Category Archives: Intellectual Property

Tell us what Brexit means, then IP laws can be reviewed

busesWhen Brexit happens, what will happen to existing UK IP laws? And what should the UK government’s proposals be in the field of IP law, in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations?

As with so many Brexit questions, the UK government needs to start deciding on its policy and strategy for Brexit, before the IP profession can sensibly suggest IP-specific proposals. One of these policy decisions is what is to happen to existing UK laws that are influenced by EU laws, immediately following the UK’s formal leaving of the EU. Many current IP laws in the UK consist of, or are affected by EU laws; very little is unique to the UK.

IP Draughts assumes that the UK government will have to pass UK legislation to take effect immediately following our formal leaving of the EU, and that there will be insufficient time before Brexit, to draw up individual measures covering every area that is currently influenced by EU laws. In other words there will need to be some kind of sweeping, interim master-law that defines the new legal regime, probably in combination with numerous exceptions and qualifications that are considered sufficiently urgent to be dealt with at the time of Brexit. Once this new legal regime in place, Parliament can take its time to develop new laws and revise existing laws across the policy areas that may be thought suitable for a distinctive UK approach.

If that is right, then it would be helpful to clarify how the new master-law will work. For instance (and some of the following questions overlap):

  • Should we assume that all existing, national UK laws that are derived from EU laws (e.g. are designed to implement an EU directive) will remain in place immediately following the UK’s formal withdrawal from the EU? For example, the Data Protection Act 1998 currently falls into this category, as it is a UK law that implements an EU directive. However, this may not be a good example, as the Act may be repealed and replaced before Brexit by the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which is due to come into effect automatically throughout the EU (ie without the need for national legislation) in 2018.
  • Should we assume that all EU laws that currently have direct effect in the UK will automatically cease to have effect on Brexit, or will the UK government introduce some kind of holding measure to continue them all in force as purely national UK laws, unless otherwise stated? If the GDPR is introduced before Brexit, it will fall into this category.
  • In the area of laws affecting international trade (a category that may be thought to include IP laws), should we assume that, as a default position, immediately following Brexit UK laws will be aligned as closely as possible with current EU laws, with individual exceptions where it is felt to be in UK interests to have them? Or will the opposite policy position be taken? Or will every law be looked at on a case-by-case basis before Brexit?
  • cjeuShould we assume that there will be a strong presumption against allowing any EU jurisdiction (eg by the CJEU) to continue in the UK in any field post-Brexit? Or will a more sophisticated and nuanced position be taken, eg distinguishing between EU controls over areas of major political interest, such as immigration, and areas of international trade that don’t affect core political concerns? This may seem like a theoretical question, but consider the case of UK participation in the Unified Patent Convention. If it is possible for the UK to participate post-Brexit, but it is a condition of continued UK participation that the CJEU has ultimate supervisory authority (as CJEU Opinion 1/09 suggests – see this recent opinion by Richard Gordon QC), will the UK government be unable to stomach this ‘loss of sovereignty’ or will it be treated like any other area where, in the interests of UK trade, the UK agrees to supranational authority over UK activities (as may be the case with certain international trade treaties that give authority to the World Trade Organisation). Will the UK government be brave enough to recognise the valuable benefits to the UK of this (minor) loss of sovereignty, even it risks giving the Daily Mail ammunition to write hostile articles? IP Draughts has considerable doubts on this issue, given the recent rhetoric of senior government ministers such as the Secretary of State for International Trade.

In IP Draughts’ view, it is in the UK’s interests for future UK IP laws, and other laws affecting high-tech business activities (eg the regulation of pharmaceuticals, data protection laws, recognition of judgments) to be aligned as closely as possible with those in the rest of the EU. Ideally, there should be ongoing, formal cooperation between the UK and the EU in these areas, so as to ensure such continuing alignment.

steerBut it has yet to be seen what the UK government’s approach to trade laws, including IP, will be following Brexit. A great deal of work is being done by IP practitioners, through various technical committees, to consider the detail of what should happen to IP laws. But until we get a steer from government on their overall approach, and how they plan to deal with IP and trade laws, it is difficult to devise a strategy for negotiating the best outcome with the various actors (including governments, as well as industry and IP professionals, across the EU). This is not purely a matter for governments to negotiate. IP professionals will want to discuss these matters with their opposite numbers in other EU countries. as well as representatives of industry, and hopefully get their support, and their advocacy to their national governments, on areas of common interest. In an area as technical as IP laws, IP Draughts hopes that UK and EU governments will seek advice from specialists in the field.

 

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Ignore the IP clause. Examine the parties’ conduct.

twiceThis is a tale about a company that sold the same IP twice, according to some contracts that it signed. But don’t worry, children, because the parties didn’t really believe that the second contract was meant to sell the IP, even though it said that it did. Oh, and it’s also about a confidentiality clause in a licence agreement that meant what it said. Even though the defendant argued that it shouldn’t be taken literally.

The case is called Process Components Ltd v Kason Kek-Gardner Ltd [2016] EWHC 2198 (Ch) (05 September 2016). Don’t bother reading it. It’s not going to change the course of English law. It describes some typical legal argy-bargy that happens when a commercial dispute gets to court. IP Draughts has read it, so that you don’t have to. But it does raise some practice-related issues that should be of interest to transactional IP lawyers. These are summarised below.

Selling the same IP twice

First, the sale of the IP. The two contracts in question were for the sale of different parts of a business, to different purchasers. The assets sold in the first contract (Contract 1) included “£1,350,000 for the Goodwill, the IT system and the Intellectual Property Rights”. The Intellectual Property Rights were defined as:

the full benefit (subject to the obligations) of all patents, registered designs, the Trade Marks, service marks, copyrights, know-how, technical and/or research and development information, drawings, specifications, domain names, computer programs and all licences, rights to protection and applications for registration and rights to apply for registration relating to such matters used by the Seller in the Business…

Let’s leave aside the excruciatingly bad drafting of this definition – for example, what is the word “licences” doing in the fourth line, lumped together with pre-registration rights to IP? In court, the parties’ counsel managed to find ways of arguing about the construction of this definition, eg by breaking it up into 3 parts and arguing that the final phrase only qualified one of those parts. All too tedious to discuss further.

Instead, let’s compare this definition with its equivalent in Contract 2. The same solicitor, who is named in the judgment, apparently drafted both contracts and, according to the judge, “plainly used [Contract 1] as a template for [Contract 2]”. Contract 2 provided for the sale of certain assets, including “the Business Name, the Commercial Information, the Contracts, the Equipment, the Goodwill, the Intellectual Property Rights, and the Work-In-Progress”. In Contract 2, Intellectual Property Rights are defined as:

the full benefit (subject to the obligations) of all patents, registered designs, trade and service marks, copyrights, know-how, technical and/or research and development information, drawings, specifications, domain names, computer programs and all licences, rights to protection and applications for registration and rights to apply for registration relating to such matters used by [the seller] in the Business…

Now, there are ways of trying to distinguish the two definitions, eg that the definitions of Business are different in each case, or that the dates of use by the seller are different. But the judge found that these definitions mostly covered the same IP. And at least one of the commercial representatives of the parties to Contract 2 was surprised to see this definition in the draft contract, but preferred not to rock the boat by querying it.

So, the first lesson of this sermon is: take care in drafting IP definitions. Don’t just cut and paste from an earlier contract. Obvious, really. Or it should be.

Legal snowstorm

Given the apparent conflict between the two contracts, what was the judge supposed to do about it? For example, should she:

  1. darlingDecide that Contract 2 couldn’t ‘bite’ on any of the seller’s IP, as it had already been sold under Contract 1? Or
  2. Treat the buyer under Contract 2 as a bona fide purchaser without notice (sometimes quaintly known as ‘equity’s darling’) of Contract 1?
  3. Treat both buyers as purchasers, so that they became co-owners in different fields?

The parties’ respective counsel slugged away at one another, trying every legal principle in the book to persuade the judge to see it their client’s way. Among the principles mentioned in the judgment are:

  • The admissibility of pre-contract negotiations to show a matrix of fact
  • Rectification
  • Construction
  • Common assumption
  • Estoppel by convention
  • Estoppel by misrepresentation
  • Coming to equity with clean hands

On the facts before her, the judge found that the buyer under Contract 2 was estopped from denying that the buyer under Contract 1 owned the relevant IP.

A practice-related lesson here is that focussing just on the wording of the two contracts doesn’t tell us how a court is going to decide on a complex set of facts. Who said (or didn’t say) what to whom may affect the outcome more than the contractual wording.

Licence agreement – estoppel issue

At around the same time as Contract 2 was made, the buyer under that contract entered into a licence agreement with the buyer under Contract 1, under which the Buyer 1 licensed to Buyer 2 a package of IP that seems to have overlapped with the IP that was the subject of the dispute above.

Buyer 2 argued that it didn’t know the content of Contract 1 when it entered into the licence agreement, and did so to protect its position in case it turned out that the IP had been transferred under Contract 1 and not under Contract 2.

It seems that Buyer 2’s acceptance of the licence, and failure to query the ownership of the IP with Buyer 1, led to the estoppel mentioned earlier.

A possible practice point here is that Buyer 2 should have at least sent Buyer 1 a letter in which it flagged up this issue and stated that it “reserved all its rights”.

Licence agreement – confidentiality and termination

It might not have mattered whether Buyer 2 was the owner of the IP, as long as it continued to have a licence from Buyer 1. But Buyer 1 had terminated the licence agreement for breach of a confidentiality obligation.

The relevant clauses of the licence agreement were:

  1. By clause 10.1 of the licence agreement, “each party agrees to keep the terms of this Agreement confidential…”
  2. By clause 11.2, a party could terminate the licence agreement “immediately by written notice to the other” for certain types of breach.
  3. By clause 11.2(a), those breaches included any material breach of the Agreement that was not capable of remedy. The final sentence of 11.2(a) stated that “breach of the confidentiality obligations under clause 10 constitutes a non-remediable material breach”.
  4. By clause 12.3, on termination of the agreement for any reason, the licensee was required to “cease to make any use of the Intellectual Property Rights”.

The facts relied on for termination are not entirely clear from the judgment, but it seems that Buyer 2 disclosed the terms of the licence agreement to a proposed investor.

Buyer 2 argued in court and in correspondence that:

  • it was absurd to allow the licensor to terminate the licence agreement for any disclosure of the terms, as this would include trivial breaches, ie those that were not material
  • the court would interpret these obligations as allowing appropriate disclosure of the terms of the licence agreement “on a confidential basis to a proposed investor”

The judge disagreed, and held that the licence agreement had been validly terminated.

This raises a very interesting practice issue, which has been mentioned on this blog before. IP Draughts understands that it is common for companies to provide details of its contracts to proposed investors or purchasers, even if those contracts include strict confidentiality provisions. Ever since IP Draughts first encountered this issue as a junior lawyer, he has been troubled by the apparent mismatch between commercial practice and contract terms. Sometimes, a pragmatic response to this concern is to point out that the disclosures are typically made in confidence, eg in a data room, or that the party whose confidentiality has been breached won’t suffer any loss from the breach.

etiquetteThe judge in this case dispelled both of these lazy assumptions. She couldn’t see why a term should be implied allowing a party to disclose in confidence to a prospective investor. She pointed out that the CDA between Buyer 2 and the investor didn’t say anything about not using the information in a way that was detrimental to Buyer 1, who was not a party. IP Draughts suspects that the absence of such a clause is likely to be the case in most CDAs in this situation. And finally, the judge pointed out that the obligations under the CDA had expired at the time the licence agreement was terminated, so that the investor was no longer under a confidentiality obligation. This no doubt reflected the typically short duration of CDAs with investors.

The practice lesson here, in IP Draughts’ view, is that contracts mean what they say and a party should not expect the law to intervene to protect it if it is in breach, just because of dodgy commercial practice or bad habits in the market sector in which that party operates.

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Brexit clauses in contracts

brexitIt takes time to adjust to a major shock: to recover, to process the information, and to recalibrate. Three weeks after the UK electorate voted, unexpectedly, to leave the European Union, IP Draughts is starting to think more clearly about the implications of the vote for IP practice. To do so, we have to leave behind the lies, the half-truths, and the stirring of ugly emotions in the referendum campaign, in some ways very different to the political process of a general election, and instead focus on the practical.

Some plain talking is now required. Many readers of this blog will fall into a category of people who benefit from international trade, who embrace the cultures of others, and who are prosperous in absolute terms (however much we struggle to pay a large mortgage or look enviously or competitively at others who are doing better than us). We work and often socialise with others who share this perspective, both in our own country and in other countries.

To many people with this mindset – let us give them a name and, for want of a better, use one that was used disparagingly in the referendum campaign, “metropolitan elite” (otherwise known as the London and South East “bubble”) – it is unthinkable that the UK would want to leave the European Union. It would not be in our economic, security, cultural or social interests to do so.

schockBut vote to leave we have, and in processing this information we need to understand the perspectives of those who formed the majority. Of course, there is no single group of Brexiteers. But generalising helps us to focus on what needs to be done. There are the social conservatives, the older generations, the people whose lives are not international. There are those who have been suffering from stagnant salaries over the last decade, combined with worsening conditions of employment. There are those who can’t get access to good medical services or good schools.

In other words, the people that are left behind, through choice or circumstance, in the noisy, difficult, competitive but satisfying ‘global’ world that the metropolitan elite inhabits.

The UK’s new Prime Minister recently made a speech in which she recognised the concerns of the Brexiteers. We should be spending more money on new schools, hospitals and infrastructure. We should be increasing the salaries of public sector workers. In short, we should take steps that are other times would be called left-wing.

Coming back to IP (at last), IP Draughts was at a business dinner this week, sitting next to a senior German IP practitioner. The conversation naturally turned to Brexit. IP Draughts’ dinner companion was sanguine about the prospects for the EU doing a deal with with the UK that was in both parties’ interests. Yet, when pressed, he thought that free movement of people was a non-negotiable issue – it was a subject on which many Germans and other EU nationals felt very deeply. IP Draughts thought and said that this probably meant that a deal was unlikely, as control of immigration was a central theme of the Brexit campaign.

IP Draughts was left with several thoughts. First, there is the (perhaps obvious) point that IP practitioners, and professionals generally, may have more in common with their counterparts in other countries than they do with their fellow citizens who have been left behind by globalisation. Second, and more interesting, that while the metropolitan elite in the UK have had a rude shock and become more aware of the large body of people who don’t share our global perspective, our colleagues in other countries may not be so aware of this issue. This has been noticeable in some of the “advice” that Continental Europeans have given to the UK in IP Draughts’ Twitter feed. It is not that we need to think outside the box; we need to think outside the bubble.

futureTurning to IP contracts, IP Draughts and his colleagues have been thinking about how contracts might be affected by Brexit, and what terms might be included to address this issue. Of course, we don’t yet know what form Brexit will take, as it depends on a negotiation that has not yet started. But contracting parties may want to think through the range of possible implications for their contract of Britain leaving the EU, and perhaps even include a clause or two to address the issue. IP Draughts has previously mentioned on this blog some of the possible situations where contractual terms may need to be revisited. He now wonders whether we need a standard clause to address the variety of issues, many of them not easy to foresee or plan for, to address this issue in more general terms. Such a clause might, for example, provide that:

  1. If performance or interpretation of contractual obligations is substantially affected by the fact of Brexit, or by changes in law arising from Brexit, or by the actions of persons or institutions arising from Brexit or in contemplation of Brexit, then a party can notify the other party that it wishes to renegotiate or terminate the contract to take account of this.
  2. If renegotiation occurs, the objective should be (unless the parties agree otherwise) to put them in as close a position to that in which they would have been if the Brexit-related action or event had not occurred. If they can’t agree, the matter can be referred to an adjudicator who will decide on the appropriate adjustments, or conclude that there are no reasonable adjustments to take, in which case termination may be the agreed outcome.

IP Draughts has not yet drafted such a clause, but it sounds a bit like a combination of a force majeure clause and a severance clause, combined with a mechanism for referring a dispute to an expert or arbitrator under a simplified (quick and cheap) process.

As ever, readers’ thoughts on this subject are welcomed.

 

 

 

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Brexit and IP transactions

eliteIP Draughts learnt this week that he was part of a metropolitan elite. Which is nice. #lookingforthepositive

Yesterday the UK electorate decided, unexpectedly, to leave the European Union. At this stage, no-one knows what will happen next, or what “leaving” actually means. The possibilities, however far-fetched some of them may be, include:

  • Change of mind. Nothing changes in the EU (except, perhaps, some face-saving remarks by EU leaders or trivial changes in law), following which the UK electorate has a change of heart and decides not to leave after all. Some point to the Irish experience with the Lisbon treaty as a precedent for this outcome.
  • Squeezing some more concessions. Negotiate real “improvements” in the way in which the EU does things, following which the UK electorate has a second vote in which they decide to remain in the EU, either in a referendum or by voting in a general election for a pro-remain political party. These improvements might be concessions for the UK alone, or general changes in the structure of the EU.
  • demographicsAssociate membership. Create a new, “associate member” category of membership of the EU, which the UK would then transfer to, and which would give associate members some exemptions from EU rules, eg on free movement of labour.
  • Leave and join EFTA. Leave the EU and join the European Free Trade Association, and therefore benefit from some but not all of the legal regime that applies in the EU, but without any special concessions for the UK. In other words, have the same relationship with the EU that Norway has as an EFTA member.
  • Leave and expand EU rights for non-EU members. Leave the EU and change the rules of the EU, so that countries that are outside the EU (ie the UK at that point) can benefit from certain aspects of the EU that are currently only available to members (eg participation in the Community Trade Mark regime). The new arrangements might be designed for, say EFTA members (if the UK decided to join that club) or might be made more broadly available to, say, European countries that are outside the EU.
  • Leave and negotiate one-off trade deals. Negotiate individual, arms-length trade treaties between the UK (as a non-EU-member) and the EU.

social-classesIt is fair to say that the Brexiteers have not focussed on IP during the pre-referendum debates. When Brexit is negotiated, IP legislation is likely to be some way down the list of priorities, after immigration, trade tariffs, and other political topics.

In the area of business regulation, much was made during the referendum campaign of so-called “Brussels red tape” but few examples were given. In one televised debate, IP Draughts heard Boris comment scornfully that the remain campaign didn’t want to change any existing EU laws, “not even the Clinical Trials Directive”, as though this was self-evidently a terrible piece of legislation. For some reason, this law seems to trigger a response in Boris, like a mood-altering drug.  The benefits to the UK economy of pan-European regulation of life-science product development seem to have passed him by.

elite2Perhaps Boris is not aware that the UK has a thriving life-science sector, the best in Europe, and that being part of the EU is a significant benefit for that sector. David Cameron seems to be aware of this, as he negotiated for the UK to have the chemistry and life-science part of the central court for the Unitary Patent.

It is impossible to know what the implications of Brexit will be for international IP transactions until the blueprint for Brexiting has been established. Nevertheless, there are some obvious risks that can be addressed when drafting IP-related agreements. They include:

  1. EU research funding. In research agreements that benefit from EU funding (eg under the Horizon 2020 programme) what will happen if the UK party ceases to receive EU funding on Brexit? Is it still obliged to do the work but not get paid for it? Or can it terminate its participation in the project? As a separate issue, what do the terms of funding say about the grant of IP rights to companies that are outside the EU? Is any preference given to EU parties?
  2. EU territory. Does the agreement grant rights to a territory defined as the European Union or the European Economic Area? What are the implications if the UK is no longer part of the EU or EEA?
  3. UK territory. Does the agreement refer to the United Kingdom? What implications are there for the agreement if Scotland decides to withdraw from the United Kingdom (but possibly try to remain in the EU)?
  4. Definition of IP. How is intellectual property defined in the agreement? Is the definition flexible enough to cater for changes to the IP system, or new types of IP, that may emerge following Brexit?
  5. Export of personal data outside EU. Sometimes, agreements have clauses that refer to the export of personal data outside the EU. Have the implications been considered of what this will mean in practical terms if the UK is no longer part of the EU?
  6. Compliance with regulations generally. Some agreements, eg clinical trial agreements, impose an obligation on a party to comply with applicable regulations. Are these obligations worded in a way that is resilient to the possibility of UK regulations being significantly different from those in the EU?
  7. Law and jurisdiction. Does the agreement have a clear law and jurisdiction clause? If not, bear in mind that if the UK is not part of the EU, the Rome and Brussels regulations will probably no longer apply to tell a UK contracting party which law and jurisdiction will govern the agreement.

This is unlikely to be a comprehensive list of contractual issues that could be affected by Brexit. If you can think of others, please suggest them in the comments below this posting.

 

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