31 December 2014

2014 in Review, and How My Predictions Panned Out

Looking backAnother year over and (although I know everyone says it) this one really has just flown by!

On 1 January 2014 I posted a review of 2013, and a look ahead to what was then the upcoming year.  In doing so, I made a number of predictions, so it is now interesting to look back and see how I went, as well as reviewing the major events of 2014 that I may not have foreseen.

Overall, I think that I did pretty well, considering how unpredictable courts, governments and litigants can sometimes be!  The biggest disappointment for me in 2014 was the Research Affiliates case – not so much because Research Affiliates was unsuccessful, which was always a reasonably probable outcome, but because the judgment itself took so long, and still failed to provide much meaningful clarification of the law relating to patent-eligibility of software and business methods.  Unfortunately, there will be no further appeal, and no prospect of the High Court reviewing the work of the Full Federal Court.

Read on for a full rundown of how my predictions for 2014 panned out.

21 December 2014

Greens Move to ‘Simplify’ Government Compulsory Licensing

CrownThe Australian Patents Act 1990 includes somewhat quaintly-titled ‘Crown Use’ provisions.  These essentially provide the government with the power to compulsorily acquire a licence to use a patented invention in the course of providing services to the public.

People in some parts of the world regard such compulsory acquisition provisions as an unconscionable imposition on the rights of a patent holder.  Yet Crown Use provisions have always been a part of the Australian patent laws.  Patent monopolies exist only as a result of legislation enacted by the Commonwealth, and it is understandable that the government might not want to place that kind of power in private hands without including some mechanism to avoid being held to ransom by a patentee.

Ultimately, this is about balancing the private interests of the patent owner with the public interest in ensuring that the government is not locked out from affordable access to new technologies in appropriate cases.

In practice, however, the Crown Use provisions have rarely been invoked and, when they have, it has generally been in the context of asserting a defence to infringement rather than in a pre-emptive effort to acquire a licence prior to exploiting a patented invention (see, e.g., Stack & GS Technology Pty Ltd v Brisbane City Council [1995] FCA 1427).

Changes to the Australian Crown Use provisions were recommended in the Productivity Commission Inquiry Report into the Compulsory Licensing of Patents.  The recommended changes were included in the Intellectual Property Laws Amendment Bill 2013, which passed in the House of Representatives despite a lack of support by the then-opposition Liberal-National Party coalition, but which failed to make it through the Senate before a general election was called (see Election Stalls Further Patent Law Reform in Australia).

When the amendments were reintroduced to parliament this year, as the Intellectual Property Laws Amendment Bill 2014, the changes to Crown Use that previously lacked opposition support had been excised.  Given this lack of support, I was surprised to see that when the Bill was debated in the House of Representatives (on 24 November 2014) the Greens’ Adam Bandt presented a proposed amendment which would have reintroduced the amendments to the Crown Use provisions, albeit in a slightly watered-down form.  So far, these proposed amendments have been rejected, but they may take on new life when the Bill is considered by the Senate.

14 December 2014

The EPO – Dysfunctional or Just a Misunderstanding?

Locking HornsIn recent times, strange and disturbing things appear to have been afoot within the European Patent Organization.  While the goings-on within the EPO have been reported by other IP blogs, by some specialist IP media outlets and (to a much lesser degree) in the general media, I have so far chosen quite deliberately not to comment.

The primary reason for my silence on the issue has been the very great difficulty in getting at anything even vaguely resembling the ‘truth’ about what is actually causing the ructions at the EPO.  One thing that people have often said to me about this blog (and of which I am quite proud) is how well-researched the articles often are, and how much time it must take me to write them.  I can safely say that the ongoing disputes at the EPO would constitute the most heavily researched article I have never written!  This article does not even try to account for all of the material I have read in trying (and failing) to get a handle on what is going on at the EPO.

Which is not to say that I do not care.  I care very much.  And the reason I care very much is simple – if the EPO becomes dysfunctional and ineffective, it is the applicants for European patents who ultimately suffer.  Those applicants include some of my clients, the clients of dozens of other Australian patent attorneys and, perhaps, numerous other Australian applicants who are more directly represented before the EPO.  And, of course, applicants from all around the world.

So what is going on at the EPO?  Is it dysfunctional?  Is there, as some are alleging, ‘corruption’ at the top?  Or, as I am coming to suspect, is all of the recent negative publicity largely the result of a messy and increasingly vitriolic labour dispute?  (Which is, of course, not to say that all of the above are mutually exclusive.)

07 December 2014

Are Subject Matter Rejections Hurting the Patent System?

BandaidsThe primary requirements for an (alleged) invention to be patentable are that it must relate to eligible subject matter (e.g. not be a law of nature, mathematical equation or abstract idea), it must be new (i.e. possess novelty) and it must not be obvious (i.e. must involve an inventive step).

Subject matter eligibility is currently highly contentious in many jurisdictions.  As recent decisions of the US Supreme Court (in the Alice and Myriad cases) and the Australian Federal Court (in the Research Affiliates and Myriad cases) demonstrate, the most strongly contested subject matter relates to the areas of business processes, computer software and biotechnology. 

But even so, qualification as patent-eligible subject matter remains a threshold test, and should not be a substitute for the proper evaluation of an invention for novelty and inventiveness.

The problem with evaluating novelty and inventive step is that it often involves hard work.  To show that something is not new, or that it is obvious, requires evidence of prior art, which in turn may require diligent searching, extensive reading, and careful construction of legal and technical reasoning to explain why the requirements for patentability are not satisfied.

It is, therefore, so much easier if an invention can be knocked out at the first hurdle, and be deemed fundamentally ineligible for patent protection, without having to go to all the trouble of conducting a comprehensive prior art search.

Recent developments in various jurisdictions (e.g. the US, Australia and the UK) suggest that, in ‘difficult’ fields of technology, the cart is getting put before the horse.  Subjective evaluations of the ‘merit’ of an invention, i.e. that it perhaps seems unworthy of patent protection, may be leading decision-makers at all levels to turn too quickly to subject matter grounds as a basis for rejecting claims.  Legal reasoning may therefore be developed in order to arrive at the desired outcome, without sufficient regard to consistency across different cases. 

Subject matter is becoming a form of ‘obviousness by stealth’ as courts start looking for the ‘inventive contribution’ made by a claimed invention as a basis for assessing eligibility.  The case law is becoming increasingly incoherent, as decision-makers try to rationalise their own findings in light of prior decisions that are themselves inconsistent.  Certainty is eroded as a result, and applicants, patentees and other stakeholders are losing faith in a system that appears increasingly capricious.  I also suspect that the quality of prior art searching may be suffering, with examiners now relying on subject matter rejections in cases that appear ‘too hard’ to search effectively.

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