Wednesday 13 July 2011

Essentiallity Test Revisited - Deleting Features From the Claims before the EPO

K's law discusses the decision T 747/10 today, where the EPO technical board of appeal applies the "essentiallity test" in the Gidelines for examination as develpoed in T 0331/87 is applied and makes an attempt to put it into a more precise form.

This test says that the removal of a feature from a claim does not violate A 123(2) if the skilled person would directly and unambiguously recognise that:

  1. the feature was not explained as essential in the disclosure;
  2. the feature is not, as such, indispensable for the function of the invention in the light of the technical problem the invention serves to solve; and
  3. the replacement or removal requires no real modification of other features to compensate for the change.
The case at issue related to a light therapy apparatus with light sources connectable to a computer via an interface. Original claim 1 required that the interface does not only control the light sources but also serves as a power supply. Interestingly, the BoA argues that the "technical problem" mentioned under 2 is the "subjective technical problem":
A first step of the analysis to be carried out consists in identifying the subjective problem solved by the invention (cf. T 331/87 [7.1-7.4]), i.e. the problem defined by the applicant in the original description by reference to the prior art, as it was known to him at that time.
In this case, the original specification had actually mentioned two technical problems:
While the passage of the description on page 2, lines 25-27, defines it as an object of the invention to make it possible for a user to perform deskwork when being exposed to light therapy, thus addressing the problem associated with light sources harsh to the eyes […], the passage on page 2, lines 17-20, suggests that another object of the invention is to solve the problem of limited portability encountered with prior art LED sources.
and comes to the conclustion that using the (USB-) interface for power supply does at least contribute to the solution of the second problem of improving the portability. Other alternatives (e.g. batteries) were not consistently disclosed. On the other hand, the board argues that the replacement of a feature with an equivalent one (which is originally disclosed) should be possible even tough the original feature may contribute to the technical solution of the subjective problem and comes to the conclusion that:
In the Board’s judgement, the criterion of essentiality is therefore met, if the feature in question is not only involved in the claimed solution but defines the sole alternative actually derivable from the original application documents. In other terms, a feature is essential if the skilled person would not have considered any other configuration as the one actually disclosed in order to solve the problem underlying the invention.
It is interesting for me that both the „classical“ decision T 0331/87 and this new decision appear to have problems with the line of demarcation between the requirement of “support by the specification” of Art. 84 EPC and Art. 123 EPC. This is very clear in T 0331/87, where the board argues in item 3 of the reasons:
For the determination whether an amendment of a claim does or does not extend beyond the subject-matter of the application as filed, it is necessary to examine if the overall change in the content of the application originating from this amendment (…) results in the skilled person being presented with information which is not directly and unambiguously derivable from that previously presented by the application […]. In other words, it is to examine whether the claim as amended is supported by the description as filed.

The argument is a little more hidden in the decision T 747/10, but it appears that distinguishing between cases where more than one alternative is mentioned and cases where only one alternative is mentioned is equivalent to answering the question whether or not the broader claim is supported by the specification and is limited to the scope within which the invention makes a technical contribution to the prior art.

So why did the BoA not refer to Art. 84 EPC?

For the ”Houdaille decision T 0331/87, the case is clear: This was an opposition procedure and the BoA was simply not entitled to carry out an examination on Art. 84 EPC. In the light of this finding, it appears that this groundbreaking decision is circumventing the statutory limitation to the grounds for opposition set out in Art. 100EPC and has to be questioned.

For the case T 747/10, the application of Art. 84 EPC would have required reverting the case to the Examining division for carrying out the examination on this article.

I wonder if failure to do so could be considered a violation of the applicant’s right to be heard?

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