22 January 2019

Commissioner of Patents Files Appeal in Case On Patent-Eligibility of Computer-Implemented Invention

Christmas briefsThere may have been little rest and relaxation over the Christmas and New Year period for lawyers working on behalf of the Australian Patent Office because, as I predicted back in December, on 16 January 2019 the Commissioner of Patents filed an application in the Federal Court of Australia for leave to appeal the decision of a single judge in Rokt Pte Ltd v Commissioner of Patents [2018] FCA 1988.  In that judgment, Justice Alan Robertson found that a claimed method and system for providing ‘a dynamic, context-based advertising system, introducing a distinction between an engagement offer, without a direct advertising benefit, and an advertisement designed to lead directly to the sale of the product’ is patent-eligible subject matter under the Australian ‘manner of manufacture’ test.  In doing so, he reversed the decision of a Patent Office Hearing Officer, who had found that ‘the substance of the invention in this case amounts to business innovation’, which was not patentable, and therefore refused Rokt’s patent application: Rokt Pte Ltd [2017] APO 34.

There is no great surprise in this move by the Commissioner.  As I have previously noted, judgment is pending in the appeal from Encompass Corporation Pty Ltd v InfoTrack Pty Ltd [2018] FCA 421 – a case that has been heard by an expanded bench of five judges, and which concerns similar issues to those which arose in RoktThe Commissioner of Patents intervened in the Encompass appeal, and the Institute of Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys of Australia (IPTA) also sought to intervene, and filed written submissions.  The outcome in Encompass could well change the understanding of the law relied upon by the judge in Rokt.  The Commissioner will therefore want to ensure that the opportunity to have the facts in Rokt reconsidered under the law to be explained in Encompass is not lost.

The Encompass and Rokt cases are not the only appeals currently before the Federal Court in respect of Patent Office decisions refusing applications for patents on computer-implemented inventions.  The other ongoing cases are:
  1. Aristocrat Technologies Australia Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Patents (NSD1343/2018), which is an appeal from Aristocrat Technologies Australia Pty Limited [2018] APO 45, and is scheduled to be heard on 2-4 September 2019; and
  2. Repipe Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Patents (WAD323/2018), which is an appeal from Repipe Pty Ltd [2018] APO 42, and is scheduled to be heard on 25-27 June 2019.
With the Encompass judgment expected in the first half of the year, and the Rokt, Aristocrat and Repipe appeals likely to be heard subsequently (assuming they are not resolved between the parties in the wake of the Encompass decision), 2019 could be the year – at last – that we get some clarity around what is, and is not, patent-eligible when dealing with computer-implemented inventions.

Australian Competition Regulator Conducting Public Review of Proposed Merger of Listed IP Groups

Maybe On 10 January 2019, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) commenced a public review of the proposed merger of QANTM IP Limited (ASX:QIP) and Xenith IP Group Limited (ASX:XIP).  As I wrote back in December, the proposed merger was announced on 27 November 2018 and, should it proceed, would see each Xenith share exchanged for 1.22 QANTM shares, with existing QANTM and Xenith shareholders ultimately owning 55% and 45%, respectively, of the merged group.  The group would bring together five Australian specialist IP firms (Davies Collison Cave, FPA Patent Attorneys, Griffith Hack, Shelston IP and Watermark), along with IP valuation, innovation and advisory service provider Glasshouse Advisory (currently owned by Xenith IP) and Malaysian IP firm Advanz Fidelis (which was acquired by QANTM IP in June 2018).

Section 50 of the Australian Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (‘CCA’) prohibits those mergers that ‘would have the effect, or be likely to have the effect, of substantially lessening competition in any market.’  The ACCC thus has a role to play in conducting ‘informal’ reviews of proposed mergers, providing authorisation for proposed mergers, and acting to block mergers from proceeding where it considers that the merger would breach the ‘substantial lessening of competition’ test.  Although merger parties are not legally required to notify the ACCC of a merger, and may proceed without seeking any regulatory consideration, this does not prevent the ACCC from investigating the merger, making public inquiries and/or taking legal action.

The fact that the ACCC is undertaking a public review of the proposed QANTM/Xenith merger does not imply that it has any particular competition concerns.  Over the five years between 2014 and 2018, inclusive, an average of 34 such reviews were commenced each year, and in the overwhelming majority of cases the ACCC concluded that it was not opposed to the mergers proceeding.  As noted by the ACCC: ‘Mergers and acquisitions are important for the efficient functioning of the economy.  They allow firms to achieve efficiencies and diversify risk across a range of activities.’

The ACCC is seeking public input, and information on the review of the proposed QANTM/Xenith merger can be found on the ACCC web site.  A ‘market inquiries letter’ sets out the focus of the review, along with a range of issues that respondents may wish to address in their submissions.  In particular, the letter explains that:

The ACCC’s investigation is focused on the impact on competition in the supply of services relating to Australian IP rights including patents, trade marks, designs and plant breeder’s rights (Australian IP related services). In particular, we are seeking your views on:
  • the extent of competition between QANTM and Xenith
  • the likely impact of the proposed merger on prices and quality of Australian IP related services
  • the extent of future competitive constraints (such as other competitors or new entrant competitors) for the supply of Australian IP related services.

Submissions are due by no later than 5 pm on 31 January 2019.

19 December 2018

Will Patent Office Practice on Computer-Implemented Inventions Be ‘Rokt’ By Federal Court Ruling?

RockingA judge of the Federal Court of Australia has reversed a Patent Office rejection of a computer-implemented invention – more precisely, a computer-implemented business process relating to the presentation of online advertising.  In Rokt Pte Ltd v Commissioner of Patents [2018] FCA 1988, Justice Alan Robertson found that a claimed method and system for providing ‘a dynamic, context-based advertising system, introducing a distinction between an engagement offer, without a direct advertising benefit, and an advertisement designed to lead directly to the sale of the product’ is patent-eligible subject matter under the Australian ‘manner of manufacture’ test.

The basic idea of the invention, although the details are not important, is to provide a mechanism whereby a user has an opportunity to engage with an offer while accessing a web site before being presented with targeted advertising.  In this way, advertisements are presented only to those users that are most likely to interact with them, and make a purchase.  Since advertisers must often pay for placement of their advertisements within web pages, the invention provides an improvement in that the costs associated with placing advertisements in front of consumers who do not interact with them may be reduced.

A Patent Office Hearing Officer had found that ‘the substance of the invention in this case amounts to business innovation’, which was not patentable, and therefore refused Rokt’s patent application: Rokt Pte Ltd [2017] APO 34.  Rokt appealed to the Federal Court.

In upholding the appeal, the court rejected an approach to identifying ‘the substance of the invention’ based upon comparing discrete claimed elements with the contents of the prior art, and considering only the contribution made by new or unconventional elements, which has increasingly become standard practice at IP Australia in recent times.  On the face of it, then, the Rokt decision should encourage some change in this practice, although the existence of a number of relevant higher court decisions, a pending judgment from an expanded Full Bench of the Federal Court, and a high likelihood that the Commissioner of Patents will appeal the Rokt decision means that any immediate practice change is unlikely.

Perhaps the most interesting – and, in my view, somewhat alarming – aspect of the Rokt case, however, is the extent to which the parties relied upon expert evidence.  Whether or not a claimed invention comprises patentable subject matter, i.e. is the kind of ‘thing’ for which a patent may be granted, is supposed to be a question of law.  Traditionally, therefore, it has not relied upon an extensive factual background, and particularly not upon evidence as to the state of the prior art, which is more properly the province of enquiries into whether an invention is novel and/or involves an inventive step.  However, largely due to the recent evolution of Patent Office practice, and in anticipation of the arguments the Commissioner was likely to run in the appeal, Rokt clearly felt obliged to back up its case with evidence from an expert witness, causing the Commissioner to follow suit.  Rokt’s expert was even cross-examined in court.

This does not seem right.  I therefore think it important to understand how we got here (spoiler alert – in my view it is IP Australia’s fault) and where we might be headed (hopefully back to more sensible ground, but that is in the hands of the Full Court).

04 December 2018

Proposed Merger of QANTM IP and Xenith IP – Another Symptom of a Great Malaise in the Australian IP Services Market?

MalaiseOn 27 November 2018 QANTM IP Limited (ASX:QIP) and Xenith IP Group Limited (ASX:XIP) announced that they have entered into an agreement to merge through an all-scrip scheme of arrangement.  The merger is subject to approval by a court, and by Xenith shareholders.  If it goes ahead (as seems likely), each Xenith share will be exchanged for 1.22 QANTM shares.  Existing QANTM and Xenith shareholders will end up owning 55% and 45%, respectively, of the merged group, which will comprise five Australian specialist IP firms (Davies Collison Cave, FPA Patent Attorneys, Griffith Hack, Shelston IP and Watermark), along with IP valuation, innovation and advisory service provider Glasshouse Advisory (currently owned by Xenith IP) and Malaysian IP firm Advanz Fidelis (which was acquired by QANTM IP in June 2018). 

Based on the closing share price of QANTM and Xenith on 26 November 2018, the merged group would have a market capitalisation of A$285.2 million, which still places it well behind the original listed Australian IP group, IPH Limited (ASX:IPH), which had a market cap of A$1.11 billion as at close of trading on 30 November 2018.

An additional interesting piece of information to fall out of the QANTM/Xenith announcement is the fact that IPH had itself been courting QANTM with a view to a possible merger or acquisition.  In an ASX announcement on 27 November 2018, in response to ‘media speculation’, IPH confirmed making a number of approaches to QANTM on the basis of non-binding, conditional proposals, culminating on 20 November 2018 with a proposal with an equivalent value of A$1.80 per QANTM share (a notional premium of 37.4% over the A$1.31 at which QANTM shares were trading on that day).  QANTM countered by announcing that its Board did not consider this proposal to be in best interests of its shareholders, due to its ‘highly conditional’ nature and ‘significant execution risk’.

All this would appear to confirm something that I have long suspected – that the Australian market is not big enough to sustain three publicly-listed groups of IP service providers.  IPH obviously saw QANTM as a potential acquisition target, while QANTM clearly did not wish to be acquired on IPH’s terms!  Instead, QANTM and Xenith have decided that they will be stronger together than they are separately.

But why is it such a struggle for these groups to flourish in the Australian market?  One advantage of the public listing of these companies is that, through their annual reports, there is now far greater transparency than ever before in respect of the financial performance of IP services businesses.  In combination with publicly-available data on Australian filings for IP rights, this provides useful insights into where the revenues – and profits – are coming from.  I have looked at these numbers, and I am afraid that my conclusions are not rosy.  The Australian market appears to be stagnant, with firms struggling to enhance profitability.  Growth in the listed groups has come through acquisitions rather than genuine new business, with revenues per professional staff member being pretty consistent across the industry.  Low-value, transactional work, which ought to have the greatest exposure to competition and downward price pressure, continues to be significantly more profitable than high-value, bespoke services.  Yet, despite the obvious challenges and risks that these circumstances present, as far as I can tell firms are continuing to do the same old things that they have done for years, in terms of professional staff management and marketing, with the predictable result that nothing much is changing.

14 November 2018

Drafting a Patent Specification with ‘Reasonable Skill and Knowledge’ is a Collaborative Exercise Between Client and Attorney

TeamworkA recent appeal decision by a Full Bench of the Federal Court of Australia has clarified what is meant by the requirement for a patent specification to be framed with ‘reasonable skill and knowledge’, finding that this is a collective responsibility that arises among everybody involved, including inventors, patent attorneys, and any other corporate managers or intermediaries.  Under Australian law, this requirement arises in relation to the effect of amendments on the rights of a patentee.  In particular, a patent is only enforceable during the period prior to making an amendment if the specification without the amendment was ‘framed in good faith and with reasonable skill and knowledge’.

This decision should be of interest not only to Australian patent attorneys, but to patent professionals globally who are involved in drafting specifications that may ultimately be filed in Australia, and result in the grant of Australian patents.  It confirms that responsibility for ‘framing’ a specification with ‘reasonable skill and knowledge’ does not lie solely – or even primarily – with the person tasked with actually drafting the specification, but is shared between all those involved in the process.

A competent patent attorney might be expected to have reasonable knowledge of the law and practices relating to the drafting of patent specifications, and to make reasonable efforts to obtain necessary information from a client.  However, the client has a key role to play in ensuring that the patent attorney is properly instructed.  And while the patent attorney is not necessarily expected to share the level of domain-specific technical expertise of an inventor, the specification will nonetheless be assumed to have been drafted with the benefit of the client’s knowledge of the invention, including knowledge that the client reasonably should be taken to have had, in all of the relevant circumstances.  Ensuring that this is the case is at least as much the responsibility of the client as it is of the patent attorney (or other patent professional) tasked with drafting the specification.

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