Red tape on a dyesheet

Let’s start with the dyesheet first – the red tape part of the title will become self-explanatory only at the end of this post I am afraid.

European patent No. EP 2035233 is co-owned by a French company, Evolis SA, and a U.S. company, Illinois Tool Works Inc. The patent is entitled Thermal Transfer Dyesheet and Method of Manufacture. The corresponding Korean patent was asserted against a local competitor, Digital Printing Solution. This action was dismissed by the Korean court in April 2016.

In the meantime, in November 2015, the Korean company presented some of its products in an international trade show in Villepinte – just one stop before CDG airport, for those familiar with RER line B… The patent proprietors obtained a court order so as to perform an infringement seizure at the professional fair. A few weeks later, they filed their complaint for infringement of the EP’233 patent.

Today, I will skip the validity part of the judgment on the merits issued by the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI). Suffice it to say that the defendant’s nullity objections were rejected.

The infringement part of the judgment, on the other hand, contains a couple of interesting points.

First, the defendant challenged the validity of the infringement seizure report.

For the most part, this challenge failed, except on one aspect. As a reminder, the report is drafted by a bailiff who investigates on behalf of the patent proprietors, according to the court order which precisely sets out his or her mission and the limits thereof.

During the seizure, it turned out that the bailiff was unable to find any pricing, invoicing or ordering information in relation with the products at stake. This was established in the report – and not found to be objectionable by the court. However, the court did take offense at one sentence in the report, per which the defendant’s representative present at the trade show did not know the amounts of the allegedly infringing dyesheet that were produced “despite his status of CEO of the company Digital Printing Solution”.

The court held that the bailiff “should limit himself to material observations without issuing an opinion or taking an active part which may orient the outcome of the operation”. In other terms, the above remark in the report was held subjective and inappropriate.

This is an interesting reminder that the seizure team should remain as neutral and impartial as possible – despite the fact that they act at the patentee’s request.

However, in this case the patent proprietors did not suffer any serious consequence as only the remark at stake was held void by the court, but the rest of the report was not affected.

The second interesting point relates to the definition of acts of infringement of a product claim in article L. 613-3 a) Code de la propriété intellectuelle:

Making, offering, putting on the market, using, importing, exporting, transshipping or detaining for the above purposes the product which is the subject-matter of the patent.

There was a discussion as to whether the presence of some allegedly infringing products on the trade show amounted to an act of importation or not. The court answered yes, because an importation according to the above provision “is realized due to the sole introduction of the goods at stake on the territory on which protection is claimed”. Thus, it is irrelevant whether the introduction aims at using, offering, putting the goods on the market or not – unlike an act of mere detention of goods.

Importation can take any form and be carried out with any possible vehicle.

In fact, the formulation of article L. 613-3 a) changed in March 2014. The prior version read:

Making, offering, putting on the market, using or importing or detaining for the above purposes the product which is the subject-matter of the patent.

According to the court, importation acts used to follow a similar rule as detention acts, namely they used to require a certain purpose in order to be acts of infringement – but this is no longer the case since the 2014 reform.

This explanation in the judgment is notable because, although the same interpretation of the pre-2014 statute was made by some authors, such as professor Jérôme Passa in his book Droit de la propriété industrielle, to the best of my knowledge it was not universally shared. In fact, the pre-2014 paragraph was drafted in a somewhat ambiguous manner. That said, whether the 2014 reform merely clarified the rule applicable to importation acts or whether it actually changed the rule will anyway become less and less relevant as there are fewer and fewer pre-2014 importation acts involved in litigation over time.

In passing, the court also held that the presence of commercial documentation in the defendant’s booth amounted to an offer on the French territory, even though this documentation was in English, as French professionals in this sector usually speak English.

So far so good for Evolis and Illinois Tool Works, but the French-American alliance stumbled on the finish line, i.e. they failed to prove that the products at stake implemented the technical features claimed in EP’233.

The infringement seizure report itself did not contain any meaningful analysis of the products at stake. This is not surprising: in many cases, it is simply impossible to analyze whether claimed features are present or not just based on an external inspection of the products or on available documentation.

So the bailiff seized some samples; and in July 2017, another bailiff’s report was drawn up, when the samples were analyzed in Evolis’ premises. But this report was not taken into account by the court:

[…] These operations were made in Evolis’ premises, under its full supervision, in the presence of its CTO and using measuring tools the settings of which were not checked. Besides, the method used and the measurements made were not systematically explained, and notably it is not mentioned why the light adjustment is not the same for examining Evolis’ product and the allegedly infringing one.

In the absence of any other analysis evidence on file, these observations made without any other technical and logistic assistance than that provided by the claimants themselves do not make it possible for the court to appraise whether the [seized products] implement the features of claims 1 and 4 to 7 of [EP’233].

Readers will note that the defendant did apparently not offer any counter-experiments.

However, raising some very broad and general criticisms was good enough for the court.

Clearly, when it comes to an experimental demonstration of infringement, the doubt – any doubt, even a slight one – systematically benefits the defendant.

Or, to put it otherwise, French judges are extremely reluctant to take into account any experimental report made on behalf of one party.

For another example commented on this blog, see here.

This approach is certainly in the interest of fairness for the defendant, but one can wonder whether it is not excessively strict, as it puts the parties in a very asymmetrical situation. Namely, the plaintiff files experimental data, and the defendant can simply raise doubts regarding this data, without providing data of its own to prove that these doubts have merit.

Anyway, what the judges would certainly have preferred in this case is a request by the plaintiffs for the appointment of an expert by the court in order to perform the tests in a neutral environment. Or to put it otherwise: there was not enough red tape on these dyesheets. But the red tape approach is much more complex and cumbersome on a procedural standpoint – and more costly of course.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 2ème section, December 14, 2018, Evolis SA & Illinois Tool Works Inc. V. Digital Printing Solution Co. Ltd., RG No. 15/18744.

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