Doctrine of equivalents
The doctrine of equivalents is a legal rule in many (but not all) of the world's patent systems that allows a court to hold a party liable for patent infringement even though the infringing device or process does not fall within the literal scope of a patent claim, but nevertheless is equivalent to the claimed invention. U.S. Judge Learned Hand has described its purpose as being "to temper unsparing logic and prevent an infringer from stealing the benefit of the invention".
Standards for determining equivalents
German courts typically apply a three-step test known as Schneidmesser's questions. These questions are:
- Does the variant solve the problem underlying the invention with means that objectively have the same effect?
- Would the person skilled in the art, using the common general knowledge, have realised at the priority date that the variant has the same effect?
- Are the considerations which the skilled person takes into account for the variant in the light of the meaning of the invention close enough to the considerations taken into account for the literal solution protected by the claims, such that the skilled person will consider the variant as a solution which is equivalent to the literal one?
All of the above questions need to be answered in the affirmative in order to demonstrate equivalent infringement. In addition, an allegation of equivalent infringement needs to withstand the Formstein test. The corresponding question reads:
- Does the variant, having regard to the state of the art, lack novelty or is the variant obvious to a person skilled in the art?
Ireland appears to subscribe to a doctrine of equivalents. In Farbwerke Hoechst v Intercontinental Pharmaceuticals (Eire) Ltd (1968), a case involving a patent of a chemical process, the High Court found that the defendant had infringed the plaintiff's patent despite the fact that the defendant had substituted the starting material specified in the patent claim for another material. Expert evidence showed that any technician who failed to obtain a good result using the specified starting material would try the replacement material. The two materials were therefore held to be chemically equivalent, and the replacement of one with the other by the defendant did not prevent a finding and injunction against him.
- Do the replaced features have the same objective function (same effect)?
- Are the replaced features and their same objective function obvious to a person skilled in the art on the basis of the teaching of the patent (accessibility)?
- After reading the wording of the claim in light of the description, would a person skilled in the art consider the replaced features as a solution of equal value (equal value)?
The court denied equivalent infringement of EP0918791B3, since paragraph 19 of EP0918791B3 explicitly teaches that toxic chromium compounds may be replaced by metallic catalysts. A person skilled in the art would not consider the organic catalyst TEMPO as a solution of equal value to the ruthenium salts specified in claim 1. The answer to the third question was negative.
The court also ruled that there was equivalent infringement of EP1149840B1, since all questions of the three-prong test were answered in the affirmative. The court set forth that the replacement of the claimed p-Toluenesulfonic acid with pyridine/water constituted basic knowledge taught during the first years of an undergraduate course in organic chemistry.
In Urinal valve II, the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland basically affirmed the three-prong test applied by the Federal Patent Court. The Supreme Court still partly reversed the Federal Patent Court’s earlier ruling on case O2014_002. The Supreme Court contended (reasons 6.4) that a second embodiment of the urinal valve fully implemented the key teachings of the asserted patent EP1579133, even though the second embodiment was not literally covered by the wording of the relevant claim. The Court went on to establish equivalent infringement.
As a signatory to the European Patent Convention (EPC), the UK is required to follow the Protocol on the Interpretation of Article 69 of the EPC, which requires member states to draw a balance between interpreting patent claims with strict literalism (with the description and drawings only helping resolve ambiguity) and regarding the claims as a mere guideline only.
The United Kingdom had historically never employed a doctrine of equivalents approach. Instead, the UKIPO employed a purposive approach to assessing the scope of the claims, which applied to both patentability and infringement. The latest UK case law on claim interpretation is found in 'Improver Corp v Remington Consumer Products Ltd' (1990) and the House of Lords decision in 'Kirin-Amgen' (2004). The so-called 'Improver' (or Protocol) questions found in the former are a widely used three-step test for deciding direct patent infringement.
In July 2017, Lord Neuberger in Actavis UK v Eli Lilly introduced a new doctrine of equivalents test. The Supreme Court set out three questions to consider when determining whether a patent infringed the claims as an equivalent:
- "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?"
- "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?"
- "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 first two questions must be answered in the affirmative, and the third question in the negative to demonstrate equivalent infringement.
In the United States, the doctrine of equivalents analysis is applied to individual claim limitations, not to the invention as a whole. The legal test, articulated in Warner-Jenkinson Co. v. Hilton Davis Chem. Co. (1997), is whether the difference between the feature in the accused device and the limitation literally recited in the patent claim is "insubstantial."
One way of determining whether a difference is "insubstantial" or not is called the "triple identity" test. Under the triple-identity test, the difference between the feature in the accused device and the limitation literally recited in the patent claim may be found to be "insubstantial" if the feature in the accused device:
- Performs substantially the same function
- In substantially the same way
- To obtain the same result
as the limitation literally recited in the patent claim. See Graver Tank & Manufacturing Co. v. Linde Air Products Co., (1950).
The Court also explained that the doctrine of equivalents applies if two elements are interchangeable and a person with ordinary skill in the art would have known that the elements were interchangeable at the time of infringement.
In the United States, the doctrine of equivalents is limited by prosecution history estoppel. Under prosecution history estoppel, if the patentee abandoned through an amendment to the patent application certain literal claim coverage (e.g., by narrowing the literal scope of the patent claim), then the patentee is estopped from later arguing that the surrendered coverage is insubstantially different from the literally claimed limitation. The proposed equivalents also cannot cover, or ensnare, the prior art.
The United States also has a statutory equivalents doctrine that is codified in 35 U.S.C. § 112 ¶ 6, which extends to structural equivalents. However, while the general doctrine of equivalents extends to technological equivalents developed after the issuance of a claim, the statutory structural equivalents in 35 U.S.C. § 112 ¶ 6 extends only to equivalents available at issuance.[non-primary source needed]
Attempts have been made to harmonize the doctrine of equivalents.
- "(a) (...) a claim shall be considered to cover not only all the elements as expressed in the claim but also equivalents.
- (b) An element ("the equivalent element") shall generally be considered as being equivalent to an element as expressed in a claim if, at the time of any alleged infringement, either of the following conditions is fulfilled in regard to the invention as claimed:
- (i) the equivalent element performs substantially the same function in substantially the same way and produces substantially the same result as the element as expressed in the claim, or
- (ii) it is obvious to a person skilled in the art that the same result as that achieved by means of the element as expressed in the claim can be achieved by means of the equivalent element."
The EPC 2000, which came into effect on 13 December 2007, included an amended "Protocol on the interpretation of Article 69 EPC" intended to bring about uniformity at a national level between contracting states to the EPC when interpreting claims. The amended text reads:
- For the purpose of determining the extent of protection conferred by a European patent, due account shall be taken of any element which is an equivalent to an element specified in the claims.
However, no definition of what was meant by an "equivalent" was included in the Protocol and it is expected that this lack of a binding definition will do little to achieve the desired uniform interpretation.
- United Kingdom
- Catnic Components Ltd. v. Hill & Smith Ltd. (1982)
- Kirin-Amgen v Hoechst Marion Roussel (October 21, 2004, decision "UKHL 46", regarding European patent EP 148 605)
- Actavis v Eli Lilly, July 12, 2017, decision (2017) UKSC 48
- United States
- Royal Typewriter Co. v. Remington Rand, Inc., 168 F.2d 691, 692 (2d Cir. 1948).
- Schneidmesser II; GRUR 2002, p 513. Federal Court of Justice of Germany, March 12, 2002.
- Schneidmesser II; GRUR 1986, p 803. Federal Court of Justice of Germany, April 29, 1986.
- Kontrazeptiva; GRUR Int 2014, p 543. Federal Patent Court of Switzerland, March 21, 2013.
- Patentverletzung durch Nachahmung; GRUR Int 1/2017, p 40. Federal Supreme Court, October 3, 2016.
- Actavis UK Ltd and others v Eli Lilly and Company  UKSC 48. Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, 12 July 2017.
- See Warner-Jenkinson Co.
- See Festo Corp. v. Shoketsu Kinzoku Kogyo Kabushiki Co.
-  Depuy Spine, Inc. v. Biedermann Motech GMBH (Fed. Cir. 2009)
- "An Overview of the New European Patent Convention and its Potential Impact on European Patent Practice", S.J. Farmer and M. Grund, Bio-Science Law Review, Vol. 9, Issue 2, pages 53-61
- Meurer, Michael J. and Nard, Craig Allen, "Invention, Refinement and Patent Claim Scope: A New Perspective on the Doctrine of Equivalents" (April 20, 2004). Boston University School of Law Working Paper No. 04-03; Case Legal Studies Research Paper No. 04-5. 
- Rigamonti, Cyrill P., Conflicting Theories of Equivalence: 35 U.S.C. § 112, para. 6 in the Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court, 40 IDEA: The Journal of Law and Technology 163 (2000) (PDF, 1.5 MB)
- "Patent Law: The Festo Case and the Doctrine of Equivalents", United States Congressional Research Service, July 25, 2002