What are the top three traits of the French system that foreign companies like best?
Good transportation infrastructure? Maybe. L’art de vivre? Very probably. But first and foremost: the saisie-contrefaçon. OK, there may be some patent attorney bias here.
As readers of this blog are surely aware, the saisie-contrefaçon (infringement seizure) is a special tool in the hands of patent right holders, in the form of an ex parte order for an unannounced inspection at a third party’s premises in order to gather evidence of possible infringement.
Traditionally, the order for seizure has been viewed as straightforward to obtain.
Basically, you show up in front of a judge; you show your patent, the status of the renewal fees, an excerpt from the patent register; then you explain what kind of evidence you want to get and where. And you’re pretty much good to go.
But from time to time, a court decision takes a different approach and makes this traditional view entirely derail.
Such is the judgment recently issued by the Paris Cour d’appel in Arconic v. Constellium Issoire.
Arconic owns European patent No. EP 1392878 on a process to produce sheets of aluminum.
It may be useful to copy here claim 1 of the patent, as a reference:
A process for producing a sheet or plate product comprising:
(a) providing an aluminium alloy consisting of 0.5 to 1.8% Si, 0.5 to 1.5% Mg, up to 1.2% Cu; up to 1% Mn, up to 1% Zn, up to 0.4% Cr, up to 0.5% Ag, up to 0.3% Sc, up to 0.2% V, up to 0.2% Hf, up to 0.2% Zr, the balance being aluminium and incidental impurities;
(b) heating the alloy;
(c) hot rolling the alloy to reduce its thickness by at least 30%;
(d) thermally treating the alloy hot rolled in (c) at 543°C (1010°F) or more;
(e) further hot rolling the alloy to further reduce its thickness;
(f) solution heat treating the alloy at 543°C (1010°F) or higher;
(g) quenching the alloy.
On October 4, 2017, Arconic requested and obtained an order for performing a seizure in the premises of Constellium Issoire, which belongs to the Constellium group. Arconic and Constellium are direct competitors as they both manufacture aluminum plate products, notably for Airbus’ A380 aircraft.
The seizure took place on October 10, 2017. On October 26, Constellium filed a motion to obtain the cancellation of the order for seizure. The judge in charge of urgency proceedings granted Constellium’s motion and issued an order on December 22, 2017 canceling the order for seizure.
Arconic appealed, but its appeal has now been dismissed by the Paris Cour d’appel.
So what was the problem with the initial order for seizure, and why did it deserve to be canceled, according to the appeal judges?
The focus of the discussion was Arconic’s statement in its initial request that they had reasons to suspect that Constellium infringed the patent at stake.
Arconic provided evidence for this suspicion, and the court performed a thorough review of said evidence.
The evidence comprised in particular a scientific article from three Constellium employees, a specification from Airbus, a standard and a publication on aluminum alloys, and an excerpt from Constellium’s website.
Based on this evidence, the court concluded that:
- Arconic’s aluminum alloy is designated as 6013 while Constellium’s is designated as 6156.
- Both alloys, based on Airbus’ specification, are made by lamination and a so-called T4 thermal treatment.
But the court then stated that this was insufficient to infer that most features of claim 1 of the patent at stake were implemented by Constellium.
In particular, the fact that the 6156 alloy is made by lamination and thermal treatment is perfectly conventional. Claim 1 of EP’878, on the other hand, requires a precise sequence of process steps, including the application of a certain temperature, a defined reduction of thickness of the alloy, etc. Thus, the court said, Arconic in fact did not know which process is used by Constellium.
Admittedly, the composition of the alloy itself, which is also recited in the form of elemental weight ranges in claim 1 of the patent, does cover the 6156 alloy. But the claimed ranges are sufficiently general to also cover further competitors’ products of the same category (the 6061 and 6082 alloys). Besides, it is clear when reading the patent that the invention is about a manufacturing process, not about a new alloy, added the court.
Another reason for Arconic’s infringement suspicion was that, according to them, the mechanical properties of the plates made by Constellium could only be obtained with the patented manufacturing process.
The court accepted that Constellium’s 6156 plates seem to have very similar properties to Arconic’s 6013 plates, since both products are used by Airbus for the A380 aircraft.
But, the court continued, this does not imply that Constellium’s plates are necessarily made with the patented process, since different processes can of course lead to the same product.
As a further remark, the court noted that Constellium itself owns a later patent (EP 1809779) for a process of making 6056 or 6156 aluminum alloy products, and asserts that their industrial process is based on this patent.
As a conclusion, the court held:
Thus, the reasons set out in support of the request [for seizure] turn out to be wrong. More particularly, it cannot be derived therefrom any “suspicion” of infringement, nor “good reasons to assume” that the alloy plates supplied by Constellium would infringe Arconic’s patent.
The final part of the judgment contains a more legal discussion. Arconic argued that its right to a seizure
only depends on the demonstration that the right at stake exists, without any further requirement of evidence concerning infringement itself.
As I said in the beginning, at the risk of oversimplifying, this is indeed probably the general opinion among the French patent profession.
Arconic in particular pointed to the so-called “enforcement directive” No. 2004/48/EC. Article 7 of the directive begins like this:
Member States shall ensure that, even before the commencement of proceedings on the merits of the case, the competent judicial authorities may, on application by a party who has presented reasonably available evidence to support his claims that his intellectual property right has been infringed or is about to be infringed, order prompt and effective provisional measures to preserve relevant evidence in respect of the alleged infringement, subject to the protection of confidential information.
The directive thus refers to the presentation of “reasonably available evidence” as a prerequisite for obtaining e.g. an order for seizure. But, Arconic remarked, this notion was not transposed in the relevant provision of the Code de la propriété intellectuelle, namely article L. 615-5. Since article 2 of the directive makes it possible for Member States to provide means which are more favorable to right holders, this must be interpreted to the effect that French law does specifically not require “reasonably available evidence” as a precondition for an order for seizure.
The court did not frontally disagree, but replied as follows.
[…] The property right conferred by a patent is neither absolute nor discretionary, and is still subject, in the case of a request for seizure, to the appraisal of its merits by the judge […], notably when, as is the case here, the reasons set forth in its support turn out to be wrong.
Besides, article 3 of the [enforcement directive] requires that proceedings which are necessary to ensure that IP rights are respected must be fair and proportionate. In the present case, as there is no tangible suspicion of infringement, the court can only remark that the requested seizure measure would, as a main consequence, allow Arconic to know about Constellium’s aluminum alloy product manufacturing process. As these two companies are direct competitors regarding this products in front of companies in the aeronautic business, such as Airbus, Constellium can rightly fear that manufacturing secrets could detrimentally be disclosed, or even that its credibility with common customers could be harmed. Lastly, the court is surprised that it is only on October 4, 2017 that Arconic decided to initiate infringement seizure proceedings, although this direct competition with respect to Airbus dates back to 2004.
Matthieu Dhenne, whose firm represented the patent proprietor in this case, wrote to me that there are a number of reasons why he believes the decision was wrongly decided.
First, he says the proportionality principle does not apply to an infringement seizure which remains an exceptional measure and is disproportionate by nature. He states that the travaux préparatoires concerning the transposition of the directive show that the proportionality principle was voluntarily not introduced into our statute. As a result, the court’s line of reasoning compromises legal certainty and jeopardizes the entire balance of the system. He also insists that a seizure is intended for gathering evidence, not appraising infringement. Matthieu adds that the court’s suspicion of the patentee was unwarranted and that it cannot be possibly demanded from the patentee that they should search for patents owned by the defendant. Whether any other, especially later, patent is indeed implemented or not by the defendant is irrelevant to the possible infringement of the main patent at stake, he argues.
I agree that there are a number of statements in the two above paragraphs quoted from the judgment which are controversial.
It is true that a seizure can result in business secrets being disclosed to a competitor. But the usual way to prevent this is for the seized party to request that the seized information and documents be sealed, and that an expert be appointed by the court to sort out the evidence, so that only information directly relevant to the demonstration of infringement be communicated to the right holder.
As for the fear that the defendant’s reputation be harmed, it seems irrelevant here, as the seizure was performed in Constellium’s premises, not at a third party’s.
The fact that Arconic waited a lot before initiating legal proceedings should probably not come into play either. Indeed, a patentee’s right to sue for infringement is never time-barred.
That said, I am not sure I am fully comfortable with the notion that a patentee’s right to a seizure should be automatic.
It does make sense for the court to carefully look at the specifics of each case before deciding whether this right can be exerted in the circumstances at hand or not.
In this particular case, it seems to me that what the court really did not like was that the “suspicions” of infringement mentioned in the original request for seizure, were not actual or legitimate suspicions, based on the evidence offered.
Would the outcome have been favorable if the plaintiff had played it differently, for example by (1) not mentioning suspicions of infringement but explaining that a seizure is the only possible way for them to determine whether there is any infringement; and (2) immediately offering that the seized evidence be sealed by default so as to be later remitted to a court-appointed expert?
I guess we will never know and can only have suspicions in this respect.
CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5 chambre 1, September 11, 2018, Arconic Inc. v. SAS Constellium Issoire, RG 18/01099.