Interlocutory injunctions and patent protection – an EU Court decision

The European Court has ruled in the case C‑44/21 Phoenix Contact GmbH & Co. KG v HARTING Deutschland GmbH & Co. KG, Harting Electric GmbH & Co. KG, that has the following background:

On 5 March 2013, Phoenix Contact filed a patent application for a plug connector comprising a protective conductor bridge. In the proceedings prior to the grant of that patent, observations on the patentability of the product were submitted by Harting Electric.

On 26 November 2020, the patent applied for was granted to Phoenix Contact, inter alia for Germany.

On 14 December 2020, Phoenix Contact brought an application for interim relief before the referring court, seeking an injunction prohibiting HARTING Deutschland and Harting Electric from infringing the patent at issue.

The mention of the grant of that patent was published in the European Patent Bulletin on 23 December 2020.

On 15 January 2021, Harting Electric filed an opposition to that patent with the European Patent Office (EPO).

The referring court notes that it has reached the preliminary conclusion that the patent at issue is valid and that it is being infringed. It considers that the validity of that patent is not under threat.

However, that court states that it is prevented from ordering an interim measure on account of the binding case-law of the Higher Regional Court, Munich, Germany according to which, in order to issue an interlocutory injunction for patent infringement, it is not sufficient that the patent concerned has been granted by the granting authority, in this case the EPO, after a detailed examination of its patentability and that the question of the validity of that patent has also been reviewed by a court during the examination of the application for interim relief.

Thus, according to that case-law, for interim measures to be ordered, the patent concerned must also be the subject of an EPO decision in opposition or appeal proceedings, or of a decision of the Federal Patent Court, Germany in the context of invalidity proceedings, confirming that the patent concerned confers protection on the product in question.

Taking the view that such case-law is incompatible with EU law, in particular with Article 9(1) of Directive 2004/48, the referring court decided to stay the proceedings and to refer the following question to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling:

‘Is it compatible with Article 9(1) of [Directive 2004/48] if German higher regional courts, which have jurisdiction at last instance in proceedings for interim relief, refuse, in principle, to grant interim measures for patent infringement if the validity of the patent in dispute has not been confirmed in opposition or invalidity proceedings at first instance?’

The Court’s decision:

Article 9(1) of Directive 2004/48/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004 on the enforcement of intellectual property rights must be interpreted as precluding national case-law under which applications for interim relief for patent infringement must, in principle, be dismissed where the validity of the patent in question has not been confirmed, at the very least, by a decision given at first instance in opposition or invalidity proceedings.

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