State of the art: Which art has to be considered?

An invention cannot be patented according to Art. 52(1) EPC if it

The fate of a patent application thus critically depends on the ‘state of the art’. Now, what is comprised in the ‘state of the art’? The EPO educates its customers in the Inventors’ handbook in plain and simple words:

A prehistoric cave painting can be prior art. A piece of technology that is centuries old can be prior art. A previously described idea that cannot possibly work can be prior art. Anything can be prior art.

Easy, isn’t it? Not so, the closer you look.

In legal terms, the ‘state of the art’ is defined in Art. 54(2) EPC which reads as follows in the three official languages of the EPC (emphasis added):

German English French
Den Stand der Technik bildet alles, was vor dem Anmeldetag […] der Öffentlichkeit […] zugänglich gemacht worden ist. The state of the art  shall be held to comprise everything made available to the public […] before the date of filing […]. L’état de la technique est constitué par tout ce qui est été rendu accessible au public avant la date de depot […].

There are at least two issues that have recently been looked at more closely in relation to the term ‘state of the art’ in Switzerland:

  1. How shall a pre-published, non-enabling disclosure be dealt with?

The Swiss Supreme Court recently held that even a non-enabling disclosure well belongs to the ‘state of the art’ (contrary to what the EPO typically does, i.e. to just ignore it; see Guidelines, G-IV, 2). But, in the Supreme Court’s view, such a piece of prior art cannot be assessed with the EPO’s problem-and-solution approach because the objective technical problem in such a case is just to find a working solution for what had been insufficiently disclosed previously, and there is an inherent motivation to search for that solution; see this Blog here.

  1. What actually is the ‘art’ referred to in ‘state of the art’?

At the INGRES annual meeting of July 5, 2018, Hannes Spillmann briefly discussed a clash between two Board of Appeal decisions at the EPO, i.e. T 0172/03 and T 2101/12. The latter explicitly disagrees in its headnote with the headnote of the earlier decision T 0172/03, in the fundamental question of what actually is meant with

state of the art.

Which ‘art’ does Art. 54(2) EPC refer to? Can something described previously be excluded right from the outset just because it is not related to classic ‘technology’? The headnotes of T 0172/03 suggest exactly that (emphasis added):

1.   The term state of the art’ in Article 54 EPC should, in compliance with the French and German text, be understood as ‘state of technology’, which in the context of the EPC does not include the state of the art in commerce and business methods. The term everything’ in Article 54(2) EPC is to be understood as concerning such kind of information which is relevant to some field of technology.

2.   From these considerations it follows that anything which is not related to any technological field or field from which, because of its informational character, a skilled person would expect to derive any technically relevant information, does not belong to the state of the art to be considered in the context of Articles 54 and 56, even if it had been made available to the general public before the relevant priority date (see points 8 to 10 of the reasons).

Points 8 to 10 of T 0172/03 referred to in hn 2 leave no doubt that the gist really is to just exclude certain publications from any consideration as ‘state of the art’ whatsoever:

[T]he decision under appeal […] identifies the closest prior art as “the existing order placing mechanism” as if such a business scheme qualified as prior art as any other piece of technical information. […]

It can hardly be assumed that the EPC envisaged the notional person skilled in the (technological) art to take notice of everything, in all fields of human culture and regardless of its informational character. A consistent construction of the patentability provisions requires the  term “everything” in Article 54(2) to be understood as concerning such kind of information which is relevant to some field of technology.

Catch-22

I am having difficulties to read an element (“art” / “Technik” / “technique”) of the phrase that is to be defined (“prior art” / “Stand der Technik” / “l’état de la technique”) in Art. 54(2) EPC into the definition itself. This is a Catch-22, in my perception; see also T 2101/12, ¶6.6 in this respect.

Luckily, T 2101/12 sets it right again; the hn reads as follows:

Article 54(2) EPC does not exclude non-technical disclosures from the prior art, in disagreement with Catchword 2 of T 172/03.

I fully concur with this. Whatever has been made available to the public is to be considered ‘state of the art’ in the sense of Art. 54(2) EPC, irrespective of whether it relates to a field of ‘technology’ or not.

It remains to be seen how the case law of the Boards will develop. Note that T 2101/12 only explicitly disagrees with hn 2 of T 0172/03. However, a quotation from hn 1 of T 0172/03 even made it into the EPO Guidelines for Examination (G-VII, 2):

The ‘state of the art’ for the purposes of considering inventive step is as defined in Art. 54(2) (see G‑IV, 1). It is to be understood as concerning such kind of information as is relevant to some field of technology (see T 172/03).

It is not that I have an issue with this quote. Even a non-technological ‘state of the art’ may well be relevant to some field of technology, e.g. when a mere business method as ‘state of the art’ is automated, and it is patentable when this is achieved in a new and non-obvious manner. This is how T 2101/12 approached it. But this understanding clearly is not what T 0172/03 advocated for. Incomplete reference to only part of hn 1 of T 0172/03 is misleading, at best. In my opinion, reference to T 0172/03 should be deleted from the Guidelines completely.

The following is just to name a few examples of state of the ‘art’ not taken from what one would typically consider a ‘field of technology’. Have fun.

1.   SpongeBob

I once had a hard time to properly communicate to a client that a U.S. examiner held SpongeBob to anticipate his invention:

The cartoon SpongeBog SquarePants Episode 1 ‘Help Wanted’ teaches a shearing tool which is mounted coaxially, rotatable, wherein the shearing tool comprises at least a bent arm wherein the tool has at least one opening.

The examiner referred to the following screenshot:

SpongeBob SquarePants, Episode 1, ‘Help Wanted’; © Stephen Hillenburg et al. (Nickelodeon)

See the tool in motion here, if this meets your sense of humor; the screenshot was taken at approx. 1:04 min.

I do not think the examiner did a bad job. In fact, the MPEP 2125 (‘Drawings as Prior Art’) fully supports this approach:

Drawings and pictures can anticipate claims if they clearly show the structure which is claimed. […] The origin of the drawing is immaterial. The drawings must be evaluated for what they reasonably disclose and suggest to one of ordinary skill in the art.

Luckily, the SpongeBob reference was overcome and the application proceeded to grant; US 8,622,507 B1, see the SpongeBob reference on the title page (‘Other Publications’).

2.   The Beano

An entry signal system for pets is described and claimed in GB 2 117 179 A (filed March 18, 1983 and claiming priority of March 18, 1982). The applicant had been faced with the comic strip ‘The Beano’ (No. 2015 of February 28, 1981) as ‘state of the art’:

Reference to ‘The Beano, No. 2015, page 1’ is indicated on the title page of GB 2 117 179 A, under the heading ‘Documents cited’.

3.   James Bond

On his fourth mission ‘Thunderball‘, James Bond aimed to recover two stolen warheads. They had been taken by the evil SPECTRE organization. The world was held hostage and Bond headed to Nassau where he was forced into a thrilling confrontation with SPECTRE agent Emilio Largo, on board and around his boat, the Disco Volante. Bond used a special breathing apparatus:

Sean Connery as James Bond in ‘Thunderball’ (1965; Eon Productions, United Artists); Screenshot at approx. 65 min.

This scene was cited as ‘state of the art’ in GB 2 273 053 A; see ‘Documents cited’ on the title page. Indeed, figure 1 of GB’053 shows a stylized special agent with a somewhat similar breathing apparatus:

GB 2 273 053 A, Fig. 1

4.   The Holy Bible

If I had prosecuted the following claim (US 10/212,636, claim 2 as filed), I surely had not expected to become best buddies with the examiner:

US 10/212,636; claim 2 as filed

But being faced with the Holy Bible as ‘state of the art’ might make one’s blood run cold in one’s veins! The rejection read as follows:

[The claim] is rejected under 35 U.S.C. 102(b) as being anticipated by the Holy Bible (Levite, Moses, et al.)

[…] In Genesis, Chapter 41, we are told that Pharaoh appointed Joseph to be his representative and instructed him to enter into contracts to purchase grain. These contracts included an offer with an activity (supply grain) and a benefit (get paid for the grain). Payment was made upon delivery of the grain. The story of Joseph is about 4,500 years old. Neither Joseph nor Pharaoh were considered innovators – the principal / agent relationship is of immemorial antiquity. It no doubt predates civilization itself. The purpose of rejecting this claim using the Bible as reference is to illustrate how ancient the claimed subject matter is. Many of Applicant’s claims could also be rejected using the same reference.

The applicant took up the fight, and his response really is a good read:

Fullscreen view (new tab)

On a sidenote, I have once been told (but did not manage to independently verify) that a patent application pertaining to a voice-controlled automated lighting system had been challenged at the EPO with reference to the Holy Bible, too. More particularly, with reference to Genesis, Chapter 1:

And God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.

5.   The Law of Agency

Misfortunes never come singly: The claim recited above in (4) had also been rejected in view of the law of agency. The apparently highly motivated examiner held:

Basic agency law teaches that a principal may conduct any business through an agent (representative) that he could conduct in person. This includes entering into contracts. To enter into a contract, one determines a recipient (the other party) and an offer, which includes an activity (e.g., paint my house) and a benefit (consideration). If using an agent, the principal transmits instructions to the agent to provide the offer to the recipient. In any contract, there is the step of determining whether the recipient has performed the activity and providing the benefit to the recipient if the recipient has performed the activity.

6.   Donald Duck

In a 1949 Walt Disney comic, a sunken ship had been raised by Donald Duck and his nephews. They pushed ping pong balls into it to lift it up:

Donald Duck and his nephews in ‘The Sunken Yacht’ (1949); © Carl Banks (Walt Disney)

A similar technology has actually been used later, for the first time in 1964 when Karl Kroyer lifted a sunken ship with 6’000 sheep right in front of Kuwait’s major fresh water intake in the harbor.

Danish newspaper scan (taken from here; primary source unknown)
Prior art database?

Rumor has it that Kroyer’s patent application was rejected in view of the comic strip (as reported e.g. in the newspaper scan above), allegedly by the Dutch patent office — but I could not find any proof for this. Patents have been granted elsewhere (e.g. in Germany and the U.S.).

Nevertheless, I have no doubt at all that this comic strip would have had to be considered as ‘state of the art’ in the assessment of patentability of Kroyer’s invention.

Reported by Martin WILMING

T 0172/03 – 3.5.1
27 November 2003

Chairman: S. V. Steinbrener
Member: R. R. K. Zimmermann
B. J. Schachenmann
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EPO file wrapper
EPO Register

T 2101/12 – 3.5.6
24 January 2018

Chairman: W. Sekretaruk
Member: G. Zucka
M. Müller
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EPO file wrapper
EPO Register

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