September 2023

To be estopped or not …

O’Bryan J has ruled that Vehicle Management Systems (VMS) is not estopped from seeking revocation of Orikan’s patent despite earlier opposition proceedings in which VMS could have raised the allegations, but did not.

Under the pre Raising the Bar versions of the Patents Act, it was clearly established that an unsuccessful opponent was not estopped from subsequently seeking revocation on the same grounds. This was at least because of the different onus: an opponent had to show that it was “practically certain” the patent application was invalid to succeed whereas a party seeking revocation only had to satisfy the balance of probabilities standard.[1] The Raising the Bar amendments, however, sought to change the burden at the examination and opposition stages to the balance of probabilities standard. The debate since then has been whether this meant an unsuccessful opponent was estopped from seeking revocation on the same grounds.

Overview

Orikan is the registered owner of Australian Patent No. 2013213708 titled “Vehicle Detection”, having been assigned the patent by SARB Management Group. It has sued VMS for infringement. In addition to denying infringement, VMS has cross-claimed seeking revocation of the Patent. So, this is another campaign between VMS and SARB-related entities over competing systems and apparatus to detect cars which have overstayed parking.

In this particular application, Orikan was seeking to have VMS’ cross-claim stayed on grounds of Anshun estoppel or, alternatively, as an abuse of process.

Some background

Back in happier days, VMS and SARB had explored jointly developing systems for detecting vehicles which were parked without paying the fee or after the alotted time had expired.

Things didn’t work out and, by a decision handed down in 2013, VMS successfully sued SARB for infringement of one of VMS’ patents for vehicle detection systems.

In 2008, however, SARB had applied for its own patent. That application led to two divisional patents: Australian Patent No. 2011101179 (Innovation Patent), which was filed in 2011, and secondly the Patent the subject of these proceedings, which was filed in 2013. As you might suspect, there was considerable overlap between the claims of the Innovation Patent and the Patent.

In 2012, SARB sued VMS for infringement of the Innovation Patent. VMS defended, including a cross-claim for invalidity on grounds including lack of novelty, secret use and lack of sufficiency and best method. This proceeding settled before trial in 2014.

In 2016, VMS opposed the grant of the Patent. That opposition failed in both the Office and the Court.[2] The Opposition Proceeding in the Court involved extensive evidence and 5 days’ trial. According to O’Bryan J, however, it did not involve the grounds of invalidity or particulars that VMS sought to argue in this proceeding.

In addition to challenging the priority date, clarity and sufficiency grounds, VMS sought to revoke the Patent in this proceeding on grounds of lack of novelty, secret use and failure to disclose the best method.

Given this prior history, Orikan contended VMS’ cross-claim should be stayed on grounds of either Anshun estoppel or abuse of process.

Legal tests

The parties were not really in dispute about the principles.

Anshun estoppel

At [26], O’Bryan J explained:

Anshun estoppel operates to preclude the making of a claim, or the raising of an issue of fact or law, in a subsequent proceeding if the claim or issue was so connected with the subject of an earlier proceeding that it would have been unreasonable, in the context of the earlier proceeding, for the claim not to have been made or the issue not to have been raised in that proceeding …. [3]

Thus, at [28] his Honour considered three conditions needed to be satisfied:

(1) the relevant cause of action, defence or issue must be one that could have been raised in the earlier proceeding;

(2) the same or substantially the same facts must arise for consideration in the second as in the first proceeding; and

(3) it must have been unreasonable in all the circumstances for the party not to have raised the issue in the first proceeding – i.e. it is not enough that the issue could have been raised; in all the circumstances it should have been raised.

The third requirement means the test has an element of discretion and evaluation.

The requirement of “unreasonableness” is a “severe test” and not to be made lightly. O’Bryan J noted one situation where unreasonableness was likely to be established is where a judgment or order made in the second proceeding was likely to conflict with a judgment or order in the earlier proceeding. But, the doctrine is not limited only to such situations.

Abuse of process

Abuse of process is not capable of explanation in terms of closed categories. At [38], O’Bryan J noted the principles governing its application are broader and more flexible than those governing estoppels.

In general terms what needs to be shown is that the use of the Court’s procedures would be unjustifiably oppressive to the party or would bring the administration of justice into dispute. At [39], O’Bryan J noted that this brought into play considerations of the overarching purpose of civil litigation as set out in s 37M.

Why O’Bryan J dismissed Orikan’s application

At [71], O’Bryan J accepted that Orikan, as the assignee of the rights in the Innovation Patent and the Patent, could take the benefit of an Anshan estoppel arising from the earlier proceedings. It had not been a party to the earlier proceedings but, as the assignee, was a “privy” of the SARB entity which had been.

It was not in dispute between the parties that VMS could have raised the invalidity issues it now wished to argue in the earlier Opposition Proceeding. The matters VMS now sought to rely on were either known to it or it ought to have been aware of them. In fact, the grounds and particulars had been asserted by VMS in the Innovation Patent Proceeding and, while they were different patents, they were both derived from the same parent and the claims were substantially similar.

Nonetheless, O’Bryan J considered that it was not unreasonable for VMS not to have raised the issues it now sought to agitate in the Opposition Proceeding.[4]

First, at [75] his Honour considered there was not a relevant risk of inconsistent judgments. His Honour accepted that a finding that the Patent was invalid in this proceeding would be inconsistent with the result in the Opposition Proceeding. As the grounds and particulars relied on in this proceeding were different, however, the basis of an invalidity finding in this proceeding would be different to the basis of the findings in the Opposition Proceeding.

Secondly, O’Bryan J considered at [76] there was a fundamental difference between the nature and consequences of an opposition proceeding and a revocation proceeding. The Opposition Proceeding involved an election by VMS to challenge the Patent on limited grounds. In contrast, in this proceeding, VMS was being sued for infringement and so compelled to come to court. Later, at [80] O’Bryan J noted that his conclusion might have been different if VMS had initiated the proceedings rather than being the respondent.

O’Bryan J also noted that the Innovation Patent Proceeding had not proceeded to trial and so the invalidity claims had not been tested in court.

Thirdly, O’Bryan J considered that allowing the invalidity claims to go forward in this proceeding would not result in more costs and delay than would have been the case if the claims had been brought in the Opposition Proceeding.

There was one overlap with the Opposition Proceeding in that one of Orikan’s witnesses, a Mr Del Papa, had been cross-examined about a particular document and both Mr Del Papa and the document were involved in this proceeding. However, the relevance and cross-examination in the Opposition Proceeding was limited to an issue of entitlement, not in issue in this proceeding.

Finally, O’Bryan J did not place “significant weight” on the public interest in the integrity of the Register or the fact the Act specifically provided for pre-grant oppositions.

O’Bryan J dismissed the abuse of process attack for essentially the same reasons.

An observation

Interestingly, while O’Bryan J did have regard to the in rem nature of patents, the public interest in the integrity of the Register and the specific provision in the Act for pre-grant opposition (and the change in onus), his Honour did not give those considerations much weight. His Honour eschewed adopting a general principle and instead applied an approach very heavily based on the particular facts of the case.

For example, it is often said (as is the case) that defeating an opposition is not a guarantee that the patent is valid. That is also true of an unsuccessful revocation proceeding. The fact one person’s revocation proceeding failed does not preclude anyone else seeking to revoke the patent. And there are cases where the second challenger succeeded despite the failure of the first.

In considering the fundamental difference between the nature and consequences of opposition proceedings and infringement/revocation proceedings, O’Bryan J emphasised VMS’s choice to fight the Opposition Proceeding on limited grounds in light of the nature and purpose of opposition proceedings. At [76], his Honour explained:

But the Opposition Proceeding involved an election by VMS to challenge the validity of the Patent. It did so on limited grounds, and did not raise the grounds and particulars of invalidity that had been raised in the earlier Innovation Patent Proceeding. There is no proper basis to criticise that election. …. The election made by VMS confined the scope of the issues in dispute in the Opposition Proceeding and therefore the costs and time required for its determination. That course was consistent with the overarching purpose of civil litigation expressed in s 37M of the Federal Court of Australia Act 1976 (Cth). It was also consistent with the character and purpose of pre-grant opposition proceedings, which are intended to provide a swift, economical means of settling disputes: Genetics Institute at [19]. Although it is desirable to avoid a multiplicity of proceedings and to ensure that parties address, as far as possible, the issues arising between them in a single proceeding, parties ought not to be encouraged to raise each and every possible claim or issue irrespective of the time and cost associated with doing so. Anshun estoppel must operate conformably with the demands of s 37M, as well as the substantive statutory context in which it is said to arise. (Emphasis supplied)

This suggests his Honour’s conclusion might reflect a reaction to Beach J’s heartfelt paragraph 1784. It is also consistent with a number of extra-judicial comments encouraging some effort on the part of parties to simplify proceedings. It does seem a little odd, however, that an opposition proceeding taking up 5 days’ of the Court’s time and a carefully reasoned 274 paragraph judgment might qualify as a swift economical means of resolving the dispute between the parties especially when the consequences lead to a further infringement proceeding with what promises to be an even more involved revocation component.

Orikan Group Pty Ltd v Vehicle Monitoring Systems Pty Limited [2023] FCA 1031


  1. In at least one case (which I haven’t been able to find again in the time available), the judge did warn the opponent / revoker that it was at risk of indemnity costs if its revocation action also failed.  ?
  2. There was also an appeal to the Full Court which, by the time of the hearing, was limited to the issue of entitlement.  ?
  3. Citing Anshun at 598, 602–3 (Gibbs CJ, Mason and Aickin JJ); Tomlinson v Ramsey Food Processing Pty Limited (2015) 256 CLR 507 at [22] (French CJ, Bell, Gageler and Keane JJ).  ?
  4. Yes I realise that double negatives are “awkward” (to say the least) but that the point!  ?

To be estopped or not … Read More »

A cautionary trade mark tale

In a rare case of a successful opposition under s 59, Energy Beverages has successfully opposed in the Court KMA’s attempt to register KANGAROO MOTHER.

Overview

As you might recall, Energy Beverages is the owner of registered trade marks in Australia for MOTHER in respect of amongst other things, non-acoholic beverages in class 5 and pharmaceutical and veterinary preparations, dietetic substances and food and beverages for babies in class 32.[1]

A New Zealand company, Erbaviva, applied to register KANGAROO MOTHER for a range of goods in classes 5, 29, 30, 31 and 32. Subsequently, the application was assigned to KMA. A Mr Zheng was the sole director and shareholder of both companies.

Energy Beverages’ opposition to the application on the basis of ss 42(b), 44 and 60 of the Trade Marks Act was unsuccessful. Energy Beverages “appealed” the Delegate’s decision to the Federal Court on the basis of s 59, s 44 and s 60.[2]

Secion 59

Section 59 provides:

The registration of a trade mark may be opposed on the ground that the applicant does not intend:

(a) to use, or authorise the use of, the trade mark in Australia; or

(b) to assign the trade mark to a body corporate for use by the body corporate in Australia;

in relation to the goods and/or services specified in the application.

which mirrors s 27.

Unlike s 92(4)(a), however, the person opposing registration under s 59 bears the onus of proving the lack of the requisite intention.

In very broad terms, this requires demonstration that the applicant does not have “a resolve or settled purpose at the time the application was filed to use the trade mark as a trade mark in relation to the relevant goods or services. A mere ”speculative possibility“ or ”a general intention to use the mark as some future but unascertained time” is not enough.

What happened

Before he incorporated Erbaviva and later KMA, Mr Zheng worked as the “Assistant to the Group Chairman” of NZ Skin Care Company. NZ Skin Care Company, as its name suggests, sold a range of skin care products and also home cleaning products.

The Group Chairman Mr Zheng assisted was a Mr Liu. Mr Liu was also the Chairman of a Chinese company, Shanghai Urganic. Mr Liu, however, was not a director of NZ Skin Care Company and Shanghai Urganic was not a shareholder in NZ Skin Care Company (although later it did become the ultimate shareholder of that company).

While he was still working for NZ Skin Care Company, Mr Zheng incorporated Erbaviva to sell “Erbaviva” brand skin care products and, after the trade mark application in issue had been filed, KMA. Neither company, however, has ever traded.

In the course of 2018, Erbaviva applied for and became registered as the owner of trade marks for a “Kangaroo Mother” logo and Kangaroo Mother in respect of a range of goods in classes 3, 5 and 21.[3]

In February 2019, Mr Zheng received an email from a Shanghai Urganic employee, Ms Lim,[4] informing him that Director Liu had “mentioned” we should apply for a food trade mark for “Kangaroo Mother”. Ms Lim supplied a catalogue for another company’s products to illustrate the goods under consideration. This exchange led to the application the subject of the appeal.

After some back and forth, Mr Zheng contacted Erbaviva’s then trade mark attorneys with instructions to file a trade mark application in Australia for a range of goods in classes 5, 29, 30, 31 and 32. (With the exception of “chocolate flavoured cola drinks”, Mr Zheng had simply cut and pasted the specification for another, unrelated company’s trade mark he had found on the IPONZ site.)

The attorney indicated he could file for this range of goods but proposed he amend it to ensure that Erbaviva had “the widest scope of protection in those classes.” So, after Mr Zheng approved that proposal, the application wound up in the form under opposition.[5]

What O’Callaghan J found

As the application was filed in Erbaviva’s name, the relevant intention was Erbaviva’s at the time the application was filed. That is, the question was whether or not Erbaviva had an intention to use the trade mark in any of the ways specified in s 59 when it filed the application.

O’Callaghan J held it did not.

First, the goods specified in the application as filed were much broader than those suggested by Ms Lim or proposed to the attorney by Mr Zheng.

Secondly, in cross-examination Mr Zheng’s evidence was that he did not regard Ms Lim’s report about what Director Liu “mentioned” as an instruction.

Thirdly, there were no documents produced through discovery or evidence of any plan or proposal beyond use for “gel candies, pressed candies, drops, powdered dairy products, solid beverages or capsules”.

Fourthly, Mr Zheng had simply cut and paste the specification he proposed to the attorney in a matter of minutes.

Fifthly, although the application had been made over four years ago, there was no evidence of any use or preparations to use.

Sixthly, there was no evidence to support the contention that Shanghai Urganic, NZ Skin Care Company and Erbaviva were part of a “conglomerate” (see “secondly” above).

Mr Zheng’s evidence unfortunately only went as far as claiming Erbaviva intended to use or authorise another company to use. So submissions that it intended to assign to KMA on its incorporation did not fly.

The evidence also included a non-disclosure agreement with an Australian manufacturer of various goods, but the counterparty was NZ Skin Care, not Erbaviva.

So O’Calaghan J found the s 59 ground proven and allowed the appeal to refuse registration. By way of obiter, O’Callaghan J would also have upheld the opposition grounds under s 44 and s 60.

Some observations

As noted above, successful oppositions under s 59 are not very common in view of the onus – unlike removal actions under s 92 in which s 100 places the onus on the trade mark owner to prove use.[6] And this case seems to have been particularly assisted by Mr Zheng’s problematic evidence and the amorphous nature of the relationship(s) with Director Liu.

That said, the first thing to note is that Energy Beverages did not pursue the ground before the Registrar but only on “appeal” where the Court procedures of discovery and cross-examination were deployed.

Next, it is significant that this was an opposition rather than an application under s 92. This is because O’Callaghan J followed Yates J’s decision in Apple (at [232]) and accepted that the whole application should be rejected if it failed in respect of any specified goods. At [28]:

There is but one application covering registration of the mark for all the services that have been specified. If the application fails in one respect, it fails as a whole….

In contrast, an application under s 92 may often result in removal of some, but not all, goods or services.

Thirdly, recognising this problem, KMA made an application on the penultimate day of the trial under s 197 to amend the specification of goods for a much more limited scope.

At [35], O’Callaghan J accepted that he should exercise this power in similar manner to that exercised by the Court when considering amendments to patents under s 105 of the Patents Act. That is, the power to amend was discretionary and required consideration of all the circumstances including when the owner became aware of the need to amend and any explanation for delay.

At [36] – [38], O’Callaghan J refused the request. KMA had been aware that Energy Beverages relied on the Apple approach from at least the opening. KMA failed to provide any explanation for its delay or the basis on which it proposed to exclude some goods but not others. Also, Erbaviva had deliberately sought the widest scope of protection possible, much broader than its own instructions.

In that connection, it is unusual to get the communications between the client and the attorney. While it is part of our jobs to ensure the client is getting appropriate protection, this case should serve as a warning against being too enthusiastic.

The question of discovery is also instructive. In October 2022, KMA had made discovery of 5 documents and a number of other documents over which privilege was claimed.

Two days before trial, however, KMA announced it proposed to rely on documents over which it had previously claimed privilege and, in the course of the trial just before Mr Zheng’s cross-examination, KMA sought to rely on a “further, extensive, tranche of documents which ought to have been produced in answer to the order for discovery”. At [62], O’Callaghan J invoked Aon Risk and refused that attempt on the grounds of prejudice and KMA’s failure to adequately explain the delay.

Energy Beverages LLC v Kangaroo Mother Australia Pty Ltd [2023] FCA 999 (O’Callaghan J)


  1. The class 32 goods were specified in TM No 1320799 for the “Mother” mark in gothic script.  ?
  2. Because the “appeal” is a hearing de novo, it is possible to raise grounds not raised before the Registrar.  ?
  3. After the trade marks were assigned to KMA, the logo mark has subsequently been removed for non-use under s 92 on application by Energy Beverages. KMA did not seek to defend the non-use application.  ?
  4. Although not an employee of NZ Skin Care Company, she did have the use of a NZ Skin Care Company email account.  ?
  5. Reasons for decision at [93] – [94].  ?
  6. S 92(4)(a) can be rebutted by showing use in good faith after the application was filed. And s 92(4)(b) proceedings can be brought only after the expiry of the period specified in s 93 (which is different depending on whether the application was filed before or after the Productivity Commission Implementation Act amendments).  ?

A cautionary trade mark tale Read More »