Monday, June 17, 2019

A Person of Ordinary Skill Is Not a Person of Ordinary Skill

Aux Sable Liquid Products LP v JL Energy Transportation Inc 2019 FC 581 Southcott J

I’ve already written posts discussing issues related to obviousness, utility, overbreadth and anticipation that were raised in Aux Sable, but there are still a couple of outstanding issues of minor interest.

One is that when it comes to obviousness, the legal person of ordinary skill in the art is not a person of ordinary skill in the art. Several of the expert witnesses in this case were confused on this point (emphasis added):

[27] However, I do find merit to the concern that JL Energy raises about [Aux Sable’s expert] Dr. Sharma’s understanding of the Skilled Person. Dr. Sharma was clear in his testimony that his conception of the Skilled Person was an engineer with an average level of inventiveness. This conflicts with the description of the Skilled Person by Mr. Justice Rothstein, in Sanofi-Synthelabo Canada Inc. v. Apotex Inc., 2008 SCC 61 [Sanofi] at para 52, as a “… technician skilled in the art but having no scintilla of inventiveness or imagination …”.

A similar error was made by JL Energy’s experts, Dr. Monnery [34] and Dr Ryan [39]–[40]. All three made the error of thinking the POSITA would have some degree of inventiveness; this error is quite understandable, given that the words “person of ordinary skill in the art” do suggest, well, a person of ordinary skill in the art, and all three experts believed that an ordinary engineer of average skill would have some degree of inventiveness — a belief no doubt shared by anyone who has ever interacted with actual engineers or scientists.

This view, while entirely understandable, is an error of law, as pointed out by Southcott J [34]. The POSITA does not reflect a person of ordinary skill, but rather a “mythical” being, described in Beloit (1986), 8 CPR (3d) 289, 294 (FCA) as having “no scintilla of inventiveness or imagination; a paragon of deduction and dexterity, wholly devoid of intuition; a triumph of the left hemisphere over the right” – that is, a being nothing much like an actual ordinary scientist or engineer. Southcott J capitalized Skilled Person in his reasons, which helps remind us that we are not talking about a skilled person.

The legal point made by Southcott J is not new, but the experts’ confusion should give us pause. The original statement of the test for obviousness, which is the ultimate source of the test set out in the Act, was the famous Cripps question, formulated by Stafford Cripps, KC, in argument in Sharp & Dohme v Boots Pure Drug Co (1928) 45 RPC 153 (CA), 162–63 and adopted by Lord Hanworth MR at 173:

‘The real question is: was it for all practical purposes obvious to any skilled chemist in the state of chemical knowledge existing at the date of the patent which consists of the chemical literature available (a selection of which appears in the Particulars of Objections) and his general chemical knowledge, that he could manufacture valuable therapeutic agents by [the process specified in the patent]…’

This, on its face, appears to be a factual inquiry about a skilled chemist, who is hypothetical in representing an average person, rather than any particular individual, but otherwise actually ordinary in the degree of skill. How then was the “skilled person” of patent law transformed from a person of average ingenuity, to one with no scintilla of inventiveness? To answer this question is beyond the scope of a blog post, but the confusion of the experts in Aux Sables is a reminder of this puzzle.

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