October 2012 Issue

EPO Practice

A New Look at Third-Party Observations in the EPO: A Potentially Valuable Tool in the EPO as well as in the USPTO

Due to recent changes in European Patent Office (EPO) procedures, EPO third-party observations deserve a fresh look.  Indeed, well-crafted EPO observations can be highly valuable weapons in the battle for freedom to operate.  In some circumstances, they can also be readily coordinated with USPTO submissions to challenge patent claims in both jurisdictions.

Compared to oppositions, third-party observations have been rarely used, according to the informal evidence available.  This might be due to concern that the observation filer is not a party to the proceedings and may have less influence than an opponent, or to concern that, if the examining division does not recognize the merits of an observation, making the same arguments later in an opposition may be more difficult.  Oppositions, however, also have their own disadvantages.  First, of course, the challenger must wait until a patent issues before acting.  Second, oppositions can take years to resolve and can be relatively expensive to pursue, particularly if the matter is appealed.  The result might be years of uncertainty, especially where the issued patent blocks freedom to operate in a critical area. 

On the other hand, a persuasive observation may clear a freedom-to-operate hurdle before any patent even issues, and at a much lower cost.  Moreover, as many companies now regularly track the prosecution of competitors’ pending patent applications on-line using the European Patent Register or the USPTO’s PAIR system, they may have already developed arguments that could serve as the basis for an observation. 

Observations under Article 115 EPC may be submitted on a variety of patentability grounds, including novelty, inventive step, sufficiency under Article 83, patentability under Articles 52(2), 52(3), 53, and 57, unallowable claim amendments under Articles 76(1) and 123(2), and clarity under Article 84, which cannot be a ground for opposition.  They may be submitted anonymously, with no filing fee, and in English, French, or German.  They may be submitted at any time after publication of a pending application, including after a patent applicant has received a Rule 71(3) communication, indicating the EPO’s intent to grant a patent.  They may also be submitted in an ongoing opposition, as well as during appeal proceedings.  The EPO particularly values observations that are “well-structured and concise,” and notes that “[o]bservations containing particularly relevant objections can also considerably reduce the length of the [examination] procedure.”  See Notice from the European Patent Office concerning the filing of third-party observations under Article 115 EPC by means of an online form (issued May 10, 2011).

Perhaps recognizing the value of persuasive observations, the EPO now requires that the examining or opposition division “comment on the relevance of the observation in the next communication to the parties of the proceedings.” Id.  To make filing observations simpler, the EPO also created a dedicated Internet site for their submission. Id.

Thus, particularly where one has strong arguments against patentability that can be stated concisely, observations should be considered seriously as a means to improve freedom to operate.  In addition, in certain cases, an EPO observation can be coordinated with pre- and post-grant submissions in the USPTO to challenge patents or applications in both jurisdictions.

For example, as of September 16, 2012, the USPTO now has its own form of third-party observation called a preissuance submission.  See 35 U.S.C. § 122(e); 37 C.F.R. § 1.290.  Preissuance submissions are more limited than EPO observations in that they may only be submitted in pending applications prior to examination on the merits and are restricted to arguments related to printed publications.  See 35 U.S.C. § 122(e); 37 C.F.R. § 1.290.  But, like observations, they are relatively cheap to submit and can be filed anonymously.  See 35 U.S.C. § 122(e); 37 C.F.R. § 1.290.

While USPTO preissuance submissions are a new procedure whose effects remain to be seen, and while U.S. attorneys also often prefer to save their best arguments for later litigation, preissuance submissions have some distinct advantages when one considers the alternatives.  The USPTO’s new post-grant procedures, for example, have initial filing fees in the tens of thousands of dollars, cannot be filed anonymously, and may substantially limit arguments that can be made in a later litigation against the patent holder.  Thus, where arguments are strong and simple to explain, and are based around published materials, coordinating an EPO observation with a USPTO preissuance submission may be an inexpensive one-two punch against pending applications in both jurisdictions.

EPO observations might also influence USPTO proceedings in other ways as well.  For example, patent applicants in the USPTO have a duty to submit information of which they are aware that is material to patentability.  See 37 C.F.R. § 1.56.  This may include information submitted in prosecution or opposition proceedings outside the United States.  Filing an observation in a parallel EPO proceeding might provoke the patent applicant to submit, not only the observation to the U.S. examiner, but also the EPO’s response to the observation, in the USPTO, in order to avoid a risk of the U.S. patent being found unenforceable.

Likewise, an EPO observation may also be used to ensure that the EPO examining or opposition decision considers unpatentability arguments raised in parallel proceedings in other jurisdictions, such as the USPTO.  For example, arguments raised in a USPTO post-grant proceeding may similarly be reformatted and submitted as an EPO observation during a parallel EPO opposition, so long as the observation filer is not a party to the opposition.

Thus, EPO observations may be valuable tactical tools in the fight for freedom to operate in a variety of situations, and deserve a serious second look.