18 October, 2017

Citation Needed - CJEU Decides on Use of Registered Designs as Citations for the Sale of Goods Online

Marketing your goods online can be very tricky, especially if you are in the business of making proprietary goods or accessories relating to well-known brands or goods. Using the name, image or design of the goods your items relate to is almost necessary to communicate the relationship of the goods to the consumer, but without proper authorisation this can be a thorny issue. The law does allow for the use of registered designs for some purposes, but could the use of a design for the sale of goods be allowed under EU law? The CJEU took on this question in late September, giving some clarity to those wishing to do so.

The case of Nintendo Co. Ltd v BigBen Interactive GmbH dealt with the manufacture sale of remote controls and other accessories for the Nintendo Wii gaming console by BigBen, selling them online to consumers in France, Belgium and Luxembourg, and to its German subsidiary. The German entity sold the goods, manufactured by BigBen in France, to consumers in Austria and Germany. The German entity in itself does not hold any stock, but orders them when needed from the French entity. Both companies used images of the Wii and its official accessories (protected by registered designs, e.g. here and here) in the sale of these goods. Nintendo took both entities to court in Germany for design infringement.

The CJEU faced three questions in the matter, specifically dealing with whether the court of a Member State has jurisdiction over the matter where the infringement happened elsewhere; is this use allowed as citation under EU law; and how the place of infringement would be determined.

The first question, as summarized by the court, asked in essence whether the Community Designs Regulation (along with Article 6(1) of the Jurisdiction Regulation) gives jurisdiction to a court to impose an injunction against a party who is supplied by another party in another Member State for infringement of a registered design.

The CJEU first dealt with the issue of jurisdiction. Article 82 of the Community Designs Regulation sets out that "…claims fall primarily within the international jurisdiction of the courts of the Member State in which the defendant is domiciled or, if he is not domiciled in any of the Member States, in any Member State in which he has an establishment". This can also include the Member State where the act of infringement has been committed or is threatened. For Article 6 of the Jurisdiction Regulation to apply there has to be a connection between various defendants in different jurisdictions "…that it is expedient to determine those actions together in order to avoid the risk of irreconcilable judgments resulting from separate proceedings". The court also highlighted that, under case law, two companies in the same group acting in an identical or similar manner would constitute the same situation of fact.

According to the CJEU, "…the territorial jurisdiction of a Community design court seised of an action for infringement within the meaning of Article 81(a)… extends throughout the European Union also in respect of the defendant who is not domiciled in the Member State of the forum". This means that there would be no jurisdictional issue with regards to pursuing a company in a different Member State through a national court within the EU.

The court then moved onto the second issue of use of the design as a citation. The question posed to the court, in short, asked whether Article 20 of the Community Designs Regulation meant that the use of a registered design by a third party, without authorisation, to demonstrate goods being sold online would be use as a citation and therefore allowed.

Burt definitely needed a citation (Source: xkcd)
The CJEU first looked at the meaning of 'citation'. They emphasised the designs' use for an illustrative purpose, in that "…a third party that lawfully sells goods intended to be used with specific goods corresponding to Community designs and reproduces the latter in order to explain or demonstrate the joint use of the goods it sells and a product corresponding to a protected design carries out an act of reproduction for the purpose of making ‘citations'". The use, however, would be assessed using three cumulative conditions: "…the compatibility of the acts of reproduction with fair trade practice, the absence of undue prejudice to the normal exploitation of the design on account of such acts and mention of the source".

The first condition look at whether the reproduction of the design falls within 'honest practices in industrial or commercial matters', i.e. should the design be reproduced in such a way as to create an impression of a commercial connection between the two entities, it would not be made for the purpose of citation. The second condition concerns the reproduction of the design that negatively affects the economic interest or their normal exploitation by the rightsholder. The third condition is simply attribution, so that a reasonable and observant consumer will know the design's commercial origin.

The court concluded that in the matter at hand the reproduction would be for the purpose of citation if it fulfils all of the above conditions.

Finally, the court addressed the last question of where the infringement would be committed between the two group companies, as the group companies reside and have committed infringements in several EU Member States. The CJEU, having considered the legislative framework, considered that "…the ‘country in which the act of infringement was committed’ within the meaning of Article 8(2) of that regulation must be interpreted as meaning that it refers to the country where the event giving rise to the damage occurred, namely the country on whose territory the act of infringement was committed". This hones down the legislation as applying to where the act was committed, rather than the damage occurring (i.e. infringement in Germany damaging a country in France).

As acknowledged by the court, IP does leave this interpretation as difficult, since the act could happen in a variety of locations in one time. In the light of this, the CJEU set out that "… where the same defendant is accused of various acts of infringement falling under the concept of ‘use’ within the meaning of Article 19(1) of [the Community Designs Regulation] in various Member States, the correct approach for identifying the event giving rise to the damage is not to refer to each alleged act of infringement, but to make an overall assessment of that defendant’s conduct in order to determine the place where the initial act of infringement at the origin of that conduct was committed or threatened". In the situation in the current matter, the place where the goods were put on sale online would be where the infringement took place.

 The CJEU's decision is a very interesting one, and while they made no assessment on the particular infringements in the case, it still gives national courts the tools to do so themselves in a more flexible manner rather than just designating each infringement in its respective country. This will make the assessment of infringement, and similarly of citation, much clearer for the future.

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