A Full Bench of the Federal Court’s appeal jusrisdiction has dismissed Encompass’ appeal against Perram J’s ruling that its computer-implemented method was not a patentable invention because it was not a manner of manufacture.
Encompass had two innovation patents covering its concept. It sued Infotrack for infringing them. Infotrack admitted its conduct would infringe, but contended the patents were invalid on the grounds that they did not claim a manner of manufacture and did not involve “an innovative step”.
At first instance, amongst other things, Perram J found the claims did involve an innovative step, but were not patentable because they were not for a manner of manufacture.
Infotrack was joined in resisting the appeal by the Commissioner of Patents (appearing as of right pursuant to r 34.23. The Institute of Patent Attorneys also sought and obtained (on a limited basis) leave to intervene.
The claimed invention
Encompass’ (innovation) patent claimed a computerised method and apparatus for displaying business intelligence about “entitites”. The idea seems to have been to facilitate searching of multiple third party electronic databases to ascertain and present aggregated data about the “entity” of interest. Claim 1 provided:
A method of displaying information relating to one or more entities, the method including, in an electronic processing device:
a) generating a network representation by querying remote data sources, the representation including:
i) a number of nodes, each node being indicative of a corresponding entity; and,
ii) a number of connections between nodes, the connections being indicative of relationships between the entities; and,
b) causing the network representation to be displayed to a user;
c) in response to user input commands, determining at least one user selected node corresponding to a user selected entity;
d) determining at least one search to be performed in respective of the corresponding entity associated with the at least one user selected node by:
i) determining an entity type of the at least one user selected entity;
ii) displaying a list of available searches in accordance with the entity type; and,
iii) determining selection of at least one of the available searches in accordance with user input commands;
e) performing the at least one search to thereby determine additional information regarding the entity from at least one of a number of remote data sources by generating a search query, the search query being applied to one of the number of remote databases to thereby determine additional information regarding the entity; and,
f) causing any additional information to be presented to the user.
Crucially for the outcome of the appeal, the Court noted at  that neither claim 1 nor any of the other claims “characterised” the electronic process device which performed the method – “any suitable process system” may be used.
Basing itself on NRDC and CCOM, Encompass argued that the concept of manner of manufacture required the claim to give rise to an artificially created state of affairs which had economic significance. These requirements were satisfied, Encompass argued, because the claimed invention involved:
(a) the interrogation of remote data sources;
(b) the generation and display of the network representation;
(c) the interaction with the network node to initiate a further search;
(d) the determination that the results thereby produced relate to the same entity as the one produced from the first search (the contention that this is a step of the claimed method is an issue in this appeal); and
(e) the display of the results of that search.
Encompass argued that Perram J had erred by considering whether the claimed invention “improved the functionality of the machine”. This was said to be an erroneous incorporation of the “machine or transformation” test from US law.
Despite what it described as the “oblique attacks” made by Encompass and IPTA on Research Affiliates and RPL Centrol, the Court considered at  the appeal did not raise any significant question of principle. Their Honours considered that, having regard to the submissions made by Encompass and IPTA, the correctness of the two earlier decisions was not seriously in doubt. Rather, the issue was whether Perram J had applied the principles from those cases correctly.
The Court started by noting that the High Court in Myriad had agreed with NRDC that the issue is whether the claimed invention is a proper subject for the grant of a patent.
At , therefore, the Court noted that to determine whether a claimed invention involves a manner of manufacture requires a characterisation of the claim.
At , the Court reiterated that this characterisation is to be undertaken as a matter of substance rather than merely as a matter of form.
At , the Court noted the Myriad majority had held the NRDC court had not been attempting an exhaustive definition of “manner of manufacture” when it referred to ‘an “artificially created state of affairs of economic significance”’. Further, the satisfaction of that formulation did not necessarily lead to a finding of “inherent patentability”.
Encompass’ reliance on the reasoning in CCOM was misplaced. The Full Court in CCOM had explained why the computer program in that case was a manner of manufacture in the following terms:
The NRDC case at 275–277 requires a mode or manner of achieving an end result which is an artificially created state of affairs of utility in the field of economic endeavour. In the present case, a relevant field of economic endeavour is the use of word processing to assemble text in Chinese language characters. The end result achieved is the retrieval of graphic representations of desired characters, for assembly of text. The mode or manner of obtaining this, which provides particular utility in achieving the end result, is the storage of data as to Chinese characters analysed by stroke-type categories, for search including “flagging” (and “unflagging”) and selection by reference thereto.
First, however and as the High Court in Myriad had confirmed, this reaoning was a guide only and not a rigid formula.
Secondly, the Court rejected Encompass’ argument that the proposition in Grant that a manner of manufacture required a “physical effect in the sense of a concrete effect or phenomenon or manifestation or transformation” was inconsistent with CCOM and Catuity. Rather, both CCOM and Catuity involved methods where a component was physically affected or a change in state or information in a machine.
The Court then confirmed that the presence of a physical effect in the broad sense envisaged in Grant was also not conclusive. (There being such a transformation in the electronic processing device’s state by performing Encompass’ method.) The question was whether the claimed invention as a matter of substance transcended an abstract idea or mere information.
Encompass’ claimed invention did not provide sufficient specificity to transcend the abstract idea. At , the Court explained:
99 the method claims in suit are, in truth, no more than an instruction to apply an abstract idea (the steps of the method) using generic computer technology. The appellants endeavoured to explain why the claimed method falls within the notion of an artificially created state of affairs by attributing computer functionality to the method: the computer (or, in the language of the claims, the electronic processing device) searches remote data sources; the computer generates a network representation; and the computer responds to a user’s selection to conduct a further search. The appellants also attributed computer functionality to the method by the computer determining additional information relating to the same entity. As we have previously noted, this involves the contentious question of “entity matching”—a step which the primary judge found was not a step in the claimed method. We discuss this below when dealing with the grounds relating to innovative step. But even if for present purposes “entity matching” is taken to be a step in the claimed method, neither it nor the other steps, individually or collectively, amount to anything more than a method in which an uncharacterised electronic processing device (for example, a computer) is employed as an intermediary to carry out the method steps—where the method itself is claimed in terms which amount to no more than an abstract idea or scheme. (emphasis supplied)
The Court accepted that Encompass’ method could not be implemented using “generic software”. This did not save the claims as they did not specify as an essential feature of the invention any particular software or programming. It was left to a user of the method to devise and implement their own suitable computer program. According to the Court, this was merely an idea for a computer program. As in Research Affiliates and RPL Central, at  the Court characterised Encompass’ claims as merely a “method … in an electronic processing device”, which itself is not characterised.”
Finally, the Court at  –  rejected Encompass’ criticism that Perram J had improperly required the claimed method to result in “an improvement in the computer” by reference to the Research Affiliates court’s discussion at  –  to Alice Corporation in the USA. The Court considered that Perram J’s reference to these matters, properly understood, was just “an inquiry into and search for possibly patentable subject matter by reference to a touchstone of such subject matter.”
So, there you have it; all cleared up!
Next up, the Commissioner’s appeal (NSD66 of 2019) against the finding that Rokt did claim a manner of manufacture.
The Court summarised IPTA’s intervention as seeking to contest the Commissioner’s approach to computer related inventions. The Court outlined how it understood IPTA’s proposed intervention:
72 IPTA’s submissions took issue with the Commissioner’s statement that, in considering the patentability of computer-implemented methods, a key consideration is determining where the alleged ingenuity lies. IPTA submitted that this statement is “misconceived” because it intrudes questions of novelty and inventive step into the question whether the invention is a manner of manufacture; it suggests that the way in which the method is implemented in the computer is decisive and directs attention away from the method as claimed; and it suggests that a method characterised as a business method or a scheme is unpatentable, whereas it is only methods or schemes that are no more than a method of doing business or an abstract idea (with no practical application or effect) that are not patentable.
73 IPTA submitted that the Commissioner’s “misconceptions” had become established practice when examining patent applications. IPTA said that this was of “central concern to IPTA and its members’ clients seeking patent protection for their inventions”. IPTA said, further, that these “misconceptions” are reflected in the Australian Patent Office Manual of Practice and Procedure (the Manual) on which the Commissioner’s delegates rely for authoritative guidance in the examination of patent applications. IPTA argued that this has “led … to a confused state of affairs in the examination of computer-implemented inventions, and will cause examination of many such applications to miscarry”.
The Court, however, refused to buy into this fight on the grounds that the correctness or otherwise of the Commissioner’s earlier decisions was not a controversy before the court. The Court also refused to engage with what it described as “IPTA’s editorial comments” on the Manual of Practice and Procedure.
A sitting of the Full Court constituted by 5 judges, rather than the more usual 3 judges. A bench of 5 judges appears to be appointed where there appear to be inconsistent rulings of differently constutited (3 Judge) full courts or there may be some compelling reason to doubt the correctness of an earlier decision. ?
The EU is seeking that included GIs be protected against:
any direct or indirect commercial use of a GI name:
for comparable products, or
in so far as such use exploits the reputation of the GI, including when that product is used as an ingredient;
any misuse, imitation or evocation, even if the true origin of the product is indicated or if the protected name is translated, transcribed, transliterated or accompanied by an expression such as “style”, “type”, “method”, “as produced in”, “imitation”, “flavour”, “like” or similar, including when those products are used as an ingredient;
any other false or misleading indication as to the origin, nature or essential qualities of the product, on the inner or outer packaging, advertising material or documents relating to the product concerned, and the packing of the product in a container liable to convey a false impression as to its origin, including when those products are used as an ingredient;
any other practice liable to mislead the consumer as to the true origin of the product.
No more mozzarella on top of your pizza, no more prosciutto around your melon balls, no more puy lentils (unless they’re imported from over there)?
If you think the inclusion of a name in the list will harm your interests, you should get your objection in by 13 November 2019.
The government says, however, you should base your objections on at least one of the following grounds:
the name is used in Australia as the common name for the relevant good;
the name is used in Australia as the name of a plant variety or an animal breed;
the name is identical to, or likely to cause confusion with, a trade mark or GI that is registered or the subject of a pending application in Australia;
the name is identical to, or likely to cause confusion with, an unregistered trade mark or GI that has acquired rights through use in Australia; or
the name contains or consists of scandalous matter.
The Full Court has restored some commercial sanity to trade mark licensing in Australia and ruled that Manassen, the parent company, was an authorised user of the TRIDENT trade marks owned by Trident Foods (the subsidiary). This is an important ruling as it is a common arrangement for a corporate group’s trade marks to be held by an IP “holding company” which is often not the parent of the group.
Trident Seafoods, a large American corporation, has its trade mark:
blocked in Australia by Trident Foods’ TRIDENT registrations. It therefore tried to get Trident Foods’ registrations removed for non-use.
The trial judge found that Trident Foods had not used its trade marks in the relevant period, but exercised her Honour’s discretion against removal. Her Honour found that Trident Foods did not use its trade marks itself; they were used by Manassen, which was Trident Foods’ parent. The trial judge considered that the arrangements did not constitute the exercise of control by Trident Foods over Manassen to qualify as authorised use under section 8. Trident Seafood appealed her Honour’s decision not to order removal. The Full Court held that her Honour had erred and should have found Manassen’s used was authorised use and so the removal action failed because Trident Foods proved use of its trade marks in the relevant period. It also held that there was no error in the exercise of the discretion not to remove the registrations.
There was licensed use
At , the Full Court set out the trial judge’s findings that Manassen was not Trident Foods’ authorised user:
I am not satisfied that the evidence identified by Trident Foods shows that Manassen’s use of the “TRIDENT” trade mark has been “under the control of” Trident Foods within the meaning of s 8 for the following reasons:
(1) The corporate relationship between Trident Foods and Manassen does not place Trident Foods in a relationship of control over Manassen; rather, the converse is the case. The commonality of directors does not, without more, permit Trident Foods to exercise control over Manassen.
(2) Ms Swanson’s evidence is in the nature of assertion. It does not include any particular illustration of conduct by Trident Foods amounting to actual control of the use of the “TRIDENT” trade mark.
(3) The fact that Ms Swanson considered it unnecessary to give directions, whether by reason of the existence of the VQM Manual or otherwise, is not relevant to the question of whether Manassen had obligations to Trident Foods in relation to the use of the “TRIDENT” trade mark.
(4) Any control that Ms Swanson might personally exercise by virtue of her membership of the Innovations Council (which was asserted but not demonstrated) does not prove control by Trident Foods.
(5) The identification of Trident Foods as trade mark owner on products supplied by Manassen does not prove use of the trade mark under the control of Trident Foods.
(6) Assuming that the VQM Manual is owned by Trident Foods jointly with other corporate entities in the Bright Group, Trident Seafoods did not demonstrate that the VQM Manual conferred any relevant control on Trident Foods over Manassen.
(7) I am not satisfied on the evidence that there was an unwritten licence agreement in place, notwithstanding the recitals to the 3 November 2017 agreement. The affidavit evidence does not support the accuracy of the recital as to that unwritten agreement.
At , the Full Court noted that Lodestar required actual control over the use of the trade mark to qualify as authorised use under section 8. Whether there was actual control was a question of fact and degree. However, control could arise “where there was obedience to the trade mark owner “so instinctive and complete that instruction was not necessary”.
At , the Full Court considered the relevant issue was not which company controlled the other, but whether or not Trident Foods had control over the use of the trade marks by Manassen even though Trident Foods was its wholly owned subsidiary. The Full Court held that there was relevant control. The two companies were acting with “unity of purpose”. Here:
the two companies had common directors;
as directors of Trident Foods, those directors had obligations to maintain the value of its trade marks (which were valued in its books at $10 million)
To that end Trident Foods necessarily controlled Manassen’s use of the marks by reason of the simple fact that it owned the marks and its directors, who were also Manassen’s directors, must have had one common purpose, being to maximise sales and to enhance the value of the brand.
So it was “commercially unrealistic” in these circumstances not to infer the common directors necessarily wished to ensure the maintenance and enhancement of the value of the brand (emphasis supplied)
further, every packet sold by Manassen bore a notice that the trade marks were owned by Trident Foods
the corporate relationship, the commonality of directors and the shared processes between the two companies meant it was not surprising there were no particular instances of actual control being exercised over Manassen
It was inconceivable that Manassen was using the trade marks without the knowledge, consent and authority of Trident Foods
As a result, the Full Court considered it was not accurate to characterise Trident Foods as merely acquiescing in Manassen’s use of the trade marks rather than controlling that use. At :
Mere acquiescence denotes passive acceptance of Manassen’s use but the corporate relationship, common directorships and arrangements between the companies required active engagement by those directors to protect Trident Foods’ valuable goodwill ($10 million in the books of Trident Foods, PJ [161(1)]). Trident Foods’ active consent and authority must constitute an unwritten licence for use of the marks.
So, Trident Foods demonstrated that it had used its trade marks (through its authorised user, Manassen) during the relevant non-use period.
If it had been necessary, the Full Court also rejected Trident Seafoods’ argument that the trial judge should not have exercised her discretion against removal. In reaching that conclusion, the trial judge had properly taken into account the length and extent of Trident Foods’ reputation in the TRIDENT trade marks and the potential for confusion if Trident Seafoods introduced its trade mark into the market place. At : the Full Court explained:
The criticisms of the primary judge are unfounded. The primary judge did identify the relevant context and the evidentiary foundation for her conclusion about confusion. Trident Seafoods’ asserted error constitutes nothing more than a disagreement with the evidence the primary judge considered should be given weight and her characterisation of the relevant context. At PJ  the primary judge identified, amongst other things, that the Trident marks have a substantial reputation in Australia having regard to the brand’s “high penetration in Australian households that it is probably in most households at some point during the year”, the fact that there is “not an independent retail channel in Australia that does not carry a ‘TRIDENT’ brand product”, “‘TRIDENT’ branded products are on promotion with independent retailers every month of the year, across the range”, and “‘TRIDENT’ is the number 1 selling brand for sweet chilli sauce, dates and coconut cream”. The primary judge also referred expressly to the competing contentions of Trident Seafoods about the potential for confusion at PJ  to . It must be taken from the primary judge’s conclusion at PJ , particularly PJ [179(5)] that the primary judge was not persuaded by Trident Seafoods’ submissions about the prospect of confusion. We also do not accept that, in the circumstances identified by the primary judge at , there was insufficient evidence for the primary judge to conclude that removal of the marks would create a prospect of confusion in the minds of consumers. The primary judge’s finding at [179(5)] that “confusion is likely to be experienced by consumers who purchase food products at supermarkets because the ‘TRIDENT’ mark is likely to be associated in the minds of those consumers with an array of food products (not necessarily assumed to be limited to, for example, tinned products or tinned products of a particular variety) emanating from a single supplier and available for purchase at supermarkets” is unassailable. The finding was not only open on the evidence but, in our view, was correct. The fact that her Honour did not consider the TRIDENT brand had any residual reputation in respect of fish is not inconsistent with and does not undermine this conclusion.
The Full Court also rejected Trident Seafoods’ arguments that the trial judge had erred in treating mussels, oysters and oyster sauce as falling within “fish” and “fish products”. Trident Seafoods based its arguments on dictionary definitions of these terms. However, a “fair reading of the Nice Classifications discloses that molluscs and crustacean were treated as within the meaning of “fish” and other dictionary definitions also included molluscs and crustaceans within the meaning of ”fish”.
Now that IP Australia has essentially moved to electronic lodgement, a recent case shows that you need to check your e-receipts carefully. The decision may also prove useful to understanding the Registrar’s obligation to give a party an opportunity to be heard.
Foxtel instructed their lawyers to file a notice of intention to oppose a trade mark filed by Unicom. Foxtel’s instructions were to file on the last day available to oppose. The notice was prepared and on the last day for filing a legal secretary submitted it through eServices. A transaction receipt was received by return.
Ten days later the in-house lawyer at Foxtel rang up the lawyers, alerting them to the fact that Unicom’s trade mark was now registered. Checking the Register revealed that no notice of intention to oppose had been received. The legal secretary:
then checked her files and the transaction receipt. As it turned out, the receipt was not for the lodgement of the notice of intention but concerned a different transaction altogether. Subsequent review of the electronic log provided by IP Australia indicates that although the process for filing the notice of intention had been commenced, the payment had not been received and lodgement had timed out before the filing was complete.
The lawyers then promptly wrote to the Registrar requesting that the registration of Unicom’s trade mark be revoked under s 84A and s 84B, providing an explanation and subsequently filed the proposed Statement of Grounds and Particulars of Opposition (if the registration were revoked).
The Registrar then wrote to Unicom’s attorneys indicating that, having regard to Foxtel’s intention to oppose and the explanation why that had not been effected, her she intended to revoke the registration, but giving Unicom an opportunity to be heard.
Unicom replied; arguing that something is not regarded as filed under the eServices system until and unless a filing receipt is issued. It also contended that the proposed revocation was outside the power conferred by s84A. After considering the submissions, the Registrar decided not to revoke the registration.
Foxtel, through its lawyers, then obtained a copy of Unicom’s submissions through s 217A and made an application for judicial review under s 5 of the ADJR Act and/or s 39B of the Judiciary Act.
Burley J has dismissed Foxtel’s application.
Foxtel’s first argument was that it had been denied procedural fairness because it was not provided with an opportunity to respond to Unicom’s submissions before the Registrar changed her mind and decided not to revoke the registration.
The Registrar denied that it owed Foxtel any duty of procedural fairness. She was under no obligation to make a decision under s 84A and, in any event, the terms of s 84A required her to give an opportunity to be heard only to the registrant and people with interests recorded under Part XI.
At , Burley J held the Registrar did owe Foxtel a duty of procedural fairness, but the failure to provide it with Unicom’s submissions was not a material breach of that duty.
A duty to provide procedural fairness arises whenever the exercise of a statutory power affected a person’s rights, interests or legitimate expectations unless the duty has been excluded by plain words or necessary intendment.
The public interest in the purity of the Register – that the Register should not be clogged with invalid trade marks – meant Foxtel had a sufficient interest that required it be accorded procedural fairness. At , Burley J explained:
…. The “interest” of Foxtel is in persuading the Registrar that, in all the circumstances that existed when the trade mark was registered, the trade mark should not have been because, but for the error in filing the notice of intention to oppose there would have been an opposition on foot at the time of registration (s 84A(1)). In my view this is a form of possible adverse affectation that is sufficient to qualify as an interest to attract the protection of the rules of procedural fairness.
That s 84A did specify some people whom had to be given an opportunity to be heard did not lead an implication that Foxtel was not owed a duty. An intention to exclude natural justice was not to be inferred from the presence in the Act of rights which “are commensurate with some [only] of the rules of natural justice”. While not obliged to make a decision under s 84A, the Registrar was obliged to accord Foxtel natural justice having embarked on the exercise.
While Burley J accepted Foxtel’s argument that it was owed a duty of procedural fairness, his Honour did not accept it had been denied natural justice.
Foxtel argued that, as the Registrar indicated to Unicom she would revoke the registration if Unicom did not respond, Unicom’s submissions must have been material to the Registrar’s change of mind – deciding not to revoke. Therefore, Foxtel argued that the failure to disclose Unicom’s submissions before the Registrar decided not to revoke the registration denied it natural justice.
Burley J examined the reasons the Registrar gave for deciding not to revoke; these had been outlined only in short form in the letter advising her decision. From that letter, his Honour found that the Registrar had in fact rejected Unicom’s arguments on the construction of s 84A and accepted Foxtel’s construction. Therefore, Foxtel had not been denied natural justice on the point.
Burley J was not prepared to accept Foxtel’s argument that the short form letter did not set out the real reasons for the decision, especially in circumstances where Foxtel had not sought a statement of reasons from the Registrar under ADJR Act s 13.
Burley J next rejected Foxtel’s argument that the Registrar’s decision was an improper exercise of power because it was so unreasonable that no reasonable person could have exercised the power that way.
Here, Foxtel’s conscious decision to instruct that the notice of intention to oppose be filed on the last day of the opposition period – not an uncommon practice – loomed large.
Burley J accepted that the scheme of the Act reflected an intention that the Register be pure. His Honour noted, however, that the Act and reg.s also provided for deadlines for filing documents in oppositions and, in addition, provided a further opportunity for objectors to seek rectification through s 88. His Honour also pointed out that the Explanatory Memorandum linked s 84A(6) – which explicitly states the Registrar has no duty to consider whether to revoke a registration under s 84A – to the objectives of the section:
…. Revocation of registration under section 84A is not intended to provide a way of settling competing claims to ownership of a trade mark. This can be pursued through the courts, with section 86 of the Trade Marks Act providing for the Federal Court to cancel a registered trade mark. Nor is it intended to be a mechanism for parties to file de facto oppositions after a trade mark has been registered. This provision is only intended to provide an administrative mechanism to undo a registration where it was wrongly registered.
The Registrar’s letter stated that she had considered “all of the circumstances” and so taken into account all mandatory considerations. Further, as already noted, the procedure was not intended to provide a mechanism “for parties to file de facto oppositions after a trade mark has been registered” and Foxtel could still seek rectification under s 88. In these circumstances, Burley J held the Registrar’s decision was not so unreasonable that no reasonable person would have exercised the power that way.
Rather than take up the invitation to seek rectification under s 88, Foxtel has appealed (NSD795/2019).
The bill repealing (amongst other things) s 51(3) of the Competition and Consumer Act did get passed and has received royal assent.
The repeal takes effect on 13 September 2019.
So, if you thought you were relying on s 51(3)’s protection, you have a bit less than 6 months to get your house in order.
Your licences and assignments of IP rights probably will not get you into trouble for the most part unless you have market power. But that is not exactly a hard and fast rule so you should discuss your arrangements with your lawyers ASAP.
As discussed in this post, one area of potentially significant concern is where the IP holder has its own retail outlets and also licenses other retail outlets – e.g. not uncommon for franchisors who have their own outlets and franchisees. There is a concern that may give rise to criminal cartel conduct.
On Tuesday, the ACCC also announced it hopes to publish draft guidelines by “mid-2019” and finalise them before 13 September. Amongst other things, these proposed guidelines will outline:
how the ACCC proposes to investigate and enforce Part IV in relation to conduct involving intellectual property rights. They will also provide hypothetical examples to illustrate conduct that the ACCC considers is likely or unlikely to contravene Part IV.
IP Australia has published details of Trade Mark No. 2,000,000:
I am not sure whether the sequence has been unbroken right from Trade Mark No. 1. Even so, the meter has ticked over and it is definitely a milestone of sorts.
It does seem a little strange, in these days of tobacco plain packaging laws, that someone is pursuing a trade mark registration for a new brand, but it does also extend to smoker’s articles and e-cigs.
By way of interest, Trade Mark No. 1,000,000 was filed by Anchor Foods on 23 April 2004.
That is, it took almost 100 years to get to the 1,000,000 mark; but it took only 15 years for the next million.
I wonder whether “Northern Lights” will achieve the same degree of notoriety as the equally colourful “Golden Lights“.
Redbubble’s online market place has survived the Hells Angels’ copyright infringement claims, but did infringe their registered trade marks. The reasoning, however, leaves questions hanging over Redbubble’s business model.
Redbubble provides an online market place. Artists can upload their artwork and potential buyers can browse the site to purchase the artwork or merchandise such as t-shirts and coffee cups emblazoned with the artwork. If a purchase is made for, say, a t-shirt with a particular artwork printed on it, Redbubble’s system arranges for the order to be placed with a fulfiller and ultimately shipped in packaging which bears a Redbubble trade mark.
The claims in this case related to uploaded images of a Hell’s Angels membership card featuring a helmeted death’s head in profile:
and registered trade marks featuring versions of the death’s head: Trade Marks Nos 526530,723291, 723463, 1257992 and 1257993.
At 552 paragraphs long, this post is going to be a high level overview only.
A key feature in the case is that Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation (Australia) Pty Ltd is not the owner of the copyright or the registered trade marks. It contended it was the exclusive licensee in Australia of those rights; the exclusive licences having been granted by Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation, a US corporation.
The Hells Angels lost the claim of copyright infringement. They did so, however, because they could not prove Hells Angels USA was the owner of the copyright. As a result, Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation (Australia) Pty Ltd could not be the exclusive licensee.
Reaching this conclusion required Greenwood J to explore, amongst other things, the notion of publication and whether the supply of membership cards was supply of copies of the work to the public. And the non-applicability of the US “work for hire” doctrine in ownership disputes under Australian law.
Redbubble is still in trouble.
First, if the applicants had been able to prove title to the copyright, Redbubble would have infringed.
Contrary to Hells Angels’ arguments, Redbubble was not liable for infringement by uploading the images. That was done by the artists in question. In the examples in question, the acts involved uploading images to websites outside Australia. For example, Example 1 was uploaded by an individual in Virginia in the USA. So the uploaders themselves were not liable as their actions did not involve any act done in Australia. At  – , Greenwood J ruled that, even though the images were made available online to the public in Australia, the artists (uploaders) did not infringe because they did no act in Australia.
…. the act of the artist in uploading the image to the website and thus making the work available online to the public must be an act “done” (that is, an exercise of the exclusive right), “in Australia” and therefore, none of the artists in the examples in suit can be regarded as a “primary infringer” in the territorial sense contemplated by s 36(1) because the relevant act was not done “in Australia”.
His Honour found, however, that Redbubble would be liable for communicating the images to the public in Australia as it was the person who was responsible for determining the content of the communication for the purposes of s 22(6) when a potential customer in Australia viewed the image on the website. Redbubble’s business model was crucial here. At , his Honour explained:
The business model as described by Mr Hosking and its working operation as described by Mr Kovalev makes it plain that Redbubble is not in the nature of an ISP linking a user to remote websites. It is not an intermediary providing a transmission service between particular participants. It owns, operates, manages and controls the website and conducts a transactional enterprise in which it facilitates the uploading of images, the interrogation of those images in Australia, relevantly, by users, with a view to enabling sales to consumers of articles bearing the relevant images. It has a detailed business model in which it derives revenue from each transaction and controls every step of the transactional engagement between an artist and a buyer. It confirms the sale. It facilitates payment. It organises a fulfiller to apply the work to the relevant goods. It facilitates delivery of the goods to the buyer. It generates email responses which not only confirm the order but track every step of the transaction. It affixes its own trade marks to the goods. It says that it does not directly do that but there is no doubt that an essential part of its business model is ensuring that fulfillers affix the Redbubble trade marks to the goods. The labels bearing the trade marks are on the goods as delivered to each buyer. Although I will address the trade mark case shortly, the reference to Redbubble’s trade marks, in this context, is simply to note another feature of the extent of Redbubble’s engagement in and association with each transaction. It is Redbubble’s business. But for the Redbubble website, the transactions would not occur. The artworks would not be available online to consumers in Australia to consider and appraise with a view to purchasing a product bearing the artwork. The entire focus of the business model is to enable works to be made available online so that consumers can pick and choose amongst the works so as to have them applied to goods. It would be difficult to imagine a more directly engaged participant than one deploying the business model adopted by Redbubble. Although Redbubble describes itself as the “agent” of the artist (presumably as principal), the relationship is not, in truth, a relationship of agent and principal. Redbubble acts as an “independent contractor” to “facilitate the transaction” as the Redbubble User Agreement and Appendix A to the Services Agreement makes plain:  and  of these reasons. The artist, in truth, is not the “seller” in the classic sense in which that term might be understood because Redbubble is the supplier as the facilitator of all of the essential elements of the transaction with the consumer in an analogous way to that discussed in: International Harvester Company of Australia Pty Ltd v Carrigan’s Hazeldene Pastoral Company  HCA 16; (1958) 100 CLR 644 at 653; Heidelberg Graphics Equipment Ltd v Andrew Knox & Associates Pty Ltd (1994) ATPR 41326 at 42, 31011, notwithstanding that the nature of the technology is different to the forms of distribution arrangement in those cases.
His Honour would, if necessary, have also found Redbubble liable for authorising the conduct if it had been infringing.
Secondly, Greenwood J found Redbubble liable for infringement of the Hells Angels’ registered trade marks on works such as t-shirt designs featuring the death’s head logo.
The crux of this finding came back to Redbubble’s business model. Greenwood J accepted that the artist who uploaded the image was using the trade mark as a trade mark. Unlike the copyright test, there was no requirement that the artist be in Australia. However, so was Redbubble.
At  – , his Honour explained:
As to Redbubble, that company is “in the business” of facilitating the supply of products bearing the uploaded image of Ms Troen (in this example) or, put another way, Redbubble is in the business of facilitating the supply of clothing bearing, put simply, the registered trade marks of HAMC US (in this example). Redbubble is not the “seller” of artwork. However, it is the supplier, in the sense that it is responsible for all of the transactional supplyside elements of a transaction for the supply of goods bearing the applied works. (emphasis supplied)
Redbubble has created a business model designed to enable users, in Australia (and, for that matter users in all jurisdictions in which the website is accessible), to find images through the website comprised of, in this example, Ms Troen’s image made up of the identified trade marks of HAMC US. Redbubble enables images containing the relevant trade marks to be presented to buyers of particular goods (nominated by the artists from the website categories of those goods to which the work can be applied) expressly for the purpose of facilitating the supply of goods (clothing, in this example) to which the marks are applied. It does so by and through the functions and protocols of the website engaged by Mr Hansen (and other potential viewers of the image), in Australia.
His Honour elaborated on why Redbubble’s conduct attracted liability at  – . While this and two other examples infringed, his Honour found that, on the particular facts, Example 2 was not infringing use.
Greenwood J’s reasons also include an extended consideration of whether Hells Angels Australia was an authorised user; ultimately concluding it was.
Greenwood J, however, rejected Hells Angels’ claims that use of “Hells Angels” as search terms, or key words, within the Redbubble site was infringing. At  explaining:
542. …. However, I am not satisfied that this use, in itself, is use of the word marks as a trade mark, at this point in the functionality of the website. I take that view because I am not satisfied that using the term as a search term to find a relevant image is use of the term as a “badge of origin” of Redbubble. It is, undoubtedly, a use which is designed, quite deliberately, to lead a consumer by the “search nose” to images, marks, devices, livery and badging somehow or other connected with the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.
544. … use of the word marks … as a search term is a search step along the way to use of the image and thus the registered trade marks, as trade marks but use of the word marks at the point of searching is not, in itself, in my view, use as a trade mark. (original emphasis)
It appears that, at the stage of entering the search term, it is not being used to identify things offered under the aegis of the Hells Angels, but just to locate things about the Hells Angels in some way.
This is the second ruling at first instance where Redbubble has been found to infringe.
While Redbubble’s business model does leave it exposed along the lines indicated above. It is worth noting that Greenwood J awarded only nominal damages of $5,000 in respect of two of the three infringements. His Honour did not allow even nominal damages in respect of the third infringement, Example 4, as it was online for a short period, viewed only 11 times and no sales resulted.
Greenwood J expressly rejected any claim for exemplary damages. His Honour does not go into reasons. Perhaps, Redbubble’s business model did protect it. The evidence was clear, for example, that Redbubble had a policy relating to infringement claims and implemented it promptly.
The Full Court has upheld Burley J’s refusal to grant Sanofi-Aventis an interlocutory injunction over Alphapharm’s SEMGLEE insulin solution for an injector pen. The significance here is that this is an unusual case where the (alleged) infringer’s cross-claim has negatived the patentee’s prima facie case of infringement. The Full Court also affirmed his Honour’s approach to balance of convenience issues.
Burley J found a clear case that Alphapharm’s product fell within claim 1 of Sanofi-Aventis’ patent. His Honour found, however, that Alphapharm’s cross-claim that the patent was invalid for lack of novelty was sufficiently strong that “it was doubtful” Sanofi-Aventis had made out a prima facie case of infringement.
Since the Interpharma case, cross-claims by alleged infringers that the patent is invalid have not enjoyed much success as the Court has approached matters on the basis that it is the patentee’s “title” to interlocutory relief which is in issue.
What was different here was that the invalidity cross-claim was not “merely” a triable issue. It was of such strength that Burley J considered (provisionally) the patent was invalid. The Full Court explained the correct approach at :
…. A case for invalidity which is merely arguable, of itself, does not undermine the existence of a prima facie case of infringement which has otherwise been found to exist. However, a sufficiently strong case of invalidity may well qualify the conclusion that there is a prima facie case of infringement at all. Far from reasoning contrary to the approach in Interpharma and Janssen, the primary judge was applying the same reasoning, albeit with an outcome not to Sanofi’s liking because his Honour was satisfied that Alphapharm’s case on invalidity was sufficiently strong to qualify (indeed, virtually to negate altogether) Sanofi’s prima facie case of infringement. Further, it is Sanofi’s submissions which have conflated the relevance of the competing cases on invalidity. What is relevant is the strength of the case that the claim or claims said to be infringed are invalid. The primary judge at  found that “the lack of novelty case advanced by Alphapharm is sufficiently strong (at the provisional level) to qualify (in the sense contemplated in Interpharma at ) the conclusion that Sanofi has a probability of success”. ….
Sanofi-Aventis argued that the weight of the balance of convenience in its favour was a factor in considering its prima facie case of infringement. This argument failed both at the level of principle and on the facts.
First, the Full Court accepted that the strength of a plaintiff’s prima facie case is relevant to consideration of the balance of convenience. Balance of convenience, however, did not affect the assessment of the strength of the prima facie case of infringement. At , the Full Court explained:
…. The strength of the prima facie case is relevant to the balance of convenience, but the weighing process involved in evaluating where the balance of convenience lies does not affect the assessment of the existence or strength of the prima facie case. As was said in Samsung at  “[t]he critical integer in the test …is the need for the Court to assess the strength of the probability of ultimate success on the part of the plaintiff. The strength of that probability will depend upon the nature of the rights asserted and the practical consequences likely to flow from the grant of the injunction which is sought”. ….
Secondly, Burley J had apparently considered the respective losses relatively finely balanced on the question of balance of convenience, but had ultimately considered the difficulties of calculating Alphapharm’s losses outweighed the difficulties in calculating Sanofi-Aventis’.
In particular, the Full Court considered that Burley J had not inappropriately undervalued Sanofi-Aventis’ position as a long standing incumbent. For example at , their Honours explained:
… Sanofi had not demonstrated a sufficient likelihood of success in all of the circumstances to justify the preserving of the status quo. Each case turns on its own facts so it is not the point that in GenRx and Warner Lambert the preservation of the status quo was given considerable weight. In neither case was the strength of the prima facie case undermined in the same way as in the present case. In neither case was there a suggestion of market circumstances similar to the present case given the primary judge’s reference in  to the real possibility of Alphapharm’s prospective market disappearing as a “significant aspect” of this matter. Faced with the primary judge’s reasons, Sanofi’s submission that his Honour failed to take into account the disruption of the status quo as a material consideration is untenable. His Honour weighed all those matters but the balance favoured Alphapharm not Sanofi.