Where is the finish line?

Did you think you would never hear again of the thrilling subject of the French statute of limitations, and of its very controversial application to patent nullity suits? Well, think again.

In a previous post on the loi PACTE, I mentioned that the new provision putting an end to the time bar on patent nullity suits would immediately enter into force but that it remained to be seen how this would be interpreted in practice.

And so it is that, after spending lots of ink and pixels on how the statute of limitations applies to patent nullity actions, we may now have to devote more ink and pixels to a discussion on how exactly the statute will no longer apply.

Without further ado, as they say, I will now leave the floor to Matthieu Dhenne who will provide his insight on this matter.

I would like to come back to an issue close to my heart, as readers of this blog already know: the limitation period of actions for the annulment of industrial property titles.

I will not recall here the entire debate, already mentioned many times on this blog. The issue can be summarized by recalling that French judges applied a 5-year limitation period of the French Civil Code to these actions and that a debate has arisen about this case law, in particular because of the disastrous solutions to which it led.

The legislator has since intervened to combat this case law by declaring that these actions shall not be time-barred.

But a new debate is starting to emerge. Indeed, French Act No. 2019-486 of May 22, 2019, on the growth and transformation of companies – known as the “PACTE Act” – specifies that actions for the annulment of industrial property titles are not subject to any limitation period, while providing that that this applies to the “titles in force on the day of its publication“.

How should we interpret this provision?

The statute of limitations – the finish line.

Let us immediately rule out the interpretation according to which the parliament, by aiming at the titles in force on the day of the publication of the act, has excluded, on the contrary, the titles that were not (yet) in force on this date. This interpretation is disqualified, because it makes no sense. Indeed, we cannot consider that a transitional provision may have another object than transitional law, which deals with the application of an Act to past facts (i.e. facts that happened prior to its entry into force).

Only one question seems interesting with regard to the transitional provision discussed here: could it induce a retroactive effect by applying to titles in force on the day of the publication of the act, even though this day is after the limitation period has expired?

For instance, could a Court of Appeal apply the new Act to a case in which the limitation period applied at first instance? We should recall that the prevailing principle in French Law is that of the non-retroactivity of new laws, which is deduced from Article 2 of the French Civil Code; and that its counterpart is the immediate effect of new laws. Article 2222 of the same Code specifies that the limitation period, once expired, cannot be called into question.

The legislator may, however, provide, by way of exception, for the retroactivity of a law, if this is clearly and sufficiently stated. In this case, Article 124 of the PACTE Act does not specifically state that it is “retroactive”, but this is not required by Article 2 of the Civil Code or by the interpretation of the French Supreme Court (Cour de Cassation). Moreover, the specific mention that the law is “retroactive” would, as such, be of little use because it would be too vague.

Except if one considered that a specific reference to retroactivity is indeed mandatory – which the Cour de Cassation has never held – there is no evidence to suggest that the transitional provision in question is not clear or sufficient. We are therefore in a situation where it will be up to the judges to interpret the provision as closely as possible to the spirit of the text.

It must be kept in mind that the legislator intended to put an end to a jurisprudence that was belied by its text. It was therefore appropriate to refrain from restricting its application either to ongoing trials or to proceedings for annulment introduced after its entry into force or to actions for annulment based on titles issued after its entry into force. On the contrary, the text had to be worded in such a way that it could apply to all titles in force, which included all the aforementioned cases, but also titles previously issued and which had not given rise to legal proceedings on the date of the publication of the law.

Thus, the wording “titles in force on the day of its publication” seems to cover all pending and future actions and seems therefore retroactive.

I will have the opportunity to come back in more detail to this subject next week on @DeBoufflers Blog and then in the journal Propriété Industrielle (December issue); the latter will include a detailed response to an article supporting the opposite thesis, which was published in the same journal this summer.

Thank you Matthieu.

Transitional provisions are often tricky and can give rise to divided case law.

We have been there before, when the number of courts having jurisdiction in patent matters was reduced from 10 to 7 and then down to 1. And so, I would not be surprised if we got surprised again.

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