Monday 30 January 2012

Good Excuses, Bad Excuses

I have the impression that the EPO Boards of Appeal have an increasing tendency to not admit new documents or requests if the submitting party does not present good reasons for the late filing. Examples include e.g. T1914/08 (cf. item [2], where the Board asks for a "justification having a causal link to the present proceedings") or T1488/08 (cf. item[2.2] asking for "objective reasons").

It may be heretic but I would like to ask whether this approach is justified in view of the  nature of the proceedings before the EPO. The Boards of Appeal do clearly have the discretionary power not to admit new facts or requests. However, this power has to be exercised on the firm basis of the objectivity principle and the overriding interest in fair proceedings.

In my view, there are (at least) two principles limiting the discretionary power of the Boards. Firstly, the decison not to admit an amendment of the case should clearly not violate the right to be heard of the submitting party. Secondly, the boards (just as the opposition division) should not be forced to knowingly take wrong decisions. The first principle requires the admissibility of amendments constituting a reasonable reaction to events inside of or outside of the procedure and the second principle requires that documents of prima facie relevance should be admitted.

Article 13(1) RPBA states that
“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”.
What about the excuse? The complexity of the submitted subject-matter is clearly independent of the quality of the excuse.

Further, the procedure will not be the more economical the better the excuse for the late filing is. Rather, the procedural economy allows for the non-admission of amendmens which would clearly not change the result of the procedure (e.g. the admission of the allegedly novelty-destroying Document D99 if the Board holds that the patent is not novel over D1 already). Furhter, procedural economy should not be mixed up with the Board's comfort.

Finally, we are left with the "current state of the proceedings". In my view, this means that the Boards should shift the point of equilibrium of their balance towards the non-admission side in the later the stages of the proceedings. However, this may affect the mechanism of the balance but the weights to put on the balance should remain unchanged.

The fact that the amendment is a direct response to new points raised by the other party may support as a positive weight the admissibility of an amendment for reasons of fairness and for the preservation of the the right to be heard. However, in my view, the lack of such reasons should not constitue a "negative" weight on the balance unless the Board has additional evidence supporting the suspicition that the late-filing is the result of procedural abuse. Procedural abuse is a severe accusation which should not be raised without by the Boards without very good grounds.

In view of these considerations, the reasons for not admitting amendments to the case mentioned in T1488/08 appear to be based on a doubtful exercise of discretion. Here is what the Board has to say:
In the present case, the [opponents] have not submitted any objective reasons justifying the filing of the grounds of added subject-matter and lack of novelty at a later stage than with the appeal (such as e.g. in direct response to new points raised by the [patent proprietors] in their reply). The attempt of the [opponents] to re-introduce these grounds thus may only be regarded as a change of position determined by procedural tactics (so-called “salami” tactics). Already on this basis, the Board considered, in view of procedural economy, that it should exercise its discretion not to admit the later-filed grounds of added subject-matter and lack of novelty.

For the sake of completeness, the Board also considered whether these late-filed grounds would constitute, on a prima facie basis, a valid challenge to the patentability of the claimed subject-matter, and came to the conclusion that this was not the case.(Emphasis added).
 If this way of exercising the discretion was correct, this would imply that every amendment which is determined by procedural tactics is inadmissible. The fact that the prima facie relevance is checked only "for the sake of completeness" and not at the first place implies that this board has set its prioprities in a questionable way. The prima facie test would actually have been entirely sufficent to reject the new grounds.

Friday 27 January 2012

E-Mail via SMS - BGH on Inventive Step

When establishing a logical chain of considerations leading the skilled person from the prior art to the subject-matter of a claim in order to challenge its inventiveness, the most difficult part consists often in finding the incentive of the skilled person to take a particular step. The case-law both in Germany and at the EPO requires such an incentive e.g. for the combination of different pieces of prior art.

In a decision issued last week, the German Federal Supreme Court BGH had to decide on a patent relating to a method for transmitting e-mails using the SMS-Standard. The method required a modification of the data structure according to the SMS-Standard and the solution employed mechanisms which had already been provided (though for slightly different purposes) in the same standard.

The BGH found that the skilled person faced with the problem of improving a standard has an incentive to use the mechanisms provided therein and - if the standard provides for a manageable (überschaubar) number of possible approaches for solving the technical problem - to take each of these approaces into consideration even if an unmanageable number of possible approaches would be imagineable outside of the standard.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Electronic Courtroom

This senate is not yet digitalized
Yesterday, I had my first opportunity to experience the new "electronic courtroom" at the Bundespatentgericht - on which I had reported here earlier.

The room still smells very new (carpet glue I guess) and is quite fancy. All the Judges and the parties have a big monitor embedded in their tables which would allow them to have a shared view on an electronic document. Further, the documents are displayed on a big flat screen on the wall.

Unfortunalely, we were caught by surprise to be in that room as we did not receive any advance notice and did not bring any electronic documents and neither the judges nor any other party has desired to share any document such that everything besides of the black screens on the tables was as usual.

This appears to be a general caveat. Only two out of the approximately 15 (ß) courtrooms of the Bundespatentgericht are electronically equipped and these are occupied by two "resident" senates (one technical appeal senate - in our case the 19th - and one nullity senate) respectively. Since the other senates have not yet digitalized their files, thay may not use this courtroom even in the unlikely case that it would not be occupied by its resident senates.

As a consequence, there is no opportunity to use the new electronic courtroom even upon request unless your case is handled by one of the four (the 19th and 3 still unknown) "digitalized" senates.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

When it comes to Money - J25/10

The EPO's legal board of appeal has noted in a  decision publised in the OJ that a decision not to refund 75% of the examination fees upon a withdrawal of the application has to be reasoned.
Following the withdrawal of a European patent application, a refusal by the Examining Division of a request for a 75% refund of the examination fee, on the basis that substantive examination had already begun (Article 11(b) RFees), must be based on facts which objectively demonstrate that this is so.
 In the case at issue, the examiner had simply alleged that he had already started the examination without giving any more detailed facts or evidence in support of this allegation. The board refers to the principles of the democratic legal order entailing the need to ensure predictability of jurisdiction and
hence legal certainty by preventing arbitrariness as set out in G 3/08.  Furhter, the board notes:
It appears to the Board that the application of these principles is particularly important in the present case for two reasons. First, since the decision which the Office, via the Examination Division, is required to take involves its own financial interests, it is important for the public confidence in the Office that the decision-making process should be transparent. For the same reason it is also important that such decisions should be reviewable by the Boards of Appeal. Second, in the present case any relevant information lay solely within the knowledge of the Office. It is not a case in which, for example, a communication had been sent to the applicant, so that there were externally verifiable facts on which a decision to refund fees could be based and reviewed. This makes it important that the applicant (and the Board of Appeal) knows what the actual underlying facts are on which the decision was based. (cf. point 12 of the reasons, emphasis added).
In hope that the particular importance of the principles of the democratic legal order in cases where the EPO's finances are concerned does not imply that these principles are less important in cases which do not affect the EPO's finance.

Thursday 5 January 2012

Keeping the Doors Open – R 3/11

The last decision of the EPO’s Enlarged Board of Appeal (EBOA) addresses the critera of an objection under Rule 106 EPC, which reads:
A petition under Article 112a, paragraph 2(a) to (d), is only admissible where an objection in respect of the procedural defect was raised during the appeal proceedings and dismissed by the Board of Appeal, except where such objection could not be raised during the appeal proceedings.
This is what the EBOA has to say about the nature of the objection (Reasons 3.1):
Raising an objection pursuant to Rule 106 EPC is a procedural act and, when it is possible, a precondition for access to review by the Enlarged Board. It is an extraordinary legal remedy against final decisions of the Boards of Appeal. Therefore such an objection must be expressed by a party in such a form that the deciding body is able to recognize immediately and without doubt that an objection pursuant to Rule 106 EPC is intended. For the same reason such an objection must be specific, that is the party must indicate unambiguously which particular defect amongst those exhaustively listed in paragraph 2(a) to (c) of Article 112a and Rule 104 EPC it intends to rely on.
And further on:
… apart from, the usual phrases that the parties addressed the Board, after which the matter was discussed with the parties, and the reciting of the requests of the parties, the minutes contain the following:

"The Chairman asked the parties if they had any other Observations or requests and there were none."

This clearly contradicts the petitioner's position that the objection pursuant to Rule 106 EPC was in fact raised.

The absence in the minutes of an objection under Rule 106 EPC and of any request for correction of the minutes are strong indications, that such objection, if any, was at least not duly qualified, which is a necessary condition (see point 3.1 above).” (emphasis added)
In order to keep the possibility for filing a petition to review under Art. 112a (2) EPC, it is therefore highly advisable to take care that the objection as well as the decision to dismiss the objection figures in the minutes. Apparently simply murmuring the “usual phrases” (whatever these may be?) are not sufficient for this purpose.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Walking the Tightrope between Copyright and Technical Creations

The Bundesgerichtshof has recently issued a decision named "Seilzirkus" (I ZR 53/10) on the eligibility of utility items for copyright/author's right.

This question usually pops up in the field of furniture - in particular "design classics" by the masters of the Bauhaus era where the 70-years post-mortem term has not yet expired. However, author's rights are recently claimed quite often in more profane cases such as the climbing scaffold for children made up of ropes and clips and a central pillar shown on the right hand side.
Top view of the original climbing scaffold

It is well established case-law that features which are “exclusively due to technical reasons” (allein technisch bedingt) may not be used to establish copyright. The generally accepted reason for this is the desire of the legislator to keep technical subject-matter free to be used once the term of the technical protective rights (patents, utility models) has expired. Evidence for this “desire of the legislator” is found in Art. 8 (1) of the Community Design Regulation and Art. 7 (1) e) ii) of the Community Trademkark Regulation and in their counterparts in the national laws.

However, it is fairly difficult to distinguish the purely technical features from those which are (in addition to their technical implications) “artistically designed". Imagine a chair with four rectangular legs. The provision of the legs has obvious technical reasons as well as the rectangular profile, which facilitates the manufacturing. But are these reasons exclusive reasons or are there other reasons (e.g. aesthetical) to use four legs rather than three and to use a rectangular profile rather than a round one.
Allegedly infringing climbing scaffold

The Bundesgerichtshof now clarifies that
 a creation does not enjoy copyright protection if it consists of features which are freely exchangeable or selectable only and if no artistic achievement is recognizable. Exploiting the usual design options in craftsmanship and construction or exchanging a technical feature with another does not lead to an original (eigenschöpferisch) work of art.

Finally, the Bundesgerichtshof shifts the burden of clearly and precisely pointing out in what artistic aspects the creation extends beyond the shape as determined by the function to the holder of the copyright (Headnote II). The latter point will be of high practical relevance because it forecloses the right owner from hiding behind a flowery adulation of the work of art but rather forces him to point to the essential features from the onset.
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