Are innovation patents going?

Last year, ACIP ducked the question of keeping or abolishing the controversial innovation patent system. Last week, ACIP issued an “updated” statement in which it recommended abolition of the innovation patent system.

What happened?

According to ACIP, in the intervening period, IP Australia’s Chief Economist took advantage of data that became available through the Government’s Intellectual Property Government Open Data (IPGOD) “to undertake a comprehensive analysis of the economic impact of the innovation patent system”. That study disclosed:

The great majority of Australian SMEs and private inventors appear to gain little benefit from the system… Only 23 SMEs have become moderate users of the innovation patent system … The average SME or private inventor files once and never again (74%), does not receive any enforceable right (83%) and lets their patent expire early because they see its value at less than the $110-$220 cost of renewal (78%).

Further

While 94% of innovation patent applications are made by private inventors or SMEs and they incur 95% of the regulatory costs of the system, larger firms who are already well served by the standard patent system tend to reap a disproportionate share of the benefits.

Taking into account regulatory costs and costs to public welfare generally, ACIP considers that the costs of the innovation system outweigh the benefits and so recommends abolition.

ACIP Review of the Innovation Patent System: Final Report May 2015 (updated to include new statement) (pdf)

The Statement

At the time of writing, the link to the comprehensive analysis of the economic data does not appear to be working.

Dr Summerfield takes a different view.

Of flat nosed syringes or if at first you don’t succeed

Having had the interlocutory injunction he granted overturned on appeal, Rares J has now determined at the substantive trial that both of Glaxo’s syringe variants infringed Reckitt Benkiser’s “flat-nosed syringe” patent.

You will recall that Reckitt has patented a bottle and syringe combination to simplify “feeding” medicines to babies and toddlers in particular. Claim 1 in part provides:

A liquid dispensing apparatus comprising a bottle, a bottle neck liner and a flat-nosed syringe having a plunger and a barrel, the barrel terminating at its distal end in a generally flat face having a diameter corresponding to the diameter of the syringe barrel and being perpendicular to the longitudinal axis of the barrel ….

… the claim goes on at some length to elaborate in further detail the features of the various elements.

Glaxo had two variants of its competing product:

Glaxo Version 1
Glaxo Version 1
Glaxo Version 2
Glaxo Version 2

For present purposes, I found two points of interest: the finding that the second variant infringed and the failure of Glaxo’s entitlement attack.

Infringement

After dealing with construction issues at some length, Rares J found the first version infringed claim 1, but Glaxo’s second version did not. This was because, at [126], the indented “tip” at the distal (bottom) end of the syringe meant the end was not substantially the same diameter as the barrel itself.

Notwithstanding this, Rares J found the second version did infringe claim 9, the omnibus claim:

  1. A liquid dispensing apparatus, substantially as described with reference to the drawings and/or examples.

Rares J considered that the second variant functioned the same as the preferred embodiment described in the specification and drawing. While the indented tip was a difference, claim 9 required only substantial compliance and there was no difference in substance between the second variant and the patent description. At [149], his Honour explained:

…. The alternate syringe has exactly the same function as that described in the patent and the drawings. The alternate syringe is a flat-nosed syringe that has a distal end that fits into the liner and achieves a good seal with it so that it can draw up liquid without leaking from the bottle or the syringe. The mere fact that there is a corresponding tip on both the barrel and the reciprocating plunger used in the alternate syringe in the second product complained of should not be allowed to disguise that that product has taken the substantial configuration resulting from the patentee’s invention and its character for the dispensing of liquids from bottles without mess using an apparatus with a flat-nosed syringe: Radiation 60 CLR at 52; Raleigh 65 RPC at 160. The alternate syringe, as incorporated into the second product complained of, is not a substantially new or different combination ….

Earlier, his Honour had pointed out that the bottle liner of Glaxo’s second variant was shaped to complement the configuration of the indented tip of the syringe to sealingly engage as required by the patent. Although liquid was drawn into the indented tip from the bottle, it was essentially “dead space” as the tip of the syringe’s plunger had a correspondingly indented end so that the barrel measured volumes in the same as as the patented description. Accordingly at [150]:

The alternate syringe takes the substance of the flat-nosed syringe described in the patent and drawings as stated in claim 9.

Entitlement

In coming up with the claimed apparatus, Reckitt[1] had engaged a contractor. Glaxo argued that it was the contractor’s operative, a Mr Pearce, who was actually the inventor. Even though Reckitt’s posited inventors did not give evidence, Rares J rejected this attack without needing to resort to s 22A or s 138(4).

Glaxo’s challenge essentially ran into two problems. First, when the contractor discovered the early version of the patent application leading to the patent, it did challenge Reckitt about it. It’s concern, however, was to ensure its continued ability to use the “liner” element, only one integer of the claimed invention as a whole. Arising from this, Reckitt did make some modifications to its application and the contractor reached agreement with Reckitt preserving the contractor’s ability to use features of the liner for other projects freely.

Secondly, although Mr Pearce did give evidence, it was limited to claiming inventive contribution only to the liner element and it was not suggested to him that he, rather than Reckitt’s employees, came up with the idea for the features of the other elements comprising the invention.

Glaxo’s claim based on false suggestion similarly failed:

the documentary evidence suggests that the idea that conceived of a combination of a flat-nosed syringe co-operating with a bottle neck liner and a bottle in the form of the apparatus had nothing to do with Mr Pearce or HDB and was Ms Dallison’s inspiration. She also had envisaged the features of that combination, being the way in which the flat-nosed syringe would co-operate with the liner, and, with Mr Harrison, the need for the liner to be adapted suitably to pour, without mess, the liquid contents from the bottle ….

Reckitt Benckiser Healthcare (UK) Ltd v Glaxosmithkline Australia Pty Ltd (No 5) [2015] FCA 486


  1. The named inventors were actually employees of Boots, the pharmacy chain, and Reckitt’s predecessor in title.  ?

Interlocutory Injunction to transfer domain name

Nicholas J has granted Thomas International an interlocutory injunction ordering Humantech to transfer the domain names, thomasinternational.com.au and thomas.co.za, to Thomas International. Thomas International had to give the usual undertakings and, as a foreign corporation, provide security for costs.

Thomas International is an English company which provides psychological testing and psychometric assessments, and competency and skills-based assessments, particularly using computerised services accessed over the internet through thomasinternational.net. It also makes its materials and services available through distributors. It appointed Humantech, a company associated with a Mr Schutte, as its master distributor/licensee for South Africa and Australia with power to exercise its rights through distributors. Humantech was permitted to use the “Thomas” trade marks, to incorporate a company in Australia under the name Thomas International (Australia) and to register the domain names. There were also obligations when the arrangements ceased or were terminated to cease use of the trade marks and change the corporate name of Thomas International (Australia) to a name which did not include Thomas.

In due course, the Schutte interests also incorporated another entity, ACT, which offered similar services to Thomas International’s assessment and training services. Thomas International alleges that, after some successful years’ trading, revenues from Thomas International (Australia) starting dropping off and the Schutte interests were diverting customers to ACT which, without permission, was using materials based on Thomas International’s materials.

Thomas International sued Humantech, Thomas International (Australia), ACT and Mr Schutte. There was a meeting between the parties and their lawyers shortly after. Thomas International said it would not discuss a new licensing arrangement until an undertaking dealing with the existing issues was provided. As a result, Humantech and the Schutte interests provided an undertaking to cease use of Thomas International’s trade marks, intellectual property and to transfer the domain names over. Thomas International also agreed to negotiate about a new licensing arrangement in good faith.

The next day Thomas International made its licence proposal to the Schutte interests. They considered it was financially unworkable and left the meeting. Later that day, they then put Humantech (and subsequently the other corporate entities) into administration and disabled the website. Shortly thereafter, Thomas International applied for interlocutory injunctions.

As noted, Nicholas J granted the interlocutory injunctions including an order that the domain names be transferred to Thomas International. The terms of the Undertaking meant it had a prima facie case to force the Schutte interests to stop using the Thomas name and trade mark and for the transfer of the domain names.

The Schutte interests’ main attempt to rebut that was their argument that the Undertaking was invalid or unenforceable. That was said to result because, it was alleged, that Thomas International extracted the Undertaking in return for its promise to negotiate a new licence arrangement in good faith. The Schutte interests contended that the terms of the licence they were offered were so unreasonable as to show that Thomas International did not negotiate, and had no intention of negotiating, in good faith. This issue was not developed in detail at this stage, but Nicholas J pointed out that, on the current state of the law in Australia, an obligation to negotiate in good faith did not require a party to subordinate its own interests to that of the other party.

On the balance of convenience, Nicholas J accepted Thomas International’s argument that:

the present state of affairs may cause TIL significant reputational damage as a result of customers who have purchased units entitling them to make use of facilities provided by TIL at the Thomas Hub being prevented from gaining access to it through the TIA website. I accept this submission. I also consider that any such damage may be irreparable and that damages will most likely not provide an adequate remedy. The financial statements of TIA for the financial year ending 30 June 2014 show that the company has net assets of just under $145,000.

On the other hand, the Schutte interests’ main argument was the disruption to their business, and that of their customers, if they could not continue to use the domain names, the main access point for provision of services both to Thomas International (Australia)’s customers and those ACT. As Nicholas J pointed out, however, the Schutte parties had already disabled access to the websites so they had already caused that problem themselves.

It would appear that Thomas International first learned something about ACT’s activities, the subject of the complaint, in May 2014 (i.e., a year earlier). However, Thomas International was able to lead evidence showing all the work it did, and the difficulties it encounted, in trying to ascertain what ACT was doing until proceedings were issued. In this context, the termination by Humantech of the main employee with responsibilities for running the Thomas part of its business may will have been highly significant.

Permission to proceed against the companies although administrators were appointed was granted as the interests of the administrators were adequately protected by the undertaking as to damages and provision for securities.

Thomas International Limited v Humantech Pty Ltd [2015] FCA 541

What constitutes authorised use of a trade mark?

In the latest round of the worldwide war between Wild Turkey bourbon[1] and Wild Geese Irish whisky[2], Perram J has reluctantly found that actual control of the licensee is not necessary and potential control will suffice for authorised use[3] under the Trade Marks Act 1995.

Mr Sullivan QC, a barrister in South Australia, has a winery there under the name Wild Geese Wines. When he sought to register it as a trade mark, he discovered the war between Wild Turkey and Wild Geese Irish whisky. Deciding discretion was the better part of valor, in 2007 he sold his trade mark rights to Wild Turkey bourbon and received a perpetual, exclusive licence back for the princely sum of $1.00 plus he agreed to a number of quality control provisions:

  • his wine had to be of sufficient quality to obtain continuing export approval from the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation;
  • on request from the licensor, he had to supply up to 3 bottles of his wine to the licensor each year and, if the licensor required, supply 4 bottles to the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation for testing;
  • if his wines did not meet the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation’s requirements, the licensor could terminate the licence;
  • he was not allowed to use the trade mark outside Australia and he could use the trade mark only on Australian wine;
  • as is typcial, he was not allowed to use the trade mark in some altered or abbreviated form or in any scandalous fashion;
  • he also had to maintain insurance; and
  • he was not allowed to represent in any way that he was a licensee of Wild Turkey.

The main point of interest about these provisions is that Wild Turkey did not actually seek to exercise any of them until April 2011, that is, four years down the track. By this time, however, Lodestar Anhalt had filed its non-use action and so Wild Turkey had to show it had used its Wild Geese Wines trade mark as a trade mark in the period September 2007 to September 2010. Its only way to do so was in reliance on Mr Sullivan’s use as an authorised user.[4]

The Wine and Brandy Corporation conditions are interesting for at least 2 reasons. The first was that Mr Sullivan proposed them so that he was not at the mercy of the licensor’s potentially subjective whim about whether or not his wine was of an acceptable quality. Secondly, while Mr Sullivan had no idea what standard was required for export approval, apparently over 99% of wine submitted to the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation qualified for export approval.

Perram J had no trouble finding that Wild Turkey had not exercised actual control over Mr Sullivan’s use of the Wild Geese Wines trade mark. The question was whether the potential for such control was enough.

First, Perram J considered that a trade mark licence under the 1955 Act would be valid only if control was actually exercised over the licensee.

Secondly, his Honour considered that what needed to be shown under the 1955 Act was a connection in the course of trade. This was different to what was required under s 17 of the 1995 Act and the requirements for authorised use under s 7 and s 8.[5]

Left to his own devices, Perram J considered that the requirements for authorised use still required that control actually be exercised over the licensee. However, his Honour considered he was bound by the Full Court’s decision in Yau Entertainment to find that the potential to exercise control was sufficent. As Wild Turkey had that potential through the terms of the licence agreement, Mr Sullivan’s use qualified as authorised use and so his sales under the trade mark in the relevant period, while small, were sufficient to defeat the non-use action.

If his Honour had found that potential control had not been sufficient, he would not have exercised a discretion against removal.

Skyy Spirits LLC v Lodestar Anstalt [2015] FCA 509


  1. For this round of the dispute owned by Skyy Spirits, part of the Campari group. Previously, the relevant entity had been Austin Nichols.  ?
  2. Still held by Lodestar Anhalt, a Lichtenstein corporation. More wild geese. ?
  3. Authorised use counts as use by the trade mark owner: s 7(3).  ?
  4. One can imagine that the impending removal action may have been the trigger for Wild Turkey’s “sudden” interest in exercising control. Things are perhaps not so clear as that: in fact, from 2007 to 2010, Mr Sullivan was only offering for sale a merlot he had bottled in 2004. It was not until 2010 that he bottled a pinot noir, which did not go on the market until later in 2011. The reported reasons do not indicate whether anyone on the Wild Turkey side ever tasted the merlot as part of the “licensing” process although, as Wild Turkey had the onus to rebut the non-use allegation, one might expect it would have to have led evidence to establish that – if it wished to rely on it.  ?
  5. On one view, paragraph 42 of the High Court’s Gallo decision tells us that the definition of “use as a trade mark” provided by s 17 of the 1995 Act means the same thing as the definition in s 6(1) of the 1955 Act, notwithstanding that s 17 no longer refers to “a connexion in the course of trade”.  ?