Category Archives: Legal Updates

Hopeless student IP disputes

Complaints between PhD students and their supervisors seem to be on the rise. IP Draughts has been instructed on several in recent years, both on behalf of the student and on behalf of the supervisor and university (but not all at the same time!)

Memories of these cases came flooding back when IP Draughts read the recently-published court judgment in the case of Ukoumunne v The University of Birmingham & Ors [2020] EWHC 184. This was a preliminary decision in the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (a low-cost court for smaller disputes) on whether to strike out the former student’s claims against various supervisors, the university and an academic publisher.

Nearly all of the claims were struck out, and those that remained were in the “last chance saloon” – the claimant, who was not legally represented, was required to be more specific as to what she was claiming.

An interesting feature of this case for IP Draughts is the discussion of the difference between plagiarism (copying ideas, not attributing them, etc, in breach of academic norms) and infringement of copyright (typically copying lines of text rather than underlying ideas, though occasionally the organisation and structure of a work can be the subject of a copyright claim). In IP Draught’s experience, academics are sometimes unclear about the differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement. Plagiarism claims may be referred to an academic committee (eg if there is a claim of research misconduct) – this happened in the present case and the claims were dismissed.

Copyright claims are ultimately for a court of law to decide. The claimant in this case was unable to persuade the judge that she had an arguable case on copyright infringement. This claim was struck out, as were claims of negligence, racial harrassment, bullying and sex discrimination by the university .

The claimant also made allegations of breach of confidence in relation to her thesis, and breach of contract (seemingly the terms on which she became a PhD student, though this was unclear to the judge). On these allegations, the judge gave the claimant one last chance to improve her case (clarity of argument and supporting documents), failing which these claims would also be struck out.

IP Draughts wonders whether the claimant really thought she had a good legal case, or was just hoping for the best, and determined to pursue her dispute. He also wonders whether any attempt was made to negotiate a settlement or refer the matter to mediation. Sometimes, people just want to be heard, and there may be less expensive ways of enabling that to happen than going to court. The money saved might be better spent on a settlement with the student than on court fees and lawyers.

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Filed under Employment, Intellectual Property, Legal Updates, universities

New Year’s Honours 2020

Are innovation, technology, knowledge and intellect not considered worthy of public honours? A search of these words on this year’s New Year’s Honours list reveals very slim pickings.

IP Draughts is glad to see that Andrew Bud has received a CBE for services to exports in science and technology. He had some dealings with Andrew several years ago, and was impressed by his approach.

Professor Ian Weeks of Cardiff University has won an OBE for services to knowledge transfer and to medical innovation.

And that’s about it. Searches for intellectual property, patents, copyright and trade marks reveal nothing.

Searches for law reveal numerous people involved in criminal law, including civil servants and police officers, but very few people involved in civil law.

An award in the field of law was made to someone who might, just about, qualify as part of the IP world. But the field is so ancient that it predates the first IP laws by several centuries: the hallmarking of precious metals. Robert Grice obtained an MBE for services to hallmarking law. He has been a leading light behind the Touchstone Awards. To quote from some blurb on the trading standards website:

Sponsored by the British Hallmarking Council and the UK’s four Assay Offices, the award celebrates local authorities and individuals for their dedicated efforts in pursuing hallmarking fraudsters.

The absence of significant numbers of awards in the innovation and IP fields, and more widely in civil (non-criminal) law, suggests that these areas are viewed as private, rather than public, concerns. But successive governments have made lots of positive statements about the importance of these areas to the UK economy. There seems to be a ‘disconnect’.

 

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Dispute between licensees: who can sue and where?

The case of Ablynx NV & Anor v VHsquared Ltd & Ors [2019] EWCA Civ 2192 was published this week. It is a decision of the English Court of Appeal, and concerns a dispute over patent infringement between licensees of some university patents. The licensing aspects should be of interest to readers of this blog, but the facts and legal issues are a little complicated.

With some simplification, those facts are:

  1. The invention relates to immunoglobulins derived from camelid (camel family) antibodies. The Free University of Brussels (VUB) is the patent owner. The patents expired in 2013.
  2. In 1997, VUB granted a licence under these patents to Unilever NH (Unilever). The licence was exclusive in certain fields (defined as the Reserved Sector) including “packed food products”. It was non-exclusive in certain other fields.
  3. The licence agreement is subject to Belgian law and jurisdiction. But disputes over the definition of the Reserved Sector and the scope of the patents are to be decided by arbitration under the Rules of the International Chamber of Commerce.
  4. In 1998, VUB granted a licence under the patents to the Flanders Institute of Biotechnology (VIB). (Disclosure: many years ago, IP Draughts advised VIB, but not on this matter, as far as he can recall.)
  5. The licence to VIB was in all fields other than the Reserved Sector (using the same definition as in the Unilever licence).
  6. In 2001, VIB exclusively sub-licensed the patents to Ablynx. The field of the licence included products for diagnosing, preventing or treating disease in humans.
  7. The judge notes that the parties to the litigation agreed that Ablynx’s sub-licence could not be broader than the head licence, and therefore excluded the Reserved Sector. In the Ablynx sub-licence, Ablynx acknowledges that it has received a copy of the Unilever licence agreement.
  8. In 2005, Unilever novated the Unilever licence agreement to BAC, a Unilever group company. In the novation agreement (between VUB, Unilever and BAC), BAC granted a non-exclusive licence under the patents back to Unilever in the Reserved Sector.
  9. The novation agreement is made under Belgian law and subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the Belgian courts.
  10. In 2010, Unilever granted VHsquared Limited (VH) a sub-licence under the patents in the Reserved Sector.

Pausing there, VH has a non-exclusive licence in the Reserved Sector including packed foods. Ablynx has an exclusive licence for certain medical uses that must fall outside the Reserved Sector.

So far, so good. Medicinal products and food products are completely different, aren’t they, so why would the licensees ever get into dispute? Well, maybe it’s not quite that simple.

The English Court of Appeal judgment notes that there have already been two rounds of litigation between the parties in the Netherlands. VH had argued that it was licensed to produce packaged foods, and these could include “functional foods” containing rotavirus antibodies. Meanwhile, Unilever had conducted research in Bangladesh and India into the use of antibodies directed against rotavirus in children. In the words of the UK National Health Service website:

Rotavirus is a highly infectious stomach bug that typically strikes babies and young children, causing an unpleasant bout of diarrhoea, sometimes with vomiting, tummy ache and fever.

In the English appeal, Ablynx narrowed their argument on the definition of Reserved Sector. They contended that the patents (and their rights as exclusive licensee) would be infringed by “products with a therapeutic or prophylactice effect with regard to specific pathogens, whatever the nature of those products.”

In IP Draughts’ words, they were arguing that they were licensed to food products containing antibodies for the prevention or treatment of ailments.

The Dutch court rejected VH’s argument that they were licensed to any kind of foodstuff. The Dutch court grappled with how to distinguish between foods and medicines. Ultimately, it was forced to go beyond the wording of the contract and determine the “common intent of the parties”. Oversimplifying, Unilever could have functional foods for general health promoting effects, but not products for curing ailments caused by pathogens. Unilever had gone over the line by researching foodstuffs to prevent or cure an ailment caused by a pathogen.

In passing, “the common intent of the parties” is a Belgian and more generally, civil law concept. A different method of interpretation would be applied to an English law contract, and might result in a different outcome.

In IP Draughts’ mind, the English court’s summary of the Dutch court’s judgment sounds a bit like the difference between the products you can buy in a health food store that are careful not to claim a physiological effect, and pharmaceutical drugs that generally require a licence.

In September 2018, Ablynx (drug licensee) started the present legal proceedings in the English High Court, alleging infringement by VH (food licensee). In the UK, an exclusive licensee can sue for infringement.

In January 2019, VH issued an application to contest the jurisdiction of the English courts, on the basis that the Unilever licence agreement provided for exclusive jurisdiction of the Belgian courts.

In March 2019, VH issued proceedings in the Brussels Enterprise Court. In those proceedings, it raised the issue of whether VH’s and Unilever’s activities are within the scope of the Unilever licence. The validity of the patents is not in issue in the Brussels court proceedings.

So, the issue before the English Court of Appeal is whether to postpone further consideration of the case until the Brussels court has reached a decision.

At this point, the English Court of Appeal’s judgment becomes highly technical, and of more interest to international patent litigators than to simple transactional lawyers such as IP Draughts. At one point, the judgment focuses on a short phrase in a witness statement by VH’s solicitor, the highly experienced Ian Karet of Linklaters, where he mentions “invalidity of the patents in suit”. Much is made of this phrase in the litigation. It is held against him by Ablynx, for reasons that need not concern us here.

The Court of Appeal discusses the effect of the EU Recast Regulation, which was designed to fix the problem of the “Italian torpedo” (starting a patent action in Italy in the expectation that it would take years to resolve, and meanwhile no actions could be brought in other European jurisdictions).

These and other technical points take up pages of the Court of Appeal’s judgment.

IP Draughts will draw a veil over these unseemly issues, which he wishes to remain blissfully ignorant of. He will jump to the conclusion, which in the words of Lewison LJ is:

Accordingly, in my judgment article 31 (2) requires this court to stay “the proceedings.” I take that to mean the whole of the proceedings. Since the scope of the licence is an integral part of the action as whole, it makes sense in case management terms to stay the whole of the action until such time as the Belgian court (a) decides whether it has jurisdiction and (b) if it decides that it has, rules on the scope of the licence.

Result

I would allow the appeal; and stay the action until the Belgian court has made its ruling.

In other words, VH is successful in its application to stay the English proceedings until the Belgian court has made its decision.

The issue that interests IP Draughts is the scope of the two licence agreements. It is not the first time he has come across disputes between two licensees of a patent, where one is claiming that the other’s activities are infringing its rights. Sometimes, the issue is that the drafter has been careless in defining the field of each licence, such that there is an overlap. The overlap may not be obvious at the time the licence agreements are signed, but future product developments create an unanticipated problem.

Here, the situation is slightly different, in that the drafting of the VIB/Ablynx licence clearly excludes the Reserved Sector. In theory, there can be no conflict. The circles in the Venn diagram don’t overlap. Usually, if this is achieved, IP Draughts is content that his licence agreements are sound and well drafted, at least on the field issue.

So, if the product in question is a food, VH is licensed and does not infringe Ablynx’s exclusive rights. Despite this, so far the Dutch court has interpreted “packed food products” as excluding drugs delivered in the form of food, and the Belgian court has yet to decide. Who knows whether this question of interpretation will come back before the English court.

Is the word “food” so ambiguous? Perhaps it is. IP Draughts is still processing the question, and hasn’t come to a conclusion. Can any reader help him with his mental struggle?

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Intellectual Property, Legal Updates, Licensing

Restrictions on assignment in contracts

It may be of marginal relevance to many IP-related contracts. But there will be some situations where, in future, a contract term that prohibits assignment of the benefit of the contract is not enforceable.

The Business Contract Terms (Assignment of Receivables) Regulations 2018 apply to any term in a contract entered into on or after 31 December 2018. In the words of the explanatory memorandum which accompanies the Regulations:

These Regulations deal with terms in contracts to which the law of England and Wales or the law of Northern Ireland applies which prohibit or restrict the assignment of receivables. A receivable is a right to be paid under a contract for the supply of goods, services or intangible assets. Various types of contract are excluded from the scope of the Regulations.

The main purpose of the Regulations is to make is easier for SMEs to enter into debt financing arrangements. If you are an SME, you may want to “sell” to a finance house the right to recover debts you are owed by your customers. The finance house will give you a percentage of the amount of the debt and they will then take on responsibility for recovering the debt. IP Draughts understands that Lloyds Bank is, or has been, a market leader in this sector.

As an aside, this only really works for the sale of routine products. For anything more complicated, a customer who doesn’t want to pay would likely raise allegations that the product or service had not been provided correctly, and the result would be a messy dispute.

Unfortunately, the drafter of the legislation has tried to address much more than this simple situation, and in doing so has ended up with an unlovely mess of detailed definitions, terms, and exceptions, which (in IP Draughts’ view) raise too many questions of interpretation.

Summary of the Regulations

At the heart of these Regulations is Regulation 2(1), which provides:

…a term in a contract has no effect to the extent that it prohibits or imposes a condition, or other restriction, on the assignment of a receivable arising under that contract or any other contract between the same parties.

Thus, if you have a boilerplate assignment clause in your contract that prevents a party from assigning the benefit of the contract, this may in some situations be unenforceable.

Regulation 2(3) lists the situations in which a party is so prevented, and they include terms that prevent the supplier from disclosing certain details about the contract, e.g. the names of the contracting parties and the amount owed. Thus, some confidentiality terms in contracts could potentially be unenforceable to the extent they prevent disclosure of information about the contract itself.

There are some restrictions in the Regulations on when the above-quoted provision applies. They include:

  • “Receivable” is defined as a right (whether or not earned by performance) to be paid any amount under a contract …for the supply of goods, services or intangible assets.
  • “Intangible assets” are defined as including electricity and data which are produced and supplied in digital form. IP Draughts’ initial reaction is that many software supply agreements should be treated as being for the supply of intangible assets. He also wonders whether research agreements would be treated as contracts for the supply of a research report (if it is supplied in digital form). Alternatively, these may be contracts for services.
  • However, Regulation 4 sets out a long list of excluded categories that are not within the scope of the Regulations. This includes, at item (m): “a contract, not falling within paragraph (a), entered into wholly or mainly for the purpose of granting by one person of a right to possession or control of an object to another person in return for a rental or other payment.” IP Draughts speculates that the drafter had in mind things like photocopier leasing agreements. Object is not defined in the Regulation. (Is it defined elsewhere?) Is software an object? IP Draughts’ instinctive view is not, but applying common sense doesn’t always lead to the right legal answer (!)
  • The Regulations don’t apply if the supplier is a “large enterprise”. Confusingly, large enterprise is defined as anything other than organisations that fit within the categories in Regulation 3(3).
  • Regulation 3(3) sets out a long list of non-large enterprises, which includes: (b) a company to which the small companies regime (within the meaning given by sections 381 to 384 of the Companies Act 2006) applied in the relevant financial year and which was not a member of a large group in the relevant financial year;(c) the supplier is a company which qualified as medium-sized (within the meaning given by sections 465 to 467 of the Companies Act 2006) in respect of the relevant financial year and which was not a member of a large group in the relevant financial year;
  • Some other categories are excluded from the Regulations, including, under Regulation 4(c): “a contract where one or more of the parties to the contract is acting for purposes which are outside a trade, business or profession”. Might this conceivably cover some university research contracts?

Comments

The Regulations form part of the present UK government’s initiatives to support small businesses, e.g. when faced with large customers who don’t pay on time. The drafter was presumably mainly focused on simple contracts for the sale of stock items of goods, which is where debt financing is most likely to be available.

As to whether the Regulations cover niche topics like software supply, IP licensing or academic research contracts, it is probably too soon to give a definitive answer – we need to see some case law from the senior courts. IP Draughts looks forward to being instructed to bring such a case to the UK Supreme Court!

There doesn’t appear to be any sanction for including an unenforceable restriction on assignment in your contract. The consequence of doing so is simply that the term “has no effect to the extent that” it includes such a restriction. Drafters may want to think about the severance clauses in their contracts, with a view to mitigating the possibility that an unsympathetic court might strike out the entire assignment clause. And you might want to think about including wording such as “to the extent permitted by applicable law” in your assignment clause.

This is an other example of politicians eroding the principle of freedom of contract in support of political objectives, here to support the “nation of shopkeepers” who run SMEs. The previous article on this blog, about new EU-derived terms in trade mark agreements, is another example, though in that case the political objective is removing national barriers to trade within the EU.

Back in the 1970s, we had lots of new legislation to protect consumers and workers, such as unfair dismissal legislation and the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977. Now the focus is on protecting SMEs. In both cases, they create work for lawyers, particularly when the legislation raises as many questions as it answers. So, perhaps IP Draughts should be glad of the government’s latest lawyer-job creation scheme.

 

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