Most of the substantive provisions of the Australian Raising the Bar Act commence on 15 April 2013, while the new ‘first-inventor-to-file’ provisions on the America Invents Act commence on 13 March 2013. Both reforms have potentially significant impact on applications filed after these dates, even if these claim the benefit of provisional applications filed prior to commencement of the amendments.
In particular, as a result of the reforms, even though they have not yet fully commenced, it is now effectively imperative that any priority document, including a provisional application, provide full support for the invention as it is ultimately claimed in the complete, non-provisional, application.
‘…any provisional application filed now, and forming the basis for a complete application filed in 12 months time, will be completely worthless for priority purposes in Australia and the US unless it supports the invention across the full scope of the ultimate claims…’
The notion that a provisional application can provide a lower standard of disclosure, without prejudice to the applicant, was never really true. But is is now more crucial than ever that this myth be dispelled.
There are a number of people ‘out there’ – principally serial inventors, inventor advocates and invention promotion companies – who are keen to tell you (often for a price) that you do not need a patent attorney to assist in the preparation and filing of a provisional patent application. This, they say, is something any inventor can do for themselves, in order to obtain ‘meaningful’ protection for an invention at a low initial cost.
Sorry, but this is simply not true. If you do not really know what you are doing, your provisional application may be worthless. Indeed, it may be worse than worthless, if it provides you with a false sense of security that your invention is protected.
No doubt cynical readers will be thinking that this is exactly what you would expect a self-serving patent attorney to say. Maybe so. But after reading this article we hope you will at least be in a position to make an informed decision.
A HYPOTHETICAL EXAMPLEImagine a world in which the motor car has not yet been invented. You come up with an idea for a vehicle having an internal combustion engine, which is engaged with an axle via a suitable arrangement of gears. The axle is mounted to the rear of a chassis, and has a wheel at each end. A single free-turning, steerable wheel supports the chassis at the front end end.
In effect, you have come up with a three-wheeled car, not unlike the charming Reliant Robin pictured at the top of this article.
So you write up a detailed description, with accompanying drawings, explaining the design of your vehicle, and how it works. You then file this document as a provisional patent application.
Coming up to a year later, you have borrowed and invested heavily in converting your design into a practical product, and are just about ready to go into production. There are a few competing prototypes starting to appear, including four-wheeled automobiles and two-wheeled motorcycles. Indeed, through your own R&D process you have come to the conclusion that a four-wheeled design is more stable and robust. You are content, however, that you are the first and true inventor of the motorised vehicle, and that you have secured your priority with your provisional application.
You now go to a patent attorney to assist you with the preparation and filing of a complete, nonprovisional, application. The broadest claim drafted by the attorney is as follows:
An automotive vehicle comprising:OK, so this claim may be a little rough-and-ready (you get what you pay for), but it captures the essential idea of a self-contained motorised vehicle, and covers any design with an engine and two or more wheels (you are happy to dedicate the motorised unicycle to the public, on the basis that you do not consider it to be a commercially viable product).
- a chassis;
- a self-contained engine, mounted to the chassis;
- at least one driven wheel, rotatably-mounted to the chassis and mechanically coupled to the engine such that operation of the engine provides a driving torque to said at least one driven wheel; and
- at least one further wheel, rotatably-mounted to the chassis such that, in combination with the driven wheel, the chassis is supported above the ground and provided with a motive force by the driven wheel in response to operation of the engine.
The key questions which arise in this hypothetical case are:
- Is the broad claim to any motorised vehicle with at least two wheels, at least one of which is driven by an engine, entitled to claim priority based on a description of a three-wheeled vehicle, in which a pair of wheels is driven via an axle, and a third, non-driven, wheel is configured for steering?
- If not, does it matter?
AUSTRALIAN POSITIONThe current requirement under the Australian Patents Regulations 1991 (Regulation 3.12) is that a claim is entitled to the earlier priority date if it is ‘fairly based on matter disclosed’ in the priority document.
The existing ‘fair basis’ standard essentially requires a ‘real and reasonably clear’ disclosure of the claimed invention in the earlier document. Arguably, at least, a disclosure of a three-wheeled motorised vehicle is a reasonable disclosure of a vehicle with at least two wheels, at least one of which is driven by a motor.
A court would also likely allow you a little additional leeway, in that the current Patents Act 1990 requires that a provisional merely ‘describe the invention’ (section 40(1)), as opposed to describing it ‘fully’, which is the requirement for a complete specification. You have a fairly good case, therefore, that the priority claim is valid.
You additionally have the benefit of a one-year grace period, which means that at least your own disclosures of vehicles with different numbers of wheels will not be held against your complete application.
However, as of 15 April 2013, any new provisional application ‘must disclose the invention in a manner which is clear enough and complete enough for the invention to be performed by a person skilled in the relevant art’. This is intended to require an enabling disclosure across the full scope of the ultimate claim(s). A description of a single three-wheeled embodiment will not meet this requirement in respect of the broad claim proposed above.
But provisionals filed prior to 15 April 2013 are not subject to this higher standard, so you might think that you do not need to worry about this yet. In all likelihood, however, you would be wrong.
From 15 April 2013 a priority claim will only be valid if ‘a prescribed document discloses the invention in the claim in a manner that is clear enough and complete enough for the invention to be performed by a person skilled in the relevant art’ (new paragraph 43(2A)(b)). While we have yet to see the amended regulations, which will define a ‘prescribed document’, it seems highly improbable that they will somehow carve out a special exception for Australian provisional applications filed prior to 15 April 2013!
So, in effect, provisional applications being filed now will be judged by the higher standard for priority purposes after 15 April 2013.
US POSITIONIt has been established since the 2002 decision of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in New Railhead Manufacturing LLC v Vermeer Manufacturing Company that, in the US,
…the specification of the provisional must “contain a written description of the invention and the manner and process of making and using it, in such full, clear, concise, and exact terms,” 35 U.S.C. § 112 ¶ 1, to enable an ordinarily skilled artisan to practice the invention claimed in the non-provisional application.
In other words, as under the new Australian provisions, the disclosure of the provisional must enable the invention across the full scope of the ultimate claims.
While New Railhead was not so fortunate, under the traditional ‘first to invent’ priority scheme of the US patent system many applicants might not have been adversely affected by the loss of a valid priority claim to a provisional application.
Provisional applications are often filed as a precautionary measure prior to any public use, sale or disclosure of an invention. If there has already been sale or disclosure, the invention is presumably fully reduced to practice, and there is no reason not to proceed with a nonprovisional application in the first instance.
However, under the ‘first to invent’ regime, even if a claim to priority from a provisional application turns out to be invalid, the inventor will still have priority over any prior art falling within the 12 months prior to the nonprovisional filing, so long as they can swear to prior invention. The loss of priority claim will only be fatal if (as in the New Railhead case) the date of the prior art or use falls prior to invention or more than 12 months before the nonprovisional filing date.
It seems likely that, for this reason among others, the validity of a US priority claim to a US provisional application would rarely fall under close scrutiny.
However, once the ‘first-inventor-to-file’ regime of the America Invest Act comes into force on 13 March 2013, the ability to rely on date of invention rather than the provisional filing date will no longer exist, for any application which cannot claim an ‘effective filing date’ prior to 13 March 2013.
As a result, a nonprovisional application which validly claims priority to a provisional application filed prior to 13 March 2013 will be judged under the current ‘first to invent’ rules.
However, if even a single claim of the nonprovisional application is not adequately supported in the earlier provisional specification, the entire application will be judged under the new ‘first-inventor-to-file’ rules.
In our hypothetical example, the broad claim will not be entitled to claim the benefit of the provisional filing date. It will therefore be subject to the ‘first to file’ rules, and the inventor would not be able to salvage the situation by asserting earlier invention.
TAKE-HOME MESSAGEThe take-home from all this is simple: any provisional application filed now, and forming the basis for a complete application filed in 12 months time, will be completely worthless for priority purposes in Australia and the US unless it supports the invention across the full scope of the ultimate claims.
In effect, this means that the provisional specification needs to state the scope of the invention, preferably in the form of one or more claims, as well as providing a description sufficient to teach the skilled person how to make embodiments across that full scope.
This is nothing new in many jurisdictions, such as Europe, which already have such requirements for priority claims. But in Australia – where a lower standard of disclosure has applied to provisionals in the past – and in the US – where the ‘first to invent’ system may have buffered many inventors from the worst consequences of inadequate provisionals – these requirements take on new significance.
This does not necessarily mean that every inventor will need to hire a patent attorney to draft their provisional applications. But for many, lacking the skill and experience to draft effective patent claims, and knowledge and training in the intricacies of the patent laws, seeking professional assistance and advice will be the most practical way forward.