03 May 2024

Have Australia’s ‘Raising the Bar’ Law Reforms Suppressed Patent Oppositions?

BalanceAustralia has a pre-grant patent opposition system.  That is to say, once an application has passed examination and been accepted for potential grant as a patent, there is a period (of three months) during which anybody may oppose the grant.  The subsequent opposition proceedings – if they run their full course – consist of a series of evidentiary stages, legal submissions, and an oral hearing, following which the hearing officer (a delegate of the Commissioner of Patents) issues a written decision on the outcome of the opposition.  In the final reckoning, the patent application may emerge unscathed, it may be refused, or it may end up being granted subject to narrowing amendments. 

The patent opposition system recognises that the examination process is imperfect.  Examiners have limited time, resources and technical expertise.  Therefore, they may not always find the closest and most relevant prior art, or spot every technical and legal issue that might be identified by a motivated competitor to the patent applicant, equipped with a team of technical and legal experts.  Furthermore, opposed applications are presumably those that are of greatest concern to competitors, enabling the system to weed out invalid claims that have the greatest potential to unfairly stifle competition.

In the years prior to 2016, the number of oppositions filed each year was fairly consistently between 100 and 120.  In recent years, however, it has commonly been between 40 and 60.  In other words, there are now only about half the number of patent oppositions being filed than was the case just a decade ago.  So, if oppositions play an important role in the Australian patent system – and the policy rationale for having them asserts that they do – is it possible that they are now less effective than they once were?  And, if so, then why?

In this article, I will present data on all patent oppositions filed between 2008 and 2023.  I will demonstrate that the decline in patent oppositions appears to be associated with the commencement of the Raising the Bar (‘RtB’) IP law reforms in 2013.  Among other things, the RtB reforms introduced more stringent standards of patentability, particularly in relation to inventive step and the level of disclosure required to support broader patent claims.  The reforms also changed the standard of proof to be applied during examination and opposition proceedings.  I will show that in the post-RtB era, opposition proceedings have more frequently progressed through to a final decision, and that opponents have had somewhat greater success in completely eliminating opposed applications.  However, the overwhelming majority of opposed applications still result in granted patent rights, and in nearly half of all cases the opponent has been wholly unsuccessful and the patent has been granted with the originally accepted claims.

While the data cannot directly reveal the reasons for the significant reduction in opposition filings, I tentatively argue that the change in the standard of proof applied in patent oppositions may have had the unintended consequence of suppressing patent oppositions, and reducing the effectiveness of the opposition system.

05 March 2024

Large vs Small, Group Ownership vs Independent – What Factors Influenced Firms’ Patent Filing Share in 2023?

Business ups and downsAs I recently reported, Australian patent filings in 2023 fell slightly, by 2.4%, over the previous year.  This implies, of course, that patent attorneys filing applications on behalf of domestic and foreign clients should, overall, also have experienced a similar decline new filings.  But, of course, individual firms fared differently in the competition for this work.  Looking at new complete (i.e. non-provisional) patent filings across Australia and New Zealand, declines were experienced by all firms held within the two groups owned by Australian Securities Exchange listed entities IPH Limited (ASX:IPH) and QANTM IP Limited (ASX:QIP).  IPH firms Spruson & Ferguson, Griffith Hack, AJ Park, and Pizzeys filings declined by 5.0%, 3.6%, 14.9% and 6.9% respectively,  QANTM IP firms Davies Collison Cave and FPA Patent Attorneys filings declined by 13.2% and 8.8% respectively. 

But it was not only the listed group firms that saw declines in excess of the 2.4% average.  Of the leading ten firms, only Phillips Ormonde Fitzpatrick (+3.1%) and Madderns (+10.3%) achieved growth in filing numbers.  While ownership structure is one possible factor influencing client choice, firm size (irrespective of ownership) appears also to be (negatively) correlated with filing growth.  Additionally, the number of new patent filings fell significantly in New Zealand, which disproportionately impacted those trans-Tasman firms – most notably A J Park – with a higher exposure to the market for New Zealand patent services.

Overall, the share of Australian patent filings has continued to shift generally away from larger and/or listed group firms in favour of smaller independent firms.  But even this trend is not simple to unpack.  For many years now, IPH firms have shed filing share, while the QANTM IP firms have held fairly steady, although they experienced a notable decline in share in 2023.  On the other hand, the top six independent firms that have been in continuous operation since IPH initially listed in 2014 have collectively gained 6.3% filing share over this period.  However, bigger gains have been made by the numerous small (i.e. employing fewer than 10 patent attorneys), independent, practices that account for just over half of the trans-Tasman patent attorneys working in private practice.  There are over 150 such practices, including the two rapidly-growing recent entrants RnB IP and GLMR, which have collectively gained 11.8% filing share since 2014, and now account for nearly 23% of all Australian complete patent filings.

Let’s look at the numbers in more detail.

28 February 2024

LG Again Tops Australian Patent Filings in 2023, as Most of the ‘Usual Suspects’ Return

Winners' podium Over the past five years (i.e. since 2019) Korea’s LG Electronics Inc and China’s Huawei Technologies Ltd have consistently placed in the top five applicants for Australian patents.  Indeed, for the past four years they were in the leading three.  In 2021, Huawei came out on top with LG a close second.  In 2022, LG took top place, with IBM appearing from nowhere to push Huawei back into third.  And in 2023, LG has once again grabbed the top spot, with Huawei not too far behind, and IBM easing up on its Australian filing frenzy to slip back into equal 14th position with a ‘mere’ 100 applications.

Notwithstanding Asian companies holding the top two positions, US applicants dominated to top 30 filers, taking up 20 spots including six of the top 10.  This is no great surprise.  As the numbers in my previous article show, US residents filed 44% of all Australian patent applications in 2023, despite a 6% decline in US-originating filings.  While some applicants moved up or down the rankings, the overall make-up of the top 30 was similar to the previous year, with only eight exits/entries among the lower positions.  Furthermore, a number of the applicants entering the table are not unfamiliar names, having appeared previously before dropping out temporarily.

Once again, the leading Australian-based applicant was Aristocrat Technologies Australia Pty Ltd with 73 applications, followed by the Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) with 54 applications – both slightly up on the previous year’s numbers.  Yet again the top New Zealand applicant was Fisher & Paykel Healthcare Ltd which, with 107 applications, comfortably out-filed the leading Australians.

Read on for a look at the numbers in more detail.

22 February 2024

Patent Filings in Australia Fell Again in 2023, but Applications from China are Bucking the Trend

2023 falling. Image generated by Google Gemini.In 2023 the total number of standard patent applications filed in Australia remained above 30,000 for the third year running, despite a 2.4% drop in filings.  This follows a decline of nearly 0.5% in the previous year.  However, whereas the decline in new applications in 2022 was due to fewer filings by Australian residents (with a slight increase in foreign-originating applications preventing a larger fall), the drop in 2023 was the result of nearly 800 fewer filings by foreign applicants.  As always, a majority of new filings were national phase entries (NPEs) derived from international applications under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT).  But, for the first time since 2016, the number of PCT NPEs fell – by 3.2% – offset somewhat by a 14% rise in new direct national filings.  The number of divisional applications also fell in 2023, by 7.3%.

In some (very limited) good news for Australia, patent filings by domestic residents increased by 2.6%, while the number of provisional applications increased by 5%.  Unfortunately, however, two thirds of the additional provisional applications in 2023 were filed without the professional assistance of a patent attorney.  (I say ‘unfortunately’ because, as I have shown previously, the outcomes for self-represented applicants are generally abysmal, so for the most part they are wasting their time and what little money they are expending on fees to IP Australia.)

The top 10 countries of origin of applications filed in 2023 were the United States, Australia, China, Japan, the UK, Germany, Switzerland, South Korea, France and Canada.  There were substantial drops in the numbers of applications filed by applicants from the US (-6.0%), South Korea (-10.5%) and Canada (-14%).  The largest growths in filings were from China (12.1%) and Japan (5.2%).  China is once again snapping at the heels of Australia from second position on the league table.  This happened previously in 2020, when I (mistakenly) predicted that Chinese filings might surpass domestic filings as early as 2021.  But while it is taking longer than appeared likely a few years ago, it seems inevitable that Australians will soon fall behind Chinese applicants as users of the Australian patent system.

Given that the innovation patent system is being phased out, it should come as no surprise that just 106 innovation patent applications were filed in 2023 (down from 191 in 2022), all of which were necessarily derived from existing applications filed prior to 26 August 2021.  Around two-thirds of applicants still filing for innovation patents are Australian (120 in 2022 and 67 in 2023).  Furthermore, a larger proportion of innovation patents are now being certified and made enforceable than has historically been the case, with 75 of those filed in 2022, and 31 of those filed in 2023, so far having been certified.  But with innovation patents now being a small, and shrinking, part of the Australian patent system, I shall have nothing more to say about them in this article, and I will drop the distinguishing term ‘standard’ when talking about ‘regular’ patent applications.

07 January 2024

The Major Australian Client at the Centre of David and Goliath Legal Battle Between Patent Attorney Firms

Breville invented the electric toasted sandwich maker in 1974As some readers may be aware (I have previously mentioned it only in passing) a firm in the IPH Limited (ASX:IPH) group – the market cap of which is A$1.56B at publication – is once again taking legal action against a recently-established firm and its founders, all of whom are former employees of Spruson & Ferguson (‘S&F’).  Earlier, IPH group firm Pizzeys had sued RnB IP and its two founders – formerly partners in Pizzeys at the  time of its acquisition by IPH – for alleged breach of non-compete, non-dealing, and/or non-solicitation restraints that were included in their employment contracts.  That dispute ultimately settled out of court and was finalised prior to trial, in September 2022, so we did not get the benefit of judicial consideration of whether the contractual restraints were reasonable and/or enforceable.

The startup firm on this occasion is GLMR, founded by Edward Genocchio (‘G’), Michelle Lee (‘L’), David Müller-Wiesner (‘M’) and Simon Reynolds (‘R’).  The firm was also, for a short period, known as LMW IP, which was established by ‘L’ and ‘M’ before they were joined by ‘G’ and ‘R’.  The action taken thus far against GLMR and its founders by S&F is an application to the Federal Court of Australia for preliminary discovery (case no. NSD6/2023), in which the GLMR parties are identified as prospective respondents in a potential future action.  This is the same strategy previously employed by Pizzeys against RnB IP.  In the RnB case, the preliminary application was contested, and resulted in a published decision of Justice Jagot ordering discovery.  In the present case, however, it appears that the parties have reached agreement on scope of discovery, with the corresponding orders made by a Registrar of the court (see orders made on 23 October 2023 [PDF, 135kB]).  While preliminary discovery was initially due by 29 November 2023, this has been extended by further orders to 5.00pm on 16 February 2024.

The discovery orders provide some insight into the nature of S&F’s prospective case against GLMR.  An impression of the impact that GLMR has had on S&F’s patent business can also be discerned from the public records of the Australian Patent Office.  In this article, I take a look at these two aspects of the matter.

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