Monday, October 3, 2022

Simultaneous Invention Does Not Necessarily Indicate Obviousness

Betser-Zilevitch v PetroChina Canada Ltd 2022 FCA 162 Locke JA: Stratas, Rivoalen JJA affg 2021 FC 85 and 2021 FC 151 (costs) Manson J

            2,584,627 / Heavy Oil Well Production

There are a few points of interest in Locke JA’s brief decision for the FCA, affirming Manson J decision holding the 627 patent to be valid but not infringed, and dismissing both the patentee’s appeal on the issue of non-infringement and the defendant’s appeal of validity.

As discussed here, Manson J’s conclusion that the defendant’s product did not infringe turned on claim construction, and in particular construction of the term “first level.” A first point is that the parties did not agree on the standard of review. While the arguments weren’t canvassed, I expect the general thrust was that claim construction is a matter for the court, implying it is a question of law, reviewable for correctness; but on the other hand, construction of a technical term turns on what a skilled person would understand it to mean, and so is factually suffused, suggesting a standard of palpable and overriding error. Locke JA stated that “it is not necessary to decide the point. We would dismiss the appeal regardless of the standard of review” [3]. This suggests that the point remains open, though it could just be that Locke JA didn’t want to digress on a matter that didn’t make any difference.

The second claim construction point relates to the long-running debate over whether recourse to the description in interpreting a claim term is always permissible, or if it is permissible only if the term is ambiguous. As discussed here, the point seemed to have been settled in the recent FCA decision in Biogen v Pharmascience / fampidrine 2022 FCA 143 [73] in which Gauthier JA stated unequivocally that “the whole disclosure must be reviewed, even for words that would appear at first glance to be simple and unambiguous when reading only the claims.” The decision under appeal predated Biogen, and Manson J [FC 116–19] had noted the ambiguity in the contentious term, “first level,” before having recourse to the description to construe it. In affirming, Locke JA stated

[5] The Federal Court made no reviewable error in construing the term “first level”. It correctly concluded that the term is ambiguous, and appropriately had recourse to the disclosure of the 627 Patent to construe it.

This might be taken to suggest that recourse to the disclosure is permissible only if the term is ambiguous; if recourse to the disclosure is always permissible, why bother mentioning the Manson J “correctly” found the term to be ambiguous? So it is possible that this is a signal that there is an ongoing split in the Court of Appeal as to whether recourse to the disclosure is always permissible (though Rivoalen JA was on both panels). On the other hand, that may be reading too much into it. Locke JA’s statement is not strictly inconsistent with the view that recourse to the disclosure is always permissible; and on the facts, the term was ambiguous, Manson J did have recourse to the description, there was nothing wrong with that, and Manson J did correctly construe the term in light of the description. My best guess is that Locke JA simply didn’t want to digress on a matter that didn’t make any difference. In any event, even if there is some kind of split at the FCA, so far as the Federal Court is concerned, the clear statement in Biogen is binding until the FCA says otherwise.

On the issue of validity, the appellant pointed to the fact that a third party had made the invention at roughly the same time as being evidence of obviousness, and indeed, as being “primary” evidence of obviousness [9]. (It was not anticipatory as it had not been disclosed to the public.) Locke JA pointed out that “it does not follow that simultaneous invention necessarily indicates obviousness. . . . For instance, the person or persons who conceived the simultaneous invention may have themselves exercised inventive ingenuity in doing so” [9]. This seems to me to be clearly right: when many people are working on the same problem with similar tools, that two of them come up with the same solution may mean the solution is easy, or it may mean that two of the many people working on the problem were clever. It is very helpful to have the point made explicitly, as there isn’t much Canadian caselaw that I know of addressing it directly. Viscount Dunedin made the point in passing in Pope Appliance (1929) 46 RPC 23 (JCPC) 55, stating that “There are many instances in various branches of science of independent investigators making the same discovery,” and the English Court of Appeal in Mölnlycke v Procter & Gamble [1994] RPC 49 (CA) 132, remarked that “The inventive step may not have been large and it is not surprising to us that more than one inventor may have had broadly the same idea at around the same time.” Moreover, the conflict system under the old first-to-invent regime is an implicit recognition of the fact that simultaneous invention is quite common. With that said, while simultaneous invention in itself is not very helpful in establishing obviousness, the actual course of conduct of the other researchers may be useful, in the same way as the actual course of conduct of the inventors themselves: if other researchers arrived easily at the same solution to the same problem, this suggests obviousness, while if the other researchers struggled, this tends to show non-obviousness. However, the actual course of conduct of the other researchers is much less likely to be available.