30 April 2021

March Madness? A Patent Filing Boom Month Defies Recent Trend

BoomI had just finished writing, yesterday, about the latest annual Australian IP Report, and the continuing decline in patent filings in Australia, when I decided to take a look at the numbers for March 2021.  To my immense surprise, March was a boom month for Australian patent applications!  The total number of filings, across all application types (provisional, standard, and innovation patent applications) for the month was 3,906.  To find a month in which more applications were filed in Australia it is necessary to go back eight years, to April 2013, when 7,062 applications were filed.  And that only happened because of the large number of applicants bringing filings forward by up to 18 months in anticipation of the Raising the Bar law reforms, which raised the threshold for the grant of a valid patent and commenced on 15 April 2014.  The only other month that comes close is September 2015, when 3,827 applications were filed.

Of course, part of the reason for the high filing numbers in March is the current surge in innovation patent filings, which are presently running at about four times their ‘natural’ level (based on historical behaviour).  In large part, this is driven by Chinese applicants collecting granted patents in order to claim government subsidies, but also by other users in anticipation of the impending phase-out of the innovation patent system from 26 August 2021.

But innovation patents are not the whole story.  As data presented below demonstrates, there were more standard applications filed in March 2021 than in any month since September 2015.  Even in 2018 – which was a peak year for standard applications – there was no individual month in which more applications were filed.

Nor can the boom month be attributed to Chinese applicants – or any other particular country of origin.  Applicants from seven out of the top 10 countries of origin filed more applications in March 2021 than during the same period last year.

So what is going on here?  I have no idea!  This could be a one-off.  It could be some sort of ‘bounce-back’ from the COVID-19 pandemic (which is, let us not forget, far from over globally).  Or maybe there is something else going on here.  Time – and perhaps a more detailed analysis – will hopefully tell.

29 April 2021

In 2021 Annual Report, IP Australia Makes the Best of Declining Patent Filings

ReportingToday (29 April 2021) IP Australia released the Australian Intellectual Property Report 2021 (‘IP Report’), its annual round-up of filing statistics and other facts and figures from the previous year.  As always, my interest is primarily in the Patents chapter of the IP Report and, this year, much of the data presented in that chapter will not be news to readers of this blog.  Notwithstanding small variations – due to the volatile nature of ‘live’ patent records – the IP Report substantially confirms the figures that I published back in January.  The total number of standard patent applications filed in Australia fell by 2%, mostly due to an 8% decline in ‘direct’ filings, while the number of applications filed via the PCT (Patent Cooperation Treaty, a.k.a. international application) route rose by 1%.  Innovation patent applications increased massively – by a factor of around two and a half – driven largely by Chinese demand for granted patent certificates.  Unfortunately for the state of Australian innovation, provisional application numbers continued on a downward trend, with the IP Report noting that they have fallen by an average of 1% per annum over the last 10 years.

The leading Australian resident applicants for standard patents in 2020 were casino gaming machine developer Aristocrat Technologies, national research institute Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), innovative electrical appliance maker Breville, the University of Sydney, and Monash University.  The top foreign applicant, for the second year running, was Chinese telecommunications device manufacturer OPPO, followed by LG Electronics, Huawei, Apple, and Qualcomm.  The IP Report also confirms that the top countries of origin for Australian standard patent applications were the US, Australia, China, Japan, Germany, and the UK, and that Chinese applicants came within a few dozen applications of knocking Australian residents off second position on the ladder.

As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, the trends in Australian patent filings have not been good for some time.  Not only are Australian residents making less use of the patent system – standard patent filings by domestic applicants in 2020 were down by 10% on 2019 numbers – but Australia is apparently becoming a less-favoured filing destination for many foreign applicants.  The IP Report tries valiantly to be upbeat, noting that standard patent applications have shown an overall upward trend over the past decade, with 2020 filings 15% higher than in 2011, and that despite the decline (for the second year running) in 2020, application numbers remained ‘higher than the 10-year annual average’.

It is important, however, to view that 15% growth figure in context.  Over the decade from 2010 to 2019 (the most recent year for which data is available from the WIPO Statistics Data Center) filings in the US grew by 27%, in South Korea by 29%, at the European Patent Office by 20%, and in China by an unprecedented 260%.  Of the major patent offices, only Japan experienced a decline in filings – and this is hardly a standard against which Australia should be measuring itself.  It is an easy observation that much of the recent growth in filings has been driven out of China, and that this may not be sustainable, however that is hardly positive news for Australia.  Without significant growth in filings from China, standard patent applications in Australia would have fallen by over 3% in 2020.

The next few years are unlikely to bring a turnaround.  As the IP Report points out, a relatively small decline in filings in 2020 ‘occurred despite the considerable economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic’ but, because patent filings tend to be a lagging indicator, ‘the effects of the economic crisis in 2020 may not be fully observed until beyond 2021’.

31 March 2021

RePipe Appeals, Following Failed Attempts to Amend

Site safetySome time ago – indeed, BC (i.e. before COVID) – I reported on a decision of Justice McKerracher in the case of Repipe Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Patents [2019] FCA 1956 (RePipe No 1).  RePipe is a plumbing business based in Western Australia that has developed a risk management software system called rerisk®, which is available as a service to other businesses that want to improve their workplace health and safety (WHS) processes.  The system comprises a server-based backend, and an app that can be installed on portable devices (i.e. smartphones or tablets) carried by workers on site.  In use, information and documentation pertinent to WHS compliance processes for particular jobs carried out by workers at specific locations are downloaded to the portable devices. The system provides prompts and checklists to ensure that workers comply with relevant procedures, generates alerts when problems or risks are identified, and enables information provided by the workers to be uploaded back to the server and/or communicated to other workers on site.

RePipe has filed patent applications in a number of jurisdictions.  In Australia, two innovation patents covering the rerisk® system were examined and found liable to be revoked by the Patent Office, on the basis that their claims were not directed to patent-eligible subject matter, i.e. a ‘manner of manufacture’ under the Australian law.  RePipe appealed to the Federal Court, which upheld the Patent Office decisions in RePipe No 1, issued on 22 November 2019.  The court found that the claimed inventions were, in substance, merely unpatentable business methods.  The claims were not saved by the fact that the inventions were necessarily implemented in software.  As Justice McKerracher explained (RePipe No 1 at [93]-[94]):

No specific application software has been claimed or even identified in any claim of the Patents. No computing programming logic or code is disclosed anywhere in the Patents. The substance of both inventions is a mere scheme that can be implemented using some unidentified software application to cause a server computer and smartphone to perform the steps identified in the claim. To implement the scheme, a reader must use his/her own skill and knowledge to write an appropriate software application. No such application is disclosed in the Patents.

…The language used by patent attorneys when drafting and amending claims cannot convert what is, in substance, an unpatentable business method or scheme into a patentable invention by merely asserting that the invention is in the field of computer technology or by using words in the claim or specification that refer to computer technology …. As a matter of substance, there is no meaningful technical content in the description in the body of the claims or specification.

This was not, however, the end of the story.  Following some further ado (discussed below), RePipe has filed an application for leave to appeal to a Full Bench of the Federal Court of Australia, on 2 March 2021.

30 March 2021

‘AI Inventor’ Update – DABUS Decision Goes to Federal Court

PrayerIn a fairly predictable development, Stephen Thaler has asked the Federal Court of Australia to review the Patent Office’s finding in February that a patent application cannot be validly filed in this country naming a machine as inventor.  The ‘Application for Judicial Review’ was filed on 9 March 2021 in the Victorian Division of the court, and has been assigned number VID108/2021.  Having been represented by Davies Collison Cave (DCC) in the patent application filed at the Patent Office, Thaler is represented in the Federal Court proceeding by Allens.  The reasons for this change are unclear – DCC incorporates a legal practice as well as its patent and trade marks attorney practice, and could presumably have handled the Federal Court application.  However, it is not unusual for applicants to switch representatives when moving from the Patent Office to the courts, either from necessity, or due to a perception that different firms have particular strengths in different areas of practice.

While the case may be casually characterised as an ‘appeal’ against the Patent Office decision, it is not technically an appeal under the Patents Act 1990.  The Act, and the Patents Regulations 1991, expressly set out the various decisions that are appealable to the Federal Court, and the lapsing of an application for failing to identify a valid inventor is not such a decision.  Instead, the application for review is made under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977 (ADJR Act), which provides more generally for review of administrative decisions by the Federal Court.

29 March 2021

Free, Streamlined Extensions of Time to End at IP Australia, but COVID Impact Can Still be Considered Under ‘Normal’ Procedures

First aidSince April last year, IP Australia has provided a streamlined process under which most deadlines associated with Australian patent, trade marks, and design rights – including evidence deadlines in opposition matters – could be extended by up to three months, at no charge, if the extension is required ‘due to the disruptive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic’.  That program ends on 31 March 2021.  From 1 April 2021, extensions of time will still be available for those impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak, but will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Under the streamlined program, a party seeking an extension of time has been required only to tick a box in order to make a declaration that the impacts of COVID-19 had prevented a relevant act from being carried out within time.  This is much simpler (and cheaper) than the usual process, under which detailed evidence is required – typically in the form of a formal declaration or affidavit, along with any relevant accompanying exhibits – demonstrating exactly how events and/or circumstances have prevented the deadline from being met.  Additionally, official fees have been waived under the streamlined program.  These are typically based on the number of months of additional time requested, and can be quite substantial, e.g. up to A$1500 for a three-month extension of time to file evidence in a patent opposition.

While a blanket waiver of fees is unusual, it is clearly within the power of IP Australia to choose not to levy a fee for any service that it provides.  However, it is not within the agency’s power to waive the requirements of the Patents Act 1990 or the Patents Regulations 1991 (or corresponding legislation and regulations relating to other IP rights) with regard to the grounds upon which extensions of time may be legitimately granted.  In principle, therefore, streamlined extensions have generally been considered under existing provisions allowing for deadlines to be extended where ‘circumstances beyond the control’ of the responsible person(s) have prevented an action from being taken within the required time.  Ticking of the ‘COVID-19 box’ has thus been treated as prima facie evidence that the pandemic was, indeed, the cause of a failure to meet a deadline, with IP Australia warning that a false declaration could put the validity of the applicant’s IP rights at risk.

The initiative to make obtaining COVID-19 extensions simpler and cheaper was further complicated by the fact that in proceedings involving other parties, IP Australia is usually obliged to give those other parties an opportunity to comment on, and/or object to, the grant of an extension of time.  This obligation could not be suspended, and there were at least two patent matters in which objections were lodged.

With practices and procedures for requesting extensions of time returning to normal (or, at least, ‘COVID-normal’), it is to be expected that any party requiring an extension as a result of the impact of COVID-19 will bear a greater onus to demonstrate exactly why an extension is justified.


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