29 October 2017

The Impending Extinction of the Australian Innovation Patent

Last ThylacineThe photograph accompanying this article is of ‘Benjamin’, the last known thylacine (commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger), which died in captivity in the Hobart zoo, most likely as a result of neglect, on 7 September 1936.  Benjamin had been captured in 1933, three years after the last thylacine known to have been shot in the wild was killed by a farmer.  Indeed, a major contributor to the thylacine’s extinction was its inconvenience to farmers.  As the largest carnivorous marsupial of modern times, the thylacine was blamed for the slaughter of livestock, and between 1888 and 1909 the Tasmanian government paid £1 per head for dead adult animals and ten shillings for pups – which was a lot of money at the time.

The innovation patent is another unique Australian creature that is about to become extinct at the hand of government policy.  Unfortunately for the innovation patent, it has become a great inconvenience to economists, within IP Australia and at the Productivity Commission, who believe that the system, and in particular the low threshold for the innovative step, contributes to low value patents, which they blame for the imposition of unacceptable costs on the community.  IP Australia has now published draft legislation and rules (the Intellectual Property Laws Amendment (Productivity Commission Response Part 1 and Other Measures) Bill and Regulations 2017) including measures to implement aspects of the Government’s response to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into Australia’s Intellectual Property arrangements.  These measures include the abolition of the innovation patent which will, if the draft legislation becomes law in its current form, go out like the thylacine, not with a bang but a whimper, dwindling slowly away over eight years after the last shot has been fired against it. 

Of course I am aware that the extinction of an entire species is a tragedy of criminal proportions, and that comparison with the mere repeal of a second-tier patent system is hyperbole of the highest order.  But I am using this rhetorical device to highlight the analogous manner in which government policy is driven in each case by a single perspective on the problem at hand.  Both the thylacine bounty and the abolition of the innovation patent are the result of governments acting on input provided by particular interest groups, i.e. farmers and economists respectively.  Just as the 19th century was a different time, when there would have been little public interest in, or opposition to, the culling of a unique native animal to protect farmers’ livelihoods (and the food supply), there is today very little interest from the broader community in challenging economists’ views on what is best for Australia’s innovation and intellectual property systems.

Economic modelling has become one of the primary drivers of so-called evidence-based policy-making, despite the fact that very few people (including most, if not all, politicians) could claim to understand the economists’ models, assumptions, or the statistical methods used to produce their ‘evidence’.  In fact, economic models rarely make reliable predictions, even when they fit past data well.  Just this past week, the deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia has conceded that the Bank can only ever predict even the most basic economic indicators within a wide margin of error and that, ‘not surprisingly, forecast misses are more common than not’.  If the country’s top central bankers cannot predict headline figures like economic output and inflation with any precision, what prospects do economists have of predicting the long-term impact of different options within the Australian patent system on national innovation and productivity?

Sadly, we will never know if there was a solution better than ‘termination with extreme prejudice’ to the problems posed by either the thylacine or the innovation patent.  But, once we accept that the innovation patent must and will die, IP Australia’s current proposal seems like a soft option.  I say that if we are going to abolish the innovation patent, it should be done as swiftly and decisively as possible!

22 October 2017

Patent Applicants Are the Most Prolific Patent Opponents

Arm WrestleA few weeks back I looked at the geographical origins of participants in Australia’s patent opposition system, finding that Australian residents are overwhelmingly the most likely to oppose patents, and proportionately the most likely applicants to be opposed (although, numerically, US-originating applications are opposed slightly more often).  Under the current Australian law, anyone can oppose the grant of a standard patent, or the certification of an innovation patent, for any reason, although it is reasonable to suppose that most oppositions are filed by companies or individuals with concerns about prospective infringement.  It is, of course, perfectly possible to infringe somebody else’s patent without having had any prior involvement with the patent system.  There is certainly no requirement to have any patents or applications of your own in order to be at risk of infringement, or to have reason to wish to oppose a competitor’s application or patent.

Nonetheless, from analysing data available in the 2017 edition of IP Australia’s IP Government Open Data (IPGOD) set, I have found that one thing that the vast majority of patent opponents have in common is that they are also the owners of their own patents and/or applications.  Of 1,234 oppositions to standard patents (under section 59 of the Patents Act 1990) and to innovation patents (under section 101M) between 2004 and 2016, an overwhelming 82% were filed by entities (which I shall call ‘applicant-opponents’) that also filed at least one patent application during this period. 

Furthermore, while applicant-opponents made up only 0.33% of all patent applicants, they were collectively responsible for filing 6.6% of all Australian patent applications between 2004 and 2016.  The top 30 patent filers over this time includes 10 applicant-opponents. 

In one respect, this is not a surprising discovery.  Parties that are engaged with the patent system in one aspect (e.g. as patent applicants) are presumably more likely to be engaged in  range of other aspects, such as searching of patent registers and databases, monitoring their competitors’ patenting activities, identifying and watching applications that may present an infringement concern, and opposing in cases where it is deemed to be worthwhile in order to mitigate risk or curb overly-expansive patent claims.

On the other hand, as I have already noted anybody can become an infringer, whether wittingly or unwittingly.  It is therefore a little disturbing that the opposition data indicates that parties without patents or applications of their own appear to take little interest in the risks potentially presented by their competitors’ patent applications.

15 October 2017

Australian Patent Law Contains, Includes, and Comprises Dangers for Foreign Applicants

Balancing ActIt is the function of a patent claim to define the scope of the invention protected by the patent.  Infringement occurs when an accused system, article, or process is covered by the particular terminology used in a patent claim.  Many inventions are combinations, e.g. a system, article, or process made up of two or more elements, components, or steps that work together to provide some new and useful function or result.  Claims directed to such inventions must therefore recite the relevant combination.

A generic example of a combination claim is: ‘a widget including element A, element B, and element C.’  In this example, the word ‘including’ is a transitional term signifying that what follows is a list of elements, each of which must be present in a widget that falls within the scope of the claimed invention.

The choice of transitional terms in combination claims can be significant.  To illustrate, if I tell you that my breakfast this morning included coffee and toast, you would probably not assume that this was necessarily the entire content of my breakfast.  My statement would be true if I also had cereal and juice.  Similarly, if I were to add that my coffee contained milk, you might suppose that I could also have added sugar.  On the other hand, if I were to say that my breakfast consisted of coffee and toast, you would naturally understand me to be saying that this is all that I had for breakfast today.

But what if I were to tell you that my breakfast comprised coffee and toast?  If you are a patent attorney, and you know that I am also a patent attorney, then in all likelihood you would understand that I am not excluding the possibility that my breakfast included other elements.  If you are not a patent attorney, then you might think it odd that I would choose an uncommon and potentially confusing word like ‘comprised’, when I could just as easily have been clear and said ‘included’ or ‘consisted of’.

The fact is that in a number of major jurisdictions the transitional term ‘comprises’ (and variations, such as ‘comprising’) is essentially regarded as a ‘term of art’ in patent drafting.  The US Patent and Trade Marks Office Manual of Patent Examining Procedure, Section 2111.03, lists a number of rulings of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) to the effect that the term ‘comprising’ is ‘inclusive or open-ended and does not exclude additional, unrecited elements or method steps.’  In the 1997 case of Genentech, Inc. v Chiron Corp. 112 F.3d 495 the CAFC expressly stated that: ‘”Comprising” is a term of art used in claim language which means that the named elements are essential, but other elements may be added and still form a construct within the scope of the claim.’  Similarly, the European Patent Office Guidelines for Examination, Part F, Chapter 4, Section 4.21, states that: ‘While in everyday language the word “comprise” may have both the meaning “include”, “contain” or “comprehend” and “consist of”, in drafting patent claims legal certainty normally requires it to be interpreted by the broader meaning “include”, “contain” or “comprehend”.’

Internationally, then, the settled expectation of many practitioners drafting patent specifications and claims is that the words ‘comprises’ and ‘comprising’ can safely be used to indicate that the elements or steps recited in a combination are not intended to be exhaustive.  Thus a claim defining ‘a widget comprising element A, element B, and element C’ will be infringed not only by an unauthorised widget consisting only of elements A, B, and C, but by widgets including these elements along with one or more additional elements that are not essential to the functioning of the claimed invention.

Those international practitioners may therefore be surprised to learn that ‘comprises’, and its variants, enjoy no such presumption of non-exhaustiveness in Australia, as a judge of the Federal Court of Australia recently reminded us in Nichia Corporation v Arrow Electronics Australia Pty Ltd (No 4) [2017] FCA 864.

01 October 2017

Users of the Australian Pre-Grant Patent Opposition System

SparringAustralia has a pre-grant patent opposition system, meaning that an opportunity is provided after a standard patent application has been approved by an examiner, but before a patent is actually granted, for third parties to raise objections.  Specifically, once an application has be accepted for grant, the accepted specification is published and there is then a three-month period during which anybody who believes that the granted patent would be invalid (wholly, or in-part) may file a notice of opposition.  The filing of such a notice commences the formal opposition procedures defined in the Australian Patents Act 1990 and Patents Regulations 1991, which are described in greater detail in this earlier article.  It is also possible to oppose an Australian innovation patent, via a similar procedure.  However, since innovation patents are initially granted quickly, without substantive examination, and can only be opposed after examination and certification, the corresponding opposition proceedings are necessarily initiated post-grant.

The World Intellectual Property Origanization (WIPO) web site includes a handy primer on opposition systems, which suggests that pre-grant systems are relatively uncommon in the developed world, with Australia being counted among such IP luminaries as Costa Rica, Honduras, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Zambia in providing for pre-grant opposition proceedings.  Although the completeness of the WIPO summary is questionable – it does not, for example, include New Zealand, which has a pre-grant system similar to Australia’s – it is certainly true that none of the so-called ‘IP5’ offices (i.e. the European Patent Office, Japan Patent Office, Korean Intellectual Property Office, State Intellectual Property Office of the People's Republic of China. and the United States Patent and Trademark Office) has such a system.  Other than Australia and New Zealand, it appears that the most significant countries having pre-grant opposition systems are India, Spain, and Portugal.

So, who uses the Australian pre-grant patent opposition system?  Using data available in the 2017 edition of IP Australia’s IP Government Open Data (IPGOD) set, I have analysed information on oppositions to standard and innovation patents commenced since 2004 (when the IPGOD opposition records commence).  This analysis shows that:
  1. Australians are overwhelmingly the most common participants in opposition proceedings, with Australian-resident companies or individuals having filed 771 oppositions, and Australians being applicant and/or opponent in two-thirds of all oppositions filed;
  2. Australians are almost equally likely to oppose applications by other Australians (261 oppositions filed) and by US residents (262 oppositions filed);
  3. the US is the second most common origin of opponents (258 oppositions filed), and US-resident companies or individuals are involved, as applicant and/or opponent, in around one-third of all oppositions;
  4. in terms of absolute numbers, US-resident applicants are the most common targets of opposition proceedings (453 cases), however this largely reflects the fact that US residents are by far the largest users of the Australian patent system – in relative terms, Australians are the most likely to be opposed, with oppositions being filed against just over 2% of all accepted applications naming Australian applicants;
  5. the Australian opposition system is rarely used by residents of countries other than Australia and the US, with the next most common origins of opponents being New Zealand (45 cases), Germany (34 cases), and the UK and Denmark (tied on 21 cases each);
  6. even accounting for the generally low usage of the Australian opposition system other than by Australians and US residents, Japan is a notable anomaly – while Japanese applicants were the second largest beneficiaries of the Australian patent system between 2004 and 2016, receiving over 17,500 patents, Japanese applications were opposed only 22 times, and Japanese residents were responsible for only nine oppositions during this period; and
  7. other than relatively high usage by Australians and New Zealanders, and the notably low usage by Japanese, residents of other countries tend to use the Australian opposition system in fairly consistent proportion with their use of the Australian patent system.

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