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.

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