Friday, October 19, 2018

Actavis Extended Protection Applied by EWCA

Icescape Ltd v Ice-World International BV & Ors [2018] EWCA Civ 2219 var’g [2017] EWHC 42 (Pat) Baldwin QC
EP (UK) 1,462,755 / “Cooling member for a mobile ice rink"

In Icescape, the EWCA applied the Actavis approach to infringement for the first time, holding that the defendant's product did not infringe as a matter of "normal" construction, but that it did infringe as a matter of extended protection. The main take-away is that it appears that the Actavis approach is here to stay: the EWCA applied it easily and without qualification. 

In Actavis [2017] UKSC 48 Lord Neuberger, writing for a unanimous UKSC, held that infringement should be approached by addressing two issues: (i) first, whether the defendant’s product falls within the scope of the claims as a matter of “normal” interpretation — that is, the words of the claim, purposively construed; and (ii) if the product nonetheless infringes as a matter of protection which extends beyond that meaning [54], [56]. This effectively reversed Kirin-Amgen [2004] UKHL 46, in which Lord Hoffmann had held that the law “shuts the door on any doctrine which extends protection outside the claims” [44], with Lord Neuberger remarking that Lord Hoffmann had “effectively conflated the two issues” [55]. Lord Neuberger held that extended protection would be limited to immaterial variations [54], and he set out a three-part test for determining when the variant should be considered immaterial [59]-[66].

In many cases, the two-stage approach will not make any difference: if the defendant’s product infringes as a matter of normal interpretation, there is no need to consider extended protection; and if it does not infringe as a matter of normal interpretation, it will often not infringe as a matter of extended protection either. But the two-stage Actavis approach has had an impact in Icescape, the first case in which the EWCA has applied the Actavis approach [91]. The EWCA held that Ice-World’s product did not infringe on normal interpretation, but that it did infringe as a matter of extended protection. (Though in the end, the infringement point was moot, as the patent was invalid as it was not entitled to priority, which was acknowledged to be crucial [3], [44].)

Ice-World’s 755 patent relates to a mobile system for cooling ice rinks, and in particular the system of pipes for delivering and recovering coolant. A typical prior art system comprised a feed manifold and a discharge manifold running parallel to one another, with a series of orthogonal cooling pipes running the length of the field [6], substantially as shown in Fig 8 (with one exception). The problem with the prior art is that the cooling pipes had to be assembled and disassembled on site, which was time-consuming, both because of assembly time and because of the need to check for leaks. The solution provided by the invention was to use flexible joint members (element 70 in Fig 8) to construct the cooling pipes, so that the pipes could be folded for transportation. This reduced assembly and disassembly time, and allowed leak-checking to be done prior to transport. Thus, the “inventive core” of the patent was the use of a flexible joint member, which allowed the system to be folded [72].
Picture 1
The defendant Icescape’s system was substantially the same as that described in the patent, including the flexible joint members, with one difference which was at the heart of the case on infringement. Icescape’s system used three cooling elements connected in parallel, as shown below [49], in contrast with the series connection shown in the patent specification and illustrated in Fig 8 [49]. Icescape’s system is therefore a variant of the system described in the patent, in that it uses a parallel rather than series connection. Icescape accepted that its system incorporated all of the other features of the claim [45], and the question was therefore whether infringement was avoided by the fact that the elements in its system were connected in parallel rather than in series.
Picture 3
Claim 1, the only claim at issue, claimed a system of course comprising a flexible joint member (integer C), to capture the inventive core of the invention [27]. The other elements of Claim 1 were common general knowledge, including integers D and E, which on a “normal” interpretation of Claim 1 specified a series connection [70]. (Note that 1 Kitchin expressly equated “normal” interpretation with “purposive” interpretation [70].) Because Icescape’s system used a parallel connection, it therefore did not infringe on a normal or purposive interpretation of the language of claim. This is a classic scenario, reminiscent of McPhar Engineering v Sharpe Instruments [1956-60] Ex CR 467, 35 CPR 105 (Ex Ct). In addition to the novel integer, the patentee also had to include other ancillary integers, which were part of the common general knowledge, in order to claim an operative system. The defendant had taken the novel integer, but implemented a variant of the conventional integers, so as to avoid coming within the language of the claims [72].

After concluding that Icescape’s system did not infringe as a matter of normal interpretation, Lord Kitchin then went on to apply the three part test set out in Actavis. The first Actavis question asks whether the variant “achieves substantially the same result in substantially the same way as the invention,” or more briefly, whether the variant takes the “inventive core” of the invention [72]. The answer was clear: “I do not think there can be any doubt about the answer to this question,” as the “inventive core of the patent” is the flexible member (70), which was taken by Icescape [72].

The second Actavis question asks not just whether the variant took the inventive core, but further whether it would be obvious to a skilled person that the variant took to the inventive core. Again, Lord Kitchin had no hesitation answering this question in the affirmative: “it would be entirely obvious to the skilled person that, so far as the inventive core of the patent is concerned, the Icescape system achieves substantially the same result. . . in precisely the same way” [73].

The third Actavis question is whether strict compliance with the language of the claims is nonetheless required. Lord Kitchin noted that “the fact that the language of the claim does not cover the variant is certainly not enough to justify holding that Icescape does not satisfy this question” [74]. Lord Kitchin concluded that the answer to this question is “plainly ‘no’,” essentially because it was obvious that the inventive core had nothing to do with integers D and E.

Icescape is important as being the first application by the EWCA of the extended form of protection set out Actavis; and it is all the more important because the application of the test was so routine. The EWCA applied Actavis without difficulty and without hesitation. There was no attempt to find a loophole, perhaps through the third Actavis question, the precise ambit of which remains unclear. It is significant that Lord Kitchin, an experienced and eminent patent law judge, wrote the main decision. Moreover, Floyd LJ, the other experienced patent law judge on the panel, wrote a brief concurring opinion devoted largely to explaining how the Actavis approach is consistent with Art 69(1) of the EPC and the Protocol on its interpretation. The Protocol seeks a middle ground between two extremes. Floyd LJ explained that purposive construction of the language of the claims “now represents the minimum protection afforded by the patent” [96], but the Actavis approach still avoids the other extreme, where the claims are a mere guideline:

[97] It should not be thought, however, that the claims do not continue to have an important function. It is variants from the claim which have to achieve substantially the same effect in substantially same way as the invention. The claims remain the starting point for the subsequent analysis of variants. Although we may have edged closer to it, the new approach does not transgress the second of the outlawed approaches in the Protocol, which treats the claim merely as a somewhat vague guideline.

While it would be wrong to extrapolate with too much confidence from a single decision, the early signs are that the Actavis approach will be accepted and indeed embraced, by the EWCA, and, with Lord Kitchen’s appointment to the UKSC, at that level as well.

Icescape also illustrates that extended protection under Actavis does not necessarily lead to uncertainty. On the facts of this case, as Floyd LJ pointed out, the application of these new principles does not create any difficulty” [98]. Indeed, in this case the normal interpretation was “not...an easy question to answer” [70], while the analysis of extended protection under Actavis was straightforward.

Another significant point concerns the use of prosecution history. In addition to setting out a new approach to claim construction, Lord Neuberger in Actavis held that the prosecution history might be used, albeit in limited circumstances [87], though on the facts he concluded that the prosecution history did not justify departing from his initial conclusion based on the patent itself [89]. In Icescape Lord Kitchin accepted that Ice-World should be permitted to rely on the prosecution history [76], but, like Lord Neuberger in Actavis, he concluded that the prosecution history did not change his initial conclusion, as the contents of the file “do not unambiguously resolve the point with which we have to deal as to the scope of protection conferred by claim 1" [79]. He concluded that “this is a very good illustration of why it is generally so unprofitable to explore the prosecution history” [79]. In Canada, of course, prosecution history may not be used (Free World [66]), but I have written some posts suggesting that it may be time to revisit that rule: see here and generally here. I have to say that I am beginning to reconsider that position. The argument in favour of using prosecution history is that it is unfair to allow a patentee to explicitly give up subject-matter during prosecution, and then reclaim it during litigation. I remain sympathetic to the argument. However, there is also a fairness consideration on the other side, as the use of prosecution history can put the patentee between a rock and hard place, when, as happened in Actavis, the examiner is probably wrong on the merits, but the patentee needs to get its patent granted in order to effectively protect its product. And aside from fairness arguments, there is the point made by the SCC in Free World [66], and illustrated by Icescape, that use of prosecution history estoppel will often be a Pandora’s box, which adds complexity and uncertainty without improving the result. Since writing my earlier posts on prosecution history, I have read more about the mess that is the US doctrine of prosecution history estoppel, and I have come to have greater appreciation for the force of that argument.

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