IP Australia (for present purposes, the Commissioner of Patents) has been exploring ways to improve the quality of patents by, amongst other things, raising the threshold of inventiveness. (Consultation Paper, November 2009 (pdf) see section 1.2ff).

One might have thought that this would require legislative reform given the extremely strict approach to common general knowledge and, for that matter, s 7(3) taken in Australia.

Perhaps because the election so indecisively intervened, however, and professedly because the submissions agreed, IP Australia now appears to believe it can resolve our problems by simply adopting a new approach at the examination stage, so that legislation is no longer required. As from 1 August 2010, therefore, IP Australia has amended its approach to examining applications:

The Patent Manual of Practice and Procedure was amended on 1 August to indicate that where the application relates to the solving of a problem, being either a problem that is recognised in the art or a problem that is reasonably inferred from the specification, it is appropriate for examiners to consider the question:
Would the person skilled in the art (in all the circumstances) directly be led as a matter of course to try the claimed invention in the expectation that it might well produce a solution to the problem?

Patentology points out the way the Courts have been approaching this may not sit too well with the Commissioner’s idea.

Now, it is true that the majority in Alphapharm did say:

[52]  …. Thirdly, in a case such as the present, the relevant question was that posed in the first part of the passage. Were the experiments “part of” that inventive step claimed in the Patent or were they “of a routine character” to be tried “as a matter of course”? If the latter be attributable to the hypothetical addressee of the Patent, such a finding would support a holding of obviousness.

[53]  That way of approaching the matter has an affinity with the reformulation of the “Cripps question” by Graham J in Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation v Biorex Laboratories Ltd[57]. This Court had been referred to Olin in the argument in Wellcome Foundation[58]. Graham J had posed the question[59]:

“Would the notional research group at the relevant date, in all the circumstances, which include a knowledge of all the relevant prior art and of the facts of the nature and success of chlorpromazine, directly be led as a matter of course to try the -CF3 substitution in the ‘2’ position in place of the -C1 atom in chlorpromazine or in any other body which, apart from the -CF3 substitution, has the other characteristics of the formula of claim 1, in the expectation that it might well produce a useful alternative to or better drug than chlorpromazine or a body useful for any other purpose?” (emphasis added)

That approach should be accepted.

The first thing to note about this proposition is that it is introduced by “thirdly”. There are a few hurdles to get over before one gets to the reformulated Cripps question.

One of the hurdles, recognised in the Commissioner’s Official Notice, is that one first has to be able to posit that the patent is attempting to propose a solution to some identified or identifiable problem. In the Lockwood (No. 2), however, the High Court made it very plain at [63] – [65] that may not always be appropriate.

Another hurdle expressed by the majority in Alphapharm were repeated doubts that “obvious to try” could be applied, if at all, to anything other than a simple step from the prior art to the claimed invention rather than, as in that case, a combination patent. In such cases, the majority rejected the approach of more recent English cases in favour of US cases such as In re O’Farrell

The admonition that ‘obvious to try’ is not the standard under §103 has been directed mainly at two kinds of error. In some cases, what would have been ‘obvious to try’ would have been to vary all parameters or try each of numerous possible choices until one possibly arrived at a successful result, where the prior art gave either no indication of which parameters were critical or no direction as to which of many possible choices is likely to be successful. … In others, what was ‘obvious to try’ was to explore a new technology or general approach that seemed to be a promising field of experimentation, where the prior art gave only general guidance as to the particular form of the claimed invention or how to achieve it.

More generally, one may wonder how well the Commissioner’s attempt to use administrative procedural reform to obviate perceived deficiencies in the High Court’s interpretation of the legal meaning of the terms used in the Act will work. Given what the High Court has repeatedly said “common general knowledge” means and the limitations written into s 7(3), how would a Court on appeal deal with the Commissioner’s rejection of a patent application on the Commissioner’s new approach?

As the High Court itself made plain in Alphapharm, the divergence between Australian law and UK and for that matter US law lies in the prior art that may be used to found an attack on obvousiousness. Thus

in [43]:

…. The holding for which Minnesota Mining is celebrated is the rejection, as inapplicable to the terms of the 1952 Act, of the reasoning in certain English decisions. This might have permitted the basing of an argument of obviousness upon prior publicly available publications, without evidence that they had become part of the common general knowledge at the priority date. ….

and in [44]:

…. obviousness was not determined by asking whether a diligent searcher might have selected the elements of the claimed invention by taking pieces from those prior publications and putting them together…

and in [49]:

The result in Britain of the shift in grundnorm is exemplified in the observation by Laddie J[53] that the skilled worker (identified in s 3 of the 1977 UK Act):

“is assumed to have read and understood all the available prior art”. (High Court’s emphasis)

The treatment of the point by Aickin J in Minnesota Mining, as indicated above, expressly rejected any assumption as to what in such a way may be expected of and attributed to the hypothetical addressee. ….

If that is the foundation of the problem, it seems very hard to see how anything but a legislative solution will suffice for, as the High Court also made very plain, it is the function of the legislature to set (and if thought appropriate) change the parameters.

Official Notice (with link to Manual)