Delta Patents

J 23/14 - Pendency revisited: the 6-month period for paying the renewal fee with an additional fee

Delta Patents Patent Law -


Just after the Guidelines explicitly indicated that a patent application is still pending for the purpose of filing a divisional until the expiry of the 6-month period for paying the renewal fee (even if that fee is not paid), T 1402/13 ruled that the deemed withdrawal of a patent application occured if the renewal fee was not paid at the due date - and that the patent application was thus not pending in the 6-month period if the fees were ultimately not paid (see our earlier blog). Shortly after T 1402/13, R.51(2) was amended (per 1/1/2017) for clarification by addition of a last sentence "The legal consequence laid down in Article 86, paragraph 1, shall ensue upon expiry of the six-month period." The current J-decision addresses the topic again, and refers to the EPC1973 situation, the explanatory notes of EPC2000's drafting, the distinguishing T 1402/14, R.51(2) as amended per 1/1/2017, and EPO form 2522, which was sent to the party in the present case and clearly states that a patent application is deemed withdrawn only upon expiry of the six-month grace period for paying the renewal fee with additional fee. This J-decision concludes as follows: Notwithstanding the wording of Article 86(1) EPC 2000 and Rule 51 EPC (in the version in force until 31 December 2016), for the sake of the protection of legitimate expectations of the users of the European patent system, the Board holds that a patent application is deemed to be withdrawn only upon expiry of the six-month grace period for paying the renewal fee with additional fee under Rule 51(2) EPC, in accordance with the jurisprudence that prevailed before decision T 1402/13. The current decision addresses whether the loss of rights occured due to the missing of a period -as that is a prerequisite for re-establishment-, when the period that led to the loss of rights expired, and also when the removal of the cause of non-compliance occured.

Summary of Facts and Submissions

I. The appellant (applicant) contests the decision of the Examining Division dated 4 July 2014 rejecting its request for re-establishment of rights concerning European patent application No. 09 736 867.4, which was based on international application WO 2011/029482 filed on 14 September 2009. The international application entered the European phase on 20 March 2012.

II. The renewal fee for the fourth year - which is the subject of these proceedings - fell due on 30 September 2012. The six-month time limit pursuant to Rule 51(2) EPC for paying the renewal fee with an additional fee expired on 31 March 2013. By communication dated 5 November 2012, the European Patent Office (EPO) sent a notice drawing attention to the non-payment of the renewal fee for the fourth year and to Rule 51(2) EPC to the appointed European representative. By communication dated 6 May 2013, the EPO sent a notice of loss of rights pursuant to Rule 112(1) EPC to the appointed European representative.

III. By letter dated 4 June 2013 and received at the EPO on the same day, the European representative requested re-establishment of rights pursuant to Article 122(1) EPC in respect of the time limit for payment of the renewal fee for the fourth year with the additional fee. The renewal fee for the fourth year, the additional fee and the fee for re-establishment were also paid on 4 June 2013.

IV. By the decision now contested, the Examining Division rejected the request for re-establishment of rights. It came to the conclusion that the request was admissible but not allowable because it had not been proven that the appellant itself, its European representative and its US patent attorneys had exercised all due care required by the circumstances to observe the time limit.

V. On 1 September 2014, the appellant filed a notice of appeal and paid the appeal fee. The statement setting out the grounds of appeal was filed on 21 October 2014.

VI. As far as they are relevant for the Board's decision, the appellant's submissions can be summarised as follows:

The international application led to a group of national applications in Australia, Brazil, China, India, Japan, Korea and the United States. Whereas all these applications were successfully entered into the appellant's docketing system IPENDO, the European application in question was "inadvertently, inexplicably and unintentionally" not uploaded into this system.

Concerning IPENDO it was submitted that this system, which served both as a docketing reminder system and an annuity payment service, contained a comprehensive storehouse of information regarding the appellant's pending intellectual property matters, which amounted to several thousand patent and trademark matters. One "standard practice" of IPENDO was to send periodic reminders to the appellant regarding upcoming annuities due, including annuities for patent applications pending before the EPO. Because the system was unaware of the existence of the European application in question the system failed in the present case.

The appellant further submitted that, during the second half of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013, its patent and trademark matters had been transferred to a new docketing system called "Foundation IP (FIP)", which was used by its new US patent attorneys Kacvinsky Daisak PLLC. Later annuities were handled by a new outside annuity service (Computer Packages, Inc. (CPI)). Since the application in question had never been added to IPENDO it was neither transferred to FIP nor to CPI. The appellant also submitted that, despite these changes, at the time the renewal fee was due as well as at the time the annuity grace period expired, the responsibility for payment of annuities still remained with IPENDO.

VII. In a communication issued together with a summons to the oral proceedings, the Board drew attention to the jurisprudence of the boards of appeal according to which the application of "all due care" requires the setting-up of a "cross-checking system". It was also emphasised that the Board was of the preliminary opinion that the existence of such a system within the appellant's internal organisation has not been proven.

VIII. In reaction to this, the appellant provided more details to its practice of uploading data to IPENDO, as follows:

Once its patent attorney submitted documents relating to a newly filed application, one of three persons in charge of patents within the appellant's company entered this data into IPENDO and one of the other two persons compared the integrated data with the document submitted by the patent attorney.

The appellant further specified that, by email dated 9 November 2012, its European representative not only informed the US representative that the time limit for paying the renewal fee for the fourth year with surcharge would expire on 31 March 2013 - as submitted in writing - but at the same time, i.e. 9 November 2012, it also sent a copy of this email directly to the appellant. Since this email had been answered neither by the appellant nor by its US representatives, the European representative sent two further emails dated 7 and 20 March 2013 solely to its US colleagues, asking for a confirmation of receipt. The US representatives finally replied on 20 March 2013: "Received!!!".

IX. The appellant requested that the decision under appeal be set aside and that the request for re-establishment of rights in respect of the time limit for paying the renewal fee for the fourth year with surcharge be allowed.

X. Oral proceedings were held on 15 December 2016.

Reasons for the Decision

1. The appeal complies with Articles 106 to 108 EPC and Rule 99 EPC and is admissible.

2. Admissibility of the request for re-establishment of rights

2.1 According to Rule 136(1) EPC a request for re-establishment of rights under Article 122(1) EPC shall be filed within two months of the removal of the cause of non-compliance with the period, which is normally the date on which the person responsible for the application becomes aware of the fact that a time limit has not been observed (cf. J 27/90, OJ EPO 1993, 422, 426), but at the latest within one year following the expiry of the unobserved time limit.

2.2 On 5 November 2012 the Office sent a communication (EPO Form 2522) to the appellant's European representative informing him of the non-payment of the renewal fee for the fourth year under Rule 51(1) EPC and the possibility to validly pay the renewal fee together with the additional fee within the six-month period following the due date. This communication also comprised the following information: "If the renewal fee and the additional fee are not paid in due time, the European patent application shall be deemed to be withdrawn (Art. 86(1) EPC)."

On 6 May 2013, in another communication, the appellant's European representative was informed that the time limit pursuant to Rule 51(2) EPC had also been missed and that the application was thus deemed to be withdrawn. The request for re-establishment of rights was filed on 4 June 2013.

Thus, in the present case, the decisive question is whether the cause of non-compliance was already removed with the receipt of the communication of 5 November 2012 - in which case the request for re-establishment filed on 4 June 2013 would have been late filed - or only with the communication sent out on 6 May 2013. In this case the request for re-establishment of rights dated 4 June 2013 would have been filed in due time.

2.3 Article 122(1) EPC is worded such that it is applicable only where the non-observance of the time limit in question has the direct consequence of a loss of a right or of a means of redress. Thus, according to established jurisprudence, re-establishment of rights can be granted only with respect to the time limit pursuant to Rule 51(2) EPC for paying the renewal fee with an additional fee.

This jurisprudence is based on the view that the non-payment of the renewal fee by the due date pursuant to Rule 51(1) EPC does not result in a loss of rights but that the direct consequence of a loss of rights occurs on expiry of the time limit under Rule 51(2) EPC if it has not been observed. This is in line with the finding of the Enlarged Board of Appeal in its decision G 1/90 (OJ EPO 1991, 275) that where the EPC deems the application to be withdrawn, "the loss of rights occurs on expiry of the time limit that has not been observed" (point 6 of the Reasons). It is also in accordance with the established jurisprudence that the provision on the re-establishment of rights only applies if the applicant has failed to observe a time limit within the meaning of Article 122(1) EPC but not if he has failed to observe a due date such as the due date for paying the renewal fee within the meaning of Article 86(1), first sentence, and Rule 51(1), first sentence, EPC ("Fälligkeit" in the German version and "échéance" in the French version).

2.4 However, the board is also aware of decision T 1402/13 of 31 May 2016 which held that, whereas under Article 86(3) EPC 1973 the loss of rights did not occur before the additional period of six months had elapsed, under the present Article 86(1) EPC 2000 an application was deemed to be withdrawn if the renewal fee was not paid in due time pursuant to Rule 51(1) EPC. The Board in that case further stated that the due date according to Rule 51(1) EPC for paying the renewal fee was "not a time limit in the narrow sense of the word" (point 4.4.1) and that Rule 51(2) EPC provided for a remedy, namely the possibility that a deemed withdrawal could be reversed if the annual fee and the additional fee were paid within six months after the due date (point 4.4.3. of the Reasons).

2.5 This finding in decision T 1402/13 implies that restitutio in integrum in respect of the time limit specified in Rule 51(2) EPC would no longer be admissible since, according to the reasoning of said decision, non-compliance with this time limit does not have "the direct consequence of causing a loss of rights" as required by Article 122(1) EPC.

However, this issue has been clarified in the amended version of Rule 51(2) EPC resulting from the decision of the Administrative Council of 14 December 2016 (CA/D 17/16, OJ EPO 2017 A/02; see also the arguments given in CA/99/16). A second sentence has been added to said Rule which reads as follows: "The legal consequence laid down in Article 86, paragraph 1, shall ensue upon expiry of the six month period."

Although this new provision only applies as of 1 January 2017, it clearly confirms that - despite the wording of Article 86(1) EPC 2000 (see CA/99/16, esp. paragraphs 30 and 31, and the Basic proposal for the revision of the European Patent Convention (document MR 2/00), p. 77) - it was not the intention of the legislator to cancel re-establishment of rights as a mean of redress in such cases.

Hence, for the sake of the protection of the legitimate expectations of the users of the European patent system, who must be able to rely on a communication sent by the EPO (EPO Form 2522, which was sent to the party in the present case, clearly states that a patent application is deemed withdrawn only upon expiry of the six-month grace period for paying the renewal fee with additional fee under Rule 51(2) EPC. see point 2.2 above), the Legal Board considers it appropriate not to diverge from the jurisprudence that prevailed before decision T 1402/13.

2.6 Accordingly, the request for re-establishment of rights which reached the EPO on 4 June 2013 was filed in due time. The necessary acts required under Rule 136(1) and (2) EPC, i.e. payment of the renewal fee for the fourth year with surcharge, payment of the fee for re-establishment and submission of the grounds for re-establishment, were also performed in due time. The appellant's request for re-establishment of rights is therefore admissible.

3. Allowability of the request for re-establishment of rights.

3.1 Under Article 122(1) EPC, an applicant for a European patent who, in spite of all due care required by the circumstances having been taken, was unable to observe a time limit vis-à-vis the EPO, which has the direct consequence of causing a loss of rights, shall, upon request, have his rights re-established.

In considering whether all due care has been taken, the circumstances of each case must be considered as a whole (cf. T 287/84, OJ EPO 1985, 333, 338, point 2 of the Reasons; J 1/07 of 25 July 2007, point 4.1 of the Reasons). The requirement of due care must be judged in the light of the situation existing before the time limit expired (cf. T 667/92 of 10 March 1994, point 3 of the Reasons; T 381/93 of 12 August 1994, point 3 of the Reasons; J 1/07 of 25 July 2007, point 4.1 of the Reasons).

3.2 As the Examining Division correctly pointed out, this duty applies first and foremost to the applicant itself and, by virtue of the delegation implicit in his appointment, to the applicant's professional representatives (cf. J 3/93 of 22 February 1994, point 2.1 of the Reasons; J 17/03 of 18 June 2004, point 5 of the Reasons; T 1401/05 of 20 September 2006, point 13 of the Reasons). Therefore the Board intends to consider first the responsibility of the applicant.

3.2.1 It was already emphasised in the contested decision that the appellant itself had failed to submit sufficient evidence as to whether independent checks or monitoring were foreseen in the organisation of its company making sure that all application data had been entered correctly in the annuity payment system (IPENDO) and that mistakes such as happened in the present case were avoided.

3.2.2 Indeed, according to the established jurisprudence of the boards of appeal, at least in a very big firm where a large number of dates have to be monitored at any given time - as it is the case here - it must normally be expected that an independent and effective system of cross-checks is foreseen in order to counterbalance errors (cf. for example T 223/88 of 6 July 1990, point 4 of the Reasons, explicitly with respect to the requirement of a cross-checking system within the internal organisation of the applicant company; T 1764/08 of 2 December 2010, point 17 of the Reasons; T 36/97 of 21 October 2001, points 14, 15 of the Reasons). In other words, re-establishment in respect of a time limit can only be granted if the reason why it was missed appears to have been an isolated error which occurred in spite of the existence of such a cross-checking system.

3.2.3 In the present case, the initial mistake was that the application in suit was not uploaded into the docketing and annuity payment system (IPENDO), initially used and stewarded by the appellant themselves. According to the appellant's more detailed submissions during the oral proceedings before the Board, a cross-check was only performed in so far as the data already entered in IPENDO were compared with documents submitted by the appellant's patent attorneys.

3.2.4 Such a check is obviously not suitable for detecting missing data in the IPENDO system and therefore cannot be considered as an independent and effective cross-checking system as required by the jurisprudence of the boards of appeal. Thus the mistake that the application in suit was not uploaded into IPENDO cannot be considered as an isolated error in a normally satisfactorily working monitoring system.

3.2.5 Since, according to the appellant's submissions, it was a "standard practice" of IPENDO to send "periodic reminders", the system would have reminded the appellant of both expiry dates. Therefore, the fact that IPENDO lacked information about the application in suit not only caused the non-payment of the renewal fee on the due date pursuant to Rule 51(1) EPC but also has to be seen as - at least one - reason why the appellant failed to pay the renewal fee and the additional fee in due time pursuant to Rule 52(2) EPC. Thus, in this respect it is not relevant that said mistake occurred long before the renewal fee pursuant to Rule 51(1) EPC fell due.

3.2.6 The appellant furthermore argued that, although IPENDO contained several thousand patent and trademark matters owned by the appellant, the application in suit represents the only case where data has not been recorded in this system because of an inadvertent omission. However, this argument was already rejected by the Examining Division with reference to the case law of the boards of appeal according to which the mere allegation that the case at issue was the first instance of unintended failure does not show that a satisfactory system was in place and that thus all due care has been taken (see for example: T 223/88 of 6 July 1990, Reasons, point 5 of the Reasons; T 1764/08 of 20 December 2010, point 20 of the Reasons). The present case does not give any reason to diverge from this case law.

3.2.7 With respect to the responsibility of the appellant, the decisions which it cited do not justify any different treatment.

It is true that the circumstances underlying the case in hand were similar to those of cases J 21/92 and J 24/92 of 16 March 1995 (processed jointly), case J 5/13 of 17 January 2014 or case T 942/12 of 17 November 2015 in so far as, in all these cases, the expiry of the time limits fell within a stretch of time during which the responsibility was transferred to another person ? or at least when there was a confusion about responsibilities. Apart from that, clear differences may justify a distinct treatment.

In cases J 21/92 and J 24/92, the applicant submitted that the transfer of responsibility was made because it wanted to bundle the responsibility, which was originally scattered among a large number of law firms, by arranging for a single computer annuity bureau to take over responsibility for generating renewal reminders and paying renewal fees. In these cases the applicant further stated that the record base for the transfer was created by employees of the annuity bureau visiting the applicant and preparing a listing of the cases identified as being handled by each firm of attorneys.

This listing then was sent to the firms of attorneys originally in charge of the payment with the request that they cross-check it with its own records inform the applicant of any discrepancies (cf. J 21/92 and J 24/92 of 16 March 1995, point II of the Summary of Facts and Submissions). Thus, in cases J 21/92 and J 24/92 an independent cross-checking system was established. This system was suitable to counterbalance possible human errors and therefore in line with the case law of the boards of appeal.

In case J 5/13, with respect to the applicant, the Legal Board decided that the requirements of all due care were met because the applicant ? more specifically the responsible person within the applicant's company ? had no reason to doubt that the appellant's European representative was in possession of necessary contact details for him (cf. J 5/13 of 17 January 2014, point 3.2.2 of the Reasons). In this respect, there are no parallels with the present case.

With respect to the applicant's responsibility to observe the time limits, in case T 942/12, the appellant stated that after the applicant had changed, the new applicant had only taken over financial responsibility for renewal fee payments, not responsibility to monitor these. This statement was held to be credible as the appellant was represented by patent attorneys and could therefore expect that they would monitor time limits (cf. T 942/12 of 17 November 2015, point 3.3 of the Reasons). Once again, from this point of view, there is no parallel with the present case since the Board feels unable to conclude from the submissions on file that the appellant instructed either its European representative or its US patent attorneys to observe time limits. This applies all the more since, at the point in time when the time limit for paying the renewal fee with the additional fee expired, according to the submissions of the appellant, the responsibility for payment of annuities rested with IPENDO and thus was still the appellant's own responsibility. As a consequence, the appellant cannot validly argue that, at this particular point in time, it were relying on the responsibility of someone else.

3.3 Accordingly, it does not need to be determined whether the European representative or the US patent attorneys applied all due care required by the circumstances. It is, however, worth mentioning that, according to the appellant's latest submissions, the European representative not only informed the appellant by email dated 9 November 2012 about the possible loss of rights but subsequently also sent two reminders to his US colleagues. Hence, the fact that the appellant obviously ignored the email received from its European representative on 9 November 2012 confirms the finding of the Board that the appellant did not apply all due care. The email clearly gave notice that something had gone wrong with the application on file and should have triggered some action.

4. The Board therefore comes to the conclusion that re-establishment of rights in respect of the time limit for paying the renewal fee for the fourth year with surcharge cannot be allowed. Thus the appeal must be dismissed.

Order

For these reasons it is decided that:

The appeal is dismissed.

This decision J 23/14 (pdf) has European Case Law Identifier: ECLI:EP:BA:2016:J002314.20161215. The file wrapper can be found here. Photo "Time lapse" by Sean MacEntee obtained via Flickr under CC BY 2.0 license (no changes made).

T 1543/12 - Multiple ranges in claim, are all combinations supported?

Delta Patents Patent Law -

Many independent combinations are possible

Claim 1 in this opposition comprises a number of ranges. Individually, each of the ranges is supported by the application, but there may be combinations of the ranges that are not. Is such a claim properly supported over its entire width? The board thinks it is.  
Claim 1 in the pending requests contained a number of ranges:
1. A method for preparing a dry granulated product containing L-lysine and having the following composition:
L-lysine content in solid matter: 40 to 85% by weight equivalent ratio of anion/L-lysine 0.68 to 0.95 moisture content: 5% by weight or less (...)
Reasons for the Decision
(...)
4. Insufficiency of disclosure (Article 100(b) EPC)
4.1 The Appellant objected that the subject-matter of claim 1 could not be carried out over the whole range claimed. The claimed process is directed to the preparation of products covering the whole range of claimed lysine contents. However, it was not possible to produce lysine products having a lysine content of 85% and an equivalent ratio of more than 0.71, although an equivalent ratio of 0.68 to 0.95 was claimed.
4.2 According to Article 100(b) EPC, the European patent must disclose the invention in a manner sufficiently clear and complete for it to be carried out by the skilled person.
4.3 In the present case the process according to claim 1 is characterized to produce a L-lysine product. This product is inter alia characterized by a moisture content up to 5% by weight, of a L-lysine content in the final product of 40 to 85% by weight and an equivalent ratio of anion/L-lysine of 0.68 to 0.95. Therefore, any L-lysine fulfilling these three parameters is a product according to the invention. In order to be carried out over the whole range claimed, it is only necessary that each value within the claimed ranges can be achieved individually. It is, however, not a requirement of Article 83 EPC, that each and every possible combination of all individual limiting values within the claimed ranges can be achieved. The example given by the Appellant is technically impossible, since a product comprising 85% by weight of L-lysine can only comprise 15% by weight of an anion forming compound, which in the present case is hydrochloric or sulfuric acid. It follows that depending on the molecular weight of the acid used in the process the ratio of anion/L-lysine can reach only certain theoretical values within the claimed range. The skilled person knows, that both the L-lysine content in the final product and the achievable ratio of anion/L-lysine are dependent on each other and cannot vary independently over the whole range of values claimed for each of these two parameters.
4.4 Therefore, the Board concludes that the European patent discloses the invention in a manner sufficiently clear and complete for it to be carried out by a skilled person in the sense of Article 83 EPC.
(...)
This decision T 1543/12 (pdf) has European Case Law Identifier:  ECLI:EP:BA:2016:T154312.20160419. The file wrapper can be found here. Photo by Bill Ferngren (Braite), via PixaBay under a CC0  license (no changes made).

T 1750/14 - New applicant, new representative & upcoming oral proceedings

Delta Patents Patent Law -


In the examination case under appeal, the then applicant's representative requested approximately 5 weeks before the scheduled oral proceedings the postponement of the oral proceedings and the postponement of the final date for making written submissions ("final date") on the grounds that he had been informed that the present application had been transferred from the then registered applicant to another applicant, and that he did not know whether he was to remain the representative. This request was refused by the examining division as it allegedly did not constitute a serious ground within the meaning of OJ EPO 1/2009, 68, point 2.3. The applicant appeals, and argues that his right to be heard was violated and that the decision was not sufficiently substantiated.

In considering the appeal, the board considers the request for the postponement of the date of oral proceedings to be distinct from the request for the postponement of the final date, and concludes that 
the examination division failed to sufficiently substantiate in its decision why the final date could not be postponed. The applicant's main request is thus held allowable.

There are interesting deliberations in this case. Does the situation indeed qualify as a serious ground as alleged by the appellant, even though it is not explicitly mentioned in  OJ EPO 1/2009, 68, point 2.3? Did the examination division have discretionary power in the first place to postpone the final date in view of Rule 116(1) EPC stipulating that Rule 132 shall not apply? And can the date of oral proceedings indeed be postponed independently from the final date or not?
Reasons for the Decision
1. MAIN REQUEST

This procedural request is directed to setting aside the decision under appeal, to remitting the case to the examining division for further prosecution and to reimbursing the appeal fee (cf. point XIII above).

1.1 Alleged substantial procedural violation as regards refusal of the request to postpone the date for oral proceedings

1.1.1 The appellant argued that the refusal of its request for postponing the date for oral proceedings before the examining division was tainted with a violation of its right to be heard under Article 113(1) EPC, and was not sufficiently substantiated within the meaning of Rule 111(2) EPC.

1.1.2 As to the exercise of the examining division's discretion in not allowing the postponement of the date for oral proceedings before it, it is true that a change of both the applicant and the representative after having been summoned to those oral proceedings is not expressly mentioned in the list of examples of serious reasons within the meaning of the "Notice from the European Patent Office dated 18 December 2008 concerning oral proceedings before the EPO", OJ EPO 1/2009, 68, point 2.3. The board takes note of the examining division's arguments (cf. appealed decision, Reasons 1.2.3 and 1.2.4) that the new applicant could have instructed, already before the assignment regarding the transfer of the present application was signed, a patent attorney to prepare for the oral proceedings, and that the newly appointed professional representative could be expected, before taking on the mandate, to make sure that he was indeed able to prepare for such oral proceedings within a one-month period (cf. T 37/97, Reasons 2.2; J 4/03, Reasons 5). The examining division also took into account, inter alia, the complexity of the case.

1.1.3 In that regard, the board considers that, under the hypothetical assumption that there had been no request for postponement of the final date for making submissions in preparation for the oral proceedings (henceforth "final date") or that such request had no relation whatsoever to the request for postponement of the date for oral proceedings, it would appear that all the arguments presented by the then applicant as regards the postponement of the date for oral proceedings were properly addressed and treated in the appealed decision (see point 10 of the Summary of Facts and Submission and point 1 of the Reasons).

1.1.4 However, the appellant repeatedly requested that the final date of 6 January 2014 be postponed, arguing that the new applicant, represented by the newly appointed representative, could not reasonably be expected to file amendments less than one week after the change of applicant and representative. These arguments were not addressed in the entire decision under appeal (see point 1.2.5 below). It is not clear whether the examining division in fact saw any relationship between the request for postponement of the final date and the request for postponement of the date for oral proceedings. If the examining division did see any such relationship (such as a strict link between the two dates), the request for postponement of the final date and the supporting arguments should have been addressed, at least, in the context of the refused request for postponement of the date for oral proceedings (see point 1.2.6 below).

1.2 Alleged substantial procedural violation as regards refusal of the request to postpone the final date

1.2.1 The appellant submitted that the time available between the conclusion of the application-transfer agreement and the final date set by the examining division was too short for studying the case and for preparing reasoned written submissions (cf. points III and V above).

1.2.2 The final date for making written submissions in preparation for the oral proceedings is codified in Rule 116 EPC as follows (emphasis added by the board):

"(1) When issuing the summons, the European Patent Office shall draw attention to the points which in its opinion need to be discussed for the purposes of the decision to be taken. At the same time a final date for making written submissions in preparation for the oral proceedings shall be fixed. Rule 132 shall not apply. New facts and evidence presented after that date need not be considered, unless admitted on the grounds that the subject of the proceedings has changed.

(2) If the applicant ... has been notified of the grounds prejudicing the grant ..., he may be invited to submit, by the date specified in paragraph 1, second sentence, documents which meet the requirements of the Convention. Paragraph 1, third and fourth sentences, shall apply mutatis mutandis."

Rule 116(1) EPC hence stipulates that Rule 132 EPC shall not apply. In particular, Rule 132(2) EPC reads as follows:

"Unless otherwise provided, a period specified by the European Patent Office shall be neither less than two months nor more than four months; in certain circumstances it may be up to six months. In special cases, the period may be extended upon request, presented before the expiry of such period."

Thus, Rule 132(2) EPC, on the one hand, establishes that, in the absence of specific provisions, periods specified by the EPO normally shall be between two and four months (first sentence). On the other hand, it stipulates that, in special cases, such periods may be extended upon request (second sentence). From that wording alone it is not clear to the board whether the non-applicability of Rule 132(2) EPC to Rule 116(1) EPC relates only to the above limitations for periods specified by the EPO (allowing e.g. that a final date less than two months ahead of the date for oral proceedings be set) or whether it should also preclude the possibility of extending specified periods implying that the final date set under Rule 116(1) EPC could not be changed. In fact, according to a literal reading of the provisions of Rule 116(1) EPC in conjunction with Rule 132(2) EPC as done in the Guidelines for Examination in the EPO (see D-VI, 3.2, last sentence e.g. in the applicable version of September 2013), said final date may not be extended.

1.2.3 However, the admissibility of claim amendments filed after the final date specified in Rule 116(1) EPC is subject to the examining division's discretion. The examining division may not refuse to consider new claims on the sole ground that they had not been filed prior to the final date stated in a summons to oral proceedings (see e.g. T 755/96, OJ EPO 2000, 174, Reasons 4.1; T 798/05, Reasons 7, last two paragraphs). When Rule 71a(1) EPC 1973, the predecessor of Rule 116(1) EPC, was introduced, that rule was not intended to restrict the discretion conferred on EPO departments under Article 114(2) EPC (see Explanatory Memorandum CA/12/94 rev. 1, point 7.4, as quoted in T 755/96, Reasons 2.2). In this context, it may at least be questioned whether the non-applicability of Rule 132(2) EPC in Rule 116(1) EPC has necessarily to be understood as an exclusion of any discretionary power exercised by the examining division to postpone the final date.

1.2.4 Should the postponement of the final date under Rule 116(1) EPC indeed be excluded by the negative reference to Rule 132(2) EPC, the question arises whether the final date may be changed if the scheduled oral proceedings are cancelled and a new date for them is set by the first-instance department. While there may be situations where it is appropriate to change the date for oral proceedings while maintaining the final date, the board considers that a change of the final date should normally be allowable when the date for oral proceedings is postponed. At least in cases where a final date is specified relative to the date for oral proceedings (usually one month before the scheduled oral proceedings), it could even be argued that the final date is postponed automatically when the oral proceedings are postponed.

1.2.5 In the present case, the final date had been set to 6 January 2014. The appellant's representatives requested a postponement of this date repeatedly and separately from their request to postpone the date for oral proceedings (cf. points III and VIII above). It is apparent to the board that the statements made by the first examiner of the examining division (cf. points IV and VII above) seem to imply that the examining division in fact took a final and binding decision within the meaning of J 8/81 (OJ EPO 1982, 10, Headnote I) on the request for postponement of the final date, on which the then applicant apparently had no opportunity to comment, rather than having merely expressed its preliminary opinion thereon. It is also evident that the specific reasons for not allowing any postponement of the final date - regardless of the refusal of the request for postponement of the date for oral proceedings - are not addressed in the decision under appeal. It is only mentioned that the question of filing amendments of the application after expiry of the final date did not arise (cf. point IX above). This remark cannot, however, be considered to be a reasoning for the refusal of the request for postponement of that final date. The fact that no submissions other than procedural requests were filed after the final date does not mean that the request for postponement of the final date has become pointless. The request for postponement of the final date was never withdrawn and the appellant's desire to file amended claims was made clear even during oral proceedings before the examining division when it requested that the examination proceedings be continued in writing.

Hence, the examining division's decision to refuse the appellant's request for postponement of the final date lacks a reasoning required under Rule 111(2) EPC.

1.2.6 The board can only surmise that the examining division may have assumed that the final date is only to be postponed together with the date for the oral proceedings and that, as a consequence, the request for postponement of the final date and the request for postponement of the date for oral proceedings could not be separated from each other and could only be decided together. However, in this case or if the examining division indeed considered those two requests to be linked in any other way, the appellant's arguments presented concerning the request for postponement of the final date should have been considered at least in the context of the request for postponement of the date for oral proceedings (see point 1.1.4 above).

1.3 In view of the above, the board concludes that, due to a lack of substantiation within the meaning of Rule 111(2) EPC with regard to the request concerning the final date and/or to the request concerning the date for oral proceedings, the examining division indeed committed a substantial procedural violation which justifies the impugned decision being overturned.

At the same time, this amounts to a fundamental deficiency apparent in the first-instance proceedings within the meaning of Article 11 RPBA (see e.g. T 309/09, Reasons 8). It is also worth noting that the board does not take any position as to whether the right to be heard under Article 113(1) EPC was violated in any other way than by lack of substantiation in the decision under appeal. However, such a lack of substantiation under Rule 111(2) EPC is in itself sufficient reason to set aside the decision under appeal. Moreover, said lack of substantiation, in particular with respect to the request for postponement of the final date, prevents the board from a comprehensive assessment of the examination proceedings in view of Article 113(1) EPC.

1.4 Remittal for further prosecution (Article 11 RPBA)

1.4.1 Pursuant to Article 11 RPBA, a board shall remit a case to the department of first instance if fundamental deficiencies are apparent in the first-instance proceedings, "unless special reasons present themselves for doing otherwise". In this regard, it has to be established in the present case whether special reasons are discernible against such remittal.

1.4.2 Despite the fact that the filing date accorded to the present application is 31 March 1999 (i.e. eighteen years ago) and that substantive issues of the case have already been touched upon in these appeal proceedings (cf. board's communication under Article 15(1) RPBA, points 3.1 to 3.3), the board does not see any "special reason" justifying a deviation from the general rule prescribed by Article 11 RPBA. In fact, the appellant was only partially responsible for the delays in the first-instance proceedings. The present application was actually filed in April 2003 as a divisional application. After issuance of a first communication in July 2004 there was no office action until the appellant had a telephone conversation with the first examiner in September 2011. The appellant requested remittal of the case for further prosecution, and filed amended sets of claims in the appeal proceedings. Under these circumstances, the appellant's interest in having the case examined in two instances prevails over the general interest of bringing proceedings to a close within an appropriate period of time.

1.4.3 In conclusion, the present case is to be remitted to the examining division for further prosecution under Article 111(1) EPC in conjunction with Article 11 RPBA.

1.5 Request for reimbursement of appeal fee

1.5.1 At the oral proceedings before the board, the appellant maintained its request for reimbursement of the appeal fee on the grounds that a substantial procedural violation had occurred in the examination proceedings, without providing further comments supporting this request. Given that the impugned decision is to be set aside and that the appeal is therefore allowable, the board has next to establish whether such reimbursement appears to be equitable under Rule 103(1)(a) EPC.

1.5.2 The board holds that the applicant - and in particular its professional representative - must or should have known, in view of Rule 116(1), last sentence, EPC that it is generally not guaranteed that any written submission is automatically admitted into the proceedings before the EPO for the sole reason that it is filed prior to the final date, nor is it entirely unlikely that a submission may be admitted under the department's discretion when filed after that date. Rather, the then applicant could have followed the invitation from the examining division (cf. point II above) and attempted to file, for example, amended sets of claims with the aim of overcoming the objections raised in the summons to the first-instance oral proceedings after 6 January 2014, the final date set in the summons.

This was, however, not done by the applicant of its own volition. In the board's view, such procedural behaviour speaks against regarding the reimbursement of the appeal fee as equitable within the meaning of Rule 103(1)(a) EPC. A party cannot gain a procedural advantage from an omission of its own, pursuant to the legal principle "nemo auditur propriam turpitudinem allegans" (cf. T 1705/07, Reasons 8.7). The appellant should have known - in view of the rather negative opinion of the examining division set out in its communication accompanying the summons - that filing no amended claims would in all likelihood lead to a refusal of the application based on its merits, and that amendments filed at any time before oral proceedings were not a priori inadmissible. In other words, the substantial procedural violation alone was not causal for the need to lodge an appeal against the eventual refusal of the application. Reimbursement of the appeal fee is therefore refused.

2. FIRST AND SECOND AUXILIARY REQUESTS

Since the appellant's main request is found to be allowable, it is not necessary to consider its first and second auxiliary requests any further.

Order

For these reasons it is decided that:

1. The decision under appeal is set aside.

2. The case is remitted to the department of first instance for further prosecution.

3. The request for reimbursement of the appeal fee is refused.

This decision T 1750/14 (pdf) has European Case Law Identifier:  ECLI:EP:BA:2017:T175014.20170131. The file wrapper can be found here. Photo "Improved LEGO Calendar Front" by Bill Ward obtained via Flickr under CC BY 2.0 license (no changes made).

T 579/16 - Double identity

Delta Patents Patent Law -


This appeal is against a decision of the opposition division by which an opposition was deemed non-admissible. In the present case case, the form 2300 indicated "BYK-Chemie GmbH" as opponent, whereas the attached document containing the grounds of appeal mentioned "Einsprechende: BASF Coatings GmbH" just before the heading "EINSPRUCHSBEGRÜNDUNG".

Due to this seemingly contradictory information, the opposition division held the identity of the opponent not to be sufficiently established before expiry of the opposition period, and as a consequence the opposition inadmissible.

In the appeal, the opponent now as appellant essentially argues that since the tick box for 'Multiple opponents' in form 2300 was not checked and the address specified in form 2300 corresponds to that of BYK-Chemie, it was clear that BYK-Chemie was intended to be the opponent and that the mentioning of BASF in the grounds of appeal was essentially an clerical error.

However, the board of appeal concurs with the opposition division with respect to the lack of clear identification of the opponent, but does hold the mentioning of BASF to be correctable under Rule 139 EPC first sentence, as requested by the appellant/opponent in both proceedings but for the first time requested after the expiry of the opposition period.

Of interest here is how the board deals with the application of the criteria summarized by G 1/12 whether such a request is allowable, and in particular, whether the request for correction in this particular case was filed "without delay".

Reasons for the Decision
1. Die Beschwerde ist zulässig. Einwände gegen die Zulässigkeit der im Namen der BYK-Chemie GmbH eingelegten Beschwerde wurden nicht erhoben.

Feststellung der Identität des Einsprechenden nach Artikel 99(1) in Verbindung mit Regel 76(2)(a) EPÜ

2. Die Einspruchsabteilung hat in der angefochtenen Entscheidung den Einspruch nach Artikel 99(1), Regel 77(1) EPÜ verworfen, weil die Identität der Einsprechenden aus den bis zum Ablauf der Einspruchsfrist vorgelegten Dokumenten nicht eindeutig feststellbar sei. Die Beschwerdeführerin hat in ihrer Beschwerdebegründung ihre zu dem hier relevanten Punkt bereits im Verfahren vor der Einspruchsabteilung angeführten Argumente lediglich wiederholt, jedoch insoweit keine neuen Gründe für die Zulässigkeit des Einspruchs vorgebracht.

3. In dem Zusatz zur Ladung zur mündlichen Verhandlung vom 3. November 2016 hat die Kammer in einer vorläufigen Stellungnahme u.a. mitgeteilt, dass die Begründung der Einspruchsabteilung, dass die Identität der Einsprechenden innerhalb der Einspruchsfrist nicht hinreichend sicher feststellbar ist, aus rechtlicher Sicht nicht zu beanstanden sei und die insoweit von der Beschwerdeführerin vorgebrachten Argumente keinen Bestand haben könnten. Sie hat hierzu folgendes ausgeführt:

"Die Einspruchsabteilung hat ausgeführt, dass die Identität der Einsprechenden aus den bis zum Ablauf der Einspruchsfrist vorgelegten Dokumenten nicht eindeutig feststellbar sei. Entgegen der Ansicht der Einsprechenden hätten die Angaben im Formular 2300 keinen Vorrang vor den Angaben in den übrigen Bestandteilen des Einspruchs, insbesondere in dem Anhang "EINSPRUCHSBEGRÜNDUNG" zum Formular 2300. Insoweit treffe es nicht zu, dass - wie die Beschwerdeführerin meint - die auf Seite 1 der Anlage zum Formular 2300 oberhalb der Überschrift "Einspruchsbegründung" enthaltenen Angaben, einschließlich der irrtümlich als Einsprechende bezeichneten "BASF Coatings GmbH" (nachfolgend "BASF"), nicht Teil der Einspruchsbegründung und damit nicht Teil des Tatsachenvorbringens seien. Dass die "BASF" keinen Sitz an der im Formular 2300 angegebenen Adresse in Wesel habe, sage objektiv nichts darüber aus, dass der Einspruch im Namen der "BYK-Chemie GmbH" (nachfolgend "BYK") eingelegt werden sollte. Die Angabe einer Adresse oder deren Fehlen sei kein ausreichendes Kriterium, das bei widersprüchlichen Angaben auf die Identität der Einsprechenden schließen lasse. Entgegen der Ansicht der Einsprechenden habe das EPA auch weder mit der Empfangsbescheinigung vom 29. März 2012 noch mit der Aufforderung an die Patentinhaberin vom 7. Mai 2012, sich zum Einspruch der "BYK" zu äußern, rechtsverbindlich signalisiert, dass die Einsprechende damit eindeutig bezeichnet wäre. Diese Begründung der Einspruchsabteilung ist aus rechtlicher Sicht nicht zu beanstanden und trägt im wesentlichen die Entscheidung, dass die Identität der Einsprechenden innerhalb der Einspruchsfrist nicht hinreichend sicher feststellbar ist."

4. Der Schriftsatz der Beschwerdeführerin vom 12. Dezember 2016 als Erwiderung auf den Ladungszusatz der Kammer und auf die Stellungnahme hierzu seitens der Beschwerdegegnerin vom 30. November 2016 enthält zur Frage der Feststellung der Identität der Einsprechenden aus den bis zum Ablauf der Einspruchsfrist vorgelegten Dokumenten keinen Vortrag. In der mündlichen Verhandlung vor der Kammer hat die Beschwerdeführerin hierzu grundsätzlich auf ihren schriftlichen Vortrag in der Beschwerdebegründung verwiesen und zwei ihrer dort genannten Argumente nochmals erwähnt. Es handelt sich hierbei um das Vorbringen, dass die "BASF Coatings GmbH" in der Anlage zum Formular 2300 oberhalb der Überschrift "Einspruchsbegründung" genannt, und somit weder Teil der Einspruchsbegründung noch des Tatsachenvorbringens sei sowie um den Umstand, dass die "BASF Coatings GmbH" keine Niederlassung an der in dem Formular 2300 genannten Adresse der "BYK" habe. Da jedoch auch diese Argumente - wie ausgeführt - Gegenstand der angefochtenen Entscheidung, der schriftlichen Beschwerdebegründung und der vorläufigen Stellungnahme der Kammer in ihrem Ladungsbescheid waren, sieht die Kammer auch nach nochmaliger Prüfung keinen Anlass, von ihrer in dem Ladungsbescheid geäußerten Auffassung abzuweichen.

5. Die Beschwerde der Einsprechenden hat daher, soweit sie sich gegen die Entscheidung der Einspruchsabteilung richtet, dass die Identität des Einsprechenden nach Artikel 99(1) in Verbindung mit Regel 76(2)(a) EPÜ aufgrund der innerhalb der Einspruchsfrist vorgelegten Dokumente nicht festgestellt werden kann, keinen Erfolg.

Antrag auf Berichtigung der Bezeichnung "BASF Coatings GmbH" nach Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ

6. Die Beschwerdeführerin hat im erstinstanzlichen Verfahren erstmals mit Schreiben vom 11. September 2014 und nochmals hilfsweise in ihrer schriftlichen Beschwerdebegründung beantragt, die Bezeichnung "BASF Coatings GmbH" auf der Seite 1 der Anlage zum Formular 2300 in "BYK-Chemie GmbH" nach Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ zu berichtigen.

7. Die Grosse Beschwerdekammer (GBK) hat in der Entscheidung G 1/12 (ABl. EPA 2014, A114, Frage 3, Nr. 32 bis 36 und Nr. 39 der Gründe) entschieden, dass Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ Anwendung finden kann, wenn der Name des Beschwerdeführers falsch angegeben war und die beantragte Berichtigung den "Wechsel" des Beschwerdeführers umfasst (GBK, a.a.O., Nr. 32 der Gründe). In der Entscheidung T 615/14 vom 27. Oktober 2015 hat die dortige Beschwerdekammer ausgeführt, dass die in der Entscheidung G 1/12 gegebene Begründung für die Anwendbarkeit der Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ für die Berichtigung der Bezeichnung der Einsprechenden in entsprechender Weise gilt. Danach findet Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ allgemein auf alle beim Europäischen Patentamt eingereichten Unterlagen, einschließlich des Einspruchs, Anwendung (T 615/14, Nr. 1.4 der Gründe).

8. Die Kammer hält die in der Entscheidung T 615/14 für die Übertragbarkeit der in der Entscheidung G 1/12 für die Anwendbarkeit der Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ hinsichtlich der Berichtigung des Beschwerdeführers genannten Begründung auf die Frage der Berichtigung der Bezeichnung der Einsprechenden für richtig und schließt sich dieser Begründung auch für das vorliegende Beschwerdeverfahren an. Dies gilt auch für die - zu verneinende - Frage, ob Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ als "lex generalis" hinter die speziellen Regeln für das Beschwerde- bzw. Einspruchsverfahren zurücktritt (vgl. G 1/12, Nr. 39 der Gründe, T 615/14, Nr. 1.7.1 der Gründe).

9. Die somit für die hilfsweise beantragte Berichtigung der Bezeichnung "BASF Coatings GbmH" in "BYK-Chemie GmbH" anwendbare Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ lautet:

"Sprachliche Fehler, Schreibfehler und Unrichtigkeiten in den beim Europäischen Patentamt eingereichten Unterlagen können auf Antrag berichtigt werden." (Hervorhebung durch die Kammer)

10. In der Entscheidung G 1/12 (Nr. 37 der Gründe) hat die GBK die von der Rechtsprechung der Beschwerdekammern entwickelten Grundsätze wie folgt zusammengefasst:

a) Die Berichtigung muss der ursprünglichen Absicht entsprechen. Beispielsweise kann sich ein Anmelder, der eine bei der ursprünglichen Anmeldung nicht beabsichtigte Benennung hinzufügen möchte, nicht auf Regel 88 Satz 1 EPÜ 1973 berufen (J 8/80, ABl. EPA 1980, 293, insbesondere Nr. 7 der Entscheidungsgründe). Die Möglichkeit der Berichtigung darf nicht dazu benutzt werden, einem Beteiligten, der seine Meinung geändert oder seine Pläne weiter ausgestaltet hat, die Durchsetzung seiner neuen Vorstellungen zu ermöglichen (J 8/80, a. a. O., Nr. 6 der Entscheidungsgründe; J 6/91, ABl. EPA 1994, 349). Zu berücksichtigen ist die wirkliche und nicht die mutmaßliche Absicht des Beteiligten.

b) Ist die ursprüngliche Absicht nicht sofort erkennbar, so trägt der Antragsteller die Beweislast, an die hohe Anforderungen gestellt werden müssen (J 8/80, a. a. O., Nr. 6 der Entscheidungsgründe).

c) Der zu berichtigende Fehler kann eine unrichtige Angabe sein oder sich aus einer Auslassung ergeben.

d) Der Berichtigungsantrag muss unverzüglich gestellt werden.

zu a) und b):

11. Die ursprüngliche Absicht der Beschwerdeführerin, den Einspruch im Namen der "BYK" einzulegen, war aufgrund der widersprüchlichen Angaben im Formblatt 2300 ("BYK")einerseits und in der Anlage "Einspruchsbegründung" ("BASF") andererseits nicht sofort, jedenfalls nicht innerhalb der Einspruchsfrist, erkennbar.

Dabei kann bereits unmittelbar aus der Entscheidung G 1/12 abgeleitet werden, dass Beweismittel zum Nachweis der ursprünglichen Absicht bei Einreichung des Einspruchs auch später im Verfahren nachgereicht werden können. In G 1/12 (Nr. 37(b) der Gründe) wird klargestellt, dass der Antragsteller die Beweislast trägt und sodann auf J 8/80 verwiesen, wonach die Berichtigung einer Bestimmung eines Vertragsstaates auf der Grundlage später eingereichter Beweise betreffend die ursprüngliche Absicht des Vertreters zulässig ist. Diese Rechtsprechung wurde in der Entscheidung T 445/08 vom 26. März 2015 (aus diesem Verfahren resultiert die Vorlage zu G 1/12) bestätigt (siehe T 615/14, Nr. 1.7.3 der Gründe). Die Aussage in T 615/14 (Nr. 1.7.5 der Gründe), dass die ursprüngliche Absicht bei Einreichung des Einspruchs auch aufgrund von nach Ablauf der Einspruchsfrist eingereichter Beweise bei der Prüfung nach Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ festgestellt werden kann, hält die vorliegende Kammer für überzeugend und schließt sich dieser Auffassung für das vorliegende Beschwerdeverfahren an.

12. Die Beschwerdeführerin hat zunächst während der mündlichen Verhandlung vor der Einspruchsabteilung und dann - was die Kammer für die hier zu treffende Entscheidung für wesentlich hält (siehe unten Punkt 13.) - nochmals mit der Beschwerdebegründung die Anlagen A1 bis A4 eingereicht. Diese aus e-mails (A1 bis A3) und einem Schreiben (A4) bestehenden Unterlagen belegen den Auftrag der "BYK" an die anwaltlichen Vertreter der Einsprechenden, Einspruch gegen das Streitpatent einzulegen (A1), die Annahme des Auftrags durch die anwaltlichen Vertreter (A2), Vereinbarungen zur Durchführung einer Recherche nach Einspruchsmaterial (A3) und die Übersendung der Einspruchsschrift an die "BYK" (A4). Nach Auffassung der Kammer bestehen allein aufgrund dieser Unterlagen keine begründeten Zweifel daran, dass es von Anfang an dem wirklichen Willen der anwaltlichen Vertreter entsprach, den Einspruch im Namen der "BYK" einzulegen. Durch den eindeutigen und unmissverständlichen Aussagegehalt dieser Unterlagen sind auch die insoweit geforderten hohen Anforderungen an die Beweislast erfüllt.

13. Die Anlagen 1 bis 4 sind mit der Beschwerdebegründung (erneut) gemäß Artikel 12(1)a) der Verfahrensordnung der Beschwerdekammern (VOBK) eingereicht worden und erfüllen die Voraussetzungen nach Absatz 2 dieser Vorschrift, wonach die Beweismittel anzuführen und nach Absatz 2a) beizufügen sind, auf die Bezug genommen wird. Da die Anlagen somit zum frühest möglichen Zeitpunkt im Beschwerdeverfahren eingereicht und - wie ausgeführt - nach Auffassung der Kammer auch "prima facie" hoch relevant für die Beurteilung der tatsächlichen ursprünglichen Absicht der Vertreter der Einsprechenden bei Einreichung des vorliegenden Einspruchs und somit für dessen Zulässigkeit sind, sind insoweit Gründe, die Anlagen nicht in das Verfahren zuzulassen und zu berücksichtigen, nicht erkennbar. Die Kammer beabsichtigt daher nicht, von dem ihr nach Artikel 12(4) VOBK eingeräumten Ermessen, die Anlagen als Beweismittel nicht zuzulassen, wenn diese, was hier der Fall ist, z. B. im erstinstanzlichen Verfahren nicht zugelassen worden sind, Gebrauch zu machen. Die Kammer hält diese Ermessensentscheidung um so mehr für geboten, da die Entscheidung der Einspruchsabteilung, die Anlagen A1 bis A4 nicht in das Verfahren zuzulassen, auf einer nicht rechtsfehlerfreien Ausübung des Ermessens beruht, wie die Kammer in ihrem Ladungszusatz vom 3. November 2016 festgestellt hat.

14. Da die Kammer die Anlagen A1 bis A4 aufgrund deren Einreichung mit der Beschwerdebegründung nach Artikel 12(1)a),(2) und (4) VOBK in das Verfahren zulässt, kommt es für die hier zu treffende Entscheidung auf die zwischen den Beteiligten streitigen Fragen, ob die Einreichung der Anlagen A1 bis A4 erst während der mündlichen Verhandlung vor der Einspruchsabteilung verspätet war und ob die Nichtzulassung der Anlagen durch die Einspruchsabteilung auf einer ermessensfehlerhaften Entscheidung beruhte, nicht an.

zu c):

15. Der zu berichtigende Fehler besteht hier in der unrichtigen Angabe der "BASF Coatings GmbH" in der die "Einspruchsbegründung" enthaltenden Anlage zum Formblatt 2300 statt der beabsichtigten, und somit mit der Angabe in diesem Formblatt übereinstimmenden Bezeichnung "BYK-Chemie GmbH" als Einsprechende.

zu d):

16. Schließlich ist erforderlich, dass der Berichtigungsantrag nach Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ "unverzüglich" gestellt worden ist. Soweit ersichtlich, enthalten weder das Europäische Patentübereinkommen noch nachgeordnete Verwaltungsvorschriften, wie insbesondere die Richtlinien für die Prüfung im Europäischen Patentamt, Hinweise, wie dieser Rechtsbegriff auszulegen ist. Soweit in der Rechtsprechung der Beschwerdekammern diese Voraussetzung für einen Antrag nach Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ erörtert wird, wird lediglich der Begriff "unverzüglich" (vgl. J 10/87, ABl. EPA 1989, 323, Nr. 13. (iii) und Nr. 14 (iii) der Gründe) bzw. "without undue delay" (J 16/08 vom 31. August 2009, Nr. 13 der Gründe) genannt, ohne diesen Rechtsbegriff zu definieren. Auch die in dem vorliegenden Beschwerdeverfahren zitierte Entscheidung T 603/15 vom 25. Mai 2016 (Nr. 3.3.2 bis 3.4 der Gründe) benennt den dort maßgeblichen Zeitraum von vier Jahren für nicht mehr "unverzüglich", jedoch auch ohne diesen Begriff näher zu definieren. Die Entscheidung J 16/08 (a.a.O.) enthält jedoch den Hinweis, dass für die Beurteilung der "Unverzüglichkeit" die Umstände des Einzelfalls zu berücksichtigen sind (Nr. 13 der Gründe).

17. Allerdings definiert das deutsche Bürgerliche Gesetzbuch in § 121(1) betreffend die Anfechtung von Willenserklärungen und somit in einer einem Berichtigungsantrag nach Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ nicht wesensfremden Vorschrift, den Begriff "unverzüglich" als "ohne schuldhaftes Zögern". Entscheidend für die Unverzüglichkeit ist danach nicht die objektive, sondern die subjektive Zumutbarkeit des alsbaldigen Handelns. Es kommt also neben den nach der Entscheidung J 16/08 zu berücksichtigenden Einzelfallumständen auf die Kenntnisse und persönliche Sichtweise des zum Handeln Verpflichteten an. Auch wenn eine unmittelbare Anwendung des Artikels 125 EPÜ hier nicht gerechtfertigt erscheint, da schon zweifelhaft ist, ob es sich bei der Definition des Begriffs "unverzüglich" als "ohne schuldhaftes Zögern" um einen in den Vertragsstaaten anerkannten allgemeinen Verfahrensgrundsatz handelt, ist die Kammer jedoch auch nicht gehindert, diese Bedeutung in dem vorliegenden Verfahren zugrunde zu legen (vgl. hierzu J 2/08 vom 27. Mai 2009, Nr. 48 der Gründe).

18. Bei Zugrundelegung dieser Maßstäbe kommt die Kammer zu der Schlussfolgerung, dass der mit Schriftsatz der Einsprechenden vom 11. September 2014 gestellte Berichtigungsantrag nicht als nicht "unverzüglich" anzusehen ist.

19. Bei den hier vorliegenden widersprüchlichen Angaben zur Person der Einsprechenden bei Einreichung des Einspruchs und bis zum Ablauf der Einspruchsfrist (Regel 76(2)a) EPÜ) hätte erwartet können, dass die Einspruchsabteilung gemäß Regel 77(2) EPÜ eine Mitteilung erlässt mit der Aufforderung, diesen Mangel innerhalb einer zu bestimmenden Frist zu beseitigen. Eine solche Mitteilung ist, wie die Einsprechende in ihrem Schreiben vom 10. September 2012 ausführt, aus ihrer Sicht, wonach kein Zweifel an der Identität der Einsprechenden bestand, "zu Recht" nicht ergangen. Die Einsprechende hat in der mündlichen Verhandlung vor der Beschwerdekammer bestätigt, eine Mitteilung nach Regel 77(2) EPÜ auch nach dem Schreiben vom 10. September 2012 nicht erhalten zu haben. Eine erste Äußerung seitens der Einspruchsabteilung zur Frage der Identität der Einsprechenden und Zulässigkeit des Einspruchs erfolgte erst mit der Mitteilung vom 4. Juli 2014, die auch einen Hinweis auf die Möglichkeit, einen Berichtigungsantrag nach Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ zu stellen, enthielt.

20. In Erwiderung auf diese Mitteilung stellte die Beschwerdeführerin mit Schreiben vom 11. September 2014 einen Antrag auf Berichtigung der Angabe "BASF Coatings GmbH" in "BYK-Chemie GmbH" nach Regel 139 EPÜ. Der Antrag wurde danach noch vor Ablauf von zwei Monaten nach dem Hinweis der Einspruchsabteilung und somit sogar noch innerhalb der von der Einspruchsabteilung in ihrer Mitteilung gewährten Frist zur Stellungnahme gestellt. Nach Auffassung der Kammer ist dadurch die Voraussetzung der "Unverzüglichkeit" der Antragstellung im Hinblick auf die Mitteilung der Einspruchsabteilung erfüllt, was auch von der Beschwerdegegnerin nicht bestritten wird.

21. Die Beschwerdegegnerin bestreitet jedoch, dass für die "Unverzüglichkeit" auf den Hinweis der Einspruchsabteilung auf Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ in der Mitteilung vom 4. Juli 2014 abzustellen sei und meint, ein Anlass für die Stellung des Berichtigungsantrags hätte bereits zu einem wesentlich früheren Verfahrensstadium bestanden, nämlich als Reaktion auf die in der Einspruchserwiderung aufgrund der abweichenden Bezeichnungen geäußerten Zweifel an der Identität der Einsprechenden. Danach wäre der mit Schreiben vom 11. September 2014, also ca. zwei Jahre später gestellte Antrag nach Regel 139 EPÜ nicht mehr als "unverzüglich" anzusehen.

22. Die Kammer vermag sich dieser Ansicht der Beschwerdegegnerin unter Berücksichtigung der Umstände des vorliegenden Einzelfalls nicht anzuschließen. Die Einsprechende durfte aus subjektiver Sicht, nachdem sie selbst in ihrem Schreiben vom 10. September 2012 ausgeführt hatte, eine Mitteilung nach Regel 77(2) EPÜ sei - aus ihrer Sicht - zu Recht nicht ergangen und dieses Vorbringen bis zur Mitteilung der Einspruchsabteilung vom 4. Juli 2014 unbeantwortet blieb, davon ausgehen, dass vorerst kein Anlass für weitere Anträge, insbesondere eines Antrags nach Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ bestand. Zu dieser Sichtweise mag auch beigetragen haben, dass die "BYK" als Einsprechende in der Empfangsbescheinigung vom 29. März 2012 und in der Aufforderung an die Patentinhaberin vom 7. Mai 2012, sich zum Einspruch der "BYK" zu äußern, angegeben wurde, wobei diesen Mitteilungen ohne Zweifel keine rechtlich verbindliche Bedeutung zukommt, was die Einspruchsabteilung zutreffend festgestellt und auch die Beschwerdeführerin selbst eingeräumt hat. Nach Auffassung der Kammer kann unter Berücksichtigung der genannten Umstände der Einsprechenden kein aus subjektiver Sicht schuldhaftes Zögern bei der Stellung des Antrags nach Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ mit Schreiben vom 11. September 2014 vorgeworfen werden.

23. In diesen dargelegten Umständen des vorliegenden Falles sieht die Kammer auch einen entscheidenden Unterschied zu dem der Entscheidung T 603/15 vom 25. Mai 2016 zugrundeliegenden Sachverhalt. Anders als im vorliegenden Fall hat dort nicht nur die Patentinhaberin in der Beschwerdeerwiderung (entspricht vorliegend der Einspruchserwiderung vom 14. August 2012), sondern nur einen Tag später auch die Beschwerdekammer auf den Mangel der Identität der Beschwerdeführerin hingewiesen. Wie dargelegt, fehlt es hier jedoch an einer solchen, der genannten Mitteilung der Beschwerdekammer in dem zitierten Verfahren entsprechenden Mitteilung der Einspruchsabteilung in einem vergleichbar frühen Verfahrensstadium (vgl. T 603/15, Nr. 3.3.2. der Gründe). Der in dem Verfahren T 603/15 erst ca. vier Jahre später gestellte Antrag auf Berichtigung der irrtümlichen Angabe im Formblatt 2300 nach Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ wurde von der dortigen Kammer daher völlig zu Recht als nicht "unverzüglich" angesehen. In Anbetracht dieser für die hier zu beantwortende Frage der Unverzüglichkeit des Antrags nach Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ nicht unwesentlichen Unterschiede zwischen dem der Entscheidung T 603/15 und dem vorliegenden Verfahren zugrundeliegenden Sachverhalt steht die hier getroffene Entscheidung nicht im Widerspruch zu den im Verfahren T 603/15 getroffenen Feststellungen.

24. Auch unter Berücksichtigung des von der Rechtsprechung entwickelten Kriteriums der Rechtssicherheit kann die Kammer nicht zu dem Schluss kommen, dass der Berichtigungsantrag aufgrund der Tatsache, dass er nicht rechtzeitig gestellt wurde, zurückzuweisen wäre. Bei der Frage, ob ein Berichtigungsantrag rechtzeitig gestellt wurde, meint die Kammer, dass einerseits der Schutz von Anmeldern, die echte Fehler beheben wollen, und andererseits die Interessen Dritter, die sich auf veröffentlichte Informationen verlassen, berücksichtigt werden müssen. Die Kammer kommt zu dem Schluss, dass im vorliegenden Fall keine Irreführung der Öffentlichkeit stattgefunden hatte, und daher Dritte durch die Stattgabe des Berichtigungsantrags nicht benachteiligt wurden. Spätestens ab Kenntnisnahme des Schreibens der Einsprechenden vom 10. September 2012 war für die Patentinhaberin und die Öffentlichkeit klar, wer Einsprechende sein sollte. Eine Benachteiligung dadurch, dass der Antrag erst im September 2014 gestellt wurde, ist daher nicht erkennbar. Auch in dieser Hinsicht besteht ein Unterschied zu dem der Entscheidung T 603/15 zugrundeliegenden Sachverhalt, wo über mehrere Jahre nicht überzeugend dargelegt wurde, was die wahre Absicht bei der Einreichung des Einspruchs gewesen war.

25. Eine zulässige Berichtigung nach Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ ist rückwirkend (G 1/12, a.a.O., Nr. 37, letzter Satz der Gründe), so dass der Einspruch bei Vorliegen der übrigen Zulässigkeitsvoraussetzungen als zulässig erachtet wird (vgl G 1/12, a.a.O., Nr. 38 der Gründe).

26. Da somit der Antrag nach Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ in dem vorliegenden Verfahren nicht nur als grundsätzlich zulässig, sondern auch tatsächlich für begründet erachtet wird, ist der Antrag der Beschwerdeführerin auf Vorlage der Frage an die Grosse Beschwerdekammer gegenstandslos.

27. Nachdem dem Antrag auf Berichtigung nach Regel 139 Satz 1 EPÜ stattgegeben wird und der Einspruch insoweit rückwirkend als zulässig anzusehen ist (s.o. Nr. 24), wird die Angelegenheit an die erste Instanz zur weiteren Entscheidung über den Einspruch zurückverwiesen.

Entscheidungsformel

Aus diesen Gründen wird entschieden:

1. Die angegriffene Entscheidung wird aufgehoben.

2. Dem Antrag auf Berichtigung der Bezeichnung "BASF Coatings GmbH" auf der Seite 1 der Anlage zum Formular 2300 in "BYK-Chemie GmbH" wird stattgegeben.

3. Die Angelegenheit wird an die erste Instanz zur weiteren Entscheidung zurückverwiesen.

This decision T 579/16 (pdf) has European Case Law Identifier: ECLI:EP:BA:2017:T057916.20170118. The file wrapper can be found here. Photo by geralt obtained via Pixabay (no changes made).

T 545/08: a lecture: internet disclosures and balance of probabilties

Delta Patents Patent Law -


Subject of this appeal is the date of public availability of an internet disclosure and whether the Examining Division should have allowed evidence with respect to the publication date of this disclosure into the proceedings. Although the Board describes somewhere in its decision that the Boards of Appeal of have a huge backlog, this Board spent quite some time on writing a nice "lesson" on determining the date of availability to the public of internet disclosures and how the balance of probabilities must be applied in those cases. Of course, the Board has to provide a well-reasoned decision - somehow I have the feeling that the lesson is also written for the Examining Division because it seems that the Board was not completely happy with their work.
Reasons for the Decision
[...]

Overview

2. The contested decision is based on the assumption that document D1, an Internet disclosure, belongs to the prior art. Documents presented by the appellant in the oral proceedings in order to show that there was no sufficient basis for this assumption were not admitted as late-filed. Consequently, no consent was given under Rule 86(3) EPC 1973 to amending the application in accordance with the main request, i.e. reverting to the originally filed claims, and the then auxiliary request was found to lack inventive step over document D1 as closest prior art.
3. The appellant maintains that the Examining Division committed a procedural violation by relying on a document without properly ascertaining its status as prior art and by not admitting the appellant's evidence to the contrary (see section XI above). In the following, the Board will therefore assess whether, in the light of the general principles concerning the standard of proof with respect to Internet disclosures (see points 4 to 11 below), the Examining Division acted correctly when raising objections based on document D1 (see points 12 to 19 below) and refusing to admit documents E1 to E3 in the oral proceedings (see points 20 to 27).
Internet disclosures and standard of proof
4. The boards of appeal have dealt with issues relating to the reliability of Internet disclosures on several occasions. The crux of the matter is adequately summarised in the following passage of the Guidelines for Examination in the EPO (November 2016) [in the following: "Guidelines"], G-IV, 7.5.1:
"The nature of the Internet can make it difficult to establish the actual date on which information was made available to the public: for instance, not all web pages mention when they were published. Also, websites are easily updated, yet most do not provide any archive of previously displayed material, nor do they display records which enable members of the public - including examiners - to establish precisely what was published and when."
5. In decision T 1134/06 of 16 January 2007 (point 4.1), the Board held that, in order to establish that an Internet disclosure formed part of the state of the art, the same strict standard of proof as for prior use or prior oral disclosure, i.e. "beyond any reasonable doubt", had to be applied (see also decision T 373/03 of 2 September 2005, point 3.3). Circumstances which allowed the determination of availability to the public might also include factors that had a bearing on the reliability of the information, e.g. the manner in which information had been procured and date-stamped, how it had been preserved by the source, and whether it had remained unaltered since deposit.
6. Although this decision was cited with approval in some other decisions (see T 1875/06 of 8 January 2008, point 9; T 19/05 of 15 February 2012, point 2.3.2), its conclusions did not remain uncontested. Decisions T 286/10 of 21 May 2014 (points 2 to 2.3) and T 2227/11 of 18 February 2016 (point 2) did not find any justification for the application of the strict standard of proof beyond any reasonable doubt. Rather, only a sufficient degree of probability leading to the boards' conviction that a fact has occurred was considered to be required. The yardstick of balance of probabilities was also applied in the context of Internet disclosures in decisions T 990/09 of 3 July 2012 (points 10 to 12) and T 2339/09 of 17 November 2011 (point 2).
7. It is no easy task to try to reconcile the different views expressed in the appeal case law about the proper standard of proof relating to the issue of availability to the public, in particular with respect to Internet disclosures. However, any such attempt has to respect the European Patent Convention's overarching principle of free evaluation of evidence (see decision G 1/12, OJ EPO 2014, A114, point 31, with further references), which would be contradicted by laying down firm rules of evidence defining the extent to which certain types of evidence were, or were not, convincing. Instead, the question whether a fact can be regarded as proven has to be assessed on the basis of all the relevant evidence (G 3/97, OJ EPO 1999, 245, point 5).
8. While the above-described standards of proof clearly differ on a conceptual level, in most cases adhering to one or the other in judicial practice does not need to lead to divergent results if the standard of "balance of probabilities" is applied with some qualification. In particular, the latter should, in the Board's view, not be misunderstood as implying that a fact has to be regarded as already proven when it has a probability which is "just tipping the balance slightly", for instance, a probability of 51% (if it were at all possible to express probabilities in this context in mathematical terms).
9. Although the standard of balance of probabilities has occasionally been paraphrased as meaning that one has to assess whether one set of facts is more likely to be true than the other (see T 381/87, OJ EPO 1990, 213, point 4.4.b)), such a literal interpretation of "balance" does not, in the Board's view, properly reflect the long-standing judicial practice of the boards of appeal in determining whether a particular piece of information has become publicly available. It may not be possible to identify a single decision where a patent was refused or revoked on the basis of prior art, be it a written disclosure, an oral disclosure or a prior use, because its availability to the public had been found to be just slightly more likely than its non-availability. Even in the above-cited case T 381/87, which appears to have been seminal for the development of the "balance of probabilities" standard, the board found (see point 4.4 a)) that on the evidence - two letters from a librarian of a renowned institution written with full regard as to the potential serious nature of their contents - it was "clearly much more likely that document (A) was placed on the open shelves of the Library on 26 November 1981, than that it was not so placed" and that "[a]ny uncertainty [was] of a minimal nature".
10. There are numerous decisions which refer to and apply the standard of balance of probabilities, but interpret it in a manner which does not leave any doubt that just slightly tipping the balance of probabilities is not sufficient when assessing the public availability of prior art. An often-cited case is T 750/94 (OJ EPO 1998, 32), which in point 4 of its reasons stated the following:
"When an issue of fact is being examined and decided by the EPO on the balance of probabilities, the more serious the issue the more convincing must the evidence be to support it. If the decision upon an issue under examination may result in refusal or revocation of a European patent, for example in a case concerning alleged prior publication or prior use, this means that the available evidence must be very critically and strictly examined, for example in order to ascertain whether or not something happened (the alleged prior publication or prior use) before the relevant filing or priority date. [...] A European patent should not be refused or revoked unless the grounds for refusal or revocation are fully and properly proved".
Corresponding reasoning can be found e.g. in the more recent decision T 526/12 of 31 August 2015, point 2.2, assessing the public availability of an Internet disclosure.
11. Thus, the facts on which any finding of public availability is based must be established with a sufficient degree of certainty in order to convince the competent organ of the EPO in view of all the relevant evidence that they have indeed occurred. This holds true even if the determination is made on the basis of probabilities and not on the basis of absolute certainty ("beyond any reasonable doubt"). It is thus correctly stated in the Guidelines (G-IV, 7.5.2) with respect to Internet disclosures:
"The standard for assessing these circumstances is the balance of probabilities. According to this standard, it is not sufficient that the alleged fact (e.g. the publication date) is merely probable; the examining division must be convinced that it is correct."
The objection based on document D1 raised in the written proceedings
12. It is a general principle that, when raising objections, the burden of proof lies initially with the examining division. This means that objections must be reasoned and substantiated, and must show that, on the balance of probabilities, the objection is well-founded (see Guidelines, G-IV, 7.5.3). With respect to the publication date of a cited document, at least prima facie evidence is required. Prima facie evidence means evidence which is sufficient, on its own, to establish a fact or to raise a presumption of the truth of a fact unless controverted (see T 750/94, point 6; T 526/12, point 1.4). Thus, not every indication or hint qualifies as prima facie evidence.
13. If the objection is properly raised, it is then up to the applicant to prove otherwise or to at least submit evidence to displace the prima facie evidence. If the applicant successfully challenges prima facie evidence concerning a fact, e.g. the nominal publication date of a document, the burden of proof shifts back to the examining division to establish that the document was made available to the public (see e.g. T 929/94 of 7 July 1998, point 2.1).
14. In the present case, according to the international search report, document D1 was retrieved from the Internet on 15 December 2003, i.e. more than 18 months after the priority date of the application (24 May 2002). Neither the report nor the first communication pursuant to Article 96(2) EPC 1973, which cited document D1, contained any explanation as to why the document was considered to have been publicly available before the priority date.
15. In the context of Internet disclosures, such an absence of explanations is acceptable only where, in view of the circumstances of the case, it is self-evident - or at least easily understandable - why the document is considered to have become publicly available before a specific date. Those circumstances may include the nature, in particular the reliability, of the website from which the document was retrieved as well as intrinsic evidence deduced from information provided in the document itself.
16. Document D1 was retrieved from an Internet site with the address www.innovative-consult.com. It consists of 13 pages. Its front page contains the title ("Oracle9i, ETL from the Database Out for Free"), a date ("January, 2002"), a firm logo with the text "innovative consulting IntelligentSolutionsforyourBusiness" and an address. The last page gives some information on the author (Daniel White), who is said to be a technology consultant with Innovative Consulting, a Pennsylvania-based professional services firm specialising in strategy consulting and implementation of high-performance business intelligence and data warehousing solutions. The last page also carries a copyright notice ("© 2001 Innovative Consulting Inc. ...)". There are no passages in the document indicating that, prior to its publication on the Internet, copies of it were made available to members of the public.
17. The only circumstantial evidence on which the International Searching Authority and the Examining Division apparently implicitly relied for its assumption that document D1 was made publicly available in January 2002 is the date on the cover page of the document. However, this date is not only imprecise, but also unqualified. In particular, the document does not specify the date as its date of publication. The indication of the date can therefore at best be considered as prima facie evidence that the document was created in January 2002, but not that it was made available to the public on that date (see also T 373/03, point 3.3).
18. Furthermore, the commercial website from which document D1 was retrieved cannot be considered, at least not without further investigations, as a source generally deemed to provide reliable publication dates, such as the websites of scientific publishers. Thus, irrespective of the standard of proof to be applied, i.e. "balance of probabilities" (see points 9 to 12 above) or "beyond any reasonable doubt", neither the information provided in document D1 itself nor its source of retrieval allowed, on their own, to conclude with a sufficient degree of certainty that the document was publicly available in January 2002. There was no prima facie evidence to rely on.
19. It follows that the Examining Division was not entitled to consider document D1 as prior art in its first substantive communication without providing further explanations and evidence as to the document's public availability before the priority date (see also T 1961/13 of 16 September 2014, point 5.1.6). Thus, the objection was not properly raised. It could not generate an obligation on the applicant's side to submit evidence against the assumed publication date in the written proceedings.
Refusal to admit documents E1 to E3 as evidence
20. While prior to the oral proceedings the appellant did not argue against the Examining Division's assumption that document D1 was prior art and, in its reply to the first communication, even amended the original claims in order to overcome the objections raised, it contested the assumption at the oral proceedings and submitted documents E1 to E3 (see below) as evidence to the contrary.
21. Document E1 contains a version of document D1 retrieved as a pdf file from the Internet site www.archive.org. It also contains a printout of the document's properties in German, according to which it was created ("erstellt") on 15 January 2002 at 15:32 and modified on 15 January 2002 at 16:06. The printout names "L Eliott" as creator ("Verfasser"). The appellant argued that document E1 supported its view that January 2002 was only the creation date, and not the publication date, of D1.
22. Document E2 was said to be a printout of a search carried out by the applicant on the website www.archive.org of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine with respect to the URL of D1 and for the time period from 1 January 2002 to 31 December 2003. The search results show no record of the URL of D1 in 2002 and only one page in 2003. The appellant argued that, since the Wayback Machine had not archived document D1 during the period between its creation and the priority date of the application, this was evidence that the document had not been published in that period.
23. Document E3 was said to be a printout of various web pages of the website http://www.innovative-consult.com archived by the Wayback Machine. The appellant argued that they did not provide any hint that document D1 had been published on this website, so that D1 should not be regarded as prior art.
24. The Examining Division did not admit the new evidence pursuant to Rule 71a EPC 1973 for the reason that otherwise it could not come to a final conclusion without further investigations, so that the end of the procedure would be delayed. Moreover, prima facie none of the evidence submitted appeared to clearly establish that D1 had not been published before the priority date. The fact that the pdf file had been created on 15 January 2002 could instead be seen as a step towards the publication of the underlying Word document, because the pdf format was more suitable for publication. The fact that the Wayback Machine had not archived the pdf version of D1 under the URL used in the search report was not proof that the document had not been published earlier on the Internet using a different URL, because websites were frequently reorganised, or published in another form (e.g. as printed paper). Finally, no convincing conclusions could be drawn from the absence of a reference to D1 on printouts of some archived pages of the website www.innovative-consult.com. The Examining Division further noted that D1 had been authored by a consulting company, which could be expected to disseminate D1 to its clients, i.e. to make it available to the public.
25. It is well established in the case law of the boards of appeal that Articles 113(1) and 117(1) EPC enshrine the basic procedural right to give evidence in appropriate form, specifically by the production of documents, and to have that evidence heard. Failure to consider evidence will normally constitute a substantial procedural violation in that it deprives a party of this basic right (see e.g. T 1110/03, OJ EPO 2005, 302, point 2.4, and T 2294/12 of 12 January 2016, point 1.1.3). Nevertheless, according to Article 114(2) EPC, facts and evidence which are not submitted in due time by the parties concerned may be disregarded. Rule 71a(1) EPC 1973 (which corresponds to Rule 116(1) EPC) stipulates that, when the EPO issues a summons for oral proceedings, a final date for making written submissions in preparation for the oral proceedings has to be fixed and that new facts and evidence presented after this final date need not be considered.
26. The discretionary power given by Rule 71a EPC 1973 (and Rule 116 EPC) is governed by Article 114(2) EPC. In ex parte proceedings, this discretion has to be exercised by considering all the relevant factors which arise in a particular case and by balancing the applicant's interest in obtaining proper patent protection for his invention against the EPO's interest in bringing the examination procedure to a speedy close by the issue of a decision (see T 755/96, OJ EPO 2000, 174).
27. When exercising its discretion in the present case, the Examining Division should have been aware that, although it had cited document D1 at the beginning of the examination procedure, it had never provided any further explanations and evidence as to the document's public availability before the priority date, so that the objections based on this document had not been properly raised before. Moreover, the arguments provided by the Examining Division for the exercise of its discretion are not persuasive. In particular, it is difficult to see why the fact that D1 was authored by a (consultant of a) consulting firm was taken as a hint for a specific publication date. Nor can this fact be a sufficient basis for the assumption that D1 was disseminated to clients in the relatively short period between the creation date of the pdf file (15 January 2002) and the priority date of the present invention.
28. Under these circumstances, the Examining Division was not allowed to reject the appellant's further evidence as late-filed and to continue to rely on document D1 as prior art. It thereby infringed the appellant's right to be heard (Article 113(1) EPC in conjunction with Article 117(1) EPC). This procedural deficiency was causal for the contested decision, as the Examining Division itself recognised that, when admitting the evidence, it could not have come to a final conclusion without further investigations.
Consequences of the procedural deficiencies
[...]

Order
For these reasons it is decided that:
1. The decision under appeal is set aside.
2. The case is remitted to the department of first instance for further prosecution.
This decision T 545/08 (pdf) has European Case Law Identifier:  ECLI:EP:BA:2017:T054508.20170324. The file wrapper can be found here. Photo "Gold Scales of Justice" by Kittisak obtained via FreeDigitalPhotos.net (no changes made).
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