Judgment in the box

The burden of proof. A concept with a well-deserved name.

It can indeed be a real burden for a patent proprietor to find clear and convincing evidence that a patent is infringed; or for a defendant to find clear and convincing evidence that the invention was disclosed by the proprietor before the filing date.

The case discussed today illustrates both situations.

In this case, all litigants are from the Toulouse area. Construction Machines Automatiques Spéciales (CMAS) owns French patent No. FR 2755655, filed in 1996, which expired during litigation. The patent relates to a carton making machine.

The main defendants are: LB Pack, a company created in 2012 a few kilometers away from CMAS; and two ex-employees of CMAS, who also happen to be the founders of LB Pack.

CMAS filed claims of patent infringement and unfair competition against these three defendants. The defendants counterclaimed inter alia for patent nullity.

The first notable question raised in this case is whether the nullity counterclaim was time-barred.

As reported last week, the statute of limitations will no longer be applicable to any patent nullity claim if and when the UPC Agreement enters into force. But in the meantime we have to continue dealing with it and the legal uncertainty that it entails.

Quite surprisingly, the court disposed of this issue in a short paragraph, briefly noting, as if it were self-evident, that the statute of limitations is not applicable to nullity claims when they are raised as counterclaims.

An interesting development indeed, as it was previously held in other cases that nullity counterclaims are to be treated in the same manner as direct nullity claims – with the caveat that, if a defendant is time-barred, nullity can always be raised as a defense (exception) to the effect that the patent should not be enforceable against them, even if the patent is not formally revoked.

Stay tuned to check whether this new approach will hold.

The wonderful things you can make out of cardboard.

The main invalidity argument raised by LB Pack et al. was that CMAS (formerly CMA) had disclosed the invention before filing by showing and selling so-called Minicompact machines.

By way of an interesting strategy, the defendants requested and obtained an ex parte order from a judge allowing them to perform an inspection by a bailiff with a third party, the company Stendhal, that had bought a Minicompact machine in 1995.

The bailiff’s report proved the acquisition of the machine before the filing date of the patent. But the court was not convinced that this machine anticipated the patent claims. The main reason for this was that the machine was subjected to several servicing operations since 1995, including an important compliance operation in 2004, performed by CMAS. In other terms, the court believed that the machine may have been altered, and that the copy inspected by the bailiff during litigation may not be representative of the machine bought in 1995. Thus, the benefit of the doubt was given to the patent proprietor – who was apparently not required to demonstrate that they had indeed modified the machine in a way which would be relevant to the patent in suit.

The patent was thus declared valid.

Turning now to infringement, the shoe was on the the other foot.

An infringement seizure report had been drawn up by a bailiff. This proved that LB Pack had sold one machine to a third party, Sicaf. But the issue was the description of the allegedly infringing machine.

In fact, the bailiff was only able to inspect an unfinished machine, not yet operational, and with some parts not yet assembled. But, said the court, analyzing whether the characterizing portion of the main claim of the patent was implemented by LB Pack could only be done based on a fully assembled machine.

The other documents and evidence found by CMAS did not make it possible to know whether the subject-matter of the patent claims was implemented or not.

As a result, the infringement claim was rejected.

That said, the defendants were not off the hook, as they were found guilty of unfair competition.

It turns out that the bailiff conducting the infringement seizure found evidence that the two ex-employees who founded LB Pack had extensively copied business and technical information belonging to CMAS before leaving. Also, at the time they left the company, they had accessed and taken advantage of one CAD license belonging to CMAS.

The assessment of the court as to the consequences of these illegal actions was then the following:

Even if it is not demonstrated that LB Pack makes and markets machines which infringe CMAS’ patent, it remains that all the saved technical data belonging to CMAS necessarily and unjustifiably made it easier to create new machines which could be very quickly put on the market by LB Pack as from 2013, on the same market, which conferred them an undue competitive advantage.

Finally, it can be derived from the invoices annexed to the infringement seizure report that, owing to the customer and prospect files copied on the laptop of Mr. […], it was easier for LB Pack to solicit customers and thus market its machine more easily notably with Schneider and Durlin which were already customers of CMAS. The misappropriation of customers is thus demonstrated and is an act of unfair competition and free-riding. In view of the invoices from LB Pack seized by the bailiff, the court knows that 3 machines were sold starting from July 2013 for an amount of 235,000 euros, notably to Sicaf, which was a prospect of CMAS, and that maintenance services were also sold to Schneider and Durlin, customers of CMAS. 

Therefore, the acts of unfair competition and free-riding are serious and repeated and the compensation for the harm caused should be set to 80,000 euros. 

One remark here is that an infringement seizure is a procedure specifically intended to gather evidence of patent infringement. However, even in the absence of patent infringement, the evidence found during the seizure can be used against the defendant with respect to other claims, notably in relation with unfair competition.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 4ème section, March 15, 2008, SARL Construction Machines Automatiques Spéciales v. SARL LB Pack et al., RG No. 14/16600.

Getting ready

Little by little, everything seems to finally come into place for the kick off of the UPC – pending the outcome of the constitutional complaint in Germany.

A major step has now been taken in France, with a modification of the Code de la propriété intellectuelle (CPI) to make national law ready for the UPC, by way of an executive order dated May 9.

And one of the most important amendments thus introduced… well in fact has little do with the UPC, and everything to do with this very French debate on the statute of limitations applicable to patent nullity actions.

Indeed, a new article L. 615-8-1 is introduced, per which the statute of imitations is simply not applicable to patent nullity actions. So, back to the situation that everyone took for granted ten years ago, and back into line with the practice of other European countries. Very good news indeed.

But, there is a but, or actually two.

First, this new provision will only come into force when the UPC agreement comes into force – since the overall purpose of the order is the application of the UPC agreement. Second, the new provision will not be applicable to nullity actions which are already time-barred at the time the provision comes into force.

So you can still expect a lot of discussion for a few more years on how the statute of limitations should be applied and how the limitation period should be computed, before this really becomes history.

Waiting for the entry into force.

Now, back to the other, truly UPC-related provisions. One important aspect is how double protection by a French patent and a European patent for the same invention is handled.

The current situation is that, when a French patent and a European patent granted to the same inventor or successor in title cover the same invention and have the same priority date, the French patent ceases to be in force at the expiry of the 9-month European opposition period (if no opposition is filed) or when the opposition proceedings are closed, the patent being “maintained” (either in amended form or as granted).

Under the new version of article L 614-13 CPI, this remains the case, but only for European patents that have been opted out from the exclusive competence of the UPC (under article 83 of the Agreement). For non-opted out European patents (including of course unitary patents) on the contrary, there will no longer be any such so-called substitution. Thus, applicants will be able to secure both a national patent, enforceable in front of our national courts, and a European patent enforceable in front of the UPC, for the same invention. This is of course primarily of interest for French applicants who do their first filings at the INPI and then file at the EPO. But of course foreign applicants could also use this tool, for super-important inventions, by filing at the EPO and then in France, or simultaneously at the EPO and in France.

Now, what happens if a European patent is opted out at a late stage, for instance after the 9-month opposition period? The answer provided in the new law is that double protection then ends at the time of the opt out, i.e. the French patent ceases to be in force on the date of the opt out.

By the way, any substitution is irreversible. If a European patent is invalidated or lapses or if the opt out is withdrawn after a substitution has taken place, the corresponding French patent does not come back to life.

Another amendment relates to the prohibition to transfer, or to grant rights on, a French patent or application independently from a European patent or application, for the same invention, having the same priority date, and filed by the same inventor or successor in title.

This prohibition remains in place for all non-opted out European patents (including unitary patents), as well as opted out European patents (before the substitution takes place). In addition, the recordal of a transfer at the French national patent register is only effective if a parallel recordal has taken place at the European national patent register.

Next topic, a particular procedural rule in connection with patent litigation.

Currently, if a French patent is asserted and there is a corresponding European patent or application, the court stays the proceedings as of right until the substitution takes place, or until the European patent or application disappears (by way of a withdrawal, refusal, revocation, etc.) before any substitution takes place. This rule will remain in place but solely for opted out European patents. When a non-opted out European patent / application is present, an action based on the French patent will be able to proceed independently of the fate of the European patent / application. It remains to be seen how this will play out in practice. The court will still have the possibility to order a stay anyway, under the general rules of civil procedure, if they deem that a stay is appropriate for a good administration of justice.

On a few other aspects, French law has been harmonized with the UPC Agreement.

This is especially the case regarding the wording used to define the acts of infringement and exhaustion of rights. Besides, non-exclusive licensees will now be allowed to assert a patent if this is expressly authorized by the license agreement, and provided that the patent proprietor is given prior notice. This is a new possibility under French law, which mirrors article 47(3) of the UPC Agreement.

The limitation period for infringement damages remains five years but the starting point will now be the date on which the applicant became aware, or had reasonable grounds to become aware, of the last fact justifying the action, in keeping with article 72 of the Agreement. In the current version of article L. 615-8 CPI, the starting point is “the facts” on which the action is based. The effect of this significant modification will be twofold: right holders will in some cases be able to claim more damages; and more complex debates regarding the determination of the starting point of the limitation period can be expected, as the new definition is more fuzzy than the traditional one.

Last but not least, new article L. 615-18 CPI clarifies that the UPC shall have exclusive jurisdiction over unitary patents and non-opted out traditional European patents.

So, now that the rules of the game are known, all readers can start looking for potential loopholes or ambiguities, and imagining unusual scenarios. Isn’t this what new laws are primarily for?