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Conflicts of Laws in Proceedings Before the European Patent Office

Abstract

The European Patent Convention (EPC) establishes a common system of law for the grant of European patents. A European patent is often equated to a “bundle of national patents”, as far as questions of applicable law are concerned. On closer scrutiny, the applicable conflict-of-laws rules for the various issues that are left to national law by the EPC differ substantially, and many do not fit the “bundle” analogy. This article presents a summary of the legal framework pertaining to conflicts of laws in proceedings before the European Patent Office (EPO), and reviews the state of affairs in the case law of the EPO. In the first section, the various sources of “EPC law” are identified. Next, the situation in the field of patent infringement is discussed, as an archetype of a “clean” separation between EPC law and national law. The following three sections discuss areas where conflicts of laws are most abundant: existence and capacity of (legal) persons, entitlement to patent applications, and entitlement to priority. In the concluding section, an attempt is made to derive some general rules from the case law in these areas.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Convention on the Grant of European Patents (European Patent Convention) of 5 October 1973 as revised by the Act revising Article 63 EPC of 17 December 1991 and the Act revising the EPC of 29 November 2000.

  2. 2.

    In this article, the term “conflict of laws” is used to designate the problem of determining the law applicable to a particular legal issue. Wherever the problem of international jurisdiction is addressed, this will be mentioned separately.

  3. 3.

    Art. 2(2) EPC.

  4. 4.

    I will adhere to the tradition in the field of private international law of using Latin terms when referring to the law applicable to a particular legal issue in an abstract way.

  5. 5.

    Made available by the EPO at http://www.epo.org/law-practice/legal-texts/archive/epc-1973/traveaux.html (sic).

  6. 6.

    Haertel (1962), p. 10; Govt. of the Federal Republic of Germany (1973), p. 184.

  7. 7.

    EBoA 24 June 1987, G 1/86 (Voest-Alpine), para 12, ECLI:EP:BA:1987:G000186.19870624.

  8. 8.

    They are not mentioned as such in the travaux préparatoires, nor in standard reference works such as Visser (2016) or Stauder and Luginbühl (2013).

  9. 9.

    Regulation (EC) No. 593/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 June 2008 on the law applicable to contractual obligations (Rome I); Regulation (EC) No. 864/2007 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 July 2007 on the law applicable to non-contractual obligations (Rome II).

  10. 10.

    Consideration 15 of the Rome I Regulation; consideration 18 of the Rome II Regulation.

  11. 11.

    This approach was taken, with explicit reference to the Rome I Regulation, in Opp. Div. 31 May 2013, concerning EP 09000013.4, at 2.1.3 (appeal pending).

  12. 12.

    Hinterlegger and van Vliet (2012).

  13. 13.

    Drexl (2005), p. 173; Mankowski (2009), pp. 44–46; Metzger (2013), Article 3:501, pp. 270–271.

  14. 14.

    All cases cited in this article can be found via the EPO’s case law search engine at http://www.epo.org/law-practice/case-law-appeals/advanced-search.html. In addition, selected case law is published in the Official Journal of the EPO, and in the regularly updated Case Law of the Boards of Appeal of the European Patent Office. In the footnotes of this article, the Boards of Appeal will be referred to with the abbreviations EBoA (Enlarged Board of Appeal), LBoA (Legal Board of Appeal), and TBoA (Technical Board of Appeal). Full case information is provided with the first citation; subsequent citations will refer to the case number only.

  15. 15.

    EBoA G 1/86, para 13, quoting ECJ 810/79.

  16. 16.

    Art. 20 Rules of Procedure of the Boards of Appeal.

  17. 17.

    Art. 21 Rules of Procedure of the Boards of Appeal.

  18. 18.

    It is clear from the preamble of the EPC and the wording of Art. 1 that the contracting states only desired a single procedure for the grant of patents and standard rules governing patents so granted.

  19. 19.

    Art. 64(3) EPC.

  20. 20.

    Art. 2(2) EPC.

  21. 21.

    Agreement of 19 February 2013 on a Unified Patent Court, OJ 2013 C 20, p. 175. This treaty is part of the “EU Patent Package”, along with EU Regulations 1257/2012 and 1260/2012, which establish a European patent with unitary effect.

  22. 22.

    Art. 123(3) EPC.

  23. 23.

    EBoA 11 December 1989, G 2/88 (Friction Reducing Additive), ECLI:EP:BA:1989:G000288.19891211.

  24. 24.

    Art. 64(1) EPC: the concrete exclusive rights of the proprietor are determined by national law, soon to be harmonized, for the participating states, by the Agreement on a Unified Patent Court.

  25. 25.

    Art. 69 EPC.

  26. 26.

    LBoA 1 March 1985, J 900/85 (Interruption of proceedings), headnote and extracts published in Official Journal of the European Patent Office, 1985, p. 159, ECLI:EP:BA:1985:J090085.19850301; in the same sense, LBoA 4 November 1986, No. J 0901/86 (Professional representative/Legal incapacity), headnote and extracts published in Official Journal of the European Patent Office, 1987, p. 528, ECLI:EP:BA:1986:J090186.19861104.

  27. 27.

    LBoA 6 April 2000, J 5/99 (Unterbrechung), ECLI:EP:BA:2000:J000599.20000406; LBoA 17 May 2000, J 7/99 (Heavy-duty power), ECLI:EP:BA:2000:J000799.20000517; EPO (2013), p. 536.

  28. 28.

    Art. 58 EPC.

  29. 29.

    Art. 99(1) EPC.

  30. 30.

    In a strict interpretation, Art. 58 EPC only provides an explicit reference to national law for the question of “equivalence to a legal person”.

  31. 31.

    EPO (2013), p. 535.

  32. 32.

    LBoA 21 May 1987, J 903/87 (Consolidation), OJ 1988, p. 177, ECLI:EP:BA:1987:J090387.19870521; TBoA 25 July 2000, No. T 353/95 (Appeal terminated/ALTMANN), ECLI:EP:BA:2000:T035395.20000725.

  33. 33.

    Rule 142(1)(a) EPC and J 903/87.

  34. 34.

    Visser (2016), p. 153, referring to J 900/85, para 9; Almer (2013), pp. 393–394.

  35. 35.

    EBoA 18 February 2002, G 3/99 (Admissibility of joint opposition or joint appeal/HOWARD FLOREY), ECLI:EP:BA:2002:G000399.20020218.

  36. 36.

    TBoA 22 February 2007, T 477/05 (Scherenhubtisch/GEISLER), ECLI:EP:BA:2007:T047705.20070222; TBoA 8 March 2007, T 480/05 (Scherenhubtisch/HECKERT GMBH), ECLI:EP:BA:2007:T048005.20070308.

  37. 37.

    EBoA 25 November 2014, G 1/13 (Fischer–Tropsch Catalysts/SASOL TECHNOLOGY II), ECLI:EP:BA:2014:G000113.20141125.

  38. 38.

    Reference is made to T 353/95, para 2.

  39. 39.

    G 1/13, para 6, with reference to TBoA 17 June 2004, T 15/01 (Mystery Swine Disease/SDLO), para 9, and G 3/99, para 9.

  40. 40.

    G 1/13, para 16.4.

  41. 41.

    The decision of the Board of Appeal explicitly refers to “the law of the United Kingdom”, which disregards the federal nature of the UK legal order; in fact, the relevant law is English law (which happens to have been laid down in a statute that applies in the entire United Kingdom).

  42. 42.

    The decision further cites TBoA 12 June 2014, T 786/11 (SDU discarding/INNOVATIVE SONIC), ECLI:EP:BA:2014:T078611.20140612, and TBoA 19 November 2014, T 2330/10 (Handling timers after an RLC reset/INNOVATIVE SONIC), ECLI:EP:BA:2014:T233010.20141119, which comprise express references to the BVI Business Companies Act 2004 and the Mauritius Companies Act 2001.

  43. 43.

    According to von Savigny, who partly incorporated the personal statute rule in his own conflict-of-laws theory, the statutes theory can be traced back at least to 14th century jurist Bartolus de Saxoferrato. Von Savigny (1849), pp. 122, 134.

  44. 44.

    T 477/05; T 480/05.

  45. 45.

    E.g. England, see Briggs (2013), pp. 367–373.

  46. 46.

    E.g. Belgium, see Art. 110 Code of Private International Law.

  47. 47.

    ECJ C-212/97, Centros Ltd v Erhversus-og Selkabssyrelsen [1999], ECLI:EU:C:1999:126; ECJ C-208/00, Überseering BV v Nordic Construction Company Baumanagement GmbH [2002], ECLI:EU:C:2002:632; ECJ C-167/01, Kamer van Koophandel en Fabrieken voor Amsterdam v Inspire Art Ltd. [2003], ECLI:EU:C:2003:512.

  48. 48.

    Vlas (2009), para 144; Borg-Barthet (2013); ECJ C-210/06, Cartesio Oktató és Szolgáltató bt. [2008], ECLI:EU:C:2008:723; ECJ C-378/10, VALE Építési kft. [2012], ECLI:EU:C:2012:440.

  49. 49.

    G 1/13, para 7.

  50. 50.

    G 1/13, para 9.

  51. 51.

    Visser (2016), p. 150.

  52. 52.

    Arts. 2(2) and 74 EPC. Note that this rule does not explicitly exclude the selected state’s conflict-of-laws provisions, implying that a renvoi might be possible.

  53. 53.

    Art. 60(3) EPC.

  54. 54.

    Art. 72 EPC; Rule 22 EPC.

  55. 55.

    Art. 81 EPC.

  56. 56.

    Protocol on Jurisdiction and the Recognition of Decisions in respect of the Right to the Grant of a European Patent (Protocol on Recognition), which is part of the EPC by virtue of Art. 164(1) EPC.

  57. 57.

    In particular, Art. 60(1), first sentence, EPC.

  58. 58.

    In particular, Art. 60(2), second sentence, EPC.

  59. 59.

    Art. 61 EPC; Rules 16–18 EPC.

  60. 60.

    Art. 71–73 EPC; Rules 22–23 EPC. Rule 85 EPC extends the scope of Rule 22 to transfers of European patents during the opposition period or during opposition proceedings.

  61. 61.

    This appears to be the gist of the compromise that was reached during the drafting of this provision, cf. Arbeitsgrupe “Patente” (1962), p. 44. As far as I could find out, the bundle-based conflict-of-laws rule now laid down in Art. 74 EPC was not part of the draft Convention at that time.

  62. 62.

    E.g. the rules on formal validity of contracts under the law designated by Art. 11 Rome I Regulation.

  63. 63.

    Art. 94(3) EPC.

  64. 64.

    Art. 123(1) EPC.

  65. 65.

    Art. 113(2) EPC; Rule 71(5) EPC.

  66. 66.

    Visser (2016), p. 153; Almer (2013), pp. 393–394.

  67. 67.

    TBoA 18 June 2015, T 205/14 (Ibandronate sodium, Form QQ/TEVA), para 3.6.1, ECLI:EP:BA:2015:T020514.20150618.

  68. 68.

    LBoA 24 January 2002, J 12/00 (Transfer in ownership/KOHNO ET AL), 2 and 14, ECLI:EP:BA:2002:J001200.20020124, concerning a contract under US law, where the distinction between an agreement to assign and an assignment is made, see also Beck (2009); J 4/10, para 5.4, concerning a contract under Korean law.

  69. 69.

    Briggs (2013), p. 311.

  70. 70.

    LBoA 15 March 2012, J 4/10 (Registration as co-applicant/KOMIPHARM), ECLI:EP:BA:2012:J000410.20120315.

  71. 71.

    Procedure according to Rule 92bis.1 PCT.

  72. 72.

    As the submitted document did not bear signatures, the Legal Division requested Lee to provide additional documentary evidence, bearing at least the signature of the assignor (this deviates from Art. 72 EPC, but follows Section E XIII-1 of the Guidelines, as valid at the time). Lee indicated that the submitted document was provided with seals having the same effect as signatures under Korean law. The Legal Division accepted this explanation, applying the rule locus regit actum without any legal basis.

  73. 73.

    J 4/10, para 5.4.

  74. 74.

    J 4/10, paras 5.8–5.9.

  75. 75.

    EPO (2014), E-XII 3.

  76. 76.

    EPO (2016), E-XIII 3, with reference to LBoA 15 June 2015, J 16/14 (Transfer and reversal of transfer…), ECLI:EP:BA:2015:J001614.20150615.

  77. 77.

    EPO (2013), p. 535.

  78. 78.

    Rule 84(2) EPC.

  79. 79.

    T 15/01, para 9.

  80. 80.

    TBoA 15 March 2005, T 74/00 (Scanning Confocal Endoscope/OPTISCAN), ECLI:EP:BA:2005:T007400.20050315.

  81. 81.

    EBoA 24 April 1989, G 4/88 (Transfer of opposition), ECLI:EP:BA:1989:G000488.19890424.

  82. 82.

    Ibidem, at 4.

  83. 83.

    T 15/01, para 9.

  84. 84.

    TBoA 28 November 2013, T 2357/12 (Universal Succession), paras 7 and 10–12, ECLI:EP:BA:2013:T235712.20131128.

  85. 85.

    J 16/14, paras 2.3.1 and 2.4.

  86. 86.

    Bartels (2008), p. 60.

  87. 87.

    Art. 1 Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property of 20 March 1883, as last amended on 28 September 1979, http://www.wipo.int/treaties/en/ip/paris/.

  88. 88.

    See Visser (2016), p. 7; Baque (2008), p. 147; both referring to J 15/80.

  89. 89.

    As noted by Bremi (2010b). Recently, the same objection also appeared in third-party observations during the examination stage, e.g. European patent application No. 05777317.8.

  90. 90.

    This was in practice the only way of filing a patent application in the USA prior to 16 September 2012, when the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA) introduced the possibility for an assignee of the inventor to be the initial applicant, and thus the initial beneficiary of the priority right; 35 USC 118.

  91. 91.

    Ulmer (1978), p. 101; Metzger (2005), p. 63; Van Engelen (2007), No. 333; European Max Planck Group on Conflict of Laws in Intellectual Property (2013), Article 3:301.

  92. 92.

    T 62/05; T 205/14.

  93. 93.

    A different conclusion was reached in Opp. Div. 31 May 2013, patent application No. 09000013.4, at 2.1.3 (appeal pending), discussed below.

  94. 94.

    For example: Bremi (2010a); Bremi (2010b); Schweizer (2011); Tronson (2011); Korenberg (2011).

  95. 95.

    High Court of Justice (UK), 12 June 2009, No. 95, http://www.bailii.org.

  96. 96.

    Teschemacher (2016); Ho and Molnia (2016).

  97. 97.

    Although the issue is addressed in Ulmer (1978), p. 56 (No. 85) and p. 97 (No. 152).

  98. 98.

    Bremi (2010a).

  99. 99.

    LBoA 21 March 1988, J 19/87 (Assignee), ECLI:EP:BA:1988:J001987.19880321.

  100. 100.

    The expert reached the conclusion that the assignee had obtained equitable title in the priority right, and that this was enough to allow him to claim the priority. The Board of Appeal followed that analysis.

  101. 101.

    TBoA 25 June 2003, T 1008/96, para 3.3, ECLI:EP:BA:2003:T100896.20030625.

  102. 102.

    Opp. Div. 24 September 2014, European patent application No. EP 97905876.

  103. 103.

    TBoA 14 November 2006, T 62/05, paras 3.7–3.8, ECLI:EP:BA:2006:T006205.20061114.

  104. 104.

    TBoA 18 September 2007, T 493/06 (Phagemid/KREBSFORSCHUNGSZENTRUM), ECLI:EP:BA:2007:T049306.20070918; TBoA 26 September 2008, T 382/07 (Etheric oils/D & W TRADING), ECLI:EP:BA:2008:T038207.20080926;

  105. 105.

    Opp. Div. 23 April 2013, concerning EP 99 967 460.9, presently pending in appeal as T 2161/13.

  106. 106.

    Opp. Div. 31 May 2013, concerning EP 09 000 013.4, presently pending in appeal as T 1763/13.

  107. 107.

    Opp. Div. 30 July 2013, concerning EP 08 009 849.4.

  108. 108.

    Opp. Div. 14 March 2014, concerning EP 07 014 824.2; TBoA 9 February 2017, T 1201/14 (Transfer of right of priority), ECLI:EP:BA:2017:T120114.20170209, para 3.2.1.

  109. 109.

    T 205/14, para 3.6.1.

  110. 110.

    T 205/14, paras 3.6.2–3.6.3.

  111. 111.

    T 205/14, para 3.8.1.

  112. 112.

    E.g. in the Netherlands, Art. 12 (1)–(3) Patent Act 1995 lists situations where the right to the patent belongs ab initio to the employer or supervisor of the inventor.

  113. 113.

    In particular, because he is the only person who has the procedural standing to do so, as was the case with inventors under pre-AIA US law.

  114. 114.

    Van Erp and Akkermans (2012), p. 654.

  115. 115.

    Worthington (2006), p. 264.

  116. 116.

    Cf. for Germany: Ho and Molnia (2016), p. 20.

  117. 117.

    Fawcett and Torremans (2011), p. 730, at 13.116.

  118. 118.

    The same conclusion has been reached with respect to exhibition priority in case T 382/07, where it was held that the question whether a right to such a priority exists must be answered in accordance with the lex loci protectionis, which, in the case of a European patent application or a European patent, meant the EPC itself (T 382/07, para 8.3).

  119. 119.

    35 USC 119 (pre-AIA).

  120. 120.

    Such a transfer of equitable title was given full effect in J 19/87.

  121. 121.

    Such a transfer of economic ownership was denied effect in LBoA 14 April 2016, T 577/11 (Entitlement to priority), ECLI:EP:BA:2016:T057711.20160414, para 6.6.2.

  122. 122.

    EPO (2016), A-III 6.1. This was at issue in T 1201/14 (see Sect. 6.3.3).

  123. 123.

    An alternative solution for this particular issue is to remove the time limit from EPC law. A convincing argument that there is no basis or need for such a requirement can be found in Haedicke and König (2016).

  124. 124.

    J 19/87; TBoA 20 August 1998, T 833/94, ECLI:EP:BA:1998:T083394.19980820; TBoA 15 March 2005, T 74/00 (Scanning Confocal Endoscope/OPTISCAN), ECLI:EP:BA:2005:T007400.20050315.

  125. 125.

    Teschemacher (1983), p. 699.

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Beck, M. Conflicts of Laws in Proceedings Before the European Patent Office. IIC 48, 925–952 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40319-017-0643-5

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Keywords

  • European Patent Convention
  • Private international law
  • Property law
  • Paris Convention