Sunday, 8 November 2015

Vringo v ZTE: inventive step and the impact of proposed changes to a standard

From Jan Pot (Brinkhof N.V., Amsterdam) comes news of a recent court battle between Vringo and ZTE, which led to a ruling late last month from the District Court of The Hague. The battlefield was Vringo’s EP 1 186 119 (“EP 119”), which the court nullified for lack of inventive step.  This decision [in Dutch here, and with an informal English translation here] contains some interesting considerations on the closest prior art and problem inventions. Jan takes up the story as follows:
Since 2012, ZTE and Vringo have been involved in litigation on a number of patents, which are part of a portfolio of ca. 500 patents which Vringo purchased from Nokia. EP 119 is one of those patents. In the Netherlands, litigation started in 2014 when the Dutch customs stopped several shipments of ZTE equipment. Vringo attached part of these goods, alleging infringement of EP 119. The preliminary relief Judge of the District Court The Hague refused to lift this attachment, inter alia because he considered the outcome of nullity proceedings on EP 119 too uncertain.

In 2007, EP 119 was upheld by the European Patent Office's Technical Board of Appeal (TBA) in opposition proceedings initiated by Qualcomm. It has also been the subject of infringement proceedings in Germany, where in 2013 the Landgericht Mannheim refused to stay the infringement proceedings pending the nullity proceedings before the Bundespatentgericht as it considered the chance of revocation insufficient.

EP 119 claims a method for transmitting a certain sequence of symbols, and is according to Vringo essential for the UMTS standard. More specifically, it pertains to the situation in which a UMTS base stations transmits so-called synchronization information on the synchronization channel when a functionality called time-switched transmit diversity, or TSTD, is in use.

ZTE advanced several nullity grounds, including lack of novelty, lack of inventive step and added matter. The Court only dealt with inventive step. It found the patent obvious, starting from the latest draft for the UMTS standard published before the priority date, referred to as TS 25.211 V2.1.0, as closest prior art, in combination with a document referred to as TSGR1#5(99)677. This document, which was published by one of the working groups working on the UMTS standard at the time, proposed changes to the draft standard. The Court held that the skilled person would read these two documents together, and in doing so would be confronted with the problem for which the patent aims to provide a solution.

Vringo argued that EP 119 was in essence a problem invention. However, the Court held that Vringo failed to make sufficiently clear why that would be the case. A number of factors were only first advanced by Vringo during the hearing, while the same number of factors were only briefly touched upon in a rather difficult to follow declaration by its expert, Dr. Moulsley. Neither the patent nor Vringo’s Statement of Defence mentioned these ‘pieces of the puzzle’ as joint causes of a problem. What’s more, the District Court did not find these arguments persuasive when looking at other prior art publications and an e-mail exchange between several technical experts who already discussed the issue. Although Vringo disputed that interpretation of the e-mail exchange, it did not provide any convincing explanation as to what they would then be discussing. Finally, the Court stated that restraint must be observed in assuming the existence of a problem invention, referring to TBA case law (T 971/92).

The Court then concluded that ZTE had rightly argued that there were essentially two options to solve the problem, both of which were obvious to the skilled person. On this issue the Court disagreed with the TBA, which had held that there were multiple options. The viability of those other options was discussed before the Court by ZTE and Vringo. In the end and having heard both parties’ experts, the Court was of the opinion that the other options were either not viable or less obvious. In other words, the Court was convinced that the two options mentioned by ZTE were the “natural” solution to redress the problem with which the skilled person was confronted due to the change made by TSGR1#5(99)677. The Court concluded that the choice for the one of the two obvious solutions is not inventive and that no pointer to either one is required.
Brinkhof, through a team consisting of Ruprecht Hermans, Richard Ebbink, Gaëlle Béquet and Jan Pot, represented ZTE in these proceedings.  This summary is based solely on the decision itself and not on information from the file not reflected in the decision.

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