4 min read

Combe International Ltd v Dr August Wolff GmbH & Co. KG Arzneimittel [2021] FCAFC 8

Following on from our previous article, in a successful appeal by Combe International Ltd, the Full Federal Court disagreed with the primary judge’s approach to assessing deceptive similarity. As a result, it refused registration of the VAGISAN trade mark by Dr August Wolff GmbH & Co. KG Arzneimittel.

Background

Dr August Wolff GmbH & Co. KG Arzneimittel(Dr Wolff) is a German pharmaceutical company. It filed an application for VAGISAN on 27 May 2015 for the following goods:

Class 3: Soaps and cosmetics, all aforementioned goods not for the indication and application of tired legs and/or arms

Class 5: Pharmaceutical products, sanitary products for medical purposes; dietetic substances for medical purposes, all aforementioned goods not for the indication and application of tired legs and/or arms

Combe International Ltd (Combe) is a US company that markets and sells a range of personal cleansing, health and grooming products and is the owner of prior registrations for or incorporating VAGISIL. These registrations include the following goods:

Class 3: Medicated lotions and medicated creams; non-medicated products for feminine use

Class 5: Medicated products for feminine use; vaginal lubricants; medicated creams, gels, lotions

A delegate of the Registrar of Trade Marks refused registration of the VAGISAN trade mark on 29 September 2017 under s60 of the Trade Marks Act 1995 based on Combe’s prior reputation in its VAGISIL trade mark.

Federal Court Decision

The primary judge disagreed with the delegate’s decision and decided that Combe had failed to establish any ground of opposition.

On the issue of deceptive similarity (section 44), the primary judge found that the VAGISAN and VAGISIL trade marks are likely to be understood as indicating products to be used in relation to the female genital area. The primary judge took the view that the prefixes VAG and VAGI are descriptive, and that, as a consequence, the words VAGISAN and VAGISIL do not have a close phonetic resemblance. In his view neither of the words lends itself to mispronunciation, and the suffixes SIL and SAN are quite distinct.

Combe was also not able to establish that a significant or substantial number of potential customers might be confused or deceived by the VAGISAN mark such as to wonder whether there is any connection between it and VAGISIL, given Combe’s reputation (section 60) in the VAGISIL trade mark

Regarding the final opposition ground (section 59), the primary judge considered the fact that soap and cosmetic products were proposed to be introduced into Australia was sufficient intention to use the VAGISAN trade mark in respect of the designated goods.

The Federal Court decision is reported here.

Appeal to the Full Federal Court

In its Notice of Appeal, Combe claimed that the primary judge erred in his assessment of deceptive similarity between VAGISIL and VAGISAN by:

  • comparing the two words side by side;
  • engaging in a meticulous comparison of the two words, letter by letter and syllable by syllable with a clear pronunciation;
  • failing to give proper consideration to the notional consumer’s imperfect recollection of VAGISIL;
  • failing to give proper regard to the importance of the first syllable of each word and the tendency of English speakers to slur the endings of words;
  • breaking each word into component parts, assessing the descriptive and distinctive qualities of those parts and thus failing to pay proper regard to the whole of each mark;
  • failing to assess the whole of each mark as a coined term with no actual meaning; and/or
  • assessing the SAN element of VAGISAN as a distinctive and not descriptive feature, despite finding that SAN is readily understood as a reference to sanitary.
  • not giving sufficient weight to the high-volume and low-value nature of the VAGISAN Goods when making his assessment.

Section 44 – Deceptive Similarity

After consideration of the primary judge’s reasoning regarding deceptive similarity, the Full Court disagreed with the primary judge’s approach for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the VAGISAN and VAGISIL trade mark both have the same first five letters, they both have three syllables, and the VAGIS component is pronounced the same way. The only differences between the marks is the final two letters “AN” and “IL, and the only aural difference, being that between SIL and SAN, may be mispronounced or slurred.

Secondly, the idea of the mark is important in the consideration of deceptive similarity. In this case, consumers are likely to consider VAG or VAGI to be a reference to the vagina. Further, the first two syllables of both marks are likely to be remembered. While a similarity in idea may be insufficient for a finding of deceptive similarity if there is an absence of visual or aural similarity, in this case, the VAGISAN and VAGISIL marks also have visual and aural similarity.

Thirdly, the primary judge appeared to wrongly assume that the classes 3 and 5 goods of both the VAGISAN and VAGISIL trade marks were confined to goods for vaginal use, due to the descriptive nature of the prefixes VAG and VAGI. However, when assessing deceptive similarity, the notional use of the respective marks should have been considered, and the range of goods went beyond those for vaginal use.

In light of the above, the Full Court concluded that VAGISAN was deceptively similar to VAGISIL. The VAGISAN trade mark was refused.

Section 60 – Reputation

This ground of opposition was not considered, as the matter had already been decided by the Full Court’s findings on the conflict with Combe’s earlier registrations.

Takeaway and final comments

The Full Court decision provides guidance on the various factors that should be considered when assessing the deceptive similarity of trade marks. In particular, it is a reminder that marks should be considered and compared in their entirety.

In a further development, Dr Wolff has filed an application for the composite mark DR WOLFF’S VAGISAN, covering similar goods in classes 3 and 5 to its VAGISAN word mark. This application has been opposed by Combe.

Authored by Danielle Spath and Sean McManis

10 min read

Office of the Retirement Commissioner v Cash Converters Pty Ltd [2020] NZIPOTM 27 (23 December 2020)

This recent decision provides helpful guidance on the principles for partial revocation of trade mark registrations in New Zealand and the determination of a “fair description” for goods and services.

The decision also highlights important differences between the law and practice on non-use removal proceedings in Australia and New Zealand.

Background

Cash Converters Pty Ltd (“Cash Converters”) sought partial revocation of the Office of the Retirement Commissioner’s (ORC) Registration No. 637400 SORTED. It covered Class 36 services in providing advisory, consultancy and information services relating to finance, investment and financial planning for and during retirement, and providing financial information relating to retirement.

They also sought partial revocation of Registration No. 976028 SORTED, which covered broadly worded Class 36 services “financial affairs; monetary affairs; real estate affairs” and various services in providing advice, consultancy and information the areas of finance, monetary affairs, retirement, real estate, property and insurance and Class 41 educational services and services in providing educational material and information relating to insurance, financial affairs, monetary affairs, real estate affairs.  The full specifications for the registrations are at [1].  

Revocation was sought on the basis of non-use of the SORTED mark for a continuous period of three years.

Facts/evidence

ORC started using its SORTED mark in 2001, when it established its website www.sorted.com for providing information and tools, such as online calculators, to help New Zealanders prepare for, and manage, their finances during retirement. 

From at least 2013 ORC’s use of SORTED expanded to a broader range of services in providing information, advice and resources to promote “the life-long financial literacy of New Zealanders”.  With this expansion in 2013, ORC obtained the later Registration No. 976028 SORTED for the broader range of services. 

ORC’s evidence of use included use of the SORTED mark on guides, booklets, seminar and course details, on online tools and calculators and on an online forum.  [2]

Discussion

As the SORTED mark had not been used on all of the services covered by the registrations, partial revocation was in order.   

The Assistant Commissioner noted the High Court decision in Sky Network Television Ltd v Sky Fiber Inc (Sky Network) confirming how partial revocation applications should be considered:

The case law establishes that the first task is to find as a fact what goods or services there has been genuine use of the trade mark in relation to; and then to ‘arrive at a fair specification of goods having regard to the use made’.”  [3]

ORC was found to have used the SORTED mark to provide generalised information, advice and education on retirement planning and financial literacy generally.  ORC was also found to have used the mark to provide online calculator tools and an online community forum which provided users with more specific information and recommendations. 

In considering what was a “fair description” of those services provided under the mark, the Assistant Commissioner identified the principles set out by Mallon J in Sky Network:

“(a) The assessment has “nothing to do with the defendant.” Defining the goods negatively by reference to the defendants’ activities is therefore not the approach. 

(b) The proprietor has protection outside his or her specification of goods in areas where he or she can demonstrate a likelihood of deception under other provisions. “There is no pressing need, therefore, to confer on the proprietor a wider protection than his [or her] use warrants by unduly broadening the specification of goods.

(c) The width of the surviving specification “must depend largely upon questions of fact and degree.”  “Wide words can cover what are commercially quite different sorts of articles”.  If there is shown to be use of just one of those things “it would be commercially nonsense to maintain the registration for all goods caused by the wide words”. [4]

In summary, and further quoting Mallon J in Sky Network, the Assistant Commissioner noted that:

The “fair description” is one “which would be given in the context of trade mark protection” and depends on the nature of the goods, the circumstances of the trade and the breadth of use proved” and should be approached as ““objective and impartial, balancing the competing interests” and “a view from the trade”.[5]

The Assistant Commissioner recognised the important “balancing exercise” of competing interests of the owner, competitors and the public:

  1. to have the Register uncluttered with unused marks or with registrations with overly broad specifications;
  2. to prevent parties being unjustifiably exposed to infringement of registrations with overly broad specifications; and
  3. “the owner’s interest in protecting its brand” which “aligns with the public interest in consumers not being deceived or confused by use of another trade mark” and the owner’s entitlement “to commercially realistic protection, remembering the test for infringement, extends to similar goods and services”.  [6]

Findings 

The scope of the original specifications was considered to “extend well beyond the actual use that had been made of the SORTED mark”.  [7]

The Assistant Commissioner considered that a “fair description” of the services offered under the SORTED mark could be reached by considering the “functions (the way the mark has been used) and the generalised, rather than personalised, nature of the education, information and advice ORC provides”.  [8] 

ORC was not using the SORTED mark in relation to all types of information, education and advisory services in the areas of insurance, finance, money, real estate and investment.  Those services were all provided in giving advice and information focusing on retirement and personal financial literacy, and not on all aspects of insurance, finance, money and other matters.

The Assistant Commissioner found that it was appropriate to limit the specifications to reflect the focus of the use and reworded the services more narrowly and as all “relating [or related] to retirement and personal finance”.

Further, ORC’s advice was not personalised advice given to individuals.  Rather, it was generalised advice and information.  The general description “advisory services relating to…” in the original Class 36 specifications for both registrations was considered too broad.  The Assistant Commissioner considered that it would be fair to describe those services as “general advice relating to…”.

The original term “consultancy services relating to…” used in the Class 36 specifications for both registrations was removed because ORC would not be reasonably understood to be a consultancy business.  The Assistant Commissioner noted that “there is no aspect of the ORC business that technically requires the description to be used. ORC is able to have commercially realistic protection without the reference to consultancy”.  [9]

The full specifications as amended are at footnote  [10].

Earlier cases considering partial revocation

The Assistant Commissioner provided a helpful summary of earlier partial revocation cases and what was found to be a “fair description” for the goods and services.  This can be found at paragraph 71. 

These decisions show that precise descriptions are applied in partial revocation actions and that broad and unqualified descriptions are unlikely to be allowed under New Zealand practice. 

Comparison with Australian law

The decision highlights some important differences between the law on revocation/non-use removal actions in Australia and New Zealand. 

1. Discretion to remove or restrict a registration

The Assistant Commissioner noted in the decision that there is no “overriding discretion to refuse to revoke or partially revoke a registration”, which follows from the decision Crocodile International Pte Ltd v Lacoste [2017] NZSC 14 at [97].  [11]  Under New Zealand law, a trade mark owner must show use during the three year non-use period, or special circumstances that justify non-use of their mark, to successfully oppose a revocation application.

Unlike New Zealand, under Australian law the Registrar has the discretion under s 101(3) of the Trade Marks Act 1995 not to remove a registration even where there has not been use of the mark if “satisfied that it is reasonable” not to remove the registration.  Further, s 101(4) provides that in deciding under subsection (3) not to remove a registration the Registrar may take into account use of the mark on similar goods or closely related services or similar services or closely related goods. 

2. Standing to apply for removal for non use

New Zealand law requires that only an “aggrieved person” can apply for revocation of a registration.   As noted in the decision “the term “aggrieved person” is given a wide and liberal interpretation.  This will generally include trade rivals.  As well as someone who is disadvantaged in a legal or practical way.”  [12]

However, under Australian law any person can apply for removal of a registration for non-use and there is no requirement for the removal applicant to show aggrievement to have standing to apply for removal. 

3. Date of revocation

In the New Zealand decision, the Assistant Commissioner noted that “the result of revocation is that the owner’s rights cease to exist on the date the application revocation was filed, or at an earlier date if the Commissioner is satisfied the non-use ground has been made out at an earlier date.”  [13]

Under Australian law, the date of removal of a registration for non-use is the date of the Registrar’s decision and the Registrar does not have the discretion to determine an earlier date for removal.

Takeaway

There are important differences in relation to standing and discretion in revocation/non-use removal proceedings in New Zealand and Australia which trade mark owners should note.

When defending a non-use removal action in Australia, and there has been no use of the mark during the 3 year non-use period, trade mark owners should still consider whether there are grounds for convincing the Registrar to refuse removal of the registration, such as some residual reputation in the mark from earlier use or possibly overseas reputation.

In New Zealand, it is much more likely than it is in Australia that broad descriptions will be restricted to more specific and limited descriptions.


[1] Services covered by Registration No. 637400 SORTED:

Class 36:Providing advisory, consultancy and information services relating to finance, investment and financial planning for and during retirement; providing financial information relating to retirement by means of telecommunication and electronic networks including online, via a global or other communications network, the world-wide web, an intranet or the Internet

Services covered by Registration No. 976028 SORTED:

Class 36: Financial affairs; monetary affairs; real estate affairs; providing advisory, consultancy and information services relating to finance, investment and financial planning for and during retirement; advisory services relating to real estate ownership; providing financial information relating to retirement by means of telecommunication and electronic networks including online, via a global or other communications network, the world-wide web, an intranet or the Internet; consultancy services relating to insurance; information services relating to insurance; insurance advisory services; insurance information; provision of insurance information; consultation services relating to real estate; providing information, including online, about insurance, financial and monetary affairs and real estate affairs; provision of information in relation to real estate; provision of information relating to property (real estate); provision of information relating to real estate; real estate advisory; services; real estate investment advice

Class 41: Dissemination of educational material; education services; educational services; life coaching (training or education services); provision of educational information; provision of education services via an online forum; publication of educational materials; publication of educational texts; the aforementioned relating to insurance, financial affairs, monetary affairs, real estate affairs

[2] Arguing that ORC did not provide financial advisory services, Cash Converters’ evidence in support of the revocation application referred to ORC’s disclaimers on its website that its information and tools “should be treated as a guide only” and should be used before seeking professional advice.  It was also noted that ORC’s “Investor Kickstarter” guide is referred to on the website as a guide only which  “does not constitute investment advice to any person”.  The evidence also noted that ORC is not a registered financial services provider under the Financial Services Provider (Regulation and Dispute Resolution) Act 2008 (RDR Act). 

In reply, ORC filed evidence that it is not required to be registered under the RDR Act as it is not a business which provides financial services as defined under the Act.  ORC also noted that their “Investor Kickstarter” tool asks high level questions to categorise participants into one of five types of investors and that their disclaimer clarifies that the advice given through this tool is not the type of financial advice to which the Financial Advisors Act 2008 would apply. 

[3] Office of the Retirement Commissioner v Cash Converters Pty Ltd [2020] NZIPOTM 27 (23 December 2020), paragraph 39.

[4] ibid, paragraph 44.

[5] ibid, paragraph 45.

[6] ibid, paragraph 52.

[7] ibid, paragraph 110.

[8] ibid, paragraph 113.

[9] ibid, paragraph 96.

[10] Registration No. 637400

Class 36: Providing information services and general advice relating to finance, investment and financial planning for and during retirement; providing financial information and general advice relating to retirement by means of telecommunication and electronic networks including online, via a global or other communications network, the worldwide web, an intranet or the Internet

Registration 976028

Class 36: Providing information and general advice, including online, about insurance, financial and monetary affairs and real estate affairs related to retirement and personal finance; provision of financial calculation services relating to retirement and personal financial planning including budgeting, personal debt, home buying, mortgages, superannuation, investment and savings, including by way of online; calculators; providing information services and general advice relating to finance, investment and financial planning for and during retirement; providing financial information and general advice relating to retirement by means of telecommunication and electronic networks including online, via a global or other communications network, the world-wide web, an intranet or the Internet.

Class 41: Education services related to retirement and personal financial matters including financial planning and budgeting, debt, home buying, mortgages, superannuation, investment and savings; provision and dissemination of educational material and information related to retirement and personal financial matters, including by way online communication, websites, web blogs, social media, forums, publications (including texts, guides and brochures), news articles, training, courses, seminars and meetings.

[11] ibid, paragraph 12 quoting  Crocodile International Pte Ltd v Lacoste [2017] NZSC 14 at [97]

[12] ibid, paragraph 28.

[13] ibid, paragraph 11.

Authored by Michelle Howe and Sean McManis

7 min read

Sandoz Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S [2020] FCAFC 133 (4 August 2020)

In the long-running patent dispute relating to Lundbeck’s blockbuster antidepressant, Lexapro® (escitalopram), the Full Court of Australia’s Federal Court overturned a decision of Jagot J, who had found Sandoz liable for infringement of the Lexapro patent and awarded Lundbeck more than AU$16 million in damages. Lundbeck has recently been granted special leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia, which for the third time will hear an appeal regarding an aspect of this litigation.

Background

The original 20-year term of the Lexapro patent (AU 623144) was due to expire in June 2009. In April 2004, the Commissioner of Patents granted a 5-year extension of the patent term, calculated by reference to the first regulatory approval date for Lexapro. The active ingredient of Lexapro is escitalopram, the S-enantiomer of citalopram. A racemic form of citalopram (a mixture of the S- and R-enantiomers) was earlier marketed in Australia by Lundbeck under the trade name Cipramil.

In subsequent Federal Court proceedings, that extension of term was held invalid (Alphapharm Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S (2008) 76 IPR 618; upheld on appeal: H Lundbeck A/S v Alphapharm Pty Ltd (2009) 177 FCR 151). The Court found that any extension of term application needed to be made by reference to Cipramil, being the first approved therapeutic goods that “contain” the S-enantiomer of citalopram within the meaning of the Patents Act 1990 (Cth) (the Act). It followed that such application was required to be made within six months of the first regulatory approval date for Cipramil. Lundbeck’s application was therefore submitted out of time.

In consequence, the Lexapro patent expired on 13 June 2009, at the end of its original term. Three days later, Sandoz and other generics launched generic escitalopram products. In doing so, they appeared to be taking a risk. On 12 June 2009, Lundbeck had sought an extension of time to submit a new extension of term application, based on the first regulatory approval date for Cipramil.

Given that the time limit for submitting such an application expired in mid-1998, Lundbeck required a 10-year extension of time. Nevertheless, that extension was granted, on the basis that the applicable time limit had been unclear until determined by the Federal Court in June 2009 (Alphapharm Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S (2011) 92 IPR 628; upheld on appeal: Aspen Pharma Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Patents (2012) 132 ALD 648; Aspen Pharma Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S (2013) 216 FCR 508; Alphapharm Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S (2014) 254 CLR 247).

Armed with this extension of time, Lundbeck submitted a new application to extend the term of its Lexapro patent. In June 2014, some 5 years after the patent had expired, that extension was granted (Alphapharm Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S (2014) 109 IPR 323; upheld on appeal: Alphapharm Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S (2014) 110 IPR 59; Alphapharm Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S (2015) 234 FCR 306; Alphapharm Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S [2016] HCATrans 52).

The newly extended term of the Lexapro patent expired in December 2012. By that time, Sandoz and other generics had been marketing escitalopram products in Australia for over three years. Lundbeck sought damages for infringement of the Lexapro patent during that period.

In defence of such damages claim, Sandoz relied on a settlement agreement it had reached with Lundbeck in February 2007 (Settlement Agreement). In return for Sandoz discontinuing its revocation case against the Lexapro patent, Lundbeck agreed to grant Sandoz an irrevocable licence to the patent, effective from a date two-weeks prior to its expiry (the Early-entry licence).   

At the time that agreement was reached, the expiry date of the Lexapro patent remained uncertain – litigation concerning the validity of the original extension of term was ongoing. The agreement recorded several alternative dates on which the Early-entry licence might commence. However, it did not address the possibility that the term of the Lexapro patent might expire and, sometime later, be extended. That is, of course, what transpired.

In defence of Lundbeck’s damages claim, Sandoz submitted that, on a correct construction of the Settlement Agreement, the Early-entry licence commenced in May 2009, two-weeks before expiry of the Lexapro patent, and remained in force thereafter. By contrast, Lundbeck submitted that, because the term of the patent was extended to December 2012, the early-entry licence did not commence until November 2012, leaving Sandoz liable for infringement in the intervening period.

First instance decision

Lundbeck was successful before the primary judge (H Lundbeck A/S v Sandoz [2018] FCA 1797). However, Jagot J did not accept either party’s construction of the Settlement Agreement.

Her Honour found that, under the terms of the Settlement Agreement, the Early-entry licence commenced in May 2009, two weeks before the Lexapro patent expired. In reaching that conclusion, Jagot J held that the operation of the agreement ought not be tested by reference to the fact that, 5 years later, a new extension of term was granted, because this could not have been predicted by the parties in February 2007, when they entered into the Settlement Agreement.

However, in Jagot J’s view, this was not the end of the matter. Noting that Sandoz would not require a licence after the Lexapro patent had expired, her Honour found that the effect of the Settlement Agreement was to confer on Sandoz a licence which commenced in May 2009 and ceased to operate two weeks later, upon the expiry of the patent’s original term.

It followed, in Jagot J’s view, that Sandoz did not have the benefit of a licence when the term of the Lexapro patent was subsequently extended. Based on these findings, Jagot J held Sandoz liable for infringing the patent between June 2009 and December 2012, awarding Lundbeck in excess of AU$16 million in damages.

Decision

An appeal by Sandoz to the Full Court was successful. The critical issue on appeal concerned the construction of the Settlement Agreement, in particular, whether the Early-entry licence ceased to operate on expiry of the original term of the Lexapro patent in June 2009, or continued thereafter.

In approaching that question, the Full Federal Court reiterated well-established principles of contract construction. The terms of a contract are to be construed objectively. The question is what the language used would convey to a reasonable business person, in light of the surrounding circumstances known to both parties at the date of their agreement, including the objects of the contract, and assuming that the parties intended to achieve a commercial result. A court will be slow to adopt a construction that would give a contract an effect that is commercially nonsensical.

On the other hand, the Full Court emphasised that commercial common sense and surrounding circumstances may not be invoked to discount the language in which a contract is expressed. The fact that a contractual provision may operate to disadvantage one party to an agreement is not a reason to depart from the ordinary meaning of the language in which that provision is expressed.

In the view of the Full Court, the language of the Settlement Agreement was sufficiently clear. It granted Sandoz an irrevocable licence that commenced in May 2009, two weeks before expiry of the Lexapro patent, and remained in force thereafter. The Full Court held that, objectively ascertained, it was the parties’ intention to stipulate a start date for the licence, but not an end-date.

Notably, the Full Court agreed with Jagot J that it appeared neither party had, at the time of concluding the Settlement Agreement in February 2007, turned their mind to the possibility that the Lexapro patent might expire and only subsequently have its term extended. That is unsurprising, given unprecedented course of the Lexapro proceedings. As the Full Court observed, had the parties been able to foresee the course those proceedings would take, it is likely that express provision would have been made for such eventualities in the Settlement Agreement.

Significance

The Full Federal Court’s decision highlights the complexity of the extension of time and extension of term provisions under Australia’s patent legislation which, together or separately, can significantly affect the course of the litigation and the negotiation of commercial settlement terms.

The decision of the Full Federal Court does not yet bring to a close one of the most complex patent disputes in Australian legal history, as Lundbeck was recently granted special leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia (H. Lundbeck A-S & Anor v Sandoz Pty Ltd; CNS Pharma Pty Ltd v Sandoz Pty Ltd [2021] HCATrans 13 (11 February 2021). That will be the third time this litigation has reached the High Court for a substantive appeal, with Lundbeck previously succeeding in obtaining both its application for an extension of time to apply for an extension of term and then the extension of term application itself. Over its long course, the Lexapro litigation has made a number of significant contributions to Australian patent law, including in relation to the validity of enantiomer claims and the operation of the provisions of the Act which govern extensions of term and extensions of time, and now it appears set to contribute to Australia’s contract law as well.

Authored by Andrew Rankine and Duncan Longstaff

11 min read

Axent Holdings Pty Ltd t/a Axent Global v Compusign Australia Pty Ltd [2020] FCA 1373 (25 September 2020) 

This decision of Kenny J of the Federal Court of Australia considers many issues including the Crown use defence; whether information published by the Crown (and made available to it by a patentee) can be novelty defeating; and the effect that requesting an extension of time to renew a patent outside of the renewal fee grace period has on the relevant period during which the patent is taken to have ceased before it is restored.

The Background

Axent Holdings Pty Ltd, trading as Axent Global (Axent), commenced proceedings against Compusign Australia Pty Ltd and Compusign Systems Pty Ltd (together Compusign) as well as Hi-Lux Technical Services Pty Ltd (Hi-Lux) (the respondents) for infringing Australian Patent No. 2003252764 titled “Changing Sign System” (764 Patent). The 764 Patent claimed an earliest priority date of 4 October 2002 and was granted on 26 June 2008. The respondents filed a cross claim asserting the 764 Patent was invalid. Except for any issues under ss 22A and 138, the Intellectual Property Laws Amendment (Raising the Bar) Act 2012 (Cth) (Raising the Bar Act) did not apply.

The invention related to a changing sign system for use as a variable speed limit sign (VSLS) on roadways. The VSLS could be used to display a lower hazard speed limit instead of the normal maximum safe speed when a certain condition is detected. When the hazard speed limit is displayed, a portion of the sign is varied to conspicuously indicate the change of conditions.

Independent claims 1, 17 and 20 described an electronic variable speed limit sign, which has a plurality of lights forming the central speed limit numerals and annulus rings around those numerals. The specification explains that a change of conditions is indicated by flashing some of the annulus outer rings while always retaining one ring on, to fulfil the criteria of being a speed display sign, that is, by always showing a number in a circle on a display panel. Dependent claims 2 to 16, 18 to 19 and 21 to 27 specified a number of further features, and claim 28 was an omnibus claim.

In September 2001, Mr Fontaine, the director of Axent and named inventor of the 764 Patent, met with Mr Bean, who worked for VicRoads, to view a demonstration of Axent’s variable speed limit sign with a partly flashing annulus. Mr Fontaine stated that he subsequently received tender documents which included a VicRoads specification (the September 2001 specification), which contained a requirement, for variable speed limit signs, that part of the inner diameter of the annulus should be capable of flashing on and off.

The issues

Product or method claims

A preliminary question arose as to whether the claims were product or method claims for the purposes of determining infringement. Axent pleaded that the claims were to a product. The respondents submitted that the claim integers formed part of a method of using a variable speed limit sign. Her Honour rejected Axent’s submissions that the claims were framed in terms of capabilities, yet still construed the majority of the claims as product claims limited by result. Claims 12, 14 and 16 were construed as method claims which describe the operation of the claimed sign system.

Clarity

The respondents contended that independent claims 1, 17 and 23 lacked clarity because of the use of the terms “normal speed”, “input criterion” and “change in conditions”. Her Honour considered that when the claims were read as a whole, in the context of the specification, the skilled addressee would have no real doubt about what is intended by the above features and that the claims were clear.

Direct Infringement

Axent’s case was in substance that the supply by Hi-Lux and Compusign of their respective variable speed limit signs infringed all the claims of the Patent. Axent was unable to establish that either the Hi-Lux signs or the Compusign signs included relevant features of the product claims or that Hi-lux or Compusign performed the relevant claimed method in making their signs. Thus, the product and method claims were not infringed.

As omnibus claim 28 was narrowed “with reference to the examples”, and the specification included no ‘examples’, her Honour considered that there can be no infringement or alternatively that claim 28 was invalid for lack of clarity.

Indirect Infringement

Axent also relied on s 117 of the Patents Act 1990 (Act) to allege indirect infringement initially on the sole basis that the supply of a sign is, in and of itself, a supply that attracts the operation of s 117. Axent subsequently sought to broaden their case for indirect infringement to instances where the invention was for a method, rather than a product. Axent also sought leave to elicit from the respondents’ witnesses in cross-examination evidence as to the directions given and steps taken by the respondents when supplying their signage. The respondents submitted that it would be unfair to permit Axent to seek to make out an infringement case based on s 117 that it had not opened or properly foreshadowed. Her Honour agreed and held Axent to the case on which it opened. The evidence given by the respondents’ witnesses by way of cross-examination was admitted, however, it was limited in its use so that it could not be used to form the basis of an infringement case by reference to s 117. Axent was not able to make out its case of indirect infringement against the respondents.

Crown use defence

Hi-Lux submitted that each of VicRoads, the South Australian Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure, and the City of Greater Geelong was an authority of a State for the purposes of s 163 of the Act which provides that exploitation of an invention by or for the services of the Commonwealth, or a State is not an infringement of any patent rights.

Her Honour considered that each of the organisations were an Authority of the state and that the exploitation of the sign was for the services of each Authority. However, this was subject to s 163(3) which required that the exploitation of the invention was necessary for the proper provision of the services within Australia. Her Honour considered it may be that exploitation was not strictly necessary in the sense contemplated by s 163(3) because alternative signage was available and widely used. However, this was not considered further, in any event, as Hi-Lux failed to satisfy her Honour that the infringement  was authorised in writing by an authority of the State.

In particular, the documents in relation to Hi-Lux’s supply of signs to VicRoads and the City of Greater Geelong left open the possibility that Hi-Lux had a choice as to the electronic speed sign supplied, leaving it free to perform the relevant contract without infringing the claims of the Patent. It was clear that Hi-Lux was under no contractual obligation to supply an infringing item.

The contract for the supply and installation of variable speed limit signs between the Commissioner of Highways and Hi-Lux included a specification which set out the requirements for the variable speed limit signs. Her Honour noted the possibility this contract may have required a product that infringed the 764 Patent and thus, the infringing acts may well have been authorised for the purposes of s 163. However, in the absence of submissions or evidence to this effect, her Honour was not satisfied that the contract with the Commissioner required Hi-Lux to supply goods that necessarily infringed the patent in suit. Accordingly, Hi-Lux’s defence under s 163 of the Act did not succeed.

Innocent infringement

Compusign argued that they were not aware and had no reason to believe that a patent existed for the invention before receiving the letter of demand from Axent. Compusign gave evidence to the effect that they had not expected a patent to exist in relation to the requirements of the roads authorities’ specifications without the specifications referring to the patent. Her Honour considered that there was nothing in the relevant roads authorities’ specifications that would put a reader on notice of the existence of a relevant patent. Axent did not address the issue of innocent infringement.

Accordingly, if it were necessary to do so, her Honour would have provisionally refused to make an award of damages or an order for an account of profits in respect of any infringement by Compusign prior to the date of the receipt of the letter of demand.

Lapse of patent

Axent did not pay the renewal fees for the 764 Patent by the due date of 6 October 2015; nor did it pay the fees by 6 April 2016, within the 6 month renewal fee grace period. Axent applied for an extension of time which was granted on 1 September 2016 and the renewal fees were then applied to the 764 Patent. The 764 Patent therefore ceased to be registered for a period for the non-payment of fees.

The respondents submitted that Axent could not assert infringement of the patent from the day after that on which the renewal fee for the 764 Patent was due, 7 October 2015, to the day on which an application to extend the time to pay the renewal fee was granted, 1 September 2016. Axent submitted the relevant period began on 5 April 2016 (that is, approximately 6 months after 7 October 2015) and concluded on 1 September 2016. The commencement of the relevant period turns on the construction of reg 13.6 of the Patents Regulations 1991 (Cth), which relevantly provides that the period in which the renewal fee must be paid is the period ending at the last moment of the anniversary, however, if the renewal fee is paid within 6 months after the end of the relevant anniversary the period is taken to be extended until the fee is paid. The respondents submitted, and her Honour accepted, that the period is only “taken to be” extended if the condition of the renewal fee being paid within the 6 month grace period is satisfied. Had Axent paid the renewal fee at any time before the end of the 6 month grace period, the 764 Patent would never have ceased as the prescribed period would have been extended by reg 13.6(2)(a) to end on the day Axent paid the fee. However, Axent did not pay the renewal fee before 5 April 2016, and in consequence reg 13.6(2)(a) had no application.

Therefore, the prescribed period for renewal ended on 7 October 2015 being the point after the last moment of the anniversary date for the Patent. It follows that the Patent ceased on that day. The Patent was restored on 1 September 2016, when the extension of time for the renewal fee application was granted.

Prior use

The respondents relied on s 119(1) by way of defence to Axent’s infringement case. In the absence of evidence that either Hi-Lux or Compusign Australia was “making” an infringing product or “using” an infringing process before the priority date, neither could satisfy the requirements for the prior use defence required by s 119(1) prior to the Raising the Bar Act changes.

Invalidity of the Patent

The respondents submitted the claims were not novel because the invention was disclosed by the September 2001 specification and as part of the installation process for the Western Ring Road Project. Axent submitted that the September 2001 specification was merely a “wish list” that provided insufficiently direct disclosure and in any event was excluded from being considered for the purposes of novelty and inventive step because of s 24(1)(b) and/or s 24(2). Relevantly, s 24(1)(b) provides that, when assessing novelty and inventive step, the person making the decision must disregard any information derived from the patentee and made publicly available without their consent. Under s 24(2), the person making the decision must disregard any information given by, or with the consent of, the patentee, to the Crown, but to no other person or organisation.

Axent argued that it had disclosed its invention to VicRoads confidentially and never consented to VicRoads on-disclosing it in the September 2001 specification. The respondents contended, and her Honour agreed, that s 24(2) did not apply because the September 2001 specification was a disclosure made by, and not to, the Crown and the language of s 24(2) did not support the “reach-through effect” that Axent had argued.

There was still the further question as to whether s 24(1)(b) operated. A central issue was whether the information was made publicly available without the consent of Axent. Whilst there was no evidence that Axent expressly gave consent, having regard to the circumstances and the evidence, her Honour was satisfied that Axent positively consented to the inclusion of the claimed invention in the September 2001 specification. Accordingly, s 24(1)(b) did not apply.

Kenny J rejected the contention that the September 2001 specification was part of the common general knowledge or that it could be combined with the common general knowledge. Accordingly, the critical question was, whether each of the claims lacked inventive step by reference to common general knowledge alone. The evidence was clear that, apart from the flashing annulus feature, the other features of the claims were obvious as at the priority date. However, there was clear evidence that the skilled worker was aware of a flashing annulus feature well before the priority date.

Her Honour considered that no problem was overcome or barrier crossed by the adoption of the flashing annulus feature and that the evidence indicated a person skilled in the art would have taken the steps leading from the prior art to the claimed invention as a matter of routine. The 764 Patent was found invalid for lack of inventive step by reference to the common general knowledge alone, and claims 1, 9, 10, 14, 15, 17, 20 and 27 were invalid for want of novelty in light of the disclosure of September 2001 specification.

The Decision

Ultimately, Axent failed in its infringement case, even if it had succeeded, Compusign succeeded in its innocent infringement defence and all respondents succeeded on the lapsed patent defence. The Crown use and prior use defences failed.

Significance

The decision clarified that the prescribed period to pay a renewal fee to prevent a patent ceasing is only taken to be extended to the date of payment, if the fee is paid within the 6 month grace period. Accordingly, when the renewal fee is paid after the 6 month grace period by relying on an extension of time, the patent is taken to have ceased from the point after the last moment of the anniversary of the patent.

Regarding the Crown Use defence, the decision indicated that written authorisation by the Crown to exploit an invention may be explicit or implied, but the authorisation must be specific such that the necessary exploitation of the invention is authorised and that alternatives are not possible.

For information made available to the Crown by a patentee and subsequently published by the Crown, the decision indicated s 24(2) did not provide a “reach-through effect” to exclude such a publication from the prior art when considering novelty and inventive step.

The decision also offers guidance on the evidence required to establish innocent infringement in the case that a defendant was not aware, and had no reason to believe, that a patent for the invention existed.

Authored by Tam Huynh and Dean Bradley

4 min read

In brief

In this Federal Court case, Pfizer’s attempt to obtain documentation from Sandoz regarding its ERELZI etanercept product failed, Justice Burley finding that undertakings provided by Sandoz to give notice prior to exploiting ERELZI products in Australia removed any reasonable belief that Pfizer might have the right to obtain relief as at the time of the application. The circumstances illustrate the significance of the form of undertakings given by potential generic/biosimilar entrants when patent disputes erupt.

Background

The background to this case is set out in more detail here. In short, Pfizer markets the highly successful etanercept therapy under the name BRENZYS in Australia, for conditions including rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis. In October 2017 Sandoz obtained registration on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) for its biosimilar, ERELZI. The Department of Health’s Pharmaceutical Board Advisory Committee recommended that the products be listed in March 2018, subject to certain further information being provided. In April 2018 Sandoz informed the Department of Health that it had decided not to proceed to the next step “at this point in time”. Sandoz has taken no further steps with respect to launch of ERELZI in Australia since that time. In December 2019, Pfizer sought preliminary discovery from Sandoz for documents relating to the manufacture of ERELZI, on the basis that it may have a right to relief for infringement of three of its patents.  

The decision

The test for obtaining preliminary discovery has recently been clarified by the Full Court of the Federal Court in a case brought by Pfizer against Samsung Bioepsis in respect of its biosimilar etanercept product. The Full Court confirmed that as long as there are reasonable grounds for a belief that there may be a right to relief, it is not necessary to show, for example via expert evidence, that such a claim would succeed. Indeed the purpose of obtaining preliminary discovery is to determine whether a right to relief in fact exists.

In light of the Samsung decision, it would likely have been difficult for Sandoz to show in this case that Pfizer did not have the requisite level of belief that ERELZI may fall within the scope of the claims of its patents, and indeed Sandoz accepted that Pfizer had such belief for the purposes of the application. 

However, Sandoz relied on undertakings offered to Pfizer, pursuant to which it undertook not to exploit any ERELZI products in Australia or take steps to proceed with PBS listing, for the duration of the patent, without first giving Pfizer certain notice. The length of the notice offered is not recorded in the judgment for confidentiality reasons, however the judgment notes that in earlier correspondence Sandoz had offered to give Pfizer 150 days’ prior written notice. It is assumed therefore that the notice period offered is relatively substantial. Sandoz also agreed to provide certain discovery with a period of time after giving any such notice (the details of this undertaking were also confidential).

In these circumstances, Pfizer contended that the notice period offered was insufficient to allow it to obtain relief in time if Sandoz did in fact give notice of an intention to launch. It sought an order that Sandoz give preliminary discovery of specified schedules of documents within 7 days of giving the relevant notice and a ‘Sabre order’ requiring it to seek production of any such documents held by related companies. The issues were therefore quite confined.

Burley J refused the orders sought by Pfizer. Based on the language of the relevant Federal Court Rules governing preliminary discovery, his Honour concluded that Pfizer needed to show a reasonable belief that its rights may be infringed as at the date when the application is being assessed. Calling in aid notions of quia timet relief, Pfizer argued that the relevant question was whether it held a reasonable belief that the notice offered by Sandoz was likely to affordPfizer sufficient time to protect itself from material harm.  However Burley J held that the circumstances of the case did not warrant a reading of the Rules which would in effect provide an exception to the reluctance of the Court to answer questions based on hypothetical facts, as was the case here where Sandoz had not yet made a decision to launch. He gave examples of difficulties which could arise, in particular, the appropriate scope of any preliminary discovery could be affected by admissions which Sandoz might make with respect to infringement.

Significance

While the outcome in this case is highly dependent on the specific facts, it does highlight the effectiveness of appropriately crafted undertakings in resisting legal action, where a product has been listed on the ARTG and steps have been taken to list on the PBS, circumstances which would generally amount to a threat of patent infringement, in the absence of any undertakings.  

Preliminary discovery applications are set to become a more common weapon in patent litigation arsenal in years to come, particularly given the increasing significance in Australia (as elsewhere) of biosimilar patent litigation, where patents covering manufacturing processes are likely to assume greater importance given the additional complexities at play in claiming active biological molecules per se, and the significance of specific manufacturing processes in the production of biologics. Given the likely lack of available information as to a competitor’s manufacturing processes, preliminary discovery may be an essential prelude to patent infringement claims in such cases, assisted by the planned Therapeutic Goods Administration “transparency measures” which will introduce an earlier notification scheme for generic and biosimilar medicines. Equally we expect to see the strategies to resist such applications develop providing more case law in this area.

Authored by Katrina Crooks

7 min read

Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp v Wyeth LLC (No 4) [2020] FCA 1719

In a previous article, we discussed Justice Stephen Burley’s finding that a Wyeth patent covering certain vaccines against Streptococcus pneumoniae was valid and would be infringed by a 15-valent vaccine that Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) planned to launch in Australia.  By a subsequent judgment, Burley J has now granted final relief consequential on those findings, including an injunction restraining launch of MSD’s 15-valent vaccine.  The judgment is notable for his Honour’s rejection of a request, made by MSD, for a separate hearing on the question of whether injunctive relief ought to be refused on public interest grounds, given the significant medical benefits offered by MSD’s 15-valent vaccine. 

Key takeaways

  • Under existing Australian law, the starting position is that a patent owner successful in infringement proceedings will ordinarily be entitled to a final injunction restraining supply of an infringing product.  Nevertheless, in deciding whether to grant an injunction in each case, the court will have regard to all relevant considerations, including the public interest.
  • A defendant seeking to avoid final injunctive relief on public interest grounds faces both substantive and procedural hurdles.  The defendant may need to apply, at an early stage of the proceeding, to have the public interest question heard and determined separately, after the main trial on patent infringement and validity.

Background

The technology at issue in these proceedings was reviewed in our previous article.  Very briefly, more than 90 different serotypes of the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae (or “pneumococcus”) have been identified.  A limited number of especially virulent serotypes cause around 1 to 2 million childhood deaths globally, each year.  Wyeth’s Prevnar 13® vaccine, which is currently listed on Australia’s National Immunisation Program, targets 13 of those serotypes.  The 15-valent vaccine developed by MSD targets two additional serotypes, offering broader protection against pneumococcal disease.

In his previous judgment,  Burley J found that marketing of MSD’s 15-valent vaccine in Australia would involve infringement of one of three patents asserted by Wyeth in this proceeding (his Honour found the asserted claims of the other two asserted patents to be invalid).

Under Australia’s existing law on remedies for patent infringement, the starting position for analysis is that a patent owner successful in infringement proceedings will ordinarily be entitled to a final injunction, assuming there is a threat of ongoing infringement.  On the other hand, an injunction is an equitable, and therefore discretionary, remedy and a court will have regard to all relevant considerations in assessing whether injunctive relief is appropriate in each particular case, including considerations of proportionality.

A relatively recent decision of Australia’s Full Federal Court has confirmed that a final injunction for patent infringement will ordinarily be granted in terms which, in addition to restraining the specific conduct that was held to infringe at trial, restrains generally any further infringing conduct by the defendant (Calidad Pty Ltd v Seiko Epson Corporation (No 2) [2019] FCAFC 168, as we reported in our Best Patent Cases 2019 publication available here).  An injunction granted in that form places on the defendant the risk of being held in contempt of court if it chooses to “sail close to the wind” by engaging in further conduct that, although modified from the conduct that was found to infringe at trial, could nevertheless still be found to fall within the scope of the patentee’s claims.

In the Prevnar vaccine case, MSD did not challenge the particular form of injunctive relief sought by Wyeth.  Rather, MSD argued that no final injunction should be granted at all, or alternatively that the question of injunctive relief should be deferred until after the determination of any appeal.  MSD based those arguments on the public interest in accessing its 15-valent vaccine, given the health advantages that vaccine would confer over the currently-available Prevnar 13® product.

Public interest

The need to take account of public interest considerations in assessing injunctive relief for patent infringement has been recognised in recent case law across a number of jurisdictions. 

Recent US case law has built upon the foundation laid by the landmark decision of the US Supreme Court in eBay Inc v MercExchange LLC, 547 US 388 (2006).  The eBay case established that a patent owner seeking final injunctive relief for infringement must establish that (1) it has suffered irreparable injury; (2) damages would not be an adequate remedy; (3) the balance of hardships between patent owner and defendant favours equitable relief; and (4) the public interest would not be disserved by a final injunction – the so-called “eBay factors”.

The role of public interest considerations in the grant or refusal of final injunctive relief for patent infringement was also considered in the recent UK case of Evalve Inc v Edwards Lifesciences Limited [2020] EWHC 513.  The defendant in that case opposed the grant of a final injunction, based on evidence that some medical practitioners believe, on reasonable grounds, that the infringing medical device (used to repair leaky heart valves) performs better in certain patients than the patent owner’s device.  As a fallback position, the defendant argued that use of the infringing device in those patients should be carved out of the scope of any final injunction.

In a detailed review of the issue, UK High Court Justice Colin Birss identified the following matters as relevant to the role of public interest considerations in the grant or refusal of injunctive relief for patent infringement.

First, the UK Patents Act 1977 (in common with patents legislation in Australia and several other jurisdictions) includes a number of provisions that reflect the legislature’s assessment on public interest issues.  These include, for example, statutory exclusions from patent infringement (e.g., for experimental use), compulsory licensing provisions and the Crown use scheme.  By the latter provisions, a government may authorise use of a patented invention without the patent owner’s consent where this is deemed to be in the public interest. 

Secondly, a patent infringer who invokes the public interest as a reason to withhold a final injunction is, in effect, seeking a compulsory licence without having established the statutory grounds on which such licences are ordinarily made available.

Thirdly, to assess whether it would be just in all of the circumstances to withhold a final injunction on public interest grounds, a court must be provided with evidence concerning the adequacy of damages to compensate the patent owner in lieu of an injunction.  Speaking hypothetically, Birss J observed that, if the level of compensation required to adequately compensate the patent owner would strip the infringer of their entire profits, then refusing an injunction may be to no avail, since the infringing product is unlikely to be made available in such circumstances.

In light of these considerations, Birss J concluded that, in patent infringement proceedings, the bar for refusing a final injunction on public interest grounds is high.  His Honour expressed the view that, generally speaking, it will be necessary to establish by objective evidence that the defendant’s product is needed to protect the lives of patients for whom it is the only suitable treatment (at [87]).

MSD submitted that those conditions would be satisfied in the Australian Prevnar vaccine case.  It invited Burley J to convene a separate hearing on whether it was against the public interest to grant a final injunction, at which hearing MSD proposed to adduce additional evidence, including evidence concerning the prevalence of pneumococcal serotypes covered by its 15-valent vaccine that are not covered by Wyeth’s Prevnar 13® product.

Justice Burley refused MSD’s request for a separate hearing and determined that it was appropriate that Wyeth be granted a final injunction restraining supply of MSD’s 15-valent vaccine.  His Honour’s reasons for that decision highlight the challenges facing a defendant seeking to resist final injunctive relief on public interest grounds in a patent infringement case.

On the one hand, Burley J pointed to a number of factors suggesting it was premature to determine the public interest question.  MSD has not yet obtained regulatory approval to market its 15-valent vaccine in Australia and its intended launch date remains unclear.  Wyeth’s counsel indicated that Pfizer (the parent company of Wyeth) intends launching a 20-valent pneumococcal vaccine in Australia, which may come to market before the MSD product is approved.  Justice Burley observed that the timeline of these events would be expected to have a significant bearing on the assessment of the public interest arguments raised by MSD.

On the other hand, Burley J found that the question of whether a final injunction should be refused on public interest grounds had been raised on the pleadings for the infringement case and his Honour was not persuaded that MSD should be permitted to, in effect, re-open its case on this issue, after judgment.

It is possible that MSD may seek to test those conclusions before the Full Federal Court.  A notice of appeal against Burley J’s judgment on issues of validity and infringement was filed by MSD in late January.

Significance

Justice Burley’s decision highlights the substantive and procedural challenges faced by a defendant in patent infringement proceedings seeking to argue that final injunctive relief should be refused on public interest grounds. 

In light of this decision, defendants who wish to preserve the ability to oppose final injunctive relief on public interest grounds may need to apply, at an early stage in the proceeding, to have that question deferred for separate determination, after the main trial on infringement and validity, with the parties granted leave to file fresh evidence on the public interest considerations which apply at that time.

Authored by Andrew Rankine and Duncan Longstaff

4 min read

Allergan Australia Pty Ltd v Self Care IP Holdings Pty Ltd [2020] FCA 1530 (14 October 2020)

Allergan alleged that various references to the BOTOX trade mark, which were made by Self Care in marketing its skin treatment products, amounted to infringement of BOTOX trade mark registrations.

There has been little case law in Australia concerning trade mark infringement by referencing third-party trade marks when advertising or referring to competing or similar products. Consequently, the present case is significant.

While s122(1)(d) Trade Marks Act 1995 provides that there is no infringement when a person uses a trade mark “for the purposes of comparative advertising”, this provision does not seem to have been argued in the case. Rather, the principal defence to infringement was based upon claims that there was no use of BOTOX “as a trade mark”, which is a prerequisite for a finding of infringement. It was also argued that there was no use of a deceptively similar trade mark.

Background

Self-Care sold products under the names PROTOX and FREEZEFRAME, being skin care preparations marketed as improving the appearance of a person’s skin to remove or diminish wrinkles.

They produced various products under these names and their marketing and product packaging contained references to BOTOX. Among the most significant of those were references such as:

  • The most powerful Botox® alternative ever discovered;
  • The Accidental Botox Alternative
  • The world’s first Instant and Long-Term Botox Alternative
  • Instant Botox alternative;
  • a topical alternative to Botox® injections
  • The original instant Botox® alternative;
  • Overnight Botox® alternative
  • long-term Botox® alternative

Allergan claimed that Self-Care’s use of PROTOX was an infringement of its BOTOX registrations, and that its various references to BOTOX also infringed its registrations.

For infringement to occur there needs to be:

  • Use as a trade mark
  • Of a substantially identical or deceptively similar sign
  • In relation to goods or services covered by the registration, or goods or services of the same description, or closely related goods or services
  • Without any relevant defence

PROTOX

As regards PROTOX, Justice Stewart found that this mark is not substantially identical or deceptively similar to BOTOX. He also found that Class 5 pharmaceutical preparations for the treatment of wrinkles are not goods that are of the same description as (i.e. similar to) cosmetic antiwrinkle preparations.

The decision on similar goods was on the basis that:

  • BOTOX is a therapeutic product supplied only to health care professionals and administered by healthcare professionals
  • the fact that some clinics that sell skin care products and also offer injectable products such as BOTOX is not significant having regard to the differences between the products and their uses
  • pharmaceutical manufacture and supply is different from topical cosmetic manufacture and supply
  • references to “alternative” in advertising do not establish similarity. It was only a reference to an effect. More significant are the differences including price, application, associated pain or bodily invasion and length of action of the respective products

Aside from its Class 5 registrations, Allergan also owns Class 3 registrations; however, as the marks PROTOX and BOTOX were not considered deceptively similar, there was also no infringement of those registrations.

BOTOX

As regards use of BOTOX, the issue of infringement turned on the question of whether the various references to BOTOX were use of Botox “as a trade mark” for the purposes of infringement.

Self-Care used BOTOX in various ways. In some cases, it appeared in what were general narrative or descriptive phrases, with an example being: “clinically proven to prolong the effect of Botox®” . Such uses were considered clearly not use as a trade mark, given that they say nothing about the origin of the product being sold or about trade connection. Justice Stewart considered such expressions to be more in the nature of ‘ad-speak’.

Justice Stewart expressed some hesitation about phrases without verbs such as: “the accidental Botox Alternative”, “Instant BOTOX® alternative”, “Overnight Botox® alternative” and “Long term BOTOX® Alternative”.

Claims that capitalisation of the first letter of the word Botox is indicative of use as a trade mark were not considered compelling. That was considered to be a weak indicator.

Ultimately, significant reliance was placed upon the 1934 decision of the House of Lords in Irving’s Yeast-Vite Ltd v Horsenail  (1934) 51 RPC 110, where the phrase “Yeast tablets, a substitute for Yeast-Vite” was not considered infringement.

The various uses of BOTOX were found not to be uses as a trade mark on the basis that:

  • BOTOX was used in a manner that distinguishes Allergan’s products from those of Self Care through use of the word “alternative”
  • The use of ® when it appeared adjacent to BOTOX acknowledged the trade mark as a badge of origin of products made by Allergan
  • There was use of FREEZEFRAME and PROTOX as brand names to identify Self-Care’s products
  • Self-care used BOTOX not to indicate a connection with itself but to compare and contrast its products

Justice Stewart  referred to the use of “Instant Botox® Alternative” in a one-week in-store promotion as a single possible exception, but nevertheless also considered that not to be use as a trade mark.

Justice Stewart went further and expressed the view that none of the phrases or expressions used by Self Care amounted to use of a trade mark deceptively similar to BOTOX. He indicated that even “Instant Botox® Alternative” it is not deceptively similar because use of the word “alternative” indicates that the product being advertised is quite different from BOTOX.

Concluding Comments

If the defence under s122(d), regarding use of a trade mark for the purposes of comparative advertising, had been argued, it may have been successful. However, that section remains unconsidered by the Courts.

Clearly, the owners of well-known trade marks have an interest in limiting or restraining other businesses from using their trade marks. Whether or not consumers are confused by the use of such references is a separate question from whether, by using a well-known trade mark, there is some level of association that benefits the user, potentially to the detriment of the brand owner.

The current decision, while favouring those who wish to reference third party brands, will no doubt raise questions as to where the line is to be drawn between permissible and impermissible uses.

While not essential to the ultimate decision, the view expressed that “Instant Botox® Alternative” is not deceptively similar to BOTOX, is a somewhat controversial one.

An appeal has been filed and its outcome will be awaited with interest.

Authored by Sean McManis

7 min read

Urban Alley Brewery Pty Ltd v La Sirène Pty Ltd [2020] FCAFC 186 (4 November 2020)

The Full Federal Court has upheld the primary judge’s decision to cancel Urban Alley Brewery Pty Ltd’s (Urban Alley) registration for “Urban Ale”.   The decision considers the issue of distinctiveness and highlights important lessons regarding the enforcement of trade marks which have descriptive significance, within the trade and relevant market.

Primary Decision

Urban Alley owned Registration No. 1775261 for the trade mark Urban Ale covering “beer” in Class 32 and dated 14 June 2016. Urban Alley sued La Sirène Pty Ltd (La Sirène) for use of the trade mark:

(URBAN PALE label) on its beer product, launched in October 2016.  Urban Alley also sought cancellation of La Sirène’s registration for the URBAN PALE label.

La Sirène filed  a cross claim for cancellation of Urban Alley’s Urban Ale registration under s88(1)(a) of the Trade Marks Act 1995 on the basis that:

  • Urban Ale is not capable of distinguishing beer products (s 41(1)); and
  • Urban Ale was deceptively similar to an earlier third party mark Urban Brewing Company, registered under Registration No. 1760362 and covering beer (s 44(1)).  [1]

In the primary decision Justice O’Bryan cancelled the Urban Ale mark on both grounds, finding that:

  • Urban Ale was not capable of distinguishing beers because the ordinary signification of the combination “urban” and “ale” was of a craft beer brewed in an inner-city location; and
  • Urban Ale was deceptively similar to the earlier Urban Brewing Company mark. 

While there was no infringement because the Urban Ale registration was cancelled, the primary judge went on to consider whether La Sirène’s use of its URBAN PALE logo would have infringed the Urban Ale registration, and if so, whether it had defences to infringement that:

  • La Sirène used URBAN PALE in good faith to indicate the kind, quality or other characteristics of the products (s 122(1)(b)(i); and
  • La Sirène was exercising its rights to use the mark as registered  (s 122(1)(e)) as it had obtained a registration for the URBAN PALE label in use during the litigation.

The primary judge found that URBAN PALE was used as a product name and not as a trade mark, and therefore did not infringe the Urban Ale registration. 

On upholding the first defence, La Sirène was found to have used URBAN PALE as a description to  indicate the nature and style of the product as a craft beer brewed in an urban location. 

In relation to the second defence, La Sirène had used its URBAN PALE label as registered under its Registration No. 1961656 and so had a defence under s 122(1)(e).  [2]

The primary judge also found that Urban Alley had not made out grounds for cancellation of La Sirène’s registration for the URBAN PALE label. 

Appeal Decision

Urban Alley appealed, challenging the primary judge’s findings.

  1. Capable of distinguishing

On the first ground of appeal, that the primary judge erred in finding Urban Ale not capable of distinguishing, the judges noted that the primary judge’s finding might ordinarily seem surprising.  However, their honours noted that the decision was based on contextual facts and usage of the word “urban” in the brewery trade.  They referred to the primary judge’s findings that:

  •  it was well understood that many brewers are located in urban areas and, when used in relation to beer, “urban” “conveyed the meaning that the beer was brewed in a city location as opposed to a country location”[3];
  • “‘urban’ had come to signify craft beer made in an inner city location” and could also be laudatory indicating that the beer is “fashinonable”, “trendy” or “cool” [4] ;
  • there was evidence that journalists had used “urban” to refer to beer producers and breweries had used “urban” as part of their product names;
  • ordinary consumers would understand “urban” as referring to a craft beer produced in an innner city location; and
  • “urban ale”, in its ordinary signification, would therefore indicate craft beer produced in an urban location.

The judges found no appealable error in the primary judge’s finding and agreed that Urban Ale was not capable of distinguishing. [5]

  1. Deceptive similarity

The appeal judges found no error in the primary judge’s finding that “Urban Ale” was deceptively similar to the “Urban Brewing Company” mark. 

On appeal, Urban Alley argued that the primary judge’s comments that the marks meant different things – with Urban Ale referring to beer and Urban Brewing Company referring to a maker of beer – meant that the judge ought to have found the marks not deceptively similar.  However, the appeal judges noted that these comments were made in the side by side comparison of marks for assessing whether the marks were substantially identical.  The judges noted that “ the test of deceptive similarity is fundamentally different. It is not a studied comparison. Rather, it is a comparison between one mark and the impression of another mark carried away and hypothetically recalled, paying due regard to the fact that recollection is not always perfect”.  [6]  The appeal judges agreed with the primary judge’s finding that, while Urban Ale and Urban Brewing Company had different meanings in a side by side comparison, there is a close association between the two marks making them deceptively similar.

Urban Alley also argued that substantial weight should be given to the other elements “ale” and “brewing company” in the marks and that those elements had “no relevant trade mark resemblance”.  [7]  However, their honours noted that the marks must be considered as a whole:

It is impermissible to dissect each mark to emphasise its disparate elements and then compare the disparate elements of each in order to reach a conclusion on deceptive resemblance. To start with, this would leave out entirely the impact of the common element “urban”. It would also ignore the synergy between the word “urban” and the other word(s) in each mark. This synergy contributes to the impression gained of each mark, which is carried forward into the relevant comparison between the two.”.  [8]

Given that “ale” and “brewing company” would be clearly associated in meaning, and were both combined with the element “urban”, the appeal judges agreed that the marks were deceptively similar. 

While the appeal judges upheld the primary judge’s decision to cancel the Urban Ale mark, and the case on infringement could not therefore succeed, the judges went on to consider the other grounds of appeal.    

  1. Use of URBAN PALE as a trade mark

On the question of whether La Sirène used URBAN PALE as a trade mark, the appeal judges agreed with the primary judge’s finding that URBAN PALE was used as “a product name that is descriptive of the nature and style of the beer product”.   [9]  They agreed that consumers would understand URBAN PALE as referring to a craft beer brewed in an inner city location (“urban”) in a pale ale style (“pale”) and would not see URBAN PALE as a trade mark for distinguishing the beer products from those of other traders.  

They noted that URBAN PALE was the most prominent element on La Sirene’s label and that  ordinarily this would be persuasive in finding trade mark use.  However, because URBAN PALE would be seen as a product description, trade mark use could not be found.  The judges referred to the primary judge’s words “I do not consider that prominence converts the essentially descriptive name into a mark indicating the source of origin”.  [10]

Urban Alley’s appeal was dismissed on all grounds.  [11]

Takeaways

This decision is a reminder of the limitations of adopting and registering marks with descriptive significance.  Competitors may easily avoid infringement where they can argue that they are using their trade mark descriptively.  Further, a registration for a descriptive mark will be vulnerable to cancellation on the basis that it lacks distinctiveness.  Trade mark owners are advised that the strongest rights to be obtained are in registrations for marks which have no descriptive significance in relation to the goods or services.

The case also indicates that giving prominence to a mark in labelling will not convert descriptive words into trade marks.  Further, registering a label with prominent, but descriptive, elements will not give exclusive rights to the descriptive elements.


[1] In the primary decision La Sirène had also sought cancellation of the Urban Ale registration on the basis that Urban Alley was not the owner of the Urban Ale mark due to the earlier registration for Urban Brewing Company (s 58).  This was dismissed on the basis that the marks were not substantially identical and the primary judge’s decision on this point was not appealed.

[2] La Sirène had also raised a defence under s 222(1)(e) on the basis of its registration for “Farmhouse Style Urban Pale by La Serene” covering beers. However, the primary judge did not consider it necessary to consider that defence, given that La Sirène could already rely on its registration for the URBAN PALE logo for the defence under s 222(1)(e).

[3] Urban Alley Brewery Pty Ltd v La Sirène Pty Ltd [2020] FCAFC 186 (4 November 2020), paragraph 59.

[4] Ibid, paragraph 60.

[5] Urban Alley had argued that the primary judge had suggested that “Urban Ale” was allusive and metaphorical when finding that it indicates beer made in an urban location which is “cool” or “trendy” and therefore could not be directly descriptive.  This was dismissed, with the judges saying “urban” has a clear and direct meaning.  They also tried to argue that the mark did not indicate a characteristic of the beers and therefore did not fall within the Note after s 41 [5]because it did not indicate a “characteristic” of the beers in terms of flavour or style.  This argument was unsuccessful, with the judges finding that Urban Ale could indicate  other “characteristics” such as beers produced in an inner city location.

[6] Ibid, paragraph 99.

[7] Ibid, paragraphs 105 and 106.

[8] Ibid, paragraph 106.

[9] Ibid, paragraph 119.

[10] Ibid, paragraph 119.

[11] The judges did not need to consider Urban Alley’s challenge of the primary judge’s decision that La Sirène could rely on the defence that it used URBAN PALE to indicate the kind, quality or other characteristics of the beer products (s 122(1)(b)(i).  This was because they had already upheld the primary judge’s decision that Urban Ale functions descriptively and is not inherently adapted to distinguish and the issues were essentially the same in relation to URBAN PALE.

Urban Alley had also challenged the primary judge’s finding that La Sirène would have a defence under s 122(1)(e), as it used the URBAN PALE label as registered, and the primary judge’s refusal to cancel La Sirène’s registration for the URBAN PALE label.  These grounds of appeal were dismissed.  Firstly, it was unnecessary and too remote to consider any defence under s 122(1)(e), given there was no infringement.  Secondly, Urban Alley’s registration for Urban Ale, which would have blocked the application for the URBAN PALE logo, had been removed from the Register.

Authored by Michelle Howe and Sean McManis

4 min read

In Hashtag Burgers Pty Ltd v In-N-Out Burgers, Inc, [2020] FCA 235 the Full Federal Court of Australia considered appeals against the In-N-Out Burgers, Inc v Hashtag Burgers Pty Ltd [2020] FCA 193 decision, which involved proceedings by In-N-Out Burgers, Inc (“INO”) against the use of DOWN-N-OUT by Hashtag Burgers Pty Ltd (“Hashtag”), in relation to (inter alia) hamburgers and restaurant services.  A summary of the primary judge’s decision was previously reported by our firm – CLICK HERE.

Background

In the primary decision, Katzman J held that use of Down-NOut infringed a registration for In-N-Out and that the Hashtag directors, Benjamin Kagan and Andrew Saliba, were jointly and severally liable for trade mark infringement, passing off and misleading and deceptive conduct in breach of s18 of the Australian Consumer Law (“ACL”) for conduct prior to 23 June 2017, being the date on which Hashtag was incorporated. 

Hashtag appealed this decision by challenging the finding of deceptive similarity.  Further, Hashtag challenged Katzman’s conclusion that Kagan and Saliba adopted the marks for the deliberate purpose of appropriating INO’s marks, branding or reputation.  Hashtag also challenged the primary judge’s findings concerning misleading or deceptive conduct and passing off.

INO filed a cross-appeal regarding the liability of Kagan and Saliba after the date on which Hashtag was incorporated.

TM Infringement by Hashtag

In support of this appeal, Hashtag alleged the following errors were made by the primary judge when assessing deceptive similarity:

  1. failing to give weight to the presence of the word BURGER in the INO trade marks;
  2. failing to assess the effect of the arrows in the composite INO trade marks;
  3. placing undue emphasis on the “N-OUT” aspect of the INO trade marks and attributing insufficient significance to the difference between “DOWN” / “D#WN” and “IN”;
  4. failing to give sufficient weight to the difference in meaning between the respective marks, and the ideas conveyed by those marks;
  5. placing significant or dispositive weight on aural similarity and setting aside material visual differences between the marks;
  6. framing the central question as one focussed on imperfect recollection; and
  7. placing apparent weight on evidence of confusion from social media posts and no weight on the absence of evidence of actual confusion.

The Full Federal Court unanimously dismissed Hashtag’s appeal in relation to trade mark infringement.  Nicolas, Yates and Burley JJ did not accept any of Hashtag’s criticisms concluding they paid insufficient regard to the rigour with which the primary judge approached her judgment. While their Honours confirmed that the “idea” or “meaning” of a mark has a role to play in determining deceptive similarity, this only forms a part of the overall analysis.

Separately, Hashtag challenged the primary judge’s conclusion that Kagan and Saliba acted dishonestly in adopting their trade marks.  

In relation to this, the Court found that her Honour erred in her findings of dishonesty but that did not vitiate the primary judge’s conclusions as to intention or deceptive similarity because:

  • a finding of dishonesty is not a necessary part of the assessment; and
  • her Honour separately found the requisite intention to cause confusion on the part of Messrs Kagan and Saliba.

Consequently, the appeal failed.

ACL and Passing Off

Hashtag also appealed the primary judge’s decision in relation to allegations of misleading or deceptive conduct arising under s18 of the ACL and the tort of passing off on the bases that:

  1. the impugned marks are not deceptively similar to the names or logos used in INO Burgers’ registered marks;
  2. the different trade dress, get-up, uniforms, décor, menus and other trade indicia adopted by the respective businesses, when combined with the parties’ different trading names, dispelled any real danger of deception occurring;
  3. the primary judge wrongly applied the measure of “imperfect recollection” when considering the response of the notional consumer.

The Full Federal Court rejected Hashtag’s first claim for the same reasons as the trade mark infringement ground outlined above.  While the Court acknowledged that the primary judge used the phrase “imperfect recollection”, their Honours were satisfied that Katzman J applied the applicable test correctly.  In this regard, Hashtag did not challenge Katzman’s finding that a not insignificant number of members of the relevant class of consumer would have been led to consider that there was an association of some kind between INO and the people behind DOWN-N-OUT.

Hashtag also submitted that in order to uphold a claim of passing off, there must be goodwill in the relevant mark (in the sense of a business with customers in the jurisdiction).  However, their Honours confirmed the longstanding principle in Australia that it is not necessary to have a place of business in Australia in order to maintain a passing off action. It is sufficient that the goods have a reputation in Australia to a sufficient degree to establish that there is a likelihood of deception among consumers, and potential consumers, and of damage to its reputation – see ConAgra Inc v McCain Foods (Aust) Pty Ltd [1992] FCA 176.

On this basis, Hashtag’s appeal was dismissed.

Cross-Appeal by INO

INO cross-appealed Katzman’s decision on the basis that Kagan and Saliba were liable as joint tortfeasors for infringing conduct which took place after Hashtag was incorporated, namely 23 June 2017.  Contrary to the primary judge’s finding, their Honours concluded that Kagan and Saliba’s conduct as individuals went beyond the threshold of performing their proper roles as directors to that of joint tortfeasers on the basis that:

  • Kagan and Saliba were the sole directors of Hashtag;
  • Kagan and Saliba made decisions as to Hashtag’s management;
  • Kagan and Saliba alone received the profits derived from Hashtag;
  • There was no significant difference between the way that Kagan and Saliba operated the business before incorporation and the way in which they operated it through the corporate vehicle after it was formed;
  • Kagan and Saliba were knowingly involved in Hashtag’s wrongdoing;

On this basis, the Full Federal Court allowed INO’s cross-appeal and ordered (i) costs for the appeal against Hashtag, and (ii) cost for the cross-appeal against Kagan and Saliba.

Related Article: Hashtag Burgers Down-N-Out – Trade Mark Infringement, Misleading Conduct and Passing Off  – April 2020

Authored by Nathan Sinclair and Sean McManis

5 min read

Introduction

IP Australia is providing free extensions of time of up to 3 months if a deadline cannot be met due to the effects of COVID-19.  As reported here https://www.shelstonip.com/news/covid-19-update-ip-australia-now-extended-streamlined-relief-measures-31-january-2021-provide-certainty-holiday-period/, the period for requesting such an extension currently ends on 31 January 2021 with the prospect of the period being further extended. 

A streamlined process has been implemented for requesting COVID-19-related extensions.  No declaratory evidence or fee is required; all that is needed is to check the relevant box on IP Australia’s eServices system to declare that the deadline cannot be met due to disruptions from the pandemic (equating to circumstances beyond control).  Although these COVID-19 extensions of time have so far been routinely allowed, they are nonetheless subject to the Commissioner’s discretion. 

New decision from IP Australia

A recent decision from IP Australia, Shell Internationale Research Maatschappij B.V. v Yara International ASA [2020] APO 55, http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdoc/au/cases/cth/APO//2020/55.html, relates to a request for a COVID-19 extension in the context of a patent opposition.  It provides a reminder that care is required when requesting COVID-19 extensions at IP Australia, both in terms of the timing of the request and the reasoning.

Shell Internationale Research Maatschappij B.V. (the Opponent) filed a Notice of Opposition and, at the same time, requested a COVID-19 extension of 3 months for filing the Statement of Grounds and Particulars (SGP), which was due to be filed within 3 months of the Notice of Opposition. 

In accordance with usual procedure under Australian law, Yara International ASA (the Applicant) was afforded the opportunity to comment on the Opponent’s request for an extension of time.  The Applicant opposed the Opponent’s request for an extension of time. 

The Opponent’s submissions

The Opponent filed a declaration which provided a general overview of the COVID situation in the UK and at Shell.  The declaration noted that, as a consequence of the pandemic, the responsible in-house attorney had commenced working at home in April 2020, solely with the use of a laptop, without access to printers or desktop monitors, and that he did not have access to numerous physical documents that were required for the opposition.  The declaration also reasoned that, due to COVID-19, obtaining mandates and financial approvals for the opposition at Shell had become more difficult. 

The Applicant’s submissions

The Applicant, however, noted that the Opponent had filed two rounds of third-party observations at the EPO on the corresponding European application.  The Applicant argued that, although another Shell attorney had filed those third-party observations, the Opponent had not provided any reason why that attorney could not have prepared or assisted with the preparation of the SGP or why the task could not have been delegated to the Australian representative.  The Applicant pointed out that preparation of the SGP does not need expert witnesses and that the amount of time required to prepare the SGP is significantly less than that required for the preparation of evidence.  Furthermore, the Applicant argued that an undue delay would lead to an extended period of uncertainty for the Applicant and would not be in the public interest. 

Decision to grant a shortened extension and reasoning

The Commissioner commented that it was “not the existence of the pandemic, but rather the specific impacts on the responsible person, that must be taken into consideration”. 

The Commissioner considered that the extension request was “largely prospective and based on conjecture of circumstances that might arise in the future”.  The fact that the extension request had been filed at the same time as the Notice of Opposition did not work in the Opponent’s favour.  In this regard, the Commissioner observed that “if a party can anticipate on-going delays, and even quantify those delays in requesting an extension upfront, then presumably they can also plan and take action to mitigate their impact”.  The Commissioner expressed concern that “a party obtaining an upfront extension and working to an extended deadline may not be as diligent in completing their work, or as motivated to consider and implement mitigating strategies that could enable them to meet the original deadline”.

In the concluding remarks, the Commissioner adjudged that, whilst there were circumstances that had impacted on the Opponent’s ability to complete the SGP in time, the request was made at the beginning of the period for preparing the SGP when the impacts and the extent of delay were uncertain.  Further, the Commissioner was not satisfied that the Opponent had provided a sufficiently detailed disclosure of the circumstances to justify the request for an extension at that time, including the reasons why no strategies were available to mitigate the impacts. 

On balance, the Commissioner decided to allow an extension but the length of the extension allowed was less than the 3 months requested.

The Commissioner noted that the decision to allow the extension of time of course does not preclude the Opponent seeking a further extension based on current circumstances that may prevent completion of the SGP by the extended due date.

Conclusion

Whilst a shortened extension was granted in this circumstance, this decision serves as a stark reminder that IP Australia’s COVID-19 streamlined extension provisions are not a simple free-for-all.  An element of discretion does apply. 

A requestor must be able to provide genuine reasons and evidence to justify the grant of the extension and the timing of the request can also be of significance. 

In addition, it is worth mentioning IP Australia’s warning that a false declaration could put the validity of an IP right at risk.

For more information, or if you have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and require assistance with your IP Rights, please contact us. 

Authored by Serena White, DPhil and Michael Christie, PhD