18 November, 2015

Retrospective - Groundless Threats in Intellectual Property Law

A big aspect of intellectual property law is the possible threat of infringement, even when you might not know it. With strong legal protective measures comes a great deal of responsibility in wielding that capability, especially in the light of competition. IP can be used to stifle those aiming to compete with you, as well as those who blatantly want to benefit from your hard-work and intellectual output. A balance has to therefore be struck, and certain legal tethers have been placed to restrict the unwarranted use of IP rights without due cause. Groundless threat provisions exist in relation to all registrable IP rights (trademarks, patents and designs) under the Patents Act 1977Trade Marks Act 1994Registered Designs Act 1949 and Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. What amounts to a groundless threat is not entirely clear under all of the provisions above (which act fairly similarly to each other), however the High Court endeavored to answer this at the cusp of the 21st century.

The case of Brain v Ingledew Brown Bennington & Garrett (No 3), decided in 1997, dealt with Patrick John Brain, who, in the early 90s, set up a consulting business in an effort to exploit new technologies and inventions all over the world, particularly in the Far East. Upon meeting Jørgen Jensen, the Head of Chemistry at Risø National Labratory (the second defendant), a Danish research company, the pair struck a deal to utilize a patented technology developed at Risø by a number of individuals called "Wet Oxdiation" (e.g. patents US5053142A and EP0284754) in foreign markets. The pair started a company called Intox Corporation Limited, and successfully marketed the process to a company in Canada, which included passing on technical documents attained by Mr. Jensen. Risø found out about Intox Corporations' activities, and initiated court proceedings against Mr. Jensen in Denmark. During the proceedings Risø also instructed UK lawyers, Ingledew Brown Bennington & Garrett, to pursue Intox Corporation. Mr. Brain argued that, in correspondence between him and lawyers at Ingledew, several threats were included, and as a result, the projects incorporating the above technology did not come to fruition, causing him a great deal of monetary loss. He then initiated proceedings for groundless threats under the Patents Act 1977.

Under the above Act, in section 70: "...a person (whether or not the proprietor of, or entitled to any right in, a patent) by circulars, advertisements or otherwise threatens another person with proceedings for any infringement of a patent, a person aggrieved by the threats (whether or not he is the person to whom the threats are made) may... bring proceedings in the court against the person making the threats".

Rory was aggrieved by threats made in relation to his cap
Justice Laddie, handing down the judgment of the High Court, had to therefore first determine whether Mr. Brain was a 'person aggrieved', allowing him to bring forth his claim. For a person to be considered as such there has to be clear damage, not just hurt feelings. As Justice Laddie described it: "...a trader's chosen route to exploitation of his product or process is interfered with by the threat, that is damage in the broad sense and makes him a person aggrieved". Reliance on the threat, and subsequent action causing detriment, is key, not just annoyance or mere displeasure. Even if loss is prevented or mitigated in the event of a threat does not mean the person cannot be seen as a person aggrieved. What the person has to show is "...that his commercial interests are or are likely to be adversely affected in a real as opposed to a fanciful or minimal way". The Court saw that, as the threats were made to Mr. Brain directly, that he would fall under the definition of a 'person aggrieved'.

Justice Laddie then had to assess what the meaning of the letters were, and whether they actually constituted a threat. This assessment has to be done "...in accordance with how they would be understood by an ordinary reader", and what the initial impression would be to a reasonable addressee. In the light of the three letters discussed as a whole, Justice Laddie saw that their purpose would be reasonably understood as a threat to initiate patent proceedings.

Arguments as to the available defence under section 70(4), preventing any proceedings under section 70 for "...a threat to bring proceedings for an infringement alleged to consist of making or importing
a product for disposal or of using a process" (defined in section 60), failed, as the correspondence targets a much broader base of infringement, not just the ones exempted under section 60. Justice Laddie found that the defendants had made groundless threats against Mr. Brain, and ordered an inquiry into damages.

The law in relation to groundless threats has since moved on, and more leeway has been given in terms of bringing information as to any existing IP rights to the attention of the potentially infringing party. The Patents Act 2004 made significant changes to section 70, however the above does still apply to all groundless threat cases, giving the courts the basis for their determination for a cause of action under these provisions.

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