12 November 2020

Australian High Court Finds that Sale of a Patented Product Exhausts Patentee’s Rights

PrinterIn a significant judgment, the High Court of Australia has changed an aspect of patent law in Australia, ruling by a 4-3 majority that the first sale of a patented product exhausts the patentee’s exclusive rights in that product: Calidad Pty Ltd v Seiko Epson Corporation [2020] HCA 41.  For over a century, an alternative approach, based on an ‘implied licence’ theory, has applied.  While the distinction between these two approaches may not necessarily produce a different outcome in most practical circumstances, the implied licence approach has generated complications, and left Australian law out-of-step with some of our major trading partners, most notably the US and the European Union.  For reasons of simplification and harmonisation, therefore, the High Court’s ruling will be welcomed by many – myself included.

The decision of the High Court majority is also notable for the fact that the court has wasted no time in recognising the ‘objects clause’ in section 2A of the Patents Act 1990.  This clause, which sets out underlying purposes of the Act (in economic and social terms) was only enacted in February 2020, and this is literally the very first patent case that the High Court has decided since then.

The case involves printer ink cartridges, and in particular the refurbishment, refilling, and resale of cartridges, which are generally available at a lower price than cartridges sold by the original manufacturer.  Australian consumers will therefore be pleased to learn that the High Court has determined – in addition to the esoteric legal question of ‘exhaustion’ – that, in this case at least, the refilled cartridges do not infringe patent rights held by the original manufacturer, and can therefore be imported and sold in Australia.  I will discuss the ‘exhaustion’ aspect in this article, and save a review of the infringement decision for a separate post.

30 October 2020

Games — Now Less Patentable than Ever in Australia

RouletteIn a recent decision, a Hearing Officer within the Australian Patent Office rejected Australian patent application no. 2018219972, in the name of casino operator Crown Melbourne Ltd, relating to a modified roulette table layout.  In particular, the claimed invention was designed to provide a ‘double zero’ roulette game having similar visual appearance and betting options to a ‘single zero’ game, while also offering additional betting options over the traditional ‘double zero’ game.  In essence, the modified layout ‘stacks’ the single and double zero boxes at one end of the number grid, instead of placing them side-by-side in the previously-established manner.  The application was rejected on the ground that the subject matter of the claimed invention is ineligible for patenting, i.e. is not for a ‘manner of manufacture’ under Australian law.  Specifically, the Hearing Officer found that ‘merely presenting a different wagering space layout that does nothing otherwise to the functioning of the apparatus cannot be considered as a physical phenomenon or transformation’, which would have been required for the invention to be patent-eligible.

You might not be surprised by this outcome.  Surely – you might think – simply providing a different layout of the numbered boxes on a roulette table cannot be the kind of thing for which a patent may be granted?  Traditionally, however, the situation would not have been considered so clear-cut.  Changing the layout also changes the wagering options available to players of the game.  The layout thus interacts with the rules of the game to change the game itself, arguably producing a ‘new’ game.  Throughout most of the history of the Australian patent system, this would have been considered patentable.

But you do not have to take my word for this.  The very same claims were previously found to be patentable by the Australian Patent Office!  The rejected application is a divisional, the ultimate ancestor of which was application no. 2008203384 (‘the original application’).  That application was itself filed in parallel with innovation patent no. 2008100694 (‘the innovation patent’).  The innovation patent was examined in 2008, and successfully certified on 5 February 2009.  The original application was also eventually examined, and received a clear examination report on 3 November 2014.  The only reason the original application did not proceed to acceptance and grant was because the innovation patent remained in force, and section 64 of the Australian Patents Act 1990 prohibits a single owner from being granted two patents simultaneously for the same invention.  After the innovation patent expired on 25 July 2016, Crown submitted that the original application should then proceed to acceptance.  But, instead, the Patent Office issued an adverse examination report, including the objection that the claimed invention was not a patentable ‘manner of manufacture’.

So, what changed?  The law?  Patent Office practice?  Or something less easily identified?

In this article, I discuss developments over the past 20 years in the patentability of games in Australia.  In summary, it seems that as recently as 2003 it was relatively straightforward to obtain a patent for a game, with the overwhelming majority of examined applications being successful.  Over time it has become substantially more difficult, although there are numerous examples of a relatively liberal approach by the Australian Patent Office up until at least the early 2010’s.  But since 2015 the tide has definitely turned, and patent applications relating to games now fail more often than they succeed.  The recent Aristocrat decision provides a glimmer of hope for game innovators, suggesting the possibility of a return to the principle that a working inter-relationship between game apparatus and associated rules of play may be sufficient to support a valid patent.  However, with this decision currently under appeal, and the Patent Office applying it narrowly only to certain types of analogous computer-implemented casino gaming systems, the prospects of any significant new liberalisation of examination practice in this area seem limited.

25 October 2020

COVID Update – Surprise Surge in September Patent Filings

Rising arrowDefying the trend of almost every prior month this year, Australian standard patent filings in September were up by 8.1% on the same period in 2019.  This is the largest positive change for any month in 2020, beating pre-COVID January during which standard applications bested the previous year by 7.7%.  The September surge was driven by filings from all of Australia’s top sources of new applications – i.e. the US, Europe, China, and Japan, along with domestic applicants.  Applications originating elsewhere in the world were down, however, as has been the case throughout much of the year.

The boost in filings for September was dominated by PCT national phase entries, which are now higher by nearly 1% over the seven month period from March to September when compared with the same period in 2019.  At the same time, however, direct standard patent applications – including Convention applications, complete-after-provisional filings, and divisional applications – have fallen by just over 10%.  Most of this decline is in ‘original’ filings (down by over 23%), while the number of divisional applications has fallen only slightly in comparison (down by 1.4%).

Unfortunately, the news for September is not all good.  Australian provisional filings were down by over 11% for the second month in a row, and the third time this year.  Overall, provisional filings have declined by 3% for the seven month period from March to September, when compared with 2019.  The decline is entirely in applications that have been professionally prepared and filed by patent attorneys, which have fallen by 4.4%. The number of self-filed provisional applications is up by 0.6% on the same period last year.

Over in New Zealand, September was an even better month than in Australia, with complete applications up by 13.5%, and provisionals up by 35.6% over the same month last year.

07 October 2020

What Can Patent Data Tell Us About the Australian Government’s Plan for Local Manufacturing?

Building blocksThis is a guest contribution from Mike Lloyd of Patent-Insights.  Mike previously contributed an article on the impact, from an Australian perspective, of COVID-19 on international patent, trade mark, and registered designs filingsFurther details about the author can be found at the end of the article.

The Australian Federal Government on 1 October 2020 announced a renewed focus and A$1.5 billion investment in manufacturing, in particular in the following six target areas of technology:

  1. resources technology and critical minerals;
  2. food and beverages;
  3. medical products;
  4. recycling and clean energy;
  5. defence; and
  6. space.

The arguments put forward by the Government include wanting to ‘focus on areas of strength’ and wanting to avoid the lesson of ‘don't try to do everything’.

There are merits in these arguments, and there are also arguments for letting market forces rather than governments select our area of strengths.

But because this is a patent blog, I want to ask whether patent data can help to find Australia’s areas of technology strength.

There are many ways we could ask this question, and the most obvious of these might be to look at overall patent filings.  However, this is an imperfect method, as this data risks being corrupted by low quality patents, and there are many low quality patents out there.

Another approach is to look for highly-cited patents. The citing of a patent by another is generally a recognition that the cited patent has made a contribution to the patent literature, and therefore technology in general.  The number of citations for a granted patent can range from zero to over a thousand, but as a simple rule, we could say that any granted patent with 50 or more forward citations is ‘highly-cited’.  To put this into context, the commercial patent search database Patseer lists 8.4 million active and granted patent families (a family with one or more currently granted patents), but only 163,000 (1.9%) of these have 50 or more forward citations.  In contrast, 5.1 million (61%) of granted patents have no forward citations at all.

These ‘highly-cited’ patents could be regarded as the most important patents, and the filers of these patents as leading applicants, i.e. strong in their area of technology.  We could also argue that the more of these highly cited patents that companies have, the more they can be regarded as technology leaders in their space.

29 September 2020

DABUS Denied – Machines Cannot be Inventors, and the English High Court Agrees

Robot touchIn Thaler v The Comptroller-General of Patents, Designs And Trade Marks [2020] EWHC 2412 (Pat), the England and Wales High Court has dismissed an appeal by Dr Stephen Thaler from a decision of the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO), which determined that one or more natural persons must be named as inventor(s) on a patent application and, therefore, that two UK applications naming an ‘artificial intelligence’ called DABUS as inventor were deemed to be withdrawn for failing to satisfy this requirement.  Thaler had refused to identify a human inventor on the basis that no natural person had made an inventive contribution to the inventions disclosed in the applications.  Furthermore, he had identified himself as the applicant, claiming ownership of the inventions on the basis of ownership and control of DABUS.  The court also rejected this theory, finding no legal basis for a machine either to own the intellectual property, or for rights in machine-generated inventions to be transferred to a human owner.

Attempts to name DABUS as inventor on corresponding applications have also been rejected by the European Patent Office (EPO), and the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) [PDF 5.27MB].

Readers who have been following developments in this case will be aware that while Thaler is named as the applicant and developer of DABUS, the real driving force behind efforts to recognise machine inventors is Professor of Law and Health Sciences at the University of Surrey, Ryan Abbott, through his Artificial Inventor Project.  In addition to the patent applications filed at the UK IPO, the EPO, and the USPTO, there is also a single international patent application filed under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) encompassing both inventions, published as WO2020079499.  Abbott not only heads up the Artificial Inventor Project, he is also named as agent for the PCT application, he represented Thaler in the English High Court appeal, and it has been reported that he is also representing Thaler in a parallel Federal District Court appeal in the US.

The PCT application recently entered the national phase in Australia, as application no. 2019363177.  A formalities report has been issued, objecting that the application does not comply with the Patents Regulations 1991, because ‘it is the Commissioner’s understanding that inventors for the purposes of the Patents Act 1990 must be natural persons.  As DABUS is not a natural person the Commissioner is of the view that no inventor has been supplied for the purposes of Regulation 3.2C(2)(aa).’  Thaler has until 21 November 2020 to either: provide the name or names of natural persons who are the actual inventors; or provide submissions to the Commissioner explaining why DABUS, despite being an artificial intelligence, can be legitimately recorded as an inventor.  I anticipate that Thaler will take the latter option, and that his submissions will be rejected on similar grounds to the UK case, given that the scheme for establishing inventorship and entitlement to the grant of a patent under the Australian Patents Act 1990 is similar to the corresponding UK provisions.

In my opinion, Abbott’s Artificial Inventor Project is misconceived.  His arguments as to why we should recognise non-human inventors are unsupported by any evidence, and amount to little more than a personal opinion.  His methods of pushing the issue through patent offices and into the courts may be successful in generating attention, but they are doomed to fail, and wasteful of administrative and judicial resources.  Furthermore, the very idea that machines might be granted the ‘right’ to be recognised as inventors lacks credibility, and is unlikely to secure widespread public support.

In this article, I shall explain my position in more detail, while also taking the opportunity to discuss the English High Court decision, which is likely to be influential in the Australian case.

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