29 May, 2015

Supreme Goodwill - UK Supreme Court Addresses Jurisdictional Goodwill

In today's business world reputation is everything when selling your goods or services to the masses at large. Goodwill, the inherent reputation of your goods or services, can easily overreach beyond the mere confides of countries, continents, or even the solar system. With this in mind, how far a business' goodwill can, and does, reach is hugely important, especially when it comes to someone passing off their goods or services as a famous brands' equivalents. What makes things even more complex is the nature of the online world we are all a part of, which has a wholly borderless reach (excluding geo-blocking), and in which anyone can pass themselves off as someone or something else without much difficulty. This begs the question: how far does your goodwill extend, even if you have no or very little presence in a given territory, due to your goodwill online? The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom endeavored to answer this question only a little over a month ago.

The case in question was Starbucks (HK) Limited and another v British Sky Broadcasting Group PLC and others, which concerned the use of IPTV, or in more simplistic terms, the streaming of TV via the Internet using dedicated hardware to do so, very much like cable TV but in an online environment. Starbucks (HK) and PCCW Media Ltd, two corporate members of a larger group (referred to as "PCCM" in the judgment as a whole), which operated an IPTV service called "NOW BROADBAND TV", subsequently renamed to "NOW TV", in Hong Kong, being the largest entity in its respective IPTV business in the country. Most of the channels offered through the NOW TV service are in Chinese, and are not accessible in the United Kingdom, although some people in the UK had been identified as being aware of the service. PCCM had since considered expanding internationally, and did so by launching a mobile app called NOW aimed at the Chinese-speaking population in the UK. Prior to the launching of the app in the same year Sky announced its "NOW TV" on-demand service, which went into its beta phase roughly at the same time as the launching of PCCM's mobile app. PCCM subsequently sued Sky under the tort of passing off (more on which can be found here), with the case ending up all the way in the Supreme Court.

Passing off, as has been noted in the article above, hinges on three factors that need to be established in order to prove the tort of passing off: (i) goodwill or reputation in the goods or services provided in the minds of the purchasing public; (ii) a misrepresentation by the defendant to the public that leads or is likely to lead, the public to think the goods or services are provided by the plaintiff; and (iii) the plaintiff suffers, or is likely to suffer, damage as a result of this misrepresentation. PCCM established the latter two requirements at first instances, and therefore the Supreme Court had to decide on whether Sky's service fulfilled the first requirement, amounting to passing off.

The main question therefore to the Supreme Court was whether PCCM had goodwill in the jurisdiction in question, in other words a customer base, meaning the UK. As the court stated, reiterating Lord Justice Oliver in Anheuser-Buch v Budejovicky Budvar NP, that goodwill is very much "localized" and that "...reputation which may, no doubt, and frequently does, exist without any supporting local business… does not by itself constitute a property which the law protects". In other words, even if goods or services have a certain, even strong reputation to them, does not mean it inherently commands it everywhere, irrespective of actual use or not. This line of thinking very much confirms precedent from decades prior, where similar conclusions have been made as to the localized nature of goodwill.

Territorial issues can be dealt with amicably at times
After a presentation as to the law from both sides the Court finally discussed its decision on whether passing off, or goodwill, has a territorial nature to it. As Lord Neuberger remarked: "...I consider that we should reaffirm that the law is that a claimant in a passing off claim must establish that it has actual goodwill in this jurisdiction, and that such goodwill involves the presence of clients or customers in the jurisdiction for the products or services in question. And, where the claimant's business is abroad, people who are in the jurisdiction, but who are not customers of the claimant in the jurisdiction, will not do, even if they are customers of the claimant when they go abroad". To put Lord Neuberger's argument in different words, goodwill can only exist in a jurisdiction if its goods or services are used by actual customers in that jurisdiction, irrespective of foreign users who have emigrated or visit that jurisdiction (although, one would imagine, given a sufficient amount of immigrants this would be acceptable). As said, this is fully in line with older precedent, and also foreign authorities within the common law, as was put forth by Sky in its argument. PCCM had very little presence in the UK, although it did establish some user base did exist.

Finally, Lord Neuberger aimed to settle two questions that remained: "(i) clarification as to what constitutes sufficient business to give rise to goodwill as a matter of principle, and (ii) resolution of the judicial disagreement as to the jurisdictional division of goodwill".

In answering the first question Lord Neuberger quickly settled the matter by largely stating what has already been settled above: "The claimant must show that it has a significant goodwill, in the form of customers, in the jurisdiction, but it is not necessary that the claimant actually has an establishment or office in this country. In order to establish goodwill, the claimant must have customers within the jurisdiction, as opposed to people in the jurisdiction who happen to be customers elsewhere. Thus, where the claimant's business is carried on abroad, it is not enough for a claimant to show that there are people in this jurisdiction who happen to be its customers when they are abroad. However, it could be enough if the claimant could show that there were people in this jurisdiction who, by booking with, or purchasing from, an entity in this country, obtained the right to receive the claimant's service abroad.". Lord Neuberger's answer to the first question further establishes that a business has to have some form of customer base in a jurisdiction it wishes to protect its intellectual property in that jurisdiction, and that business would have to be, mostly at least, permanent in that jurisdiction, rather than just transient.

The answer to the second question leads to a much wider discussion than can be settled in this blog post, and merits reading in its own rights by those who might be interested. What needs to be said, however, is that Lord Diplock's comments in Star Industrial Co Ltd v Yap Kwee Kor further support Lord Neuberger's conclusions and highlight the distinction between goodwill in different jurisdictions through the existence of separation of judiciaries; i.e. not one court can decide an issue of a foreign court.  Allowing for territorial overlap would let businesses simply claim a right in a name in another jurisdiction with a minimal presence, thus restricting business and trade for legitimate entities in that jurisdiction.

Ultimately the Supreme Court dismissed PCCM's appeal, and concluded that their claim in "NOW TV" had no basis in the UK, as they did not have the requisite consuming public in the UK for their service to merit protection under passing off.

This case is an interesting one, and although one could say the decision is very much a common sense approach, it still does answer some question relating to goodwill, especially in a digital age where the Internet permeates nearly every part of the globe. Businesses have to have a legitimate business presence in a given country in the form of a customer base, even in this digital age.

Source: KWM Legal Insights

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