03 May 2022

Attorney Code of Conduct Passes ‘Health Check’ with Flying Colours

Health Check The Trans-Tasman IP Attorneys Board (TTIPAB) has published a report, and its response, on a Health Check of the Code of Conduct for Trans-Tasman Patent and Trade Marks Attorneys 2018 [PDF, 2.05MB].  The Report was prepared by Professor Andrew Christie, who was commissioned by the Board to conduct the review, commencing in July 2021.  The ‘health check’ covers not only the Code of Conduct, which is a statutory instrument by which all registered patent and trade marks attorneys are bound, but also the Guidelines to the Code of Conduct [PDF, 95kB].  The Guidelines are non-binding and are intended to assist people to understand the Code and the conduct it covers.  The purpose  of the review was to confirm whether the Code was working as intended, and to identify any improvements or clarification to the Code and Guidelines.  The review process included conducting structured interviews with 26 stakeholders (attorneys, general counsel of listed groups, representatives of attorney professional associations, and clients).  The interview questions were based on an analysis of issues raised by complaints made to the Board over the past few years.

The headline outcome of the ‘health check’ is that no amendments to the Code of Conduct were found to be necessary.  More particularly, Professor Christie concluded that the Code ‘has no major deficiencies, and there are no major problems with its provisions’.  He found, however, that ‘there is significant scope to provide more guidance on the application of the Code’s provisions by enhancement of the Guidelines.’  The Board has accepted a number of recommendations for specific improvements to the Guidelines.

Other key observations of the Report include:

  1. most stakeholders have a satisfactory awareness and understanding of the Code, and of the Board, but there is scope for improvement among junior attorneys and clients that do not have a registered attorney on staff;
  2. firms within the two publicly listed ownership groups provide appropriate disclosure to clients of their group membership, however individual firms (as opposed to the holding companies) need to improve the clarity with which they disclose the identities of other firms within their group;
  3. the evidence is that firms within ownership groups act independently from other members of their group in the provision of attorney professional services, as required under the Code;
  4. there is no basis to believe that attorneys in ownership group firms are in breach of their core obligations under the Code (i.e. to place following the law, and the interests of clients, the public and the profession, ahead of other considerations, including the interests of shareholders);
  5. clients of firms in ownership groups are being appropriately informed when their consent is required for firms within the same ownership group to act on opposing sides in adversarial matters; and
  6. some dissatisfaction with the Board’s complaint handling process has been identified within the profession.

The Board has identified and responded to 34 recommendations in the Report.  Ten of these are recommendations for no action to be taken, which the Board has merely ‘noted’ (there being nothing for it to do).  Of the remainder, the Board has ‘accepted’ 17 recommendations for enhancements to the Guidelines.  The Board has also ‘noted’ six substantive recommendations, where it recognises that a relevant issues has been raised, but proposes to pursue a different course from that which has been recommended.  Finally, there is one recommendation, relating to specific circumstances around potential conflicts of interest, that the Board has ‘not accepted’ because of concerns that it ‘would introduce unnecessary complexity and ambiguity’ to the Code.

I do not intend to go through every recommendation in detail – anybody who is that interested (which should include all registered attorneys) can read the Report and Response!  However, I would like to highlight the points that caught my attention, and add a little of my own commentary.

27 April 2022

Upcoming Online Conference on ‘Inventorship in Patent Law’

EPO LogoOn Monday 16 May 2022 the European Patent Office (EPO) is running an online conference on ‘Inventorship in Patent Law’.  It commences at 1.30pm Central European Summer Time (CEST), which is 9.30pm on the east coast of Australia (AEST), 9.00pm in South Australia, and a positively civilised 7.30pm in Western Australia.  It is, unfortunately, a little less accessible to people in New Zealand, where it will be 11.30pm.  The total running time is two hours and forty minutes, so the event will finish a little after midnight here in Melbourne.

I am promoting the conference because I will be participating on a panel discussing the DABUS ‘AI inventor’ decisions in various jurisdictions.  It is not in doubt that I will be the least illustrious of the panellists.  The other participants are:

  1. Wolfgang Sekretaruk, who is Chairman of the Legal Board of Appeal of the EPO, Deputy of the President of the Boards of Appeal and Head of the Legal Services of the Boards of Appeal, and will be discussing the EPO decisions on the DABUS applications;
  2. Professor Duncan Matthews, of the Queen Mary, University of London School of Law, who will be discussing the UK decisions;
  3. Professor Dr jur. Ansgar Ohly, of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and the University of Oxford Faculty of Law, who will be discussing the German case; and
  4. Professor Dan L Burk of the University of California, Irvine, who will be discussing the US case.

I will, of course, be talking about the position in Australia – which is arguably the most interesting, given that we were the only country to (briefly) recognise DABUS as a legitimate inventor.

Our session of the conference will comprise a series of brief (10 minute) presentations on the position in each jurisdiction, followed by a 30 minute panel discussion.

Prior to the panel session, there will be a 20 minute presentation from Axel Voss, Member of the European Parliament, on the European approach to AI.  This will be followed by an introduction to the DABUS applications by the EPO’s Heli Pihlajamaa as a lead-in to the panel.

The panel session will be followed by a presentation on ‘the right to a patent, its origins and the consequences of the fundamental principle that the right to the patent is originally vested with the inventor’ from Martin Stierle, Associate Professor in Intellectual Property Law at the Faculty of Law, Economics and Finance at the University of Luxembourg.

The conference is free of charge, however registration is required in order to obtain the link to the online session (via Zoom).  Registered trans-Tasman patent attorneys should be able to claim 2.5 CPE hours for attendance at the full event.

DABUS Exited with Fatal Exception: Human Agency Required in Development of an Invention

System ErrorIn a decision handed down on 13 April 2022, a panel of five judges of the Federal Court of Australia (‘Full Court’) overturned last year’s controversial ruling by Justice Jonathan Beach, determining that the (alleged) ‘AI inventor’ DABUS cannot be named as an inventor for the purposes of applying for a patent in Australia, and that the law requires the inventor to be a natural person or persons: Commissioner of Patents v Thaler [2022] FCAFC 62 (‘Thaler FC’).  Regular readers of this blog will recall that I tentatively predicted this outcome after observing the Full Court hearing earlier this year.  As it turns out, I need not have been so tentative in my prediction.  The decision of the appeals court was fast, unanimous and unequivocal.

The Full Court has taken a conventional approach to determining the meaning of the term ‘inventor’ in the Patents Act 1990, observing (at [83]) that ‘[t]he duty to resolve an issue of statutory construction is a text-based activity’ and that while it is ‘appropriate to consider policy considerations … the surest guide to ascertaining the legislative intention is the language of the text of the legislation itself’.  In the absence of an express definition of ‘inventor’ in the Patents Act, the Court turned its attention to the legislative history, and the overall statutory context, with particular (though not exclusive) reference to the provisions regarding entitlement to the grant of a patent set out in section 15(1) of the Act. 

The Court found (at [105]) that:

…the law relating to the entitlement of a person to the grant of a patent is premised upon an invention for the purposes of the Patents Act arising from the mind of a natural person or persons. Those who contribute to, or supply, the inventive concept are entitled to the grant. The grant of a patent for an invention rewards their ingenuity.

As to whether Dr Thaler, as the owner of DABUS and the person responsible for its creation and operation, could be entitled to the grant of a patent naming the AI machine as inventor, the Full Court found (at [113]) that:

It is not to the point that Dr Thaler may have rights to the output of DABUS. Only a natural person can be an inventor for the purposes of the Patents Act and Regulations. Such an inventor must be identified for any person to be entitled to a grant of a patent under ss 15(1)(b)-(d).

The Court also observed (at [115]) that while ‘the development of patent law since 1624 has not until now been confronted with the question of whether or not an inventor may be other than a natural person’, the law has ‘proceeded on the assumption that only a natural person could be an inventor’.  This includes the key High Court decisions in National Resource Development Corporation v Commissioner of Patents [1959] HCA 67 (‘NRDC’) and D’Arcy v Myriad Genetics Inc [2015] HCA 35 (‘Myriad’), in which the Court proceeded on the basis – as the Full Court put it at [116] – that ‘human agency was required in the development of the invention in suit’.

In criticising the approach taken by the primary judge, the Full Court stated (at [120]) that ‘the Court must be cautious about approaching the task of statutory construction by reference to what it might regard as desirable policy, imputing that policy to the legislation, and then characterising that as the purpose of the legislation.’  Furthermore, the Full Court noted (at [121]) that the case was decided subject to the agreed facts that DABUS was an inventor and that Dr Thaler was not, but that ‘the characterisation of a person as an inventor is a question of law’ and ‘[t]he question of whether the application the subject of this appeal has a human inventor has not been explored in this litigation and remains undecided.’ 

The decision brings Australia back into line with other jurisdictions, including the US, the UK, Germany, the European Patent Office and Taiwan, where the naming of a machine as inventor has been found to be incompatible with patent laws.  However, Dr Thaler’s legal avenues are not yet exhausted in Australia.  In an email to Law360 (paywalled, unfortunately) Professor Ryan Abbott (whose Artificial Inventor Project is the true driving force behind the DABUS patent applications and court cases) has confirmed that they ‘plan to seek leave to appeal’ to the High Court.  I am going to be less tentative this time, and predict that the High Court will deny any application for special leave.  The Full Court’s decision is plainly correct, and any amendment of the law to permit non-human inventors is now a matter for legislators, following appropriate public consultation and consideration of the full consequences of such a development.

Read on for a more detailed analysis of the Full Court’s decision.

31 March 2022

Patent Examination Delays are Rising at IP Australia

RisingIn my previous article I presented some data on Australian standard patent application prosecution events between 2017 and 2021.  While the total number of events (examination requests, examination reports, responses and acceptances) has remained fairly consistent in recent years, the data shows that the number of examination requests filed each year has increased since 2019, but that the number of first examination reports issued remained steady in 2019 and 2020, and fell in 2021.  All else being equal, this would suggest that the number of cases awaiting examination would have grown over this period, and therefore that the response time – i.e. the delay between an examination request being filed and a first examination report being issued – would be increasing.  So I decided to check this by analysing the delays for all initial examination reports issued since 2010.

Sure enough, what I have found is that the median delay has grown from just under seven months in 2019, to just over 11 months for examination reports issued so far in 2022 (although, being early in the year, this most recent data point is preliminary and may not be reliable).  At the same time, however, the 85th percentile has remained fairly stable, rising from just under 11.5 months in 2019 to slightly over 12 months so far in 2022.  The 85th percentile is significant, because IP Australia has a service level commitment to issue first reports on applications for standard patents within 12 months of receiving the request for examination, and to meet this commitment 85% of the time.  (At least, it used to have this target, although I have been unable to find a Customer Service Charter Report any more recent than the April-June 2020 quarter that still reports against this particular target.)  It appears, therefore, that despite an overall increase in examination response time for a ‘typical’ case, IP Australia is (just about) maintaining its targeted performance overall.

Even so, with what presently appears to be a growing backlog of applications awaiting examination, and a bumper year of new filings in 2021, it could become increasingly challenging for IP Australia to keep response times under control without increasing its patent examination capacity.  Furthermore, IP Australia’s own reporting indicates that some fields of technology – particularly chemistry, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology – are experiencing greater delays than others, and falling well short of its targets.  IP Australia is not currently hiring new examiners, and the Australian budget papers released this week show no projected increase in average staffing numbers in the 2022-23 fiscal year.  But it will at least need to replace any staff who might leave.  And the March 2022 edition of its What’s New at IP Australia email bulletin (to which you can subscribe here) invited interested readers to register their interest in examination positions, to be notified when new vacancies are advertised.  Now might be a good time to register, particularly for prospective candidates with a background in chemistry, pharmaceuticals, or biotechnology.

30 March 2022

Who Were The Leading Australian Patent Prosecution Firms in 2021?

Running raceWith significant increases in both standard and (especially) innovation patent applications, 2021 should have been a bumper year for patent attorneys operating in Australia.  And although that was true overall, the benefits were not uniformly distributed.  While some smaller firms experienced gains in filing numbers well above the overall growth rate, a number of larger firms within the publicly-listed ownership groups struggled to keep pace.  Spruson & Ferguson remained the biggest filer of new applications – particularly following integration of the Shelston IP business – but achieved virtually no overall growth in new filings.  The number of applications filed by third-placed Griffith Hack actually fell in 2021, with the firm narrowly avoiding falling behind fourth-placed FB Rice.

Having a focus on incoming work from foreign applicants, Spruson & Ferguson filed only marginally more new standard patent applications on behalf of Australian residents than its closest competitors, Davies Collison Cave and Griffith Hack.  About half of all filings handled by Spruson & Ferguson originated in the US, slightly above the overall proportion of 45% Australian standard applications by US applicants.  A handful of firms – particularly RnB IP, Pizzeys, and FPA Patent Attorneys – rely far more heavily on US-originating work, while Madderns is notable for handling a higher proportion of filings from China than from the US.

Looking beyond filings to ongoing patent prosecution work, Spruson & Ferguson was the leader in 2021, by a large margin.  Generally speaking, firms with larger numbers of filings over the previous few years had more prosecution work in 2021, which was an advantage for Spruson & Ferguson and Griffith Hack despite their failure to keep pace with their competitors in terms of growth in new filings.  The flip side of this, of course, is that relatively lower filing numbers in 2021 will result in less prosecution work over the coming years.

Read on for all the details.

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