03 May 2024

Have Australia’s ‘Raising the Bar’ Law Reforms Suppressed Patent Oppositions?

BalanceAustralia has a pre-grant patent opposition system.  That is to say, once an application has passed examination and been accepted for potential grant as a patent, there is a period (of three months) during which anybody may oppose the grant.  The subsequent opposition proceedings – if they run their full course – consist of a series of evidentiary stages, legal submissions, and an oral hearing, following which the hearing officer (a delegate of the Commissioner of Patents) issues a written decision on the outcome of the opposition.  In the final reckoning, the patent application may emerge unscathed, it may be refused, or it may end up being granted subject to narrowing amendments. 

The patent opposition system recognises that the examination process is imperfect.  Examiners have limited time, resources and technical expertise.  Therefore, they may not always find the closest and most relevant prior art, or spot every technical and legal issue that might be identified by a motivated competitor to the patent applicant, equipped with a team of technical and legal experts.  Furthermore, opposed applications are presumably those that are of greatest concern to competitors, enabling the system to weed out invalid claims that have the greatest potential to unfairly stifle competition.

In the years prior to 2016, the number of oppositions filed each year was fairly consistently between 100 and 120.  In recent years, however, it has commonly been between 40 and 60.  In other words, there are now only about half the number of patent oppositions being filed than was the case just a decade ago.  So, if oppositions play an important role in the Australian patent system – and the policy rationale for having them asserts that they do – is it possible that they are now less effective than they once were?  And, if so, then why?

In this article, I will present data on all patent oppositions filed between 2008 and 2023.  I will demonstrate that the decline in patent oppositions appears to be associated with the commencement of the Raising the Bar (‘RtB’) IP law reforms in 2013.  Among other things, the RtB reforms introduced more stringent standards of patentability, particularly in relation to inventive step and the level of disclosure required to support broader patent claims.  The reforms also changed the standard of proof to be applied during examination and opposition proceedings.  I will show that in the post-RtB era, opposition proceedings have more frequently progressed through to a final decision, and that opponents have had somewhat greater success in completely eliminating opposed applications.  However, the overwhelming majority of opposed applications still result in granted patent rights, and in nearly half of all cases the opponent has been wholly unsuccessful and the patent has been granted with the originally accepted claims.

While the data cannot directly reveal the reasons for the significant reduction in opposition filings, I tentatively argue that the change in the standard of proof applied in patent oppositions may have had the unintended consequence of suppressing patent oppositions, and reducing the effectiveness of the opposition system.

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