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Sunday, 22 February 2009

IP rights in the Court of Appeal, but not as we know them ...

Every so often a case comes along that deals with intellectual property, but not in a way that the IPKat can easily recognise or understand.  One such case is Office of Communications v Information Commissioner [2009] EWCA Civ 90, 20 February 2009, a decision of the Court of Appeal, England and Wales (Lords Justices Waller, Thomas and Richards).

This case arose from a set of facts that might initially seem to the casual observer to have little to do with IP at all.  The Office of Communications (Ofcom), the independent regulator for the UK communications industries, operated the Sitefinder mobile phone base station website, Sitefinder being a database that was set up as a result of recommendations made in the Stewart Report 2000 following public concern as to the potential risks to health which might be occasioned by electro-magnetic radiation emitted from mobile telephones.

The Information Manager for Health Protection in Scotland, in the course of some epidemiological investigations it was conducting involving electromagnetic radiation, asked Ofcom for some information it held concerning location, ownership and technical attributes of mobile phone cellular-based stations, to be provided in searchable format. Ofcom accepted that the information held on the website was 'environmental information' for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, SI 2004/3391, which implemented Directive 2003/4 on public access to environmental information, but said that, since the requested information was already available on its website, Regulation 6(1)(b) of the Regulations did not require it to provide that data in another other format.

On an internal review of its own decision, Ofcom upheld its refusal to disclose the requested information, citing Regulations 12(5)(a) and (c) of the 2004 Regulations. Under Regulation 12(5) a public authority might

'refuse to disclose information to the extent that its disclosure would adversely affect—(a) international relations, defence, national security or public safety ... (c) intellectual property rights ... '.
Ofcom was concerned that disclosure of the national dataset in a readily comprehensible and searchable form would compromise the security of sites, called TETRA sites, which provided the police and emergency service radio network, and that they would adversely affect the intellectual property rights of mobile network operators (MNOs).

Ofcom applied to the Information Commissioner under section 50 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for an assessment of that decision. The Commissioner ordered Ofcom to make the disclosure sough, finding that Regulation 12(5)(a) didn't apply and that there was no adverse effect on IP rights that might trigger the Regulation 12(5)(c) exception.

Ofcom then appealed unsuccessfully to the Information Tribunal, which found that the Regulation 12(5) exceptions were engaged but that, in each case, the public interest in maintaining the exception did not outweigh the public interest in disclosing the information. Following a further failed appeal to the High Court, Ofcom appealed further to the Court of Appeal.

At this stage the Court was asked whether
(i) the tribunal had erred, when carrying out the public interest balancing exercise under the Regulations, by looking at each applicable exception separately and declining to consider whether the aggregate public interest in maintaining the exceptions outweighed the public interest in favour of disclosure;

(ii) the tribunal had erred by taking into account, as an aspect of the public interest in disclosure, the 'benefit' arising from the use of the information for epidemiological research even though such use might breach the IP rights of the MNOs;

(iii) whether the tribunal was entitled to find that the public interest in maintaining the exception in Regulation 12(5)(c) did not outweigh the public interest in disclosing the names of the MNOs, as distinct from the disclosure of the remainder of the requested information.
Faced with this truly knotty problem, in which IP rights had been placed at the heart of the dispute but no IP owners were represented, The Court of Appeal (in a judgment delivered by Richards LJ, the other judges concurring) allowed the appeal in part. In its view,
(i) (Allowing Ofcom's appeal on this ground only) Tte exceptions under Regulation 12(5) should be considered together rather than separately, when balancing the public interest for or against disclosure;

(ii) The legislative scheme involved a weighing of pros and cons, with a presumption in favour of disclosure and in the context of a strong legislative policy of promoting access to, and dissemination of, information. Where use of information in breach of IP rights had beneficial as well as adverse consequences, the proposition that only the adverse consequences could be taken into account ran wholly counter to that scheme;

(iii) Since an adverse effect on IP rights was the subject of a specific exception under Regulation 12(5)(c), it was obvious that breaches of such rights should be taken into account both in determining the application of the exception and in assessing the public interest in maintaining the exception. It was equally obvious that regard should be had not just to the immediate effect of disclosure but also to its wider consequences, including subsequent use of the information disclosed;

(iv) the tribunal was entitled to take into account, when carrying out the public interest balancing exercise, the benefit from use of the information in epidemiological research even if that use would be in breach of the database rights of the MNOs. Together with other public interest considerations, those beneficial consequences fell to be weighed in the balance against the adverse effect on the rights of the MNOs;

(v) It was open to the tribunal to find that the public interest in disclosure of the environmental information had extended to disclosure of the names of the MNOs. The public interest facts referred to in the Directive (these being a greater awareness of environmental matters, a free exchange of views, more effective participation in environmental decision-making and a better environment), being broad and intangible in nature, did not depend upon direct evidence linking disclosure of the information with specific benefits.
The IPKat notes that, while the IP rights at stake in this case were principally Europe's sui generis database rights, the provisions might equally have repercussions for confidential information. As Richards LJ said at paragraphs 57 and 58:
"Where information is stored in a database, then it is possible in principle for the realisation of the benefits of disclosure of that information to depend entirely on the post-disclosure manipulation of that database. If third parties enjoy relevant database rights which would be infringed by such manipulation of the database, then on Ofcom's case the benefits would have to be excluded from consideration altogether and there would be nothing left in the public interest side of the balance to weigh against the public interest in maintaining the exception. It would follow that there could be no order for disclosure. Yet that outcome would be wholly at odds with the legislative policy. This may be an extreme example (though I suspect that it may become an increasingly real one in practice), but it provides an illustration of why in my view the case put forward by Ofcom cannot be right.

It is also interesting to consider, by way of comparison, the case of confidential information falling within regulation 12(5)(e). In that case the very act of disclosure is likely to destroy the confidentiality of the information and to prevent the bringing of a claim for breach of confidence to prevent or restrict post-disclosure use of the information, so that any benefit arising from such post-disclosure use can unquestionably be taken into account as part of the public interest in favour of disclosure. It would be surprising if the position were fundamentally different in relation to information protected by intellectual property rights within regulation 12(1)(c) just because in their case the rights happen to remain enforceable after the information has been disclosed. Again I do not think that such a difference of outcome can be the legislative intention".
Merpel adds: have I missed anything, or has this dispute rumbled on for all this time and risen all the way to the Court of Appeal without anyone spotting it? 

Mobile phones and health: the World Health Organization's view here

1 comment:

Gerry Gavigan said...

Off topic, I know, but another way of looking at this case is to collect it together with the Office of Government Commerce attempts to suppress publication of "gateway" reviews(project management analyses) http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/02/20/information_tribunal_id_gateway_reports/

The underlying argumentation in both cases appears to be similar with a preference for lack of transparency, whatever the issue.

Of further concern, whereas Jarndyce v Jarndyce consumed private money, this is essentially Govt v Govt with the taxpayer picking up the tab.

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