17 April 2018

Australian Appeals Court Upholds Patent ‘Promise Doctrine’, but it’s a Question of What the Inventor ‘Intended to Do’

ESCO locking mechanismThe Australian Patents Act 1990 requires, in section 18(1)(c) and 18(1A)(c), that an invention must be ‘useful’ in order to be patentable.  This is also commonly known as the requirement for ‘utility’.  Failure to meet this requirement, i.e. inutility, is therefore a ground upon which a patent application may be rejected, or a patent revoked.  One of of the ‘rules’ that has been developed by the courts over the years for assessing utility is an obligation upon an applicant or patentee to satisfy any ‘promise’ that might be made for an invention in the patent specification.  This is sometimes known as the ‘promise doctrine’ – e.g. in Canada, where it was abolished last year by the Supreme Court.  I had been hoping that a Full Bench of the Federal Court of Australia might decide to do likewise, given that the opportunity had arisen.  In a recently-issued decision, however, it has unfortunately declined to do so: ESCO Corporation v Ronneby Road Pty Ltd [2018] FCAFC 46.

On the face of it, a requirement that an invention fulfil any stated promises does not seem unreasonable.  If, for example, an applicant falsely asserts that an invention is worthy of a patent, at least in part because it achieves some valuable improvement over its predecessors, and receives a patent on that basis, then the Patent Office has arguably been misled in its decision to grant the patent.  However, I do not see what this has to do with utility.  The Australian Patents Act 1990 provides a perfectly good mechanism for revoking patents that have been obtained by ‘fraud, false suggestion or misrepresentation’ in section 138(3)(d).  But if an invention is, in fact, useful for some purpose, and the patent specification otherwise meets all of the requirements for a valid patent, then it is difficult to see why the applicant’s choice to include – or not – some ‘promise’ in the specification should make any difference.

The position becomes even more fraught when a specification includes more than one promise.  This aspect of the utility requirement has not previously been conclusively addressed by the Australian courts – i.e. if a patent applicant makes multiple promises for an invention, it is necessary that all of those promises be met by the claims, individually and/or collectively?  The Full Court’s decision in ESCO Corporation has, at least, clarified this situation, with the court deciding that a claimed invention must indeed meet whatever promise(s) have been made for it in the specification.

However, this does not mean that resolving the question of utility is simple in any given case.  The court has explained that whether or not a relevant promise has been made and met must be addressed, by determining whether the invention as claimed does what it is intended by the patentee to do.  This necessarily involves an enquiry into the patentee’s intentions, through consideration of the specification as a whole, including the claims.  It is therefore not simply a matter of identifying some explicit, straightforward, statement in the specification that appears to make one or more ‘promises’ – as the court did (wrongly) at first instance in the ESCO case – and asking whether the claimed invention satisfies all of the stated ‘promises’. 

As a result of conducting the required enquiry, it can become apparent that the invention, as defined in a specific claim, or group of claims, was not intended to satisfy all of the ‘promises’ made in the specification.  In ESCO’s case this was necessarily so, because its application included two groups of claims defining different aspects of the invention (a component, and an assembly including the component, respectively) that might encompass different subsets of the advantages asserted for the invention as a whole.

So while I would have liked to see Australia follow Canada in cutting ties with old UK law and abandoning the ‘promise doctrine’, the Full Court in ESCO Corporation has at least brought some much-needed sense to the Australian law.  Determining whether or not an invention is ‘useful’ is not some formulaic exercise involving the mere comparison of statements in the specification with the subject matter of the claims.  Rather, it is a matter of substance, whereby the intentions of the applicant or patentee are to be determined, at least insofar as they are expressed in the specification as a whole, in relation to each claim, or group of claims.  On the other hand, the decision may not go far enough, in that it is not clear that it necessarily applies to cases in which there are not two or more distinct groups of claims relating to different aspects of an invention.

10 April 2018

With Second-Tier Patent Rights in Retreat in Australia, Are They Making an ‘Advancement’ in New Zealand?

Dr Parmjeet ParmarWhile the second-tier innovation patent may be out-of-favour with the Australian government (a late stay of execution notwithstanding), there is at least one New Zealand parliamentarian who is bold enough to stand up for the rights of incremental innovators.  Dr Parmjeet Parmar is a list member for the opposition National Party in New Zealand, who has drafted and submitted a private member’s bill titled the Patents (Advancement Patents) Amendment Bill.  The bill proposes the introduction of a new second-tier patent right which has many similarities with – and a few differences from – the Australian innovation patent, and Dr Parmar suggests that it would fill a gap in the availability of intellectual property rights in New Zealand that was widened by the enactment of the Patents Act 2013.

Generally speaking, the proposed ‘advancement patent’ would – like the innovation patent – provide for a shorter-term patent right, permit fewer claims, and feature a bifurcated system of registration and optional examination and enforceability.  Some of the major differences from the innovation patent would be:
  1. terminology, i.e. ‘advancement’ rather than ‘innovation’, and ‘advancement step’ rather than ‘innovative step’;
  2. maximum term, i.e. up to ten years, rather than eight years; and
  3. lifecycle, i.e. an ‘advancement patent’ would be considered ‘provisional’ initially, and only have the status of ‘granted’ following examination/certification.
Reading Dr Parmar’s maiden speech in the New Zealand parliament, it is not hard to see where she finds her enthusiasm for innovators and innovation.  Born, raised and originally educated in India, she moved to be with her husband in New Zealand where she completed a PhD in biological sciences at the University of Auckland.  She subsequently worked in both academic and commercial science and research, before establishing a business manufacturing natural health products.  Clearly this is a level of hands-on experience with research, innovation, business and entrepreneurialism to which few – if any – of the politicians, bureaucrats and economists currently gunning for the Australian innovation patent can lay claim.

Many people will be surprised to see this new bill introduced in New Zealand at the same time that Australia is looking to abolish the innovation patent.  A common theme in the long gestation of the New Zealand Patents Act 2013 and the recent review of Australia’s IP arrangements by the Productivity Commission was the view, held particularly by certain economists, that for net importers of intellectual property and technology, such as Australia and New Zealand, intellectual property rights tend to be owned predominantly by foreign entities, and that it is therefore not in our interests to grant such rights improvidently, or too easily.

My own analysis of innovation patent data over a nine-year period showed that while the target community of Australian small and medium enterprises (SMEs) were indeed, by filing numbers alone, the dominant users of the system, too many of these were ‘self-filers’, who generally gain no value from their patents, while many of the largest individual users of the system are foreign entities that filed innovation patents for strategic reasons (e.g. Apple, Inc), or merely to take advantage of economic incentives in their own home countries (e.g. many Chinese companies).  While probably not enough to justify abolition – rather than improvement – of the innovation patent, this is not a great look, and is hardly a glowing endorsement of the domestic benefits of a second-tier patent system.

Considering these current concerns with the innovation patent, I decided to take the opportunity to reach out to Dr Parmar and ask her about her motivations for drafting her bill, and why she believes that a New Zealand ‘advancement patent’ would fare better than the Australian innovation patent.  She was kind enough to take the time out of her busy schedule to answer my emailed questions, and I am pleased to be able to present her views in her own words.

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