Protocol not recognized

Another week, another issue of international jurisdiction. Last week’s post was about a case of declaration of non-infringement. This week’s post is about a case of ownership claim. But I think this time the decision issued by a French judge has a greater potential for arousing controversy.

In short: the judge decided that the Protocol on Recognition should be discarded in the determination of jurisdiction in the case at hand. The “Protocol on Recognition” is short for “Protocol on Jurisdiction and the Recognition of Decisions in respect of the Right to the Grant of a European Patent“. The object of the Protocol is to define which courts of the EPC contracting states shall have jurisdiction to decide claims, against the applicant, to the right to the grant of a European patent.

Pursuant to Article 164(1) EPC, the Protocol is considered as an “integral part” of the EPC, and therefore is part of an international agreement. So, I think the decision by the judge not to apply the Protocol is a pretty big deal.

Let’s turn to the specifics of the case. This is a dispute between a British company, NCAM Technologies Ltd. and a French company, Solidanim, both active in the field of motion picture technology. Both hold IP on similar technologies, respectively called NCAM Live and SolidTrack.

Solidanim filed a French patent application in December 2011, followed by a European patent application in December 2012, claiming the priority of the French application. The French patent was granted, and the European application is still pending.

NCAM Technologies Ltd. filed a British patent application in May 2012, followed by another British patent application and a PCT application in May 2013, claiming the priority of the initial 2012 filing. The PCT application entered regional phase at the EPO.

Filing date 1918 – the early days of cartoon technology.

Apparently, Solidanim told clients that NCAM had stolen its SolidTrack technology. NCAM did not like that and sued Solidanim in front of the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) in October 2015. NCAM requested that Solidanim’s French patent be held invalid, and that Solidanim be declared guilty of unfair competition due to disparagement.

In March 2016, Solidanim counterclaimed for infringement of its French patent and of its European patent application and for unfair competition.

Even more importantly for the present post, Solidanim claimed ownership of NCAM’s British patent, PCT application and resulting European application.

In June 2016, NCAM retaliated by presenting the case management judge with a number of procedural requests:

  • that the proceedings should be stayed with respect to Solidanim’s infringement claims;
  • that the proceedings should continue with respect to NCAM’s nullity claim; and
  • that the court should acknowledge its lack of jurisdiction with respect to Solidanim’s ownership claim.

This leads us to the order issued by the case management judge in November 2016. The first request was quite easily granted. Indeed, infringement proceedings based on a pending European patent application are stayed as of right (article L. 615-4 Code de la propriété intellectuelle). Furthermore, infringement proceedings based on a French patent are also stayed as of right if there is a parallel European patent application which is still pending (article L. 614-15 Code de la propriété intellectuelle). This is because the French patent is bound to totally or partially disappear after the grant of the European patent (more specifically, at the end of the opposition time limit or at the end of the opposition proceedings, if any).

Turning to the second request, there was no mandatory rule for the judge to follow. He had discretion whether to proceed further or to stay. He decided to stay, “for a good administration of justice“, according to the ritual phrase, due to the parallel European patent application still being examined at the EPO, and since the fate of the French patent is closely tied to that of the European application.

But the big prize was the third request. NCAM based its request on the Protocol on Recognition, and more specifically article 2:

Subject to Articles 4 and 5, if an applicant for a European patent has his residence or principal place of business within one of the Contracting States, proceedings shall be brought against him in the courts of that Contracting State.

Articles 4 and 5 are irrelevant here, as they relate to employees’ inventions and cases in which there is a preexisting agreement with a jurisdiction clause in place between the parties.

So, this is quite straightforward. According to article 2 of the Protocol, the British courts should have exclusive jurisdiction to rule on Solidanim’s claim for ownership of NCAM’s European application, since NCAM has its principal place of business in the UK.

However, Solidanim relied on the Brussels I regulation, namely regulation (EU) No. 1215/2012, already discussed last week. More specifically, Solidanim relied on article 8(3) of the regulation, per which:

A person domiciled in a Member State may also be sued: […] (3) on a counter-claim arising from the same contract or facts on which the original claim was based, in the court in which the original claim is pending.

Claims were already pending in the Paris TGI due to NCAM’s original complaint. Solidanim’s case was that their ownership counterclaim arose from the same facts on which the original nullity and unfair competition claims were based. As a result, the French court also had jurisdiction under the Brussels I regulation.

The judge thus had to address two questions:

  • First, as a matter of fact, did Solidanim’s ownership counterclaim indeed arise from the same facts on which the original claims were based?
  • Second, as a matter of law, which provisions should prevail: those of the Protocol on Recognition or those of the Brussels I regulation?

As to the first point, the judge agreed with Solidanim that the conditions of article 8(3) of the regulation were met:

[…] The latter claims are closely related to the circumstances of fact and relations between the parties, which need to be assessed so as to determine whether the filings made by NCAM did or did not violate Solidanim’s rights on the FR’057 patent, the validity of which is challenged in front of the Parisian court. 

I am not sure I fully understand why a nullity claim concerning one patent is necessarily closely related to an ownership claim concerning other, later applications by another party – apart from the general background of the case. On the other hand, it seems quite clear that NCAM’s unfair competition / disparagement original claim was closely related to Solidanim’s ownership counterclaim. In both cases, the issue, to put it bluntly, was whether or not NCAM had “stolen” Solidanim’s technology.

But the legal issue is certainly the most interesting one. Both the Protocol and the regulation contain some general provisions on how they should be articulated with other legal instruments.

On the one hand, according to article 11(1) of the Protocol:

In relations between any Contracting States the provisions of this Protocol shall prevail over any conflicting provisions of other agreements on jurisdiction or the recognition of judgments.

So the Protocol proclaims itself to be superior to any other agreement. But the regulation is not an agreement. It is a piece of EU law.

On the other hand, the regulation contains an entire chapter (articles 67 to 73) on its relationship with other instruments. This chapter contains general guidance and some specific provisions, but no specific provisions regarding the Protocol on Recognition.

So the judge turned to a CJEU decision relevant for this issue, namely C-533/08 (TNT Express Nederland BV v. AXA Versicherung AG) of May 4, 2010. This decision deals with the articulation between regulation (EC) No. 44/2001, which was the previous version of the Brussels I regulation, and an international agreement, namely the Convention on the Contract for the International Carriage of Goods by Road, signed in Geneva in 1956.

The court interpreted article 71 of regulation 44/2001 as meaning that:

in a case such as the main proceedings, the rules governing jurisdiction, recognition and enforcement that are laid down by a convention on a particular matter […] apply provided that they are highly predictable, facilitate the sound administration of justice and enable the risk of concurrent proceedings to be minimised and that they ensure, under conditions at least as favourable as those provided for by the regulation, the free movement of judgments in civil and commercial matters and mutual trust in the administration of justice in the European Union (favor executionis).

Article 71 of regulation 1215/2012 is similar to article 71 of regulation 44/2001. Therefore, the judge applied the criteria set by the supreme court of the EU, based on the premise that the same criteria should apply whatever the international agreement at stake is.

The judge acknowledged that the Protocol on Recognition affords a high degree of predictability.

However, turning to the objectives of sound administration of justice and of minimizing the risk of concurrent proceedings, the judge noted that the claims and counterclaims at stake were so closely related that the sound administration of justice and the minimization of the risk of concurrent proceedings were better served if all claims and counterclaims were handled by the same court.

The judge noted that

On the one hand, the [NCAM] patents relate to a system similar to the one claimed by Solidanim in its FR’057 patent, in that they deal with real-time merging or composing of computer-generated 3D objects and a video stream from a video camera. And on the other hand, the ownership claims rely on the same factual circumstances relating to the relationships between the parties and their employees, which lead them both to claim a primacy on the inventions provided in these different patents or applications and to consider that the statements made by the parties against each other constitute acts of unfair competition. 

Consequently, said the judge, the Protocol for Recognition did not pass the test set in C-533/08 in the present circumstances, and it should thus simply be ignored, to the benefit of the Brussels I regulation.

Let’s see how this case further develops. It could even be a matter for further reference to the CJEU down the road, could it not?

As a side note, in a few years’ time, I assume that the Brussels I regulation will no longer apply to the UK, so that a similar situation will have to be handled completely differently.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance, 3ème chambre 2ème section, ordonnance du juge de la mise en état, November 24, 2016, NCAM Technologies Ltd. v. Solidanim, RG No. 15/15648.

Borderline

Cross-border litigation is a relatively uncommon but quite fascinating area of European patent law. I naively view it as a fairytale land of Italian torpedoes and Dutch spiders.

So I found it very interesting when I read a recent French decision in which the judge crossed the borderline and trod this unbeaten path.

In this case, several companies, including UK-based Furnace Solutions Ltd. and other French related companies, as well as one individual, filed a declaratory action of non-infringement in front of the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) against the French company CTP Environnement, as the owner of European patent No. EP 1528318.

Remarkably, the plaintiffs asked the French court to declare that both the French part and the British part of the patent are not infringed. The patent proprietor claimed that the TGI lacks jurisdiction. Such a procedural defense was addressed not by the full panel of the court but by the case management judge, in an order dated November 18, 2016.

The pan-European litigation game.

In brief, the judge rejected the lack of jurisdiction defense, and thus decided that the case could proceed further and that the TGI could rule on the declaratory claims with respect to both France and the UK.

In order to reach this conclusion, the judge reviewed the atlas of cross-border litigation, namely the so-called Brussels I regulation, formerly regulation (EC) No. 44/2001, still formerly known as the 1968 Brussels Convention, and nowadays known as regulation (EU) No. 1215/2012.

The central issue at stake was the articulation between articles 4(1) and 24(4) of the regulation.

According to article 4(1):

Subject to this Regulation, persons domiciled in a Member State shall, whatever their nationality, be sued in the courts of that Member State.

An action for declaration of non-infringement is a lawsuit against the patent proprietor. Therefore, this provision apparently makes it possible for a third party to file a declaratory action relating to any national part of a European patent in the courts of the country in which the patent proprietor has its seat.

In the present case, CTP Environnement is based in France, which is why the action was filed in front of the Paris TGI.

But in IP matters there is a limit to this general jurisdiction rule, which is set in article 24(4):

The following courts of a Member State shall have exclusive jurisdiction, regardless of the domicile of the parties: […]  in proceedings concerned with the registration or validity of patents, trade marks, designs, or other similar rights required to be deposited or registered, irrespective of whether the issue is raised by way of an action or as a defence, the courts of the Member State in which the deposit or registration has been applied for, has taken place or is under the terms of an instrument of the Union or an international convention deemed to have taken place. Without prejudice to the jurisdiction of the European Patent Office under the Convention on the Grant of European Patents, signed at Munich on 5 October 1973, the courts of each Member State shall have exclusive jurisdiction in proceedings concerned with the registration or validity of any European patent granted for that Member State.

So the courts of each country have exclusive jurisdiction with respect to any issues of “registration” (whatever that means) and validity (well, we know what that means) of the respective national parts of a European patent. In other terms, nullity of the UK part of a European patent cannot be requested in France, it has to be requested in the UK.

According to the CJEU case C-4/03 (GAT v. LuK), exclusive jurisdiction as defined above applies in “all proceedings where the validity of the patent is decisive, irrespective of whether this is raised by way of an action or a plea in objection“. In other terms, not only invalidity claims or counterclaims, but also invalidity defenses are forbidden territory for cross-border litigation. This has actually been made clearer in the above version of article 24 than it was in the original 1968 Brussels Convention based on which GAT v. LuK was issued.

CTP’s defense in the present case was that a declaratory action may very well give rise to an infringement counterclaim, and then a nullity counter-counterclaim. Therefore, should the French court accept to hear the UK part of the declaratory action, it could impinge on prohibited UK-only validity issues.

In addition, the complaint made reference to a possible objection of extension of subject-matter of the patent, which meant that the validity of the patent would be challenged.

The judge rejected these arguments with the following brief reasoning:

In the present case, and at the present stage, the lawsuit concerns a claim for declaration of non-infringement without for the time being any counterclaim for infringement by CTP nor any claim for nullity of the UK part of the allegedly infringed patent, which would then be a matter for jurisdiction of British courts. 

Therefore, at the present stage of the lawsuit, article 24(4) […] is not applicable. Since the defendant has its seat in France, the present court has jurisdiction based on article 4 […] so that the defense of lack of jurisdiction must be rejected. 

It is clear from the above statements that the situation may change and that there may be a lack of jurisdiction in the future, if further claims are filed. What is less clear is whether only an invalidity claim by Furnace Solutions et al. would trigger this lack of jurisdiction, or whether also an infringement counterclaim by CTP would lead to the same result.

At any rate, the approach taken by the French judge in Furnace Solutions seems to be consistent with the outcome of the Actavis v. Eli Lilly pemetrexed case in the UK, where the British courts ruled on a declaration of non-infringement of a European patent in the UK but also France, Italy and Spain. See for instance the second pemetrexed appeal judgment dated 2015 here. In this case as well, the validity of the patent was expressly not challenged.

Together with the C-616/10 Solvay v. Honeywell CJEU ruling of 2012, which reopened the door to cross-border injunctions in the form of interim relief, these cases could pave the way for a revival of cross-border litigation – pending the UPC big bang.

As a final remark to those eager to follow in the footsteps of Furnace Solutions Ltd., the admissibility of a declaration of non-infringement in France is subject to a mandatory stage of pre-litigation negotiation.

Article L. 615-9 Code de la propriété intellectuelle provides that:

Any person who proves exploiting industrially on the territory of a Member State of the European Economic Community, or serious and effective preparations to that effect, may invite the owner of a patent to take position on the opposability of his title against such industrial exploitation, the description of which shall be communicated to him.

If said person challenges the answer made, or if the patent proprietor does not take position within a deadline of three months, they can sue to have a court rule that the patent does not impede said exploitation, without prejudice to a patent nullity action and to a later infringement action if the exploitation is not conducted in the terms specified in the description mentioned in the previous paragraph. 

In summary, prior notice to the patent proprietor is mandatory. Furthermore, in view of the three-month deadline, it seems virtually impossible to validly launch a surprise declaratory action in this country.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 2ème section, ordonnance du juge de la mise en état, November 18, 2016, Furnace Solutions Ltd. et al. v. CTP Environnement, RG No. 15/06637.

Poisonous thoughts

It has already been more than a week since the latest Enlarged Board of Appeal’s decision G 1/15 has been published. It has therefore already been reported and commented on in all good blogs, so that there is probably no need for me to repeat what other have already explained very well.

It will be sufficient to remind readers that the decision provides important guidance on the issue of partial priority (especially with respect to so-called “OR-claims“) and puts an end to the doctrine of “poisonous divisional applications“.

Basically, if a claim in an application or patent encompasses subject-matter which was disclosed in the application to which priority is claimed, but is broader than said disclosed subject-matter, the priority is not fully invalid. The part of the claim which was disclosed in the priority document benefits from the priority, and the other, new, part of the claim does not. G 1/15 makes it clear that no conditions or limitations apply in this respect.

With that in mind, I do have a couple of thoughts on this topic that I might as well share in this post. Actually, both thoughts are not so much about what the decision says as about what it does not say.

The first remark relates to the Enlarged Board’s reasoning. The theory of poisonous divisional applications was originally adopted in a number of decisions from the Boards of appeal. These decisions relied on the following sentence in the founding decision G 2/98 on the assessment of priority claims:

The use of a generic term or formula in a claim for which multiple priorities are claimed in accordance with Article 88(2) EPC, second sentence, is perfectly acceptable under Articles 87(1) and 88(3) EPC, provided that it gives rise to the claiming of a limited number of clearly defined alternative subject matters.

This sentence was interpreted by a number of boards as imposing a limitation to the possibility to divide a claimed subject-matter into different parts having different effective dates. This was also the respondent’s position in the referral. The argument was well summarized in the submission of the president of the EPO. And in item 3 of the reasons of G 1/15, it is acknowledged that “the divergence that has emerged in the case law has been caused by the proviso in point 6.7 of the Reasons of G 2/98“.

Therefore, I am somewhat disappointed that the Enlarged Board did not really address the question of what was meant by this sentence in G 2/98. In the core of G 1/15, the Enlarged Board analyzed the EPC, the Paris Convention, the Travaux préparatoires and some authors’ opinions, and came to the conclusion that there can be no condition or limitation restricting partial priority. This is all fine and well, but the sentence in G 2/98 was simply left out of the picture. So, does G 1/15 represent a change in case law relative to point 6.7 of the reasons of G 2/98? Or was the Enlarged Board unable to figure out what was originally meant in G 2/98? After all the sentence explicitly mentioned a proviso, which does strongly suggest a condition or limitation.

So, it seems to me that there is a little bit of a lack of transparency here.

The second remark is more practical than theoretical – and therefore probably more interesting than the first one.

In one of my previous posts, I reviewed decision T 1222/11 in detail. This was the first decision which extensively discussed the theory of poisonous divisional applications and came to the conclusion that the theory was incorrect. The reasoning was that partial priority can always be acknowledged if a claim is broader than the disclosure of the priority document. This is the so-called “conceptual approach” which has now been endorsed by the Enlarged Board in G 1/15.

In this previous post, I noted that the line of thought of T 1222/11 may also have side effects which go beyond the issue of partial priority. More particularly, the issue is related with the question of what is a first application, for the purpose of assessing priority. So, now seems like a good time to revisit this question again.

Quite remarkably, in T 1222/11 the refusal of the patent application at stake was confirmed due to an invalidity of the priority claim. This has always striken me as paradoxical, since this decision was widely acclaimed in the patent profession as being an antidote to the nefarious theory of poisonous divisional applications adopted in earlier decisions (as well as in several national court rulings).

G 1/15 basically states that the principles set out in T 1222/11 were the right ones. Although it does not address the particulars of this earlier case, there is every reason to assume that T 1222/11 was also correct in that it concluded that the priority claim at stake was invalid.

One last sip of poison for the road?

In T 1222/11, the claimed subject-matter was properly disclosed in the priority document. But part of it was also disclosed in an even earlier application by the same applicant, called D4b. In other terms, the teaching of the priority document (and of the claimed subject-matter) corresponded to a generalization relative to document D4b. In particular, some examples of D4b were found by the Board to fall within the claimed subject-matter. Although the claim at stake mentioned a property (namely a buffering capacity) which was not recited in D4b, the Board concluded that the same property was necessarily achieved in D4b. Also, the fact that D4b was limited to the use of a combination of two components (malic acid and lactic acid), whereas the priority document and the claimed invention were not, was found to be irrelevant.

The overall conclusion was that D4b was the actual first application for the claimed subject-matter, and not the priority document. As a result, the priority was invalid, and the claimed subject-matter lacked novelty over D4b. No disclaimer was allowable because D4b became full prior art due to the invalidity of the priority claim.

Therefore, G 1/15 has fully disarmed opponents or nullity claimants. Although poisonous divisional applications may no longer be a legal weapon, what we coud call “poisonous prior applications” (of the D4b sort in T 1222/11) have perhaps become more powerful weapons.

Let’s simplify the question one step further. Let’s assume a first application A1, a subsequent application A2 and an even later application A3 by the same applicant.

A3 claims subject-matter S, which is properly disclosed in A2. On the other hand, A1 does not disclose S but only part of S, which we can call s.

For instance, s can be a process involving a certain temperature range, and S can be a similar process involving a broader temperature range. Or s can be a composition comprising components A, B and C, while S can be a similar composition comprising components A and B.

If you had asked me the question a few years ago, I would probably have taken the view that, in such instances, the first application for subject-matter S is A2 and not A1. Just like, for consistency reasons, and under the EPO’s “gold standard“, the disclosure of s cannot be a proper support for claiming S (for the purpose of the assessment of Art. 123(2)).

This view is actually consistent with what is stated in the EPO case law bible (Case Law of the Boards of Appeal of the European Patent Office, 8th edition, II.D.4.1, 1st paragraph).

However, a side effect of the generous view of partial priority adopted in T 1222/11 and now endorsed in G 1/15, seems to be that this view is not correct, and that the first application is such a case is in fact… A1.

Applicants will therefore need to be careful about this, especially if they file successive applications containing the same examples but claiming different aspects of the same technology. Or else, some form of poisoning will come back to haunt them. 

Now, here is a challenging idea: could some form of partial priority be acknowledged in the context of a “not-the-first-application” argument? In other terms, if A1 discloses S1, A2 discloses S2, and A3 claims S1 or S2 (while claiming the priority of A2 only), is the priority claim fully invalid, because A2 is not the first application at all? Or does the priority claim remain valid as far as S2 is concerned?

Based on T 1222/11, I would tend to answer that the priority is fully invalid. Unless some supplementary condition needs to be examined, such as the fact that a limited number of clearly defined alternative subject-matters are claimed? Just kidding.


CASE REFERENCE: Enlarged Board of Appeal, November 29, 2016, G 1/15, Clariant Produkte (Deutschland) GmbH v. Infineum USA L.P.

Groundhog case

Okay, campers, rise and shine and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cold out there today!

I don’t know if this sentence will ring a bell to some readers, but it is my favorite quote from the classic comedy Groundhog Day, in which poor Bill Murray cannot get out of a day he keeps re-living.

The movie came to my mind when reading about the latest development in the Nergeco v. Maviflex case. I don’t know if this patent litigation has broken a record or not, but it sure looks like the judicial equivalent of a groundhog day that never ends.

Here is the extraordinary timeline of the case:

  • At the end of the nineties, Nergeco (patentee) and Nergeco France (licensee) sued two companies, Mavil (now Gewiss France) and Maviflex, for infringement of a European patent.
  • On December 21, 2000, the Lyon Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) held that the plaintiffs’ claims were admissible but ill-founded. The plaintiffs appealed.
  • On October 2, 2003, the Lyon Cour d’appel set aside the first instance judgment and concluded that the patent was infringed. The court ordered an expertise to assess damages.
  • On October 15, 2005, the Cour d’appel issued a second judgment further to the expertise. The amount of damages was set to 60,000 euros to the patentee (Nergeco) and 1,563,214 euros to the licensee (Nergeco France). The defendants then filed an appeal on points of law.
  • On July 10, 2007, the Cour de cassation partly set aside the 2005 judgment regarding the damages to be paid to the licensee. The reason for the reversal was that the Cour d’appel had not addressed the argument that the license agreement had been registered in the patent register only in 1998, so that it was not enforceable against third parties before that date. The case was thus remitted to a different Cour d’appel, in Paris this time.
  • On June 2, 2010, the Paris Cour d’appel held that all claims against Mavil (now Gewiss France) were in fact inadmissible as Mavil no longer existed when they were initially sued; and reduced the amount of damages to be paid by the second defendant Maviflex to the licensee Nergeco France by approximately half (taking into account the date at which the license agreement was registered and became enforceable against third parties). Both sides filed another appeal on points of law.
  • On September 20, 2011, the Cour de cassation set aside the 2010 judgment. First, because the Cour d’appel should have ruled on an argument of invalidity of the license agreement (there was no res judicata on this issue, as it was not addressed in the 2003 and 2005 judgments). Second, because the argument that the claims against Mavil were inadmissible should not have been given any consideration, as Mavil / Gewiss France acted in the proceedings as if their designation in the initial complaint was correct. In fact, this part of the decision became very famous since it is one of the few illustrations of an estoppel principle in this country.  The case was again remitted to the Paris Cour d’appel.
  • On June 21, 2013, in a new judgment by the Cour d’appel, the case was reexamined pursuant to the instructions of the Cour de cassation. But the actual outcome was pretty much the same as in the previous judgment. In particular, the damages award to Nergeco France was similar to the one ordered in 2010. The defendants filed a third appeal on points of law.
  • On December 16, 2014, the Cour de cassation set aside the 2013 judgment. Once again, the supreme court ruled that the appeal judges should have ruled on some arguments relating to the inadmissibility of Nergeco France’s claims.

And this finally leads us to the latest decision in the series, issued by the Paris Cour d’appel on October 28, 2016, and which addresses the inadmissibility arguments that the Cour de cassation held needed to be addressed.

What an incredible mess… This lawsuit has now been pending for almost two decades, and the Cour de cassation set aside appeal judgments three times. It may not even be over yet. For all I know, the losing parties may have referred a fourth appeal on points of law to the Cour de cassation.

Fortunately, this is a very exceptional situation due to the fact that (1) the Cour d’appel repeatedly failed to address arguments that the supreme court believes should have been addressed; and (2) the supreme court repeatedly remitted the case to the appeal stage instead of putting an end to the lawsuit.

Groundhog day and Goodbye Lenin: very different but both fun to watch.

While the context of the case is by itself fascinating, the content of the October 28, 2016 decision is also quite interesting, as it notably addresses the issue of the coexistence of French and European patents.

As a recap, the issue at stake was whether Nergeco France’s claims in the lawsuit were admissible. The court held that they were not, because the agreement containing the license provision was invalid.

Remarkably, the court found not one but two independent reasons why the agreement was invalid.

The first reason was one of contractual law. The agreement between Nergeco and Nergeco France was executed on December 6, 1990. At that time, Nergeco France was not yet registered in the commerce register. It is possible for a company to enter into an agreement before its incorporation, but special formalities need to be observed. This was not the case here. The agreement even mentioned that Nergeco France was registered in the commerce register of the good town of Le Puy, under a certain number – which was untrue, as the registration only took place on February 2, 1991.

The agreement was thus executed by a company with no legal capacity.

The second reason was more specific to patent law. Article 8 of the agreement recites that

if necessary, Nergeco will be in charge of obtaining and maintaining patents. Nergeco Fance will ipso facto be a licensee of the patents for France. 

An annex to the agreement, dated January 31, 1991, specifies that, by application of article 8, a license is granted by Nergeco to Nergeco France on a number of patents, among which the European patent in suit.

However, the agreement and its annex are silent as to the French patents to which the European patent in suit claims priority.

Because of this silence, the Nergeco companies fell into the trap of article L. 614-14 Code de la propriété intellectuelle:

A French patent application or a French patent and a European patent application or a European patent having the same filing date or the same priority date, protecting the same invention and belonging to the same inventor or successor in title cannot, for the parts in common, be independently subjected to a transfer, security, pledge or authorization of exploitation rights, subject to invalidity. 

This provision is one of the tools for preventing some forms of double patenting in this country.

In the present case, the European patent was licensed to Nergeco France, but not the French priority patents. As a result, the license was invalid.

The plaintiffs tried to escape the L. 614-14 trap by presenting several interesting arguments.

A first defense was that the general sentence “Nergeco Fance will ipso facto be a licensee of the patents for France” in article 8 of the agreement meant that the French patents were also concerned. The court replied that the licensed patents were necessarily expressly mentioned in the agreement – and the French patents were not.

A second defense was based on article L. 614-3 Code de la propriété intellectuelle, according to which a French patent covering the same invention as a European patent granted to the same inventor or successor in title ceases to be in force at the end of the European opposition period (or at the end of the opposition proceedings, if an opposition is filed).

The opposition period ended on July 13, 1994. Nergeco argued that the two French patents ceased to be in force on that date. Therefore, the ground for invalidity related to the absence of mention of the French patents in the agreement no longer existed from that date. The court rejected the argument, as this ground for invalidity must be appraised on the day the agreement was executed. It cannot be cured afterwards.

For the same reason, the court did not take into account subsequent actions (such as the renewal of the agreement, later amendments to the agreement, etc.).

And so, after all this time, the licensee was finally found not to be an actual licensee.

Nergeco France saw this coming, and therefore tried to convert its claims as a licensee into claims based on unfair competition. But these were new claims and were thus held inadmissible at this stage of the lawsuit.

As a final word (for now?) on this story, things seem to have gotten very nasty between the claimants and defendants. The judgment briefly mentions a number of parallel proceedings, including criminal ones.

It also seems that Gewiss France and Maviflex argued that the agreement between Nergeco and Nergeco France was forged. The court did not take sides on this. I wonder if the alleged forgery relates to the date of the agreement. From an outsider’s perspective, the fact that the agreement makes reference to a company having a registration number although the registration had not yet been performed at the time is indeed troubling. Could it be that the court was troubled as well, leading them to being quite strict on formal invalidity issues?

One can only speculate, not having access to the file wrapper.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5 chambre 1, October 28, 2016, Nergeco SA & Nergeco France SAS v. Gewiss France SAS & Maviflex SAS, RG No. 2015/01298.