Emails: are they "public" for European patent purposes?

When is an electronic communication published? From Martin Kirk (a senior patent attorney in the DSM Expert Centre, Urmond) comes news of some fascinating European Patent Office determinations regarding the legal status of email messages that have been transmitted via the internet: do they constitute public disclosures or not? In short, the EPO's Technical Board of Appeal (TBA) has held that emails sent via internet are not deemed public (T 0002/09) -- but there is now a new test to assess in practical terms whether documents that have been uploaded to the web are deemed public (T 1553/06).  Martin, who was involved in these decisions, explains as follows:
These appeals were from patent applications which had been filed in order to create legal test cases, an idea suggested by the VNO (the Dutch equivalent of the Confederation of British Industry). Philips filed a patent application on 1 February 2000 relating to a black and white display and my employer DSM agreed to act as opponent. The parent was EP1006733 and a later divisional was filed as EP1263240. Disclosures of the exact wording of different claims were made via email (encrypted and non-encrypted) and also posted on the web (to various urls and removed after various periods, including in one instance after only 20 minutes). The case was set up so technical issues about the invention were eliminated as far as possible (which is just as well -- as I am a chemist by training!) so we could concentrate on the legal issues. The divisional was filed so we could split the issues into seperate appeals for web disclosures (T 1553-06 from EP1006733 ) and for email disclosures (T 0002/09 from EP1263240). These decisions aren't yet available on the EPO's TBA database, though they are available on the file wrapper of each patent application. Each 90+ page judgment provides a very through and fair summary of the arguments and issues raised by both parties. the main points are: 
(i) Test cases are allowed. In the summons to oral proceedings the TBA had suggested that both appeals might have been inadmissible, being ''non-contentious',' given the VNO's involvement with both parties (DSM and Phillips). Thankfully the TBA decided to consider the issues on their merits.
(ii) T 0002/09 held that emails sent over the public internet (i.e not via an internal company intranet) are not deemed public. This is true even if there was a lawful reason to intercept emails (eg at ISP). The TBA was invited to assess confidentiality of emails based on their content and the nature of sender and recipent but they rejected this approach, preferring to grant emails absolute confidentiality. 
(iii) T 1553/06 helpfully proposed a two-part test to asssess whether web documents were public (see below). They specifically considered (6.7.4. on p.74) and rejected various other possible tests suggested by Philips or DSM (providing a further guide to the criteria which are not considered relevant for web publication). 
The TBA held that availability to the public comprises a two stage assessment: (i) means of disclosure and then (ii) what information is accessible and derivable from (i). Though the TBA accepted (following G 1/92) that there can be no subjective element to novelty and that the degree of burden for public to access information is irrelevant, nevertheless it held that availability on web cannot be just theoretical but also practical -- as otherwise there could be ''hidden publications'' on the web. There must be ''direct and unambiguous access'' to a web document. 
TBA test was (see p.72 of decision) 
''If, before the filing or priority date of the patent or patent application, a document stored on the World Wide Web and and accessible via a specific URL (1) could be found with the help of a public web search engine by using one or more keywords all related to the essence of the content of that document and (2) remained accessible at that URL for a period of time long enough for a member of the public, i.e. someone under no obligation to keep the document secret, to have direct and unambiguous access to the document, then the document was made available to the public in the sense of Article 54 (2) EPC 1973.'' 
However the TBA also remarked the contrived nature of the facts of this test case may make it less relevant to real-world situations. In real life the standard and burden of proof required to show what was disclosed in a web document (often many years after the event) may be the main issue. Here we used a notary public to record carefully at the time (November 1999 to January 2000) which documents were uploaded and removed from the web and whether they were capable of being found at certain times before the filing date (1 February 2000) using keyword searches with various search engines (this was done pre Google!)". 
The IPKat is delighted to have received this information. Although, left to himself, he thinks he would have guessed more or less the same solution as that adopted by the TBA (as many other readers would probably also have done), he is the first to concede that his guesses have little or no precedental value, so it's good to see how these decisions have panned out.  Merpel is suddenly getting suspicious about collusive or friendly litigation: do you suppose, she wonders, that Budweiser v Budweiser was a crafty attempt to discover the deeper meaning of trade mark law ...?
Emails: are they "public" for European patent purposes? Emails: are they "public" for European patent purposes? Reviewed by Jeremy on Sunday, April 22, 2012 Rating: 5


  1. What a waste of time and energy. The EPO should file all of Philips' and DSM's applications in the 'lost behind the back of the desk' tray as punishment for clogging up the system.

    There where never any legal issues to resolve over the internet. If it was posted and accessible it was prior art. The difficult issue has always been proving availability, which has nothing to do with resolution of legal issues. This is the same for a book placed on a library shelf as much as a document on the web.

    And in what possible way could an email sent from one person to another be deemed publicly available? Where letters addressed to 'to whom it may concern' be treated the same way? This issue was brought up, I believe, by CIPA and some other attorneys several years ago. It was nonsense then and it is nonsense now!

  2. I think it could be worth you while to read the commented versions of the decisions here:
    and here:

    and a French summary may be had on:

    Testing the limits is sensible; there is good precedent for this, and we must be grateful for those who can afford to do so. Still, it is a pity in this case that there is not even the fiction of a conflict. That is unelegant, and it has forced a lot of unnecessary thought in the Boards.

  3. While test cases such as these may well provide guidance, only decisions of the Enlarged Board of Appeal are binding: see for example T0910/06 para 2.8

    "It must be recalled that unlike some Anglo-Saxon legal systems which are preedent-driven, the instances of the European Patent Organisation work within tha codified system of law ... (the EPC) ..and are constrained by case law only in the case of decisions handed down by the Enlarged Board of Appeal."

    The principle of allowing the filing of test cases is at least consistent with the situation that arose a few years ago where an EPA was held to have validly filed an opposition where he admitted that he had no interest in the patent. He had only opposed for the experience because it was cheaper to file a real opposition than to go on a course on how to deal with oppositions.

  4. Ex-Examiner - there is some irony in quoting case-law in support of the proposition that decisions of the type quoted are not binding. EPO Board of Appeal decisions are indeed not precedential in the Anglo-Saxon sense. However, care need to be taken not to over-state this, and the force in both theory and practice of Art. 20(1) of the Rules of Procedure of the Boards of Appeal should not be overlooked:

    "Should a Board consider it necessary to deviate from an interpretation or explanation of the Convention given in an earlier decision of any Board, the grounds for this deviation shall be given, unless such grounds are in accordance with an earlier opinion or decision of the Enlarged Board of Appeal. The President of the European Patent Office shall be informed of the Board's decision."

    This gives a precedential quality to a BoA decision, albeit not with Anglo-Saxon force.

  5. If we want to say that the case provides a precedent in the sense of being an earlier case then that is fine, but if the case is non-binding, which it is not, then it does not provide a precedent in the sense we understand when we talk about legally binding precedents.

    There are plenty of cases at the EPO where a previous 'precedent' was not followed, thankfully because in many cases the decision was ridiculous. Such decisions are commonly known and the EPO examiners happily explain to applicants that they will not be followed.

    I'm not realy sure what value there is in a precedent if it is not one of the so-called 'Anglo-Saxon' varieties.

  6. English jurisprudence recognises "binding" precedent and "persuasive" precedent. The EPO Boards of Appeal system of precedent is more akin to the latter variety. This does not make it without value, nor does it mean that no system of precedent exists - it clearly does. The reality, as so often the case, is rather subtle and nuanced.

  7. Can you provide some legal (binding) support for the statement that the BoA have a system of persuasive precedent?

    From what I can see, the Appeal Boards come to their own independent conclusions, which may or may not agree with the decision of an earlier Board. If a Board follows the well-reasoned decision of another then that is wholly different and is a sensible position to avoid re-inventing the wheel.

    Short of every court in the land hearing cases without any right to hear or have knowledge of earlier cases, then there will always be some sort of precedent according to Darren's definition. I propose we name this "Darren's Homeopathic Precedent".

  8. Apart from the binding passage from the RPBA that I already quoted, there is Art 112 which makes it clear that "uniform application of the law" is an object of the Boards of Appeal. Much more than that, however, read some BoA cases and see how they treat previous decisions.

  9. The rule does not make previous decisions binding in any way. Please re-read and understand that the only requirement is that they explain their reasoning for deviating.

    A requiremnt for uniform application does not make decisions binding in any way as the explanation of the aformentioned rule demonstrates. The EPC provides cleary for resolving conflicting decisions.

    Advising someone to read through the many thousands of decisions is not a great way of supporting an argument. Try that with the EPO and see how far you get.


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