a European patent application or patent encompasses alternative subject-matters by virtue of one or more generic expressions or otherwise (generic "OR"-claim), may entitlement to partial priority be refused under the EPC for that claim in respect of alternative subject-matter disclosed (in an enabling manner) for the first time, directly, or at least implicitly, and unambiguously, in the priority document? 
2. If the answer is yes, subject to certain conditions, is the proviso "provided that it gives rise to the claiming of a limited number of clearly defined alternative subject-matters" in point 6.7 of G 2/98 to be taken as the legal test for assessing entitlement to partial priority for a generic "OR"-claim? 
3. If the answer to question 2 is yes, how are the criteria "limited number" and "clearly defined alternative subject- matters" to be interpreted and applied? 
4. If the answer to question 2 is no, how is entitlement to partial priority to be assessed for a generic "OR"-claim? 
5. If an affirmative answer is given to question 1, may subject-matter disclosed in a parent or divisional application of a European patent application be cited as state of the art under Article 54(3) EPC against subject-matter disclosed in the priority document and encompassed as an alternative in a generic "OR"-claim of the said European patent application or of the patent granted thereon?
The chairman noted the importance of the questions raised, which was emphasised by the submissions provided by the parties and the fact that there had also been 33 amicus briefs filed (which thankfully matches my last count of 36 in all). The EB had studied the submissions and taken note of them, so didn't want to hear all of the arguments again but wanted to hear anything that had not been already set out. This might have made the proceedings very brief indeed, as there really wasn't anything else to say that had not already made it to the file, but all sides had a go anyway, as you might expect.

An important point to note is that the Chairman made it clear the referral was considered to be admissible, because it related to a point of law of fundamental importance and on which there was a clear divergence in the case law. There was therefore no need to discuss the question of admissibility (unlike, for example, the case of G 3/08, which I was to a small extent involved with), and none of the parties raised this in their arguments.

The submissions started with Infineum, whose representative Richard Hart went through the various key points as he saw them relating to the questions. One of the more general points raised was that, from the industry context, it had to be recognised that inventing was difficult and did not stop with the first filing. It was therefore very common for an invention to change, and possibly broadening, during the priority year. Having an effective bar to being able to broaden the resulting claims in a patent would result in the patenting system being far too harsh on the applicant, who typically would have spent a lot of effort getting to the point of filing a patent application, and would have done much else that did not result in one. A strict approach to partial priority could therefore act against the interests of the system, as well as being unreasonable in allowing a patent to act against itself. There was a general principle that the scope of a patent should be commensurate with the contribution. If a broader contribution, backed up by further work in the later filed application, could not be protected, this pulled in the opposite direction.

On the substantive legal points, Mr Hart set out the usual arguments starting from Article 88 EPC, which should be interpreted according to the travaux preparatoires, mentioning the now famous FICPI Memorandum, which set out the legislative intent behind Article 88(2), second sentence. Using the memorandum was one way of figuring out how to interpret the legislation, while another way was to consider indirect interpretations based on the Paris Convention, which the EPC was a special agreement within. Article 32 of the Vienna Convention specified supplementary means as a way of interpreting, which the memorandum certainly was. A key point relating to this is that the examples in the memorandum could only be reconciled with the conceptual approach to partial priority, whereas the strict approach could not. There was then a lot of discussion about Articles 4F and 4G of the Paris Convention and commentary by Professor Bodenhausen, during which the EB appeared to be getting a bit bored, and which I will not bore you further with.

The key points to Mr Hart's submissions appeared to be, as we have seen before, that the conceptual approach is the only one that can be made consistent with everything else, including the concept that the test for novelty is essentially the same as the test for priority. If the tests were to be different, which they would need to be if the more strict literal approach were to be taken, then the test applied for assessing priority would result in nonsensical results for novelty. The proper test was, as with that for novelty, to compare the disclosures and determine the boundary of the claim, then determine what falls within the scope of the claim. The decision in G 2/98 could be viewed, as the respondent had done, that a new more restrictive test was being laid out on partial priority, or that it wasn't. It was, in Mr Hart's view, more likely that the EB in that case were not trying to set out a new test, and that later decisions were simply a misunderstanding of what was meant by "a limited number of clearly defined alternative subject-matters" in point 6.7 of the reasons. The later decision of T 1222/11 was the first one to have properly considered how this should be aligned with the EPC, setting Article 88(2) in its proper context.

After a short break, the opponent/respondent, represented by Mr Mikulecky, was given his turn to set out his case. As I mentioned above, I was not able to follow his arguments very closely, but the gist of his case was that the more strict approach to partial priority should be followed because G 2/98 had set out a new test to be met. The fact that this could not be reconciled with at least some of the examples in the memorandum was, in Mr Mikulecky's submissions, a sign that, although the legislative intent was clear when the EPC was first drafted, times change and the intent changes with them. If I am understanding this correctly, this seems to me like a very strange argument, because if G 2/98 was trying to set out a new interpretation of Article 88(2) EPC it would have said so rather than just referring to the memorandum as expressing the legislative intent without making it clear that this was no longer the case.

Another point made by Mr Mikulecky related to the consequences of taking the strict literal approach. In his submission, these consequences were just a feature of the system, and had to be dealt with by better drafting. If the invention had been broadened out during the priority year, the applicant just had to take more care when preparing the later application to make sure that there was sufficient basis for all separable embodiments. In my view, this is a more sensible argument, although still wrong because it would inevitably lead to applicants having to include ever increasing amounts of what effectively amounts to boiler plate language to make sure that all embodiments were either claimed or disclaimed. This was surely not what the legislator intended, and is definitely contrary to the memorandum, which makes it quite clear that the main reason for allowing multiple priorities is to prevent this sort of thing being necessary.

The EB then gave the EPO President a chance to express his views. Unfortunately, whether out of time pressures or fears for his own safety, the President himself could not be there. He did, however, send a couple of representatives, who did the job for him. As with the written submissions, the President did not make it entirely clear which side of the fence he was on, although it seemed that he was more in favour of the conceptual view than the strict literal view. Apart from some comments about the EPO requiring an approach that was practical and not over complex, and that not allowing priority for a part of a claim that was not spelled out as such was contrary to common practice, the President did not have much further to say of substance. There was, however, a comment about the adverse consequences of following the literal approach, which would inevitably lead to increased complexity in applications and a consequential increase in legal uncertainty for third parties.

After lunch, each of the parties were given an opportunity to respond to what the others had said earlier. Not much of interest was raised at that point, but there was an odd discussion about what would be the consequences of leaving out a chunk of the priority document in a later filing, on which priority depended. I suspect this is not going to be a key feature of the EB's reasoning, so I will leave it there.

Finally, after a short break while everybody went outside as a result of a fire alarm (pictured right; it turned out the EPO was not on fire, and the alarm was probably just some building work setting it off), the EB had a chance to ask some questions. Only five of the members asked any questions, and this took up the final 20 minutes or so of the proceedings. The impression I got from this was that the EB did not really need to know any more from the parties, and had therefore probably already made up their minds. The most interesting question, in my view, came from the Chairman, who asked the respondent how the intent of the legislation could have changed over the 40 or so years since it was prepared. What had made this intent change? The questions, along with the body language of the EB members, which seemed to express boredom with the appellant and annoyance at the respondent, gave me the general feeling that they were largely sceptical of the respondent's arguments.

At the end, the Chairman announced that a decision would be made "as soon as possible" (which raised a small ripple of laughter from the audience), but that this would be by November this year. This fits with the impression I have gathered previously from discussing the issue with people from the EPO, who think that this is an important issue that needs resolving soon. I might as well stick my neck out now and say that I think the decision will be in favour of the appellant, and the answer to question 1 is likely to be either a clear "no" or possibly a "no" with some very limited caveats. The answer to question 5, which I suspect the EB will deal with at least partly as a separate question and not necessarily dependent on question 1, will be a clear "no", regardless of how the answer is arrived at. We now only have a few months to wait. I will, of course, write about it as soon as I hear.

Any comments on the above would be gratefully received, particularly if they go over any points that were raised at the hearing but that I have not covered.

UPDATE 9/6/16: Here's a tweet from me asking for your opinion on what the answer to question 1 is going to be. Just a bit of fun, but it would be interesting to see what your view is. Please vote!

UPDATE 22 June 2016: The minutes of the oral proceedings have now appeared on the EP register here. They are a bit more brief than my report, and the only useful piece of information is the confirmation that the EB will be issuing their decision by November.

UPDATE 25/11/16: An unusual third party observation has just appeared on the register, although it was filed a month ago. It says:
"Die Große Beschwerdekammer hat in mit dem vorliegenden Verfahren überlappender Besetztung in ihrer Entscheidung Art. 23 1/16 vom 16. Juni 2016, Absätze 39-45 festgestellt, dass sie Drohungen des Präsidenten des Europäischen Patentamtes ausgesetzt sei, die alle Mitglieder beträfen,die sie darin gehindert habe, bestimmte Entscheidungen treffen zu können. Auch der Verwaltungsrat habe diese Bedenken nach Ansicht der Großen Kammer nicht ausgeräumt. Auch im vorliegenden Falle war der Präsident durch seine Vertreter in der mündlichen Verhandlung am Verfahren beteiligt, obgleich nicht Partei. Besagte Entscheidung wurde entgegen der ausdrücklichen Anordnung der Großen Beschwerdekammer bis dato nicht veröffentlicht, ist aber der Öffentlichkeit anderwärtig zugänglich. Ein Organ, das Drohungen ausgesetzt ist, das sich nicht in der Lage sieht seine Verhandlung entgegen anderslautender Absicht öffentlich zu führen und ihre Entscheidungen der Öffentlichkeit zugänglich zu machen, ist auch im vorliegenden Falle nicht im Stande eine unvoreingenommene Entscheidung zu treffen. Gegen die gesamte Große Beschwerdekammer besteht auch im vorliegenden Falle der begründete Verdacht der Befangenheit, der solange fortbesteht, wie sie disziplinär dem Präsidenten bzw, des Aufsichtsrates unterstehen. Sie können in Folge keine wie immer gerartete richterliche Funktion wahrnehmen."
As I understand it, the gist of the argument is that the EB is unable to make an unbiased decision because they have been subject to threats from the President and may therefore be biased. I can't see it having any effect on the decision, which is due to appear any time now, as it hasn't been raised previously, but we shall see.

Latest tweets on G 1/15: