In the past few years the Law Commission for England and Wales has been consulting on new legislation to deter IP rights-holders from issuing unjustified threats to sue people for infringing their IP rights. For those not familiar with this area, the issue of a threat to a competitor’s customers that a product (or process) infringes an IP right can have a serious effect on that competitor’s business, without the IP right-holder actually bringing proceedings and getting a court to decide if the IP right if it has been infringed – or even if it’s actually valid in the first place.
The ‘threats’ provisions in UK statute law give the competitor in such a situation the right to seek an injunction and redress for damage caused to its business when the threat was not justified.
Over the years, the UK has developed detailed rules for patents, registered trade marks and designs (whether registered or unregistered) — but the rules for patents are different from the rules for other rights. With the coming of the Unified Patents Court (UPC), it becomes even more complicated to answer the question whether an unjustified threat to sue for patent infringement is subject to redress in the United Kingdom Courts.
The Law Commission consulted. Some respondents considered the UK to be out of step with most of Europe, arguing that the threats provisions should be abolished and replaced with a law of unfair competition. The Law Commission however preferred recommend sticking to an incremental modification of the existing laws. The previous Government agreed and it now appears that a Bill to achieve that objective will be brought forward in early September 2015.
If cats can keep in step, why can't legislators?
The Law Commission’s Working Party and a number of representative bodies (including CIPA, IPFed, ITMA and FICPI) were asked to comment on the draft. Professor Sir Robin Jacob said:
“I consider it extraordinarily elaborate and complicated. It is not the right solution and in its present form should be dropped. I remain of the opinion that something much simpler, along the nature of “abusive communication” would be enough. Tinkering with this will serve no useful purpose. There is no hurry – threats of IP infringement proceedings are far from top of the problems in the IP world. I am saying this now so no one ever thinks I thought it was a good idea. I hope this submission will be published.”Something far simpler would be better. However, if this is what we are going to get, then we might as well make it as useful as possible. As for urgency, there are issues with the application of the threats provisions to the UPC which will need resolving sooner rather than later. Also, there is often pressure on the Parliamentary timetable, so when offered a slot for a Bill, it is not surprising if the Law Commission and Intellectual Property Office (IPO) jump at the offer [says Merpel, this is a bit like catching a bus to the wrong destination because there isn’t a bus to the right one].
The elaborate nature of the Bill comes, in part, from the intention to harmonise the law of threats for the different IP rights. Whilst this is to be applauded, it does make the Bill long and repetitive [neither of which seems to trouble the Westminster Parliament, which created the behemoth of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 – the longest and most repetitious piece of copyright legislation on the planet] and it is easy to get lost in the various provisions. In particular, the provisions as to what type of threat (for “primary infringement”) is not actionable is set out (as Parliamentary draftsmen love to do) in elaborate and step-wise language, where the intention is soon lost in the language of the text. This could be put far more succinctly and we hope that it will be. Greater clarity is also required around what can be communicated to a “secondary infringer”.
The draft has removed the requirement for the right to be “valid”, based on the assumption that an invalid right cannot be infringed. Given the international reach of European trade marks and designs and of unitary patents, it may then be up to other courts to decide if this an assumption which can be sustained. Also, with this goes one defence for a patentee – currently, even though the patent is invalid, that the threat may still be acceptable if the patentee did not know about that particular ground for invalidity.
Professional advisers are also to get a “safe harbour” when acting on instructions and when the client is identified. This should ameliorate the position in which the professional adviser is seeking to start a discussion and put an end to the tactic of seeking to separate an IP right owner from the legal adviser by means of a threats action against the adviser. However, the definition as to who comes under the definition of “professional adviser” may need some rethinking as it currently very wide and does not seem to tie to any particular form of qualification or regulation [Merpel would like to see greater clarification of this “safe harbour”: for example, does it only apply where the client specifically instructs the professional adviser to make an unwarranted threat? Are the instructions themselves and correspondence surrounding them going to be regarded as privileged communications between representative and client?].
The professional adviser's worst nightmare ...
Various comments will by now have been sent into the IPO and the Law Commission. We are waiting to see what transpires. For those interested to follow the published parts of the debate, the comments submitted by CIPA (from a quickly assembled view of the relevant committees) are available here, but we have not had permission to publish the draft Bill. Sorry – you will only get part of the story.
STOP PRESS! This Kat has just (at around half-past lunch today) received the following e-missive from Sahira Khwaja (Partner, Hogan Lovells, IPMT). Sahira writes:
Just read your post in the IPKat on the Unjustified Threats Bill. I was a bit perplexed that you hadn’t seen the Bill itself as the IPO circulated a draft for comments on [and here it is, together with an incomplete and draft set of very official-looking explanatory notes]. (including to an organisation of which Hogan Lovells is a member) so we provided some comments on it. I was told that there were no restrictions on it being circulated to people outside that organisation, so I am sending it to youThe comments that I have seen have identified a number of issues with the Bill, which I'm told have been passed on to the IPO and Law Commission. I'll be interested to see whether your comments accord with them!