17 November 2021

Raising the Bar Has Not Reduced the Patent Acceptance Rate in Australia

High JumpData on patent acceptances into 2021 confirms that the Intellectual Property Laws Amendment (Raising the Bar) Act 2012 (‘RtB Act’), which came into effect on 15 April 2013, has had a minimal impact on the rate of patent application acceptance in Australia – and to the extent that an effect is present, it does not run in the direction that might be expected!  Here, I define ‘rate of acceptance’ as the proportion of examined applications that go on to be accepted for grant.  Between 2009 and 2013, the rate at which applications subject to the former (i.e. pre-RtB) provisions were accepted rose from 69% to 72%.  In comparison, the acceptance rate of post-RtB applications has stabilised at around 75% in each year between 2017 and 2021.

Some people may have anticipated that, in raising the standard of inventive step and introducing stricter requirements for enablement and support of claims, the RtB reforms would result in fewer applications being accepted.  I was not one of those people, and I expect that neither were most other patent attorneys.  Those of us who work on behalf of patent applicants are well-aware that, firstly, most of those applicants are seeking patent protection in other jurisdictions that have high standards of patentability, and are not wasting time and money on equivalent Australian applications for inventions that do not meet those standards.  And, secondly, encountering a higher bar to acceptance does not necessarily mean abandoning the application altogether; often it may simply mean settling for a more limited scope of protection.

Perhaps more surprisingly, however, raising standards of patentability has not resulted in applicants making more rounds of amendment to their applications in order to achieve acceptance.  In fact, if anything applications examined under the post-RtB provisions have been, on average, subject to fewer amendments in examination than pre-RtB applications.

Interestingly, in the transition between the two legal regimes, the earliest applications to be examined under the provisions of the RtB Act had acceptance rates in excess of 90%, while acceptance rates of the last applications to be examined under the former provisions fell to below 50%.  These effects are most likely attributable to the respective applicants’ strategies in pursuing early examination of post-RtB applications, and in persisting to the bitter end with some pre-RtB applications.

Another interesting observation is that expedited examination has become increasingly popular in the years since the RtB reforms commenced, rising from just under 6% of all cases in 2014/15 to over 8% in 2020/21.  In particular, expedited examination under the Global Patent Prosecution Highway (GPPH) program rose from just 2.7% of cases in 2013/14 to 5.1% in 2019/20.  In fact, GPPH requests were the majority of all expedited examination requests in every post-RtB year except for the first (2013/14).

Finally, the most recent data confirms (once again) that the duration of patent prosecution (i.e. from examination request through to acceptance, in successful cases) has reduced significantly – from a median of over 600 days, to a little more than 400 days – since commencement of the RtB reforms.  This has been due, in almost exactly equal parts, to the tighter time constraints imposed on applicants, and to reductions in Patent Office delays in commencing examination after a request has been filed.

05 November 2021

Australia and NZ: ‘Reasonable Efforts’ to Join the Hague Agreement on Industrial Designs Mean Nothing

Sign hereRecently, both Australia and New Zealand have reached ‘agreement in principle’ on proposed free trade agreements (FTAs) with the UK.  Details of the Australia-UK agreement in principle can be found on the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) website, while the NZ-UK agreement in principle is available from the NZ Foreign Affairs and Trade website.  Each document states that Australia/NZ will make all reasonable efforts to join the UK as members of the Hague Agreement, which provides an international registration system for industrial designs.  An article which appeared on the Lexology site last month stated that these developments imply that ‘Australia has (finally!) agreed to join the Hague Agreement on Industrial Designs’.

This is not true.  I do not see Australia joining the Hague Agreement in the foreseeable future, Australia-UK FTA notwithstanding.  I am less familiar with the political position in New Zealand, but suspect that the situation is not much different in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Here is a fun fact…  Article 17.1(5) of the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA), which entered into force on 1 January 2005, states that:

Each Party shall make its best efforts to comply with the provisions of the Geneva Act of the Hague Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Industrial Designs (1999), and the Patent Law Treaty (2000), subject to the enactment of laws necessary to apply those provisions in its territory.

Yet here we are, nearly 17 years later, and Australia is still not a member of the Hague Agreement.  It would seem that the phrase ‘best efforts’ in a trade agreement basically amounts to nothing more than a promise to think about it over an unspecified – and potentially indefinite – time frame.  I suspect, therefore, that an undertaking to make ‘reasonable efforts’ in an agreement in principle is code for ‘they want us to do it; we have no plans to commit to doing it; but we do not want to hold up negotiations by actually saying no.’

And there are very good reasons – namely three separate processes of review and consultation since 2012 – for believing that Australia has no intention of joining the Hague Agreement any time soon.

28 October 2021

Innovation Patent System ‘Ends’ not with a Whimper, but a Bang!

BombThe innovation patent has been Australia’s second tier patent right since 2001, but it is now being phased out.  Just over two months have now passed since the final day on which new, original (i.e. not derived from an existing application) innovation patents could be filed.  As of 26 August 2021, the only way to obtain an innovation patent application is by division or conversion from an application that itself has a filing date on or before 25 August 2021.  Innovation patents have a maximum term of eight years from the initial filing date, and thus after 25 August 2029, at the latest, there will be no more innovation patents.  Predictably, the number of innovation patent applications being filed grew significantly during the weeks and months leading up to the final deadline, driven in large part by applications of dubious merit originating in China and India.

So how did filing numbers end up?  And why has it taken two months for me to get around to this analysis?  Well, to answer the second question first, the huge deluge of applications – nearly 2,800 over 25 days in August, over half of which were filed in the final six days – created a backlog that IP Australia is still clearing.  As at the time of writing, there remain around 300 innovation patent applications that are yet to be processed in any way, meaning that details of who filed them, and who the applicants are (and where they are from) remain unavailable.  At this point, however, a clear picture is emerging.  Furthermore, there is some evidence that IP Australia has been prioritising the order in which the remaining applications are being processed according to the workload involved, such that almost all unprocessed applications were filed by Indian applicants.

In the final days, Australian resident applicants filed innovation patent applications in unprecedented numbers, apparently driven primarily by those who had received advice from patent attorneys about the final deadline and the implications of the phase out of the innovation patent.  Indian and Chinese applicants continued to fleece the system for cheap patent certificates, accounting for over half of the applications filed in August.  Filings originating elsewhere in the world increased only modestly, suggesting that genuine demand for innovation patents by foreign applicants remained relatively low until the end.

05 October 2021

DABUS Again Denied in the US and the UK, Part III – Implications for Australia

DABUS US and UK Part III

In both the US and the UK, patent offices have refused to allow applications filed by Dr Stephen Thaler to proceed, on the basis that the named inventor – an ‘AI’ machine dubbed DABUS – is not a human being.  In the first article in this series I looked at the US approach to the role of the inventor in patent law and practice, and at the recent decision of Judge Leonie M Brinkema in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia (‘EDVA’) upholding the USPTO’s decision.  In the second, I discussed the split decision of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales, which upheld (by a 2-1 majority) the decisions of the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) and the High Court.

In Australia, the Patent Office also refused to allow a corresponding application by Dr Thaler to proceed.  In contrast to the US and the UK, however, that decision was overturned by Justice Beach in the Federal Court.  The Commissioner of Patents has now appealed that ruling to a Full Bench of the Court (case no. VID496/2021).  In this article, I will be looking at the potential implications of the recent US and UK decision for the conduct and outcome of the appeal in Australia.

It should be said at the outset that the US law is very different to that of Australia, and it is therefore unlikely that anything in Judge Brinkema’s legal reasoning will be influential upon the Full Court.  It has also become apparent through the UK High Court and Court of Appeal decisions that while the UK law shares some similarities with the corresponding provisions of the Australian Patents Act 1990, there are also some significant differences.  Even so, there are aspects of the reasoning of Lord Justice Arnold in the Court of Appeal that the Australian appeals court may consider persuasive, and that could therefore influence the outcome here.

There are two key questions likely to be addressed in the appeal, both of which also arose in the UK, although only the first received substantive attention in the US.  These are:

  1. Can DABUS, as an ‘AI’ machine and not a human being, validly be named as an inventor on a patent application?
  2. Can Dr Thaler, not being (at his own insistence) the inventor, establish a proper legal basis for entitlement to the grant of patents on inventions said to be generated by DABUS?

I shall look at each of these questions in turn.

01 October 2021

DABUS Again Denied in the US and the UK, Part II – the Split Decision in the UK

DABUS US and UK Part II

In the first article in this series I looked at the US approach to the role of the inventor in patent law and practice, and at the recent decision of Judge Leonie M Brinkema in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia (‘EDVA’) upholding the USPTO’s decision to refuse two patent applications on the basis that the ‘AI’ machine DABUS is not a human being and therefore cannot be an inventor under US law (Stephen Thaler v Andrew Hirshfeld and the US Patent and Trademark Office, Mem. Op. [PDF 998kB]).  In this article, I shall turn my attention to the split decision of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales in Thaler v Comptroller General of Patents Trade Marks And Designs [2021] EWCA Civ 1374, in which parallel efforts to name DABUS as an inventor have also been rejected, with Thaler’s appeal being dismissed despite a weighty dissent by Lord Justice Birss.

The issues in the UK case are somewhat different, and more nuanced, than in the US.  While all three judges on the Court of Appeal agreed that an ‘inventor’ under the UK law must be a human being, the fact that DABUS is a machine was not immediately determinative of the outcome.  An inventor is not required to play any active role in the filing, prosecution, or grant of a patent in the UK, so arguably there remains a question as to whether an application can be permitted to proceed even if a legally valid inventor has not been – or cannot be – named.  In the event, the answer to this question turned on whether or not the applicant (i.e. Dr Thaler) could satisfy statutory requirements to name the inventor, and to indicate how he is entitled to be granted patents on inventions that he did not claim to have devised himself.

Lord Justice Arnold and Lord Justice Birss disagreed on the outcome, with the tie being broken by Lady Justice Elisabeth Laing, agreeing with Arnold LJ that the DABUS applications should be deemed withdrawn. 

Arnold LJ is the preeminent patent law specialist on the Court of Appeal.  He was elevated to the Court of Appeal in 2019, after being appointed to the High Court in 2008, and as Judge in Charge of the Patents Court in April 2013.  In March 2016 he was appointed as an External Member of the Enlarged Board of Appeal of the European Patent Office.  Impressive as this is, however, Birss LJ is no lightweight.  In 2010 he was appointed as a Specialist Circuit Judge sitting in what was then the Patents County Court.  In 2013 he was appointed to the High Court, and in 2019 he filled the place formerly held by Arnold LJ as Judge in Charge of the Patents Court, before being elevated to the Court of Appeal in January 2021.

So this is a case in which the dissenting judgment must be taken seriously, especially with the possibility still open of an appeal to the Supreme Court.  But for now, at least, the balance of the law remains against DABUS in the UK.


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