Will the Enlarged Board of Appeal descend into the rabbit hole of ‘plausibility’?

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Case No. T 116/18 – 3.3.02 (EPO) | Hearing of 22 July 2021

Board of Appeal 3.3.02 envisages to refer questions to the Enlarged Board of Appeal with respect to one of the most fancy issues in patent matters in recent times, i.e. plausibility. I have vented about the excessive reliance on ‘plausibility’ earlier on this Blog here.

The underlying case

The specific case concerns EP 2 484 209 B1 in opposition/appeal proceedings; see the EPO Register and the file wrapper for further information.

According to the preliminary opinion, it is common ground between the parties that WO 03/015519 A1 (referred to as D4) should be considered as the closest prior art, and the Board did not see any reason to deviate from this view; see ¶8.1. The claimed subject-matter differs from D4 in that both the compounds according to formula Ia and thiamethoxam have been selected from the respective broader teachings of D4. Formula Ia is this Markush formula:

Formula Ia

wherein R1 is a halogen atom or a C1-6 haloalkyl group, R2 is a halogen atom, R3 and R5 each are a C1-6 alkyl group, R4 is a hydrogen or halogen atom, and X is N, or a salt thereof (with the provisio that three specific compounds (not shown here) are excluded for most of the contracting states).

The dissent starts with the technical effect achieved by the distinguishing feature: The patentee asserts that there is a synergism between thiamethoxam and the compounds of formula Ia as incecticides, while the opponent holds that there is no technical effect achieved by the distinguishing feature at all.

What I believe is important to note is that the synergism had already been indicated in the application as filed; see e.g. [0009]. What is more, a synergism has been shown for two embodiments of formula Ia in the application as filed (examples 2 and 5). Further, even the closest prior art D4 had already been mentioned in the background section of the application as filed; see [0004], ‘Patent Literature No. 2’.

the questions

The minutes of the hearing of 22 July 2021 hold that the provisionally formulated questions read follows:

If for acknowledgement of inventive step the patent proprietor relies on a technical effect and has submitted data or other evidence to proof such effect, such data or other evidence having been generated only after the priority or filing date of the patent (post-published data):

(1)   Should an exception to the principle of free evaluation of evidence (see e.g. G 1/12 reasons 31) be accepted in that the post-published data must be disregarded on the ground that the proof of the effect rests exclusively on such post-published data?

(2)   If the answer is yes (post published data must be disregarded if the proof of the effect rests exclusively on these data): can post-published data be taken into consideration if based on the information in the patent application the skilled person at the relevant date would have considered the effect plausible (ab initio plausibility)?

(3)   If the answer to the first question is yes (post published data must be disregarded if the proof of the effect rests exclusively on these data): can post-published data be taken into consideration if based on the information in the patent application the skilled person at the relevant date would have seen no reason to consider the effect implausible (ab initio implausibility)?

The parties had been asked for comments on the spot in the hearing. The appellant would prefer to more precisely define the effective date, as well as to address the full ambit of the claim more precisely. The respondent suggested that an additional question should address the burden of proof of the occurrence or absence of the technical effect.

case law cited by the board

Not much more can be learned from the minutes, but the earlier preliminary opinion of the Board gives some more insight into what this Board considers to be deviating case-law.

Ab-initio plausibility criterion applied

In first place, the Board acknowledges that according to various decisions it is a precondition for taking into account post-published evidence to demonstrate a certain effect that it was already plausible at the filing date that said effect was obtained (which is what the Board refers to as ‘ab initio plausibility’); ¶8.5. In particular, the Board referred to the following decisions:

Ab-initio plausibility criterion not applied

On the contrary, the Board holds that the legal basis for such a criterion «has been questioned» — however, without explaining where or why; ¶8.6. I hope the Board will expand a bit more on that in the reasoned decision. For the time being, the Board merely holds that

[…] in numerous decisions, the ab-initio plausibility criterion was not applied.”

By way of example, the Board referred to the following decisions (of one and the same Board, i.e. Board 3.3.10):

In the former decision, the Board had held that

[…] any effects may be taken into account, so long as they concern the same field of use and do not change the character of the invention.

In the latter decision, it had been held that not taking into account the post-published experimental results would contravene the gist of the problem-solution approach: Since the applicant / patentee might well be faced with an unexpected document as closest prior art, based on which the distinguishing feature and the objective technical problem has to be defined, it should be possible to show by way of experimental evidence that this newly formulated technical problem has indeed been solved.

The preliminary opinion further referred to T 31/18 (PDF | HTML), ¶2.5.2 where a similar approach had been taken.

(No) diverging case law

The decisions referred to by the Board where the ‘ab-initio plausibility’ criterion had been applied concerned the situation where the technical problem allegedly solved by the invention had not been reformulated. The patent applications purported that a certain effect had been achieved, and it was all about whether or not this had been indeed ‘plausible’ from the application in view of the common general knowledge itself are not. In fact, the decisions are classic examples of (very) broad claims supported only by vague — if not speculative — specifications.

On the contrary, the decisions referred to by the Board where the ‘ab-initio plausibility’ criterion had not been applied concerned the situation where the technical problem had to be reformulated in an objective manner, in view of the objectively closest prior art and the resulting distinguishing feature.

In my view, the second line of decisions in no way contradicts the first line of decisions referred to by the Board. Actually, I have much sympathy for a different approach in these two situations. In my view, it is settled case-law of the Boards of Appeal that the definition of an invention as being a contribution to the art, i.e. as solving a technical problem and not merely putting one forward, requires that it was at least made plausible by the disclosure in the application as filed that its teaching indeed solved the problem it purported to solve; see e.g. T 1329/04. The situation where the application as filed «purports to solve» a certain technical problem is obviously the one where the definition of the technical problem has not been changed. In such cases, the onus is understandably on the applicant in first place to show that the problem is indeed solved, in particular when a very broad claim (sometimes covering thousands of compounds) is supported by almost nothing in the specification. Frankly, how likely is it that essentially all compounds within a vast variety covered by a Markush formula will do equally good?

On the contray, when the objective technical problem is reformulated (but still within the gist of the original invention) in view of e.g. an unexpected closest prior art being assessed in the problem-solution approach, I cannot see how an applicant could be barred from presenting post-published evidence in support of his argument that this (re-formulated) problem is actually solved. Doing otherwise would mean that an applicant would have to anticipate any potentially differentiating features over a myriad of unknown prior art documents, in order to provide at least some indications of plausibility already in the application as filed — which is obviously not doable. This is why I feel that the second line of case law is a very sensible approach of how to deal with post-published evidence in support of a certain technical effect in the situation where the applicant/patentee is confronted with a reformulated objective technical problem: More liberally than in situations where the applicant could and should have made the technical effect plausible upfront, i.e. when it is still the very same effect he purported to have solved in the application as filed.

To be clear, I am not advocating in favour of the plausibility criterion in general. Very specific ‘armchair inventions’ (e.g. claiming specific compound) are perfectly fine, in my view, even without any further explanation of how and why the invention works. As long as the  invention does work and the skilled person is sufficiently enabled to work the invention based on the information in the application as filed, there is no reason to demand more from an applicant. However, claims covering a huge number of compounds that allegedly all solve the very same technical problem are suspicious right from the outset. In such cases, it is appropriate to demand more from an applicant in order to properly support the assumption that the claimed effect really occurs over the entire scope.

In sum, I currently fail to see diverging case law of the Boards of Appeal in this respect. And there is no need for an exception to the principle of free evaluation of evidence. As always, it depends whether or not post-published evidence should be taken into account. And I feel it is important that the Boards have some leeway to accept or refuse post-published evidence depending on the circumstances, as outlined above.

Now, we have to wait for the decision of the Board with the actual wording of the questions to be referred to the Enlarged Board of Appeal. Based on the provisional formulation of the questions and in view of the above, I feel that the referral would be inadmissible because there simply is no diverging case law. I would not mind.

Reported by Martin WILMING

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Case No. T 116/18 – 3.3.02 (EPO) | Hearing of 22 July 2021

Appellant / Opponent:

Syngenta Ltd.

Representative: HGF

Respondent / Patentee:

Sumitomo Chemical Company, Ltd.

Representative: Winter, Brandl – Partnerschaft mbB

Composition of the Board:

Chairman: Marcus O. MÜLLER
Rapporteur: Achim LENZEN
Minute writer: Paul DE HEIJ

MINUTES

PRELIMINARY OPINION

PATENT AT STAKE

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