The phase out of Australia’s innovation patent system caused a flurry of filing activity in 2021, so what are your options if you identify an innovation patent that affects your freedom to operate?

There was a spike in filing activity as part of the phase out of Australia’s innovation patent system, with over 2,700 innovation patents filed in August 2021 alone. With so many recently filed innovation patent cases, it is a good time to consider the available options if you identify an innovation patent that might affect your freedom to operate.

First, is there really a problem?

If you are worried about an innovation patent, it can be useful to get some early advice on the potential scope of the patent rights and, if necessary, the prospects for challenging validity. You may find that the patent claims do not cover your proposed commercial activities. Alternatively, you might get some clarity around a potential problem so that you can start developing a strategy to address it.

Tailor your strategy

If you identify a problematic innovation patent, it might be worthwhile to challenge that validity of it and we touch on some of the available options below. However, in some cases, you may prefer to negotiate with the patentee in order to reach a mutually beneficial commercial solution (e.g. licensing or assignment of the patent rights). Sometimes a validity challenge can be used strategically to encourage the patentee to come to the negotiating table, or to shift the balance in your favour during negotiations.

There is no single strategy that is appropriate in all circumstances. The best course of action for you will depend on your commercial goals and individual circumstances. The Griffith Hack team can assist you with developing a tailored strategy: feel free to contact us if you would like to discuss your options.

A granted (innovation) patent doesn’t always mean much

It is important to remember that innovation patent applications proceed to grant after only a formalities check. However, they do not become enforceable until they have completed substantive examination and been certified. If you are concerned that infringement proceedings might be commenced against you once an innovation patent has been certified, it may be beneficial to consider pre-certification options.

How likely is invalidity?

Requesting substantive examination of an innovation patent is voluntary. As a result, applicants sometimes take an “optimistic” approach to the subject matter being pursued. This may be done by some foreign applicants to take advantage of financial incentives in their country of origin. Alternatively, the underlying strategy may be for the granted (but uncertified) innovation patent to act as a deterrent to competitors, who might not go the additional step of seeking advice on whether the innovation patent is likely to stand up to scrutiny.

China’s utility model is a similar second-tier of patent protection to the innovation patent. Recent figures indicate that patent invalidation proceedings in China have been successful in a significant proportion of cases. Of the concluded invalidation proceedings for utility model patents in 2020, 39.2% of cases were invalidated entirely, 18.2% were invalidated partially, and only 42.6% of the challenged utility models were maintained.

Much is made of innovation patents being harder to invalidate due to the innovative step being a lower threshold than the inventive step requirement of standard patents. While it is true that the innovative step threshold is lower, it is not a free pass to validity. For example, it is important to bear in mind that innovation patents must meet the same validity requirements as standard patent cases for the level of disclosure in the patent specification. Recent case law indicates Australian patent specifications must now meet a higher standard, more aligned with UK and European requirements. With these recent developments in mind, it is wise not to take an innovation patent (especially an uncertified one!) on its face.

Pre-certification options

Third-Party Examination Requests

Sometimes the simplest way of dealing with a problematic case is to ask the Patent Office to look at it. Substantive examination of innovation patents is voluntary, but third parties can request that an innovation patent be examined. This can be done anonymously or by ‘strawman’. Both the third party and the patentee must pay an examination fee in relation to the third party’s examination request. If the patentee fails to pay this fee, the patent will cease. For patentees who filed an innovation patent with no real intention of having it certified, being asked to pay the examination fee may be enough to cause them to abandon the case.

Notice of Matters Affecting Validity

If you would like to enhance the likelihood of objections in examination, you can give the Patent Office a bit of help. It is possible to file a Notice of Matters Affecting Validity (NMAV). The NMAV can provide submissions (and supporting material) asserting that the claimed invention lacks novelty and/or an innovative step. The Patent Office is required to consider the NMAV when the innovation patent is examined (irrespective of who made the examination request).

You can file an NMAV at any time from when the complete specification for the patent becomes open to public inspection to immediately before the Commissioner decides to certify the patent. Again, this can be done anonymously or by ‘strawman’.

Post-certification options

After certification, a patentee can commence enforcement proceedings to assert their patent rights. Accordingly, it is important to consider the risk of the patentee commencing infringement proceedings when contemplating a post-certification challenge to the validity of an innovation. There are a number of different options available, and we recommend consulting with an IP professional to develop a strategy suited to your circumstances.

Re-examination

If the innovation patent has been examined and certified, that does not have to be the end of the matter. If you still have validity concerns, you can ask the Patent Office to re-examine the innovation patent. Again, this can be done anonymously or by ‘strawman’. Re-examination requests can address more grounds than an NMAV including written description requirements.

Re-examination can be considered a “passive” approach in that you provide information to the Patent Office and hope that they will use it wisely. If the Patent Office raises objections in the light of the re-examination request, the patentee will be given the opportunity to respond to the objections, but the party requesting re-examination does not have a formal opportunity to contest the patentee’s response. Re-examination can be a cost-effective option in circumstances where there are clear invalidity grounds.

Opposition

Alternatively, if it is strategically beneficial to take a more active approach to contesting the validity of an innovation patent, you can commence opposition proceedings before the Patent Office. In opposition proceedings, both the opponent and the patentee are given the opportunity to file evidence and make submissions in support of their respective cases. The opposition can proceed to a formal hearing, where each party can be heard and a hearing officer from the Patent Office will prepare a formal decision on the opposition. The grounds of opposition include the same grounds as re-examination.

Revocation

There is also the option of commencing revocation proceedings before the Federal Court. We do not suggest litigation lightly, but in some circumstances revocation proceedings can be the best approach. The grounds of revocation generally include the same grounds as for oppositions.

If you are dealing with nuanced technical issues or a complicated case, it may be beneficial to actively contest the validity of the innovation patent in opposition or revocation proceedings. As noted above, the best strategy will depend on the specific circumstances of any matter.

How we can help

Griffith Hack is a full-service specialist IP firm. We combine a highly experienced and technically diverse patents team with a legal team with a strong track record. At Griffith Hack, our attorneys and lawyers work together to provide you with commercially astute advice and execute a strategy tailored to your needs.

To discuss the available options, please contact a member of our team.