The Federal Court Sheds Light on the Inventive Step of an Invention

 

Light in Autumn

The apex court of Malaysia has recently delivered an important decision which touched on the key requirement of inventive step involved in an invention and how to determine such inventive step.

In Spind Malaysia Sdn Bhd v Justrade Marketing Sdn Bhd & Pang Cheng Hoon (Federal Court of Malaysia Civil Appeal No. 02(f)-55-08/2016(W)), the following three questions of law were referred to the FC:

1. Whether for the purpose of considering whether a patented invention is inventive (or not obvious), the court is required to apply and carry out the 4-steps test from the case of Windsurfing International Inc v Tabur Marine (Great Britain) Ltd [1985] RPC 59 (or more commonly known as the ‘Windsurfing test’)? (Question 1)

2. Whether there is a distinction to be drawn between determining the “claimed features” of the claims of a patent (for the purposes of assessing novelty and infringement) and determining the “inventive concepts” of the invention in the patent (for the purpose of assessing inventiveness)? (Question 2)

3. If the answer to Question 2 is in the affirmative, whether an assessment of the “inventive concepts” of the invention is to be confined to just the claims of the patent or should be construed from reading the patent specifications as a whole and with the common knowledge of the skilled person? (Question 3)

The appeal relates to a patent for an invention which is simply called a “floor trap” granted to the Appellant. The Appellant sued the Respondents for infringement of patent and the Respondents counterclaimed to invalidate the patent for lack of novelty and inventiveness. The Appellant’s claim was dismissed and the Respondents’ invalidation counterclaim was allowed by the High Court. The appeal to the Court of Appeal was also dismissed. Leave was subsequently granted by the FC for the 3 questions mentioned above to be answered.

In answering Question 1, the FC considered the Windsurfing test to be a good starting point for assessing inventiveness – describing the test as “a useful framework…[and which] provides some clarity of reasoning and consistency of approach”. However, it cautions that the individual steps should not be considered as being “set in stone and mechanically applied”. Ultimately, the question is simply whether the invention is obvious to the person having ordinary skill in the art, having regard to prior art. The 4-steps Windsurfing test was summarised to the following:

Step 1: Identify the inventive concept embodied in the patent.

Step 2: Assume the mantle of person having ordinary skill in the art, and impute to him the common general knowledge at that date.

Step 3: Identify the differences between the prior art and the alleged invention.

Step 4: Determine whether, viewed without any knowledge of the alleged invention, those differences constitute steps which would have been obvious to the person having ordinary skill in the art.

The FC described the test for Step 4 to be an objective test and a question of a fact and two types of evidence can be considered: –

  • primary evidence in the form of the opinions of expert witnesses; and
  • secondary in the form of contemporary events and commercial success of the alleged invention.

On the evidentiary value to be given to expert opinions, the FC viewed such evidence as “generally valuable and often necessary”. However, the ultimate question of fact, i.e. whether the step was obvious or not, must be determined by the court and the court is not bound to follow the expert’s opinion. This reaffirms the position taken by the FC in the earlier case of SKB Shutters Manufacturing Sdn Bhd v Seng Kong Shutter Industries Sdn Bhd & Anor [2015] 6 MLJ 293 (“SKB Shutters”).

As for secondary evidence, the FC held that such evidence is not in itself conclusive on the question of obviousness and care should be taken when conferring proper weight to such evidence. Question 1 was thus answered in the affirmative.

Question 2 and Question 3 were considered together. The FC declared that “[t]he starting point in patent litigation, whether to determine novelty, obviousness, or infringement, is… to ascertain the scope of the claims in a patent”. As such, the inventive concept of a patent must be identified from the claims. The FC further explained that “[i]t is the inventive concept that the patentee has put forward as underpinning his monopoly that must be identified”. Accordingly, inventive concept is to be distilled from the claims and not from the patent specification as a whole. It also follows that technical advantages of an invention which the patentee aimed to achieve, but are not included in the scope of the claims, do not constitute an inventive concept. The FC was however careful to point out that while inventive concept is to be determined from the claims, it is not to be equated with everything stated in the claims. Rather, inventive concept is the “essence of the idea” or “the core (or kernel, or essence) of the invention”.

Question 2 was thus answered in the following manner: in determining both the scope of the claims for assessing novelty and the inventive concept for assessing inventiveness, the court must look at the claims in the patent. However, the inventive concept is not one and the same as the claims; it is the core or essence of the invention. Question 3 was answered in the negative.

This recent Spind decision by the FC is important for patent litigation as it confirms the application of the Windsurfing test for determining whether an invention is inventive or not. The decision also explains how the inventive concept of a patent can be ascertained – from the claims. Patent drafters would also wish to take note of the court’s position in this regard. Based on this decision, it is imperative that patent drafters ensure that the “core (or kernel, or essence) of the invention”, i.e. the inventive concept, be specifically included in the claims of the patent.

(Contributed by Teo Bong Kwang & Ng Yueng May, Messrs. Wong Jin Nee & Teo, Kuala Lumpur, 29 March 2018. Used by permission)

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