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.
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.