Official headnote of the decision 7 W (pat) 29/15 of the 7th Senate (legal senate) of the GPTO dated May 12, 2016:
If a patent office fee is payed by a direct debiting mandate, the date of receipt of the mandate is according to § 2 No. 4 PatKostZV (Rules on payment of patent fees) regarded as the day of payment of the fee only if the mandated amount is withdrawn by the Federal Account on behalf of the Patent Office. According to this regulation the debtor alone bears the risk that, for whatever reasons, the amount is not withdrawn. This is true also if the amount has not been withdrawn because the Patent Office does not make use of the direct debiting mandate close to the due date.
In the case to be decided by the court an opponent filed an opposition against a German patent on October 7, 2011, i.e. on the last day of the opposition period, and paid the statutory opposition fee of EUR 200 by means of a direct debit mandate. The GPTO, however, did not make use of the direct debit mandate, allegedly because it was not forwarded to the accounting office. Only after initiation of an insolvency procedure with respect to the opponent on November 25, 2011, which was communicated to the GPTO on December 6, 2011, did the GPTO accounting office take notice of the direct debiting mandate, but could no longer make use of it due to the insolvency. On December 20, 2011 (date of receipt) the opposition fee was paid to the GPTO by remittance with the authorization of the insolvency administrator.
The GPTO decided on June 25, 2015 that the opposition is deemed not having been filed due to failure to pay the opposition fee within the prescribed deadline.
The opponent appealed to the Federal Patent Court (FPC), which, however, rejected the appeal with the following reasoning:
According to the court, prereqisite of the “privileged” payment date of the receipt of the direct debit authorization is the actual withdrawal of the authorized amount by the GPTO. The withdrawal was no longer possible upon initiation of the insolvency proceedings on November 25, 2011. In the courtś view the fact that the GPTO had sufficient time to withdraw the money between October 7, 2011 and November 24, 2011 (i.e. about 7 weeks, whereas this procedure according to the statement of the GPTO typically takes about 2-3 weeks) does not change this general rule as long as by the delay general principles of the rule of law are not violated. The fact that the opponent is not responsible for these delays could only taken into account in abreinstatement procedure which, however, is not available in case of missing the opposition deadline. In addition, the court reasoned the opponent could use other possible payment methods avoiding this risk. The remittance received by the GPTO on December 20, 2011 was regarded as too late.
The Federal Patent Court allowed further appeal (Rechtsbeschwerde) to the Federal Court of Justice (FCJ).
I hope that the opponent will lodge further appeal with the FCJ and that the decision will be revised upon appeal.
In my view, the decision unduely shifts the burden of the settlement risk of a payment of GPTO fees completely to parties of proceedings before the GPTO, be it opponents against a patent grant of a third party or patent applicants itself having to pay annuity fees or the like. This is true in particular for the formulation of the official headnote, which generalizes the individual case decided by the court to a general responsibility of parties before the GPTO using fee payment by direct debit authorization to bear the risk if any failure of the office to use the authorization to withdraw the fee.
Strict deadlines in patent proceedings serve the purpose of legal certainty for the involved parties as well as for the public, e.g. the public has a right to know whether a patent grant has been opposed to or not. Strict deadlines for fee payments can serve the same purpose as in the case of annuity fees, where the public needs to know whether or not a patent lapses or not. Payment of procedural fees as filing fees, opposition fees etc., however, are irrelevant for legal certainty but mainly serve the purpose of contributing to the procedural costs of the office.
Therefore it should be sufficient if the involved party of proceedings before the GPTO has timely and in accordance with the procedural rules initiated payment of the correct amount. Any delay caused by the office should not be to the disadvantage of the involved party. This should be particularly true in the decided case in which not a withdrawal attempt of the GPTO failed, because the GPTO never undertook such attempt, and the opponent has actualy made payment of the opposition fee after initiation of the insovolvency proceedings, albeit inevitably after expiry of the opposition deadline.
The reference of the FPC to other payment methods avoiding this risk is not helpful either. According to the rules on payment of patent fees there are in total four ways to pay fees to the GPTO (and the FPC):
1. Direct debit authorization (according to SEPA procedural rules). This payment method is the most popular one.
2. Remittance. The deadline is met only if the GPTO receives the money in time. The delay risk thus is also borne by the debtor.
3. Cash payment to the cashier of the GPTO.
4. Cash payment at a bank to the benefit of the corresponding Federal Account of the GPTO.
As the payment methods of direct debit authorization and remittance are unpredictable and thus not “save” to meet a GPTO or FPC deadline, the discussed decision and in particular the very gneral official headnote thus has the consequence that careful applicants and their patent attorneys have to pay patent fees (wish can be substantial for large applicants) using less “privileged” routes, namely to use cash only. This cannot be the intention of an important government agency in 2016 !
An innovative solution in addition to a reversal of the decision at the FCJ would instead be to allow payment in the cryptocurrency bitcoin, where a payment confirmation is received within about 60 minutes.