Writing instrument: The Supreme Court’s final stroke

Case Nos. 4A_435/2018, 4A_441/2018 (Supreme Court) | Decision of 29 January 2019 on appeal against O2015_018 (FPC) | Decision of 15 June 2018 | ‘Instrument d’écriture’

Please see this Blog here for a detailed review of the underlying decision of the FPC in this matter.

Both parties had lodged an appeal — but the Supreme Court dismissed both appeals. While the FPC’s judgement was quite a booklet of 50+ pages, it took the Supreme Court only 7 pages to deal with both appeals. Most of the judgment indeed is pretty straight forward. Still, the judgment has quite some interesting aspects, in my perception:

  1. Assignment of a patent does not imply assignment of the universal right to the invention per se 
Montres Valgine logo

Guenat had requested that Swiss Finest‘s Swiss patent be annulled based on Art. 26(1) lit. d PatA, i.e. for lack of entitlement. However, such request can only be brought by the entitled person; Art. 28 PatA. Guenat alleged that Frédéric Garinaud transferred ‘full and complete ownership’ of the European patent application to Guenat. But that did not help. Frédéric Garinaud specifically assigned the European patent application to Guenat, but not the universal rights in the ‘invention’ itself. Guenat’s request for declaration of nullity based on Art. 26(1) lit. d PatA was thus held inadmissible for lack of standing.

On appeal, Guenat criticises the FPC’s ‘artificial dichotomy’ between the invention and the related patent application, and claims complete control over the invention in dispute. The Supreme Court didn’t buy into that. The decision holds in ¶3.2 that Guenat’s argument is based on an assumption about the parties’ intention in respect of the transfer agreement of April 2013. This is not a question of law, but of fact. But the FPC had not found that the real and common intention the parties had been to assign all intellectual property rights to the invention and the right to be granted all related patents. On the contrary, according to the FPC, the agreement in question ‘clearly refers only to the European patent application and the resulting European patent, and not to the invention as such’ — which finding is binding on the Supreme Court since it is not ‘arbitrary.’

Thus, the Supreme Court apparently had no doubt that the assignment of a specific patent does not necessarily imply the assignment of the universal rights in the invention itself.

  1. Assessment of inventive step is a question of law, but …

Guenat argued on appeal that the FPC had violated the principle of party disposition because it took facts into account that had not been alleged by the defendant.

Now, what had happened?

The FPC had held that a specific feature (C3-1) was not disclosed in the closest prior art document. Guenat had a different understanding of the specific feature, and had argued that based on a ‘correct’ understanding of the feature it had well been disclosed in the closest prior art.

Swiss Finest logo

On appeal, Guenat argued that Swiss Finest had not even alleged that feature C3-1 was not disclosed in that document. Unfortunately, it is not readily clear from the decision to which version of feature C3-1 that allegation pertained: The feature as construed by the Guenat, or the feature as construed by the FPC?

The Supreme Court held that it had not been disputed that all the factual elements necessary for the analysis of obviousness had been brought on file by the parties. Further, the Supreme Court held that Guenat had not asserted that the FPC had to supplement the facts on its own, and that such conduct was also not apparent from the file. In the Supreme Court’s view, the FPC was thus in a position to assess obviousness, which is a question of law. It is irrelevant in this respect that the presence or absence of specific features in the prior art and/or the patent have been alleged by the defendant or the plaintiff. On the basis of the facts gathered by the parties in order to consider a question of law, the court did not violate the principle of party disposition.

Without any in-depth knowledge of what had or had not been argued by the parties, I just cannot say whether I would agree with the assessment on the merits of the case. But the Supreme Court’s general considerations on questions of law vs. questions of fact trigger some further thoughts.

Clearly, assessment of obviousness is a question of law — but the underlying factual elements still need to be asserted by the parties. But what are the ‘factual elements’? They must be something more specific than just ‘the patent in suit’, ‘D1’ or the like. Else, a court could just combine whatever is on file in its assessment of obviousness, fully detached from the pleadings. This cannot be it. Now, let’s assume that both parties come up with a somewhat strange claim construction, and base all their obviousness attacks / defenses on a wrongly construed claim. In my understanding, claim construction clearly is a question of law, too (see e.g. X ZR 255/01 – ‘Bodenseitige Vereinzelungseinrichtung’ of the German Federal Supreme Court in ¶5, with further reference). But what if no party ever pointed to the relevant underlying ‘factual elements’ (i.e. specific sections of the patent in suit) that support the ‘correct’ claim construction? May the court then even come up with a different / the ‘correct’ claim construction at all?

UPDATE 21 March 2019:

Note that the FPC had held in the recent decision S2018_006 that claim construction is a question of law. In that case, both parties had not construed the feature in question at all, and the FPC came up with a construction on its own:

Wie der Begriff korrekt auszulegen ist, tragen die Beklagten hingegen ebenso wenig wie die Klägerin vor. Da die Auslegung des Patentanspruchs eine Rechtsfrage ist,15 geht die Annahme der Beklagten fehl, das Gericht dürfe den Anspruch mangels entsprechenden Vortrags der Klägerin nicht so auslegen, dass er auch etwas anderes als einen Schneidprozess erfasst.
15 Federal Supreme Court: 4A_142/2011, ¶1.3
But, again, what if both parties came up with a claim construction mutually agreed upon — but which, in the courts view, is just wrong? Or, what if both parties come up with different constructions which are both wrong in the court’s view? Can the court then correct such (a) construction(s) if it would have to rely on ‘factual elements’ that have never been pointed at by the parties, just because it is a question of law? And if that was the case, then where is the limit in the assessment of obviousness — which is a question of law, too?

The theory of separating questions of law from questions of fact is simple. But life is complicated …

On a sidenote: Wouldn’t it be good to establish common ground on what the claim actually is all about before diving any deeper? This is what a Markman hearing in the U.S. is all about. Even though I am not overly enthusiastic about quite some aspects of patent litigation in the U.S., this one certainly is useful.

Reported by Martin WILMING


Case No. 4A_435/2018 (Supreme Court) | Decision of 29 January 2019 on appeal against O2015_018 (FPC) | Decision of 15 June 2018 | ‘Instrument d’écriture’

Guenat SA Montres Valgine (appellant)
Swiss Finest SA (respondent)


Case No. 4A_441/2018 (Supreme Court) | Decision of 29 January 2019 on appeal against O2015_018 (FPC) | Decision of 15 June 2018 | ‘Instrument d’écriture’

Swiss Finest SA (appellant)
Guenat SA Montres Valgine (respondent)
Both proceedings were jointly dealt with by the Supreme Court.

Panel of Judges:

  • Dr. Christina KISS
    • Dr. Kathrin KLETT
    • Dr. Fabienne HOHL

Court Clerk:

  •  Nicolas CURCHOD

Representative(s) of Guenat SA Montres Valgine:

Representative(s) of Swiss Finest SA:

  • Christoph KÜNZI (CBK)

on appeal against O2015_018 (FPC) | Decision of 15 June 2018
Case nos.: 4A_435/2018
Decision of: 29 January 2019
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Case no.: O2015_018
Decision of: 15 June 2018

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CH 704 790 B1

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CH 704 790 C1

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EP 2 497 648 B1

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