31 March 2021

RePipe Appeals, Following Failed Attempts to Amend

Site safetySome time ago – indeed, BC (i.e. before COVID) – I reported on a decision of Justice McKerracher in the case of Repipe Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Patents [2019] FCA 1956 (RePipe No 1).  RePipe is a plumbing business based in Western Australia that has developed a risk management software system called rerisk®, which is available as a service to other businesses that want to improve their workplace health and safety (WHS) processes.  The system comprises a server-based backend, and an app that can be installed on portable devices (i.e. smartphones or tablets) carried by workers on site.  In use, information and documentation pertinent to WHS compliance processes for particular jobs carried out by workers at specific locations are downloaded to the portable devices. The system provides prompts and checklists to ensure that workers comply with relevant procedures, generates alerts when problems or risks are identified, and enables information provided by the workers to be uploaded back to the server and/or communicated to other workers on site.

RePipe has filed patent applications in a number of jurisdictions.  In Australia, two innovation patents covering the rerisk® system were examined and found liable to be revoked by the Patent Office, on the basis that their claims were not directed to patent-eligible subject matter, i.e. a ‘manner of manufacture’ under the Australian law.  RePipe appealed to the Federal Court, which upheld the Patent Office decisions in RePipe No 1, issued on 22 November 2019.  The court found that the claimed inventions were, in substance, merely unpatentable business methods.  The claims were not saved by the fact that the inventions were necessarily implemented in software.  As Justice McKerracher explained (RePipe No 1 at [93]-[94]):

No specific application software has been claimed or even identified in any claim of the Patents. No computing programming logic or code is disclosed anywhere in the Patents. The substance of both inventions is a mere scheme that can be implemented using some unidentified software application to cause a server computer and smartphone to perform the steps identified in the claim. To implement the scheme, a reader must use his/her own skill and knowledge to write an appropriate software application. No such application is disclosed in the Patents.

…The language used by patent attorneys when drafting and amending claims cannot convert what is, in substance, an unpatentable business method or scheme into a patentable invention by merely asserting that the invention is in the field of computer technology or by using words in the claim or specification that refer to computer technology …. As a matter of substance, there is no meaningful technical content in the description in the body of the claims or specification.

This was not, however, the end of the story.  Following some further ado (discussed below), RePipe has filed an application for leave to appeal to a Full Bench of the Federal Court of Australia, on 2 March 2021.

30 March 2021

‘AI Inventor’ Update – DABUS Decision Goes to Federal Court

PrayerIn a fairly predictable development, Stephen Thaler has asked the Federal Court of Australia to review the Patent Office’s finding in February that a patent application cannot be validly filed in this country naming a machine as inventor.  The ‘Application for Judicial Review’ was filed on 9 March 2021 in the Victorian Division of the court, and has been assigned number VID108/2021.  Having been represented by Davies Collison Cave (DCC) in the patent application filed at the Patent Office, Thaler is represented in the Federal Court proceeding by Allens.  The reasons for this change are unclear – DCC incorporates a legal practice as well as its patent and trade marks attorney practice, and could presumably have handled the Federal Court application.  However, it is not unusual for applicants to switch representatives when moving from the Patent Office to the courts, either from necessity, or due to a perception that different firms have particular strengths in different areas of practice.

While the case may be casually characterised as an ‘appeal’ against the Patent Office decision, it is not technically an appeal under the Patents Act 1990.  The Act, and the Patents Regulations 1991, expressly set out the various decisions that are appealable to the Federal Court, and the lapsing of an application for failing to identify a valid inventor is not such a decision.  Instead, the application for review is made under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977 (ADJR Act), which provides more generally for review of administrative decisions by the Federal Court.

29 March 2021

Free, Streamlined Extensions of Time to End at IP Australia, but COVID Impact Can Still be Considered Under ‘Normal’ Procedures

First aidSince April last year, IP Australia has provided a streamlined process under which most deadlines associated with Australian patent, trade marks, and design rights – including evidence deadlines in opposition matters – could be extended by up to three months, at no charge, if the extension is required ‘due to the disruptive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic’.  That program ends on 31 March 2021.  From 1 April 2021, extensions of time will still be available for those impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak, but will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Under the streamlined program, a party seeking an extension of time has been required only to tick a box in order to make a declaration that the impacts of COVID-19 had prevented a relevant act from being carried out within time.  This is much simpler (and cheaper) than the usual process, under which detailed evidence is required – typically in the form of a formal declaration or affidavit, along with any relevant accompanying exhibits – demonstrating exactly how events and/or circumstances have prevented the deadline from being met.  Additionally, official fees have been waived under the streamlined program.  These are typically based on the number of months of additional time requested, and can be quite substantial, e.g. up to A$1500 for a three-month extension of time to file evidence in a patent opposition.

While a blanket waiver of fees is unusual, it is clearly within the power of IP Australia to choose not to levy a fee for any service that it provides.  However, it is not within the agency’s power to waive the requirements of the Patents Act 1990 or the Patents Regulations 1991 (or corresponding legislation and regulations relating to other IP rights) with regard to the grounds upon which extensions of time may be legitimately granted.  In principle, therefore, streamlined extensions have generally been considered under existing provisions allowing for deadlines to be extended where ‘circumstances beyond the control’ of the responsible person(s) have prevented an action from being taken within the required time.  Ticking of the ‘COVID-19 box’ has thus been treated as prima facie evidence that the pandemic was, indeed, the cause of a failure to meet a deadline, with IP Australia warning that a false declaration could put the validity of the applicant’s IP rights at risk.

The initiative to make obtaining COVID-19 extensions simpler and cheaper was further complicated by the fact that in proceedings involving other parties, IP Australia is usually obliged to give those other parties an opportunity to comment on, and/or object to, the grant of an extension of time.  This obligation could not be suspended, and there were at least two patent matters in which objections were lodged.

With practices and procedures for requesting extensions of time returning to normal (or, at least, ‘COVID-normal’), it is to be expected that any party requiring an extension as a result of the impact of COVID-19 will bear a greater onus to demonstrate exactly why an extension is justified.

28 February 2021

Australian Patent Office Rejects Amazon Cloud Computing Invention as Patent-Ineligible

Cloud ComputingA delegate of the Commissioner of Patents has refused an application (no. 2018204629) by Amazon Technologies, Inc (Amazon) on the basis that it is not for a patent-eligible invention under Australia’s ‘manner of manufacture’ requirement: Amazon Technologies, Inc [2021] APO 7.  Amazon’s claimed invention relates to the execution of processing tasks within a cloud computing system, presumably such as its own Amazon Web Services (AWS) platform.  Specifically, it provides a mechanism for applications executing on ‘virtual machines’ within the cloud system to access additional resources as required during bursts of high demand.

This is yet another case in which a computer-implemented invention that appears at least superficially ‘technical’ has been found to be unpatentable because it is, as a matter of ‘substance’, in fact an ineligible business innovation, rather than a technical innovation.  There are many, many, words in Amazon’s main claims, and a lot of them seem highly technical, principally because they define the operation of a process within a technical system.  But does this mean that the inventive process is, itself, technical in nature?  The delegate determined that it is not.  He found that Amazon’s claims were directed to a scheme in which ‘business rules’ are applied for scheduling processing tasks, while the scheduler itself was performing only its ‘usual independent function’, with ‘no improved operation of the computing technology’.

In this case, I think that the delegate’s decision is a reasonable application of the law on patent-eligibility of computer-implemented inventions, as it has been interpreted by the Australian courts.  It is, however, a long decision, which could not fairly be described as light reading.  It is unfortunate that decision-making in this area of the law has become increasingly arcane and obtuse.  So rather than picking over the delegate’s decision, dissecting the lengthy patent claims, or reviewing the Federal Court authorities, I am instead going to do my best to explain Amazon’s invention and why it failed the patent-eligibility test in my own way, as plainly as I can.  And while I believe that the delegate’s decision is justified under the current law, I shall also explain why I think the law under-emphasises the technical context in which inventions such as Amazon’s are devised, and why a more nuanced approach might be more appropriate.

26 February 2021

DABUS Denied Down Under – Australian Patent Office Formally Rejects AI Inventor

Access DeniedBack in December 2020 I reported on the progress of an Australian patent application naming an ‘artificial intelligence’ going by the name DABUS (‘Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Sentience’) as inventor.  The application – no. 2019363177 – was derived from an international application filed under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), and names Dr Stephen Thaler, the developer of DABUS, as applicant.  At that time, the Australian Patent Office had raised an objection to the naming of a machine as inventor, and sought further submissions from the applicant on this issue.  I anticipated that the case would be referred to a hearing officer to determine the matter by way of a formal decision, and predicted that Dr Thaler’s rather unconventional assertions that an AI can be an inventor, and that he is entitled to receive any resulting patents by virtue of ownership of the AI, were unlikely to be accepted by the Patent Office.

That has all now come to pass, with a decision of a delegate of the Commission of Patents issued on 9 February 2021: Stephen L. Thaler [2021] APO 5.  In accordance with the plan language of the Australian Patents Act, and established legal principles, the delegate has determined that a patent can only be granted to a person, that a machine is not a person, and that there is no mechanism whereby the right to apply for a patent on an invention devised by a machine can be legally transferred to any person.

In short, a patent application naming a non-human inventor cannot be validly filed, regardless of who is named as the applicant.  A corollary of this (although not addressed in the decision) is that a patent on an invention devised by a machine can never be validly granted, even if the true nature of the inventor is concealed from the Patent Office, because there is simply no mechanism for any named applicant to derive a legal right to apply.  In practice, applicants are required to provide the Patent Office with a declaration of entitlement, and in the case of a machine invention this declaration would necessarily be invalid and/or false.

01 February 2021

Why Do Applicants File Divisional Applications, and Are They as Important as ‘Original’ Applications?

DivisionIn its 2020 IP Report, IP Australia introduced a novel measure of patent application filing intensity to identify top applicants – namely, the number of ‘original’ applications filed, excluding any divisional applications.  For the uninitiated, divisional applications are patent applications that are based on subject matter that is ‘divided out’ from previously filed applications (typically termed ‘parent’ applications), as distinct from ‘original’ applications that comprise new content filed for the very first time.  I took issue with the ‘original applications’ metric, on the basis that I did not consider there to be any coherent or logical basis for simply ignoring divisional applications when comparing applicant activity.  My views have not changed significantly over the intervening months.

It is certainly true that not all divisional applications are created equal.  At one end of the spectrum there are divisionals filed primarily as a way to buy additional examination time, with the parent application being allowed to lapse.  To distinguish these kinds of divisionals we can call them ‘continued examination’ applications. At the other extreme, there are divisional applications that are filed for the primary purpose for which they exist – to enable an applicant to obtain a patent for a distinct (second or subsequent) invention disclosed, but not claimed, in the original application – where the original application typically goes on to be granted, while the divisional proceeds independently.

Within the latter category of divisionals, there are also degrees of ‘independence’.  Sometimes the invention claimed in a divisional application is closely related to that of the original application.  For example, it might be substantially the same invention, where the applicant is seeking a different (e.g. broader) scope of protection.  In many cases, however, the invention claimed in a divisional application is distinct from the original invention.  There are numerous reasons why an applicant may end up disclosing multiple inventions in a single initial filing, either intentionally or unintentionally, and a discussion of all of those reasons is beyond the scope of this article.  But regardless of how it comes about, such an initial filing is best viewed as equivalent to a ‘bunch’ of applications, all of which are just as entitled to be counted as if they had been filed separately on the same day.

It is difficult to identify the purpose of each divisional application, other than by drilling down and comparing what is actually claimed against the parent application from which it has been divided.  However, some information can be gleaned from the eventual fate of the parent application.  For example, if the parent lapses without ever being accepted, it might be inferred that the divisional was filed for the purpose of continuing examination of the claims.  Conversely, if the parent application is accepted, then it is more likely that the divisional application was filed to pursue claims to a further invention, or to an alternative scope of the original invention.

To get an initial idea of the way in which applicants use divisional applications in Australia, I have analysed the outcomes for parent applications since 2002.  Over this period, divisional applications have become considerably more ‘popular’, with the number of divisional filings increasing more than threefold, compared with an overall increase in standard application filings of just 30%.  Most of this growth occurred between 2010 and 2016, with a slight decline in divisional applications from 2018.  Over time, around 70% of parent applications have been accepted, indicating that the majority of divisionals are not filed merely for the purpose of continuing examination of the original application.

29 January 2021

China to Cancel Patent Subsidies, and Emphasise Quality Over Quantity

Great WallAs highlighted in a report recently published by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), entitled Trademarks and Patents in China: The Impact of Non-Market Factors on Filing Trends and IP Systems, the high rate of Chinese patent and trademark filings in recent years is widely believed to have been influenced by government subsidies and other ‘non-market factors’.  Since at least 2011, some Chinese applicants appear to have been taking advantage of the Australian innovation patent system to maximise the subsidies they are able to claim for foreign patent grants.  In 2020, Chinese residents were by far the largest users of the system, filing more innovation patent applications than all other nationalities combined.

But could it be that the days of government subsidies, and an associated massive growth in patent applications originating in China, are drawing to a close?

On 27 January 2021, the China National Intellectual Property Administration (CNIPA) announced, in a notification entitled ‘Notice of the CNIPA on Further Strictly Regulating Patent Application Behaviour’ (in Chinese) (‘Notice’), that many lucrative subsidies must end by the middle of this year, with all others to be phased out by 2025.  (A brief report of the Notice can be found on the China IP Law Update blog, while a Google translation of the Chinese original is quite comprehensible.)

The Notice states that the overriding objective of the new regulations on patent application behaviour is:

In order to thoroughly study and implement Xi Jinping’s thoughts on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era; to earnestly implement the decisions and deployments of the Party Central Committee and the State Council; and to earnestly promote China’s transformation from a major importer of intellectual property rights to a major country of IP creation, and from the pursuit of quantity to the improvement of quality.

19 January 2021

Australian Patent Filings Fell in 2020, Despite Significant Growth (Again) in Applications from China

New Year 2021In 2020, the number of standard patent applications filed in Australia fell by 1.8%, to 29,240 from 29,786 in 2019.  Much of this decline can be attributed to domestic applicants, which filed around 10% fewer applications in 2020.  On the other hand, Chinese applicants filed nearly 20% more applications in 2020 than in 2019, falling only 48 applications short of the number filed by Australian applicants.  US residents remained the top users of the Australian standard patent system, being named on 13,037 applications, which was a 1.6% decline on 2019.

Among the leading origins for Australian patent filings, China, South Korea, the UK and Japan all increased their application numbers over 2019, while Canadian, Australian, French, and Swiss applicants filed substantially fewer applications.  The leading applicant, for the second year running, was Chinese telecommunications device manufacturer OPPO, which increased its new filings by 39%, to 435, eclipsing second-placed LG Electronics with 236 applications.  Rounding out the top three was Huawei, with 229 new applications in 2020.  Huawei’s heavy investment in Australian patents is interesting, considering that the company is barred from supplying advanced equipment for use in Australian telecommunications networks due to ‘security concerns’.  Perhaps it may yet expect to derive income from the Australian market in the form of licensing revenues from its standards-related and other patents.

The picture is very different for innovation patents – the second-tier rights that are now well into their final year of full availability before being phased out.  Chinese applicants seem to have treated the impending abolition of the system as if it is a ‘going out of business’ sale, increasing filings by over 400% and becoming by far the largest users of innovation patents.  Indian applicants seem also to have caught on, rather late in the piece, to the advantages of a system that enables a patent to be granted without the time and expense of substantive examination, with applications originating in India jumping from just eight in 2019 to 529 in 2020 (growth of over 6500%, if such a measure were meaningful off this small base).  Some US applicants also seem to have jumped at the final opportunity to obtain innovation patents, nearly doubling their filings from 86 in 2019 to 159 in 2020.

As usual, provisional applications were filed almost exclusively by Australian applicants.  The total number filed in 2020 was down by 2% on 2019.  However, it is likely that the number of ‘quality’ provisional has fallen by more than this number would indicate, with applications prepared and filed with the assistance of external patent attorneys having dropped by nearly 5%, while self-filing increased by a similar proportion.

15 January 2021

How Up-to-Date is IP Australia’s AusPat Data?

SearchingOne of the great resources provided by IP Australia is its AusPat online patent data service.  AusPat enables users to search for Australian patents and applications using a range of options and search fields, view numerous data items for each application, and access most incoming and outgoing correspondence via eDossier.  In my view, it is one of the best available systems for online access of national patent data.  For example, in comparison with the USPTO’s services, AusPat effectively combines the functionality of the US Patent Full-Text Databases, the Public Patent Application Information Retrieval (PAIR) system, and the Patent Assignment Search system, into a single convenient and powerful interface.  And while Australian patent information ultimately finds its way into various other public and proprietary databases, AusPat is the first place that any new filings, changes, or events will be reflected.  It is, therefore, the go-to source for the most up-to-date data on all Australian patents and applications.  I rely heavily upon AusPat for much of the analysis I present on this blog, including the regular updates I have been providing over the past few months on patent filings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One thing that other users may be wondering is: exactly how up-to-date is the data available in AusPat?  You might think that with almost all filing and other transactions now being conducted electronically, the consequences of any new applicant actions would be reflected immediately in AusPat.  However, that is not quite correct.

12 January 2021

While One IPH Firm Sues Former Partners, 20% of Patent Attorneys Jump Ship from Another

Moving boxesOn 14 December 2020, Pizzeys Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys – a firm in the stable owned by listed company IPH Limited (ASX:IPH) – filed suit in the Federal Court of Australia against former Pizzeys principals William Bennett and Martin Richardson, along with the new firm they have established, RnB IP (collectively ‘RnB’).  The lawsuit alleges that Bennett and Richardson lured lucrative US law firm clients away from Pizzeys, in breach of non-compete, non-dealing, and/or non-solicitation restraints that were included in their employment contracts subsequent to the acquisition of Pizzeys by IPH.

This lawsuit has been a long time coming, after Pizzeys was awarded preliminary discovery back in December 2019.  The documents required to be produced by William Bennett following that decision included communications with Martin Richardson, marketing plans, and communications with prospective clients, relating to the establishment of RnB IP.  I believe that discovery was provided early in 2020, and it is unclear why it has taken Pizzeys so long to decide to commence proceedings against RnB.  Perhaps they would blame the pandemic?

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the IPH group, there appears to have been a recent exodus of patent attorneys from Griffith Hack.  In December 2020, there were 48 patent attorneys recorded on the Register maintained by the Trans-Tasman IP Attorneys Board (TTIPAB) as being employed by Griffith Hack, but only 37 of these were still listed on the firm’s web site.  I am aware that at least one of these was a departure earlier in 2020, but my understanding is that most are recent resignations where staff are currently on ‘gardening leave’, or otherwise temporarily restrained from commencing new employment (and thus updating their registration details). 

These numbers represent a loss of about 20% of registered patent attorneys from Griffith Hack over a short period of time, suggesting a significant level of dissatisfaction among the firm’s professional staff.  Whether this dates back to life under the ownership of Xenith IP (which acquired Griffith Hack in 2017), or is a consequence of the more recent management of IPH (which acquired Xenith in 2019) is unclear.


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