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IP Australia’s COVID-19 extensions of time: a word of caution

  • Dec 18, 2020
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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