Thursday, November 1, 2018

Did Ciba Change the Windsurfing / Pozzoli Test?

Frac Shack Inc v AFD Petroleum Ltd 2018 FC 1047 Manson J on remand from 2018 FCA 140 Gleason JA: Webb, Laskin JJA

At trial in Frac Shack v AFD 2017 FC 104 (here) Manson J held several claims of Frac Shack's 567 patent to be valid and infringed. On appeal, the FCA reversed in part, holding that Manson J made a palpable and overriding error in his definition of the POSITA [FCA 41] (see here), and conseqeuntly returned the matter for redetermination of a number of issues related to claim construction and obviousness. Mason J was evidently somewhat miffed: he reminded us all that “an Appeal Court must read all relevant portions of the Trial Court’s reasons holistically and with an open mind” [12], and he might be taken to have suggested that the FCA itself conflated the question of who the POSITA is and what that notional person would know [13]. In the end, he clarified his initial decision by making explicit what he considered had already been implicit [24]. Unsurprisingly, then, none of his conclusions changed.

Of more general interest, Manson J dismissed arguments by the defendant that the decisions in Ciba 2017 FCA 225 (see here) and AstraZeneca 2017 SCC 36 (here), had changed the Windsurfing/Pozzoli test for obviousness.

In particular, in Ciba [77], in the course of discussing the second step of the Windsurfing/Pozzoli test for obviousness which was adopted in Sanofi 2008 SCC 61, [67], the FCA said:

There may be cases in which the inventive concept can be grasped without difficulty but it appears to me that because “inventive concept” remains undefined, the search for it has brought considerable confusion into the law of obviousness. That uncertainty can be reduced by simply avoiding the inventive concept altogether and pursuing the alternate course of construing the claim.

Manson J remarked that “the FCA’s comments are recognition of the difficulties that a court may face when attempting to identify the inventive concept of a claim. They do not suggest that the proper approach is to bypass this analysis as a matter of course and proceed directly to construing the claim” [52]. I don’t disagree with this statement, and I entirely agree with how Manson J applied it in Frac Shack itself, but I might elaborate slightly. Step 2 as set out in Sanofi is as follows:

(2) Identify the inventive concept of the claim in question or if that cannot readily be done, construe it;

There is a lot of latitude as to what “readily” means. How much effort should the court and the parties devote to identifying the inventive concept before turning to claim construction? The trend in a number of FC cases prior to Ciba had gone quite far to one extreme. The debate over the inventive concept could get very involved, to the point that the outcome of the obviousness analysis would turn on a dispute as to the “correct” inventive concept; it was almost as if step (2) had said nothing but “Identify the inventive concept.” As I see it, the FCA was strongly disapproving of this trend. The question then is how far to the other way we should go. As I read it, in Ciba the FCA was indeed suggesting that the proper approach is quite far towards the other end, on the view that the notion of the “inventive concept” is so poorly defined that it may be useful only in cases in which it can be “grasped without difficulty.” So, I agree with Manson J that Ciba did not say that identification of the inventive concept should be bypassed as “a matter of course,” but on the other hand, it did warn against devoting any substantial effort to the problem. 

It is perhaps worth repeating the key passage from Pozzoli [2007] EWCA Civ 588 [19]-[20] itself:

In some cases the parties cannot agree on what the concept is. If one is not careful such a disagreement can develop into an unnecessary satellite debate. In the end what matters is/are the difference(s) between what is claimed and the prior art. It is those differences which form the "step" to be considered at stage (4). So if a disagreement about the inventive concept of a claim starts getting too involved, the sensible way to proceed is to forget it and simply to work on the features of the claim.

In other cases, however, one need not get into finer points of construction – even without them the concept is fairly apparent – in Windsurfing, for instance, it was the “free sail” concept. In yet other cases it is not even practical to try to identify a concept – a chemical class claim would often be a good example of this.

On the one hand, we may look to the inventive concept if it is “fairly apparent,” but should avoid it if the task becomes “too involved.”

Both Pozzoli and Sanofi describe step (2) in terms which leave broad latitude as to how much effort is too much when trying to identify the inventive concept. I see the FCA in Ciba indicating that the lower end of that broad range is appropriate. This is not inconsistent with anything in Pozzoli and Sanofi, but neither is it merely restating exactly same test; it is a refinement of step (2) in light of experience. That is how the common law is supposed to work. And it is also a suggestion to the SCC that step (2) of the Windsurfing / Pozzoli test may need even more fundamental revision.

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