12 September, 2017

A Point of Direction - UK Supreme Court Considers Direct and Indirect Patent Infringement

Due to the limited monopoly period in patents, infringement can be very problematic for the rightsholder, and would need to be dealt with as quickly as possible to maintain the competitive edge the patent provides. What remains tricky is establishing whether a competing product infringes on the patent, be it directly or indirectly. Drawing the line in the sand for the two types of infringement is very important, and judicial consideration on both might not be as clear as one hopes. In an attempt to clarify the position, the UK Supreme Court took on a case that involves two rivals in the pharmaceutical business.

The case of Eli Lilly v Actavis UK Ltd dealt with the chemical Pemetrexed, developed by Eli Lilly, used for the treatment of cancerous tumors. Used solely by itself the drug can be harmful, even fatal, and hence is not used as an anti-cancer drug. The side-effects of the drug could, however, be negated by using it in combination with vitamin B12 or folic acid and used for its original purpose. Eli Lilly has sold the combination drug, called Alimta, since 2004. The company also patented this combination drug in the EU (patent no. 1313508) including designations in France, Italy and Spain. Actavis proposed the launch of competing products that used pemetrexed together with vitamin B12, but, instead of using the same active ingredient Actavis would've used a different, albeit similar combination (differing from the patent claims). Eli Lilly alleged that the products would directly or indirectly infringe on their patent, with the matter ultimately reaching the Supreme Court in July.

The focal point of the matter is the use of a particular pemetrexed diacid or a pemetrexed salt with vitamin B12, which is specified in claim 1 of the patent, while Actavis uses a slightly different salt. Article 69 of the European Patent Convention sets out the extent of a patent's protection, which "…shall be determined by the claims. Nevertheless, the description and drawings shall be used to interpret the claims". A combination of the claims and its associated description should be used to determine the patent's remit of protection, i.e. could it include more compounds than the one set out in claim 1. The relevant provision for the infringement of patents in the UK is section 60 of the Patents Act 1977, which is governed by the above provision in the EPC.

After discussing the precedential history of patent infringement in both the UK and Europe, Lord Justice Neuberger, handing down the Court's unanimous decision, set out the proper test on patent infringement. In his view, to assess patent infringement matters, one has to look at two issues through the eyes of the person skilled in the relevant art. Namely, "...(i) does the variant infringe any of the claims as a matter of normal interpretation; and, if not, (ii) does the variant nonetheless infringe because it varies from the invention in a way or ways which is or are immaterial". He further specified that the second issue should viewed as not merely identifying what the words of the claim would mean to the skilled person, but also considering the extent if any to which the scope of protection afforded by the claim should extend beyond that meaning.

Lord Justice Neuberger then moved onto discussing the two issues above in more depth.

The first issue, in his view, is a straightforward application of claim interpretation, considering that the ingredients used by Actavis would not fall within the expression "pemetrexed disodium" in claim 1.

Steve wasn't a big fan of taking Pemetrexed 
The second issue proved to be trickier. Lord Justice Neuberger saw that, to determine what would amount to an 'immaterial' variation of the invention, it would be helpful to look at the three questions set out in Improver Corpn v Remington Consumer Products Ltd. These ask "i) Notwithstanding that it is not within the literal meaning of the relevant claim(s) of the patent, does the variant achieve substantially the same result in substantially the same way as the invention, ie the inventive concept revealed by the patent? ii) Would it be obvious to the person skilled in the art, reading the patent at the priority date, but knowing that the variant achieves substantially the same result as the invention, that it does so in substantially the same way as the invention? iii) Would such a reader of the patent have concluded that the patentee nonetheless intended that strict compliance with the literal meaning of the relevant claim(s) of the patent was an essential requirement of the invention?"

The judge then turned to answering the above three questions.

For the first question Lord Justice Neuberger quickly determined that both drugs work in the same way as the patented invention, ultimately comprising of a medicament containing the pemetrexed anion and vitamin B12. The drug will achieve substantially the same result, in the same way, as the invention.

In the light of the second question, Lord Justice Neuberger considered that the skilled person would appreciate that each of the Actavis products would work in precisely the same way as pemetrexed disodium when included in a medicament with vitamin B12. The use of different free acids or salts would not change this outcome, as they were clearly established as at the priority date of the patent, and the skilled person would clearly investigate their effects as a part of routine. A test for knowing whether the drugs work or not would, in his mind, is too strict.

In answering the third question, Lord Justice Neuberger diverged from the Court of Appeal's decision. He considered that the skilled person would understand that the use of ' pemetrexed disodium' would not limit infringement to only that particular salt – this just happened to be the one used during experimentation. He concluded that it is unlikely that any other pemetrexed salts or pemetrexed free acid would have been excluded from the scope of protection.

Lord Justice Neuberger ultimately saw that the patent had been directly infringed by Actavis. He affirmed his position even in the light of the patent's prosecution history, as reliance on it should be reserved to limited instances and not every matter concerning infringement. The judge also considered direct infringement in France, Italy and Spain, and concluded that the patent had been infringed in these jurisdictions as well.

Finally, the Court looked at whether the patent had also been indirectly infringed had they determined the patent to not have been directly infringed, also set out in section 60 of the Patents Act 1977. The parties argued about the manufacture and administration of the drugs, diverging on whether both contribute to infringement or not. Ultimately Lord Justice Neuberger determined that Actavis would have indirectly infringed Eli Lilly's patent if they knew, or it was obvious given the circumstances, that the drug would be used by dissolving it into a saline solution

The Supreme Court's decision in the case will be very influential, and redefines how direct infringement in particular is assessed. It'll be interesting to see how the new tests are applied to different types of patents, not just pharmaceuticals, and whether it will make proving infringement easier or more difficult.

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