The IPKat EPO Enlarged Board of Appeal (EBA) Year in Review 2021

2021 has been year brimmed full with juicy case law from the Enlarged Board of Appeal (EBA). The biggest (or at least the most controversial) story of the year was the referral to the EBA on the legality of mandatory ViCo oral proceedings (G 1/21). This year also saw release of the EBA decision on double-patenting and a new referral on the thorny issue of plausibility and post-published evidence. As the year draws to a close, we also have news of a new referral to the EBA on the EPO's co-applicant approach to priority.    

🎄 Double-patenting (G 4/19)

Early in the year, the EBA issued its decision on the question of double patenting. The prohibition against double patenting prevents the grant of more than one European patent application having the same filing date and applicant, and directed to the same subject matter. 

Previous EBA decisions (G 1/05 and G 1/06) established the prohibition of double patenting in view of the fact that an applicant "had no legitimate interest in proceedings that gave rise to the grant of a second patent in respect of the same subject-matter for which he already held a patent".  However, this reasoning could not be said to apply to all cases of double-patenting. Particularly, an applicant may be said to have legitimate interest in a second patent for the same subject matter if, for example, the second patent had a later expiry date than the first, as in cases of internal priority (i.e. a European patent that claims priority from another, earlier, European patent).  

The referral in G 4/19 asked whether a European patent application could be refused if the application claimed the same subject matter as a granted European patent (owned by the same applicant) that did not form part of the state of the art (IPKat). In their decision, the EBA found alternative legal basis for the prohibition against double patenting in Article 125 EPC, i.e. on the basis that the prohibition existed in the legislation of member states. The EBA concluded that the general prohibition against double patenting thus applied to cases of internal priority (IPKat).

Importantly, the decision in G 4/19 did not address the meaning of "same subject matter" for the purposes of determining cases of double patenting. What constitutes "the same subject matter"  thus remains relatively narrow in Europe, at least compared to a number of other jurisdictions. EP applicants may therefore still pursue subject-matter in divisional applications that is broader than the granted parent case. 

🎄 Mandatory ViCo oral proceedings (G1/21)

Lock-down kitten after a
year of digesting EBA case law
2021 saw continued use of ViCo oral proceedings at the EPO. Before the pandemic, all Opposition Division (OD) and Boards of Appeal oral proceedings required in-person attendance at the EPO by all parties. ViCo oral proceedings were reserved for a minority of Examining divisional oral proceedings, at the request of the applicant. However, in order to avoid a growing backlog of cases during the pandemic, the EPO began holding all Examining Division oral proceedings by ViCo (OJ EPO 2020, A39)launched a "pilot project" for OD oral proceedings by ViCo (OJ EPO 2020, 41) and introduced a new Rule of Procedure for the Boards of Appeal that permits Boards of Appeal to hold oral proceedings whenever "the Board considers it appropriate to do so", i.e. even post-pandemic (IPKat).

The introduction of mandatory ViCo oral proceedings sparked a new referral to the EBA (G 1/21) (IPKat). The referral asked whether mandatory ViCo proceedings were compatible with the right to oral proceedings as enshrined in Article 116(1) EPC. Recognising the importance of the question for a large number of pending cases, the referring Board of Appeal continued with the referral even though the party requesting the referral withdrew their request (IPKat).

The referral in G1/21 was dogged with controversy from the get-go. Complaints were raised that both the Chairman and a number of the appointed EBA panel were at risk of perceived bias, given that they had been involved in the introduction of Article 15a RPBA (IPKat). In response, the EBA changed the composition of the panel (although this failed to satisfy all critics who continued to argue that some of the remaining members had already voiced their support for ViCo) (IPKat).

The EPO acted quickly in response to the legal uncertainty created by the referral. Oral proceedings for G1/21 were rapidly scheduled for May. However, the first oral proceedings in G 1/21 did not get very far, following an objection from the opponent that they had not been properly notified of the EPO President's comments on the referral (IPKat). The oral proceedings were rescheduled for later in the year (IPKat).  

When proceedings in G1/21 eventually went ahead, the final order of the EBA announced by the EPO was that mandatory ViCo proceedings before the Boards of Appeal were permitted during a time of "general emergency impairing the parties' possibility to attend in-person oral proceedings". This of course left open the question of how a time of "general emergency impairing the parties' possibility to attend in-person oral proceedings" should be interpreted (IPKat). The decision also did not provide a decision on mandatory oral proceedings in first instance (such as before the OD), or after the state of general emergency had ended (IPKat). Nonetheless, the written decision, when this finally became available, included reasoning on how in-person proceedings should be preferred, and went so far to say that in-person proceedings were the gold-standard (IPKat)

It is therefore not clear how the EPO will proceed following the pandemic. Particularly, if the EBA considers in-person proceedings to be the gold-standard, can we expect a return to mostly in-person proceedings following the pandemic? A recent user survey of the opposition division (OD) ViCo pilot program revealed a broadly positive experience of ViCo by users, even if this was not quite the unequivocally glowing picture of user contentment painted by the report's conclusions (IPKat). It may be that users will therefore be reasonably happy to continue with ViCo proceedings, despite the EBA's luke-warm endorsement. Whatever the long term future for ViCo proceedings, with the omicron variant now sweeping through Europe, it may be a while before a general state of emergency can be said to be at an end. 

🎄 Plausibility, inventive step and post-published data (G 2/21)

Christmas insect

The new referral to the EBA in G 2/21 seeks to clarify the law on the use of post-filed evidence to establish plausibility for an invention. A referral on this topic may have come as a surprise to some, given the established case law of the Board of Appeal on plausibility and post-filed evidence (Case Law of the Boards of Appeal, I-D-4.6). However, as highlighted in the preliminary decision of the Board of Appeal in the case (T 116/18), the Boards of Appeal are not fully harmonious on the plausibility requirement (IPKat).  

In its referring decision, the Board of Appeal identified 3 diverging lines of case law on the admissibility of post-published evidence for inventive step: 1) Ab initio plausibility, 2) Ab initio implausibility, and 3) No plausibility (IPKat). 

According to the ab initio plausibility case law, plausibility must be established in the application as filed, i.e. in the form of direct evidence for the technical effect relied on for inventive step. By contrast, in the ab initio implausibility line of case law, post-published evidence can only be disregarded if the skilled person had reasons to doubt (e.g. from common general knowledge) that the purported technical effect had in fact been achieved at the filing date. The final line of case law on plausibility, is that according to which no plausibility is required. According to the "no plausibility" case law, the requirement for plausibility of a technical effect at the filing date is incompatible with the problem solution approach (IPKat). Examination and opposition division proceedings for which the decision in G 2/21 will be decisive have been stayed

The outcome of a referral could have important implications. Crucially, the questions referred to the EBA appear to only permit a relaxation or maintenance of the current position, as established by the majority of the case law. However, the EBA can reformulate the questions referred to it as it sees fit, and will often narrow the scope of the referral by doing so (as in G 1/21). This referral will be closely watched by many, although we may not get a decision from the EBA for 1-2 years. 

🎄 Looking forward: G3/21 on the co-applicants approach to priority

Stepping into 2022
As the year comes to a close, we have received reports of another referral to the EBA, on the question of priority from the consolidated appeal cases T 1513/17 and T 2719/19. 

The EPO interprets Article 87 EPC, based on Article 4(1) of the Paris Convention, as requiring “any person” as meaning that all the applicants (or their successors in title) named on the priority application must be named on the subsequent EP application. The Broad Institute lost one of their critical CRISPR patents at opposition (upheld on appeal) because an inventor of the US provisional application from which priority was claimed (or his successor in title) was not named on the PCT application (IPKat). 

Conversely, current EPO practice on priority allows new applicants to be added to the PCT application, a topic that was discussed on IPKat back in 2019 (IPKat) (Guidelines for Examination, A-III-6.1). In other words, if applicants X and Y are named on the priority application, applicants X, Y and Z may be named on the subsequent application claiming priority. This is called the “co-applicants approach” to priority.

The EPO's approach to priority raises the question of whether priority has been validly claimed in the situation where the joint or co-applicants of a PCT application are split between different designated states. For example, take a situation where applicant X is the applicant of the priority application, and the PCT is filed with applicants X and Y as co-applicants. X is provided as the sole-applicant for the US designation, whilst applicant Y is provided as the applicant for Europe. The question becomes whether a transfer of priority is needed from X to Y for the Euro-PCT application, or whether X and Y should be considered a legal unit, acting together, for the purposes of the PCT application.  

We await confirmation of the referral when the minutes of oral proceedings in the appeal cases are published. 

Christmas in Munich
G 2/19 revisited - Boards of Appeal to return from Haar

Finally, there has been some recent news from the EPO on a proposal from the EPO President to move the Boards of Appeal back from Haar to the centre of Munich. The move of the Boards of Appeal to the Munich suburb of Haar in 2016 sparked considerable controversy, culminating in the memorable referral to the EBA G2/19. The applicant in the case in question argued that holding oral proceedings in Haar contravened their right to be heard, because the EPC stipulated that the EPO should be located in Munich.  The EBA was asked whether Haar was in Munich. The EBA answered that it was (IPKat). 

The EPO President (António Campinos) and President of the Boards of Appeal (Carl Josefsson) have now proposed bringing the Boards of Appeal back to Munich proper. The proposal will go to the Administrative Council for approval in early 2022 (EPO press release). Given Haar's rather inconvenient location, this reversal will come as good news to professional representatives travelling to the EPO from afar for in-person oral proceedings (when and if these return to any significant frequency). 
The IPKat EPO Enlarged Board of Appeal (EBA) Year in Review 2021 The IPKat EPO Enlarged Board of Appeal (EBA) Year in Review 2021 Reviewed by Rose Hughes on Tuesday, December 28, 2021 Rating: 5


  1. "It is therefore not clear how the EPO will proceed following the pandemic".

    Well, a more urgent question is how the EPO will proceed during the pandemic.

    There is no doubt that, even whilst the pandemic is ongoing, situations will arise in which the ability of the parties to the proceedings to attend in person is not in any way (or is not substantially) impaired.

    There is also the fact that, as it currently stands, Article 15a RPBA is not remotely compatible with the EBA's interpretation of Article 116 EPC.

    Given the absence of any adjustment to the rules for oral proceedings in the light of G 1/21, it seems that the EPO intends to conduct oral proceedings by relying upon provisions that are clearly unlawful. It is not hard to see how this could lead to some very messy situations. However, this will only come back to bite the EPO if the EBA truly does represent an independent "judiciary". Given the EBA's performance in G 3/19 and, in parts, in G 1/21, it would be reasonable to have at least some doubts on that point.

  2. It is farcical to see the president of the BA and the president of the EPO signing a MoU.
    One should not forget that the former only has the powers delegated to him by the latter.
    The chair of the BA has to approved by the president even if he appointed by the AC.
    The day the BA can forward their budget request directly the AC we will be able to see a beginning of perception of independence. But it still remains that the conditions of reappointment have never been published.
    Only a proper reform of the statute of the BA without any possibility of the president to interfere with the working of the BA will the BA be fully independent. In 2004 an opportunity was sadly missed.
    As far as the return to Munich is concerned, the person responsible will never have to support the costs implied. The users and the staff are footing the bill.
    But what can you do when immunity means impunity.
    And the tail is wagging the dog.
    It is a disgrace that the AC does not any longer controls the office and its president.
    But the cooperation budget is in good hands.


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