Rolex lost a trademark dispute in the EU

Are clothes similar enough to watches – that’s the question The General Court of the European Union has ruled in recently  T‑726/21 Rolex SA v PWT A/S.

PWT filed a European trademark application for the following figurative mark for many classes including class 25 – clothing, footwear headgear:

Against this application an opposition was filed by Rolex SA based on the following trademarks in class 14 – watches, for which an established reputation was claimed:

The EUIPO decided that the goods in class 14 – watches and those in class 25 clothing, footwear headgear are not similar because of their different nature and intended purpose. While watches are perceived as accessories, the goods in class 25 aim to dress the human body.

In so far as the opposition was based on Article 8(5) of Regulation No 207/2009, it found that the reputation of the earlier purely figurative mark was not established and that the reputation of the earlier composite mark was established for wristwatches. It added that the latter mark and the mark applied for were, at most, visually similar to a very low degree, that a phonetic comparison was not possible between them, and that the conceptual similarity resulting from the common presence of a crown had a very limited impact. It inferred from this that the relevant public would not make a link between those marks, with the result that no risk of injury to the reputation of the earlier composite mark was established.

The General Court upheld this decision entirely. Regarding the goods similarity issue:

In the present case, the applicant merely alleges the growing importance of online trade, the growing tendency towards convergence of fashion and technology, including wristwear, and the supposed well-known fact, common in the fashion sector and usual for consumers, of seeing clothing and accessories, such as eyewear, jewelry and watches, being offered in the same sales outlets. However, it does not submit any evidence to that effect. The applicant adds that that practice results in a certain cognitive behavior and a certain state of mind, but without providing further detail.

In addition, it must be pointed out that the fact that the goods at issue may be sold in the same commercial establishments, such as department stores, is not particularly significant, since very different kinds of goods may be found in such shops, without consumers automatically believing that they have the same origin

Furthermore, the applicant’s arguments that the purchase of the goods at issue may be based on the search for an aesthetic complementarity must be rejected as ineffective. The applicant itself concedes that such a fact is insufficient to conclude that there is a similarity between those goods.

When it comes to the claimed reputation:

In order to benefit from the protection introduced by the provisions of Article 8(5) of Regulation No 207/2009, the proprietor of the earlier mark must, first of all, adduce proof, either that the use of the mark applied for would take unfair advantage of the distinctive character or the repute of the earlier mark, or that it would be detrimental to that distinctive character or that repute.

In that regard, although the proprietor of the earlier trade mark is not required to demonstrate actual and present injury to its mark for the purposes of Article 8(5) of Regulation No 207/2009, it must, however, prove that there is a serious risk that such an injury will occur in the future.

The Board of Appeal noted that, in order to demonstrate the existence of one of the types of injury referred to in Article 8(5) of Regulation No 207/2009, the applicant had not submitted observations to it, but that, before the Opposition Division, it had argued that the intervener could take unfair advantage of the degree of recognition of the earlier composite mark on account of the fact that the signs at issue were almost identical and the immense reputation acquired by the earlier marks, which allegedly convey images of prestige, luxury and an active lifestyle. It found that, by those arguments, the applicant had in fact merely referred to the wording of Article 8(5) of Regulation No 207/2009, without submitting any coherent arguments as to why one of such injuries would occur. The Board of Appeal inferred from this that no injury referred to in that provision was established.

It must be stated at the outset that the applicant’s arguments do not make it possible to identify the injury or injuries set out in Article 8(5) of Regulation No 207/2009 which might be caused to the earlier composite mark, to its detriment, by the use of the mark applied for.

Source: IPKat.

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Can you rebrand medicines in the EU – a European Court decision

The European Court has ruled in joined cases C‑253/20 and C‑254/20 Impexeco NV v Novartis AG which target the issue of pharmaceutical products rebranding and parallel importation. The cases have the following background:

Case C‑253/20

Novartis developed a medicinal product with the active substance letrozole, marketed in Belgium and the Netherlands under the EU trademark ‘Femara’, of which Novartis is the proprietor.

That medicinal product is sold on the market in packages of 30 and 100 film-coated tablets of 2.5 mg in Belgium, and in packages of 30 film-coated tablets of 2.5 mg in the Netherlands.

Sandoz BV and Sandoz NV, respectively in the Netherlands and in Belgium, market the generic medicinal product ‘Letrozol Sandoz 2.5 mg’, in packages of 30 film-coated tablets in the Netherlands, and 30 and 100 film-coated tablets in Belgium.

According to the referring court, the medicinal products marketed under the names ‘Femara’ and ‘Letrozol Sandoz’ are identical.

By letter of 28 October 2014, Impexeco informed Novartis of its intention to import from the Netherlands and to place on the Belgian market, from 1 December 2014, the medicinal product ‘Femara 2.5 mg x 100 tablets (letrozol)’. It is apparent from the order for reference that that medicinal product was, in actual fact, the medicinal product ‘Letrozol Sandoz 2.5 mg’, repackaged in new outer packaging to which Impexeco intended to affix the trade mark ‘Femara’.

By letter of 17 November 2014, Novartis opposed the parallel import planned by Impexeco, claiming that a new marking of that product with the trade mark of the reference medicinal product produced by Novartis, that is to say, the trade mark ‘Femara’, constituted a manifest infringement of its rights in that mark and was likely to mislead the public.

In July 2016, Impexeco marketed in Belgium the medicinal product ‘Letrozol Sandoz 2.5 mg’, repackaged in new packaging bearing the trade mark ‘Femara’.

According to the referring court, the public price of the medicinal products ‘Femara (Novartis) 2.5 mg’, ‘Letrozol Sandoz 2.5 mg’ and ‘Femara (Impexeco) 2.5 mg’ are identical in Belgium. By contrast, the public price of ‘Letrozol Sandoz 2.5 mg’ is significantly lower in the Netherlands.

Claiming that the marketing referred to in paragraph 19 above infringed its trade mark rights, on 16 November 2016, Novartis brought an action against Impexeco before the Court of Cessations, Brussels, Belgium.

By letter of 10 April 2017, Impexeco also informed Novartis of its intention to market in Belgium the medicinal product ‘Femara 2.5 mg’ in packaging of 30 film-coated tablets imported from the Netherlands and re-labelled. It is apparent from the order for reference that that medicinal product was the medicinal product ‘Letrozol Sandoz 2.5 mg’ and that Impexeco intended to re-label that product and to affix the trade mark ‘Femara’ to it.

Case C‑254/20

Novartis developed a medicinal product with the active substance methylphenidate. Novartis Pharma NV markets that medicinal product in Belgium under the Benelux word mark ‘Rilatine’, of which it is the proprietor, inter alia in packs of 20 tablets of 10 mg. In the Netherlands, that medicinal product is marketed by Novartis Pharma BV under the trade mark ‘Ritalin’, inter alia in packs of 30 tablets of 10 mg.

Sandoz BV places on the market in the Netherlands the generic medicinal product ‘Methylphenidate HC1 Sandoz 10 mg’ in packaging of 30 tablets.

According to the referring court, the medicinal products marketed under the names ‘Methylphenidate HC1 Sandoz 10 mg tablet’ and ‘Ritalin 10 mg tablet’ are identical.

By letter of 30 June 2015, PI Pharma informed Novartis Pharma NV of its intention to import from the Netherlands and to place on the Belgian market the medicinal product ‘Rilatine 10 mg x 20 tablets’. It is apparent from the order for reference that that medicinal product was, in actual fact, the medicinal product ‘Methylphenidate HC1 Sandoz 10 mg’, in new outer packaging on which PI Pharma intended to affix the trade mark ‘Rilatine’.

In a letter of 22 July 2015, Novartis stated its opposition to the parallel import planned by PI Pharma, claiming that a new marking of the medicinal product ‘Methylphenidate HC1 Sandoz 10 mg’ with the trade mark of the reference medicinal product of Novartis, that is to say, the trade mark ‘Rilatine’, manifestly infringed its rights in that trade mark and was likely to mislead the public.

In October 2016, PI Pharma marketed that repackaged medicinal product in Belgium in new packaging bearing the trade mark ‘Rilatine’.

The referring court states that, in Belgium, the public price of the medicinal product ‘Rilatine 10 mg x 20 tablets Novartis’ is EUR 8.10 (EUR 0.405 per tablet) and the price of the medicinal product ‘Rilatine 10 mg x 20 tablets PI Pharma’ is EUR 7.95 (EUR 0.398 per tablet), while in the Netherlands the public price of the medicinal product ‘Methylphenidate HC1 Sandoz 10 mg’ is EUR 0.055 per tablet.

Claiming that the marketing referred to in paragraph 28 above infringed its trade mark rights, on 28 July 2017, Novartis brought an action against PI Pharma before the Court of Cessations, Brussels.

Factors common to the disputes in the main proceedings

By two judgments of 12 April 2018, the Court of Cessations, Brussels held that the two actions referred to in paragraphs 21 and 30 above were well founded on the ground, inter alia, that the practice of affixing the trade marks ‘Femara’ and ‘Rilatine’ respectively to the repackaged generic medicinal products ‘Letrozol Sandoz 2.5 mg’ and ‘Methylphenidate HC1 Sandoz 10 mg’, imported from the Netherlands, infringed the trade mark rights of Novartis, for the purposes, respectively, of Article 9(2)(a) of Regulation No 207/2009 and of Article 2.20(1)(a) of the Benelux Convention. Consequently, the Court of Cessations, Brussels ordered that that practice be discontinued.

Impexeco and PI Pharma, respectively, appealed against those two judgments before the referring court.

Before that court, they argue that the practices of using different packaging and different trade marks for the same product both contribute to the partitioning of Member States’ markets and, therefore, have the same adverse effect on trade within the European Union.

Relying on paragraphs 38 to 40 of the judgment of 12 October 1999, Upjohn (C‑379/97, EU:C:1999:494), Impexeco and PI Pharma submit that the opposition of the proprietor of a trade mark to the reaffixing of a trade mark by a parallel importer constitutes an obstacle to intra-Community trade creating artificial partitioning of the markets between Member States, where such reaffixing is necessary in order for the products concerned to be marketed by that importer in the importing Member State. That case-law can be applied to a situation in which a generic medicinal product is given a new marking by affixing the trade mark of the reference medicinal product, where those medicinal products have been placed on the market in the EEA by economically linked undertakings.

Novartis submits that, under Article 13(1) of Regulation No 207/2009 and Article 2.23(3) of the Benelux Convention, the rights conferred by a trade mark may be exhausted only in respect of goods which have been placed on the market in the EEA ‘under that trade mark’ by the proprietor or with its consent, and not where a parallel importer gives the goods concerned a new marking.

Taking the view, in those circumstances, that the disputes pending before it raise questions of interpretation of EU law, the hof van beroep te Brussel (Court of Appeal, Brussels, Belgium) decided to stay the proceedings and to refer the following questions, which are worded identically in Cases C‑253/20 and C‑254/20, to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling:

(1) Must Articles 34 to 36 TFEU be interpreted as meaning that, where a branded medicine (reference medicine) and a generic medicine have been put on the market in the EEA by economically linked undertakings, a trade mark proprietor’s opposition to the further commercialisation of the generic medicine by a parallel importer after the repackaging of that generic medicine by the affixing to it of the trade mark of the branded medicine (reference medicine) in the country of importation may lead to an artificial partitioning of the markets of the Member States?

(2) If the answer to that question is in the affirmative, must the trade mark proprietor’s opposition to that [new marking] be assessed by reference to the … conditions [set out in paragraph 79 of the judgment of 11 July 1996, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Others (C‑427/93, C‑429/93 and C‑436/93, EU:C:1996:282)]?

(3) Is it relevant to the answer to those questions that the generic medicine and the branded medicine (reference medicine) are identical or have the same therapeutic effect as referred to in Article 3(2) of the … Royal Decree of 19 April 2001 on parallel imports [of medicinal products for human use and the parallel distribution of medicinal products for human and veterinary use, as amended by the Royal Decree of 21 January 2011]?’

The EU Court decision:

Article 9(2) and Article 13 of Council Regulation (EC) No 207/2009 of 26 February 2009 on the European Union trade mark, as amended by Regulation (EU) 2015/2424 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2015, and Article 5(1) and Article 7 of Directive 2008/95/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 October 2008 to approximate the laws of the Member States relating to trade marks, read in the light of Articles 34 and 36 TFEU,

must be interpreted as meaning that the proprietor of the trade mark of a reference medicinal product and the trade mark of a generic medicinal product may oppose the placing on the market of a Member State, by a parallel importer, of that generic medicinal product imported from another Member State, where that medicinal product has been repackaged in new outer packaging to which the trade mark of the corresponding reference medicinal product has been affixed, unless, first, the two medicinal products are identical in all respects and, second, the replacement of the trade mark satisfies the conditions laid down in paragraph 79 of the judgment of 11 July 1996, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Others (C‑427/93, C‑429/93 and C‑436/93, EU:C:1996:282); in paragraph 32 of the judgment of 26 April 2007, Boehringer Ingelheim and Others (C‑348/04, EU:C:2007:249); and in paragraph 28 of the judgment of 17 May 2018, Junek Europ-Vertrieb (C‑642/16, EU:C:2018:322).

Amazon may be liable for trademark infringement after a European Court decision

The European Court has ruled in joined cases C‑148/21 et C‑184/21Christian Louboutin v Amazon

The main issue that focuses our attention, in this case, is whether Amazon can be liable for unauthorized use of trademarks shown in ads of third parties.

As it is well-known, Amazon is the biggest online retailer in the world offering a myriad of goods, directly or through third parties that use Amazon’s platform to sell their products.

The problem arises when these third parties offer fake goods bearing trademarks of other companies without permission and promote them through Amazon ads.

Several months ago, the Advocate General of the EU Court Maciej Szpunar gave its opinion that in such a situation Amazon is not liable for ads that infringe other trademarks, because the company does to use these marks itself.

The European Court, however, disagreed with the Advocate General, and conclude that Amazon may be liable for trademark infringement related to such ads.

The reason for this is the fact that Amazon itself uses ads to promote the same, but original, goods. These ads are very similar to those used by third parties but for fake goods. Thus it is difficult for consumers to make a distinction between the ads which in turn can lead to misleading about the fact that the fake goods can originate from Amazon. From that perspective, Amazon can be held liable for unauthorized trademark use.

In addition, the possible confusion between the ads is enhanced by the fact that Amazon is often involved in the storage, shipping, and management of returns for third-party products on its sites.

Source: Marks & Clerk – Megan Rannard for Lexology.

Using a trademark as a decorative element is not the best option for its protection in the EU

The General Court of the European Union has ruled in the case T‑323/21 Castel Frères v Shanghai Panati Co., which reminds us how essential is one registered mark to be used correctly in order for its protection to be viable.

The case has the following background:

On 29 May 2018, Shanghai Panati Co filed an application with EUIPO for revocation of the EU trademark that had been registered further to an application filed on 17 March 2008 for the following figurative sign:

The goods covered by the contested mark, in respect of which a declaration of invalidity was sought, were inter alia in Class 33 of the Nice Agreement: ‘Still wines’.

The ground relied on in support of the application for revocation was the lack of genuine use of the contested mark within a continuous period of five years.

Evidence was submitted by Castel Frères that the mark was used for wine labels in the following way:

On 3 April 2020, the Cancellation Division rejected the application for revocation.

On 24 April 2020, Shanghai Panati Co. filed a notice of appeal with EUIPO against the decision of the Cancellation Division.

By the contested decision, the Board of Appeal upheld the appeal and revoked the contested mark. The Board of Appeal found, in essence, that the differences between the contested mark and the mark as used were such as to alter the distinctive character of the contested mark.

The Court upheld this decision.

According to the Court, it must be borne in mind that the contested mark in its registered form is a figurative mark consisting of three characters from the Chinese alphabet. As the Board of Appeal correctly notes the relevant public will not be able to verbalise or to memorise those Chinese characters, which will rather be perceived as meaningless, abstract signs or as decorative elements referring to China or to Asia. It is appropriate, therefore, to find that, with regard to the goods at issue, the Chinese characters forming the contested mark have a lower-than-average degree of distinctive character.

In that regard, it must be emphasised that on the product packaging or in the advertisements, the contested mark, which appears in a very small size, is almost systematically accompanied by the word elements ‘dragon de chine’ and by the representation of a dragon, which appear together and are very close to one another. Moreover, in so far as the contested mark is composed of three characters from the Chinese alphabet, in a very small size, the added elements are always clearly visible and dominate the overall impression.

The Board of Appeal was therefore right to find that the contested mark as used, that is to say, in an ancillary position and in a much smaller size than the distinctive and dominant word elements ‘dragon de chine’ and the representation of a dragon, would be perceived by the relevant public as a decorative element and not as an indication of origin of the goods.

That finding cannot be called into question by the argument that, in essence, it is common in the wine sector for two or more trademarks to be used jointly and autonomously on labels, with or without the name of the manufacturer’s company, as is the case here with the mark Dragon de Chine. It must be stated that the word elements ‘dragon de chine’ are always clearly visible in that they occupy a dominant position in the overall impression created by the mark as used. In any event, even if it were established that those elements are a trademark, the fact remains that that is not capable of weakening the alteration by those terms of the distinctive character of the contested mark, since the relevant public no longer perceives those three characters from the Chinese alphabet as an indication of the origin of the goods in question, in accordance with the case-law.

Having regard to the above examination of the distinctive and dominant character of the added elements, based on the intrinsic qualities of each of those elements and on the relative position of the various elements, it must be held that the variations in use demonstrated alter the distinctive character of the contested mark as registered, as the Board of Appeal rightly found.

This decision comes to remind us that one trademark should always be used as an indication of trade origin and not as a complimentary or decorative element. In a similar case, Apple lost a dispute regarding its trademark Think Differently because of the way the mark was used on the package of the product.

Is the re-use of branded carbonated gas bottles allowed – an EU Court ruling

The European Court has ruled in the case C‑197/21 Soda-Club (CO2) SA, SodaStream International BV v MySoda Oy. The main question, in this case, is whether refilled by someone else carbonated gas bottles infringes the trademark rights of the original producer of the bottles. The dispute has the following background:

SodaStream, a multinational corporation, manufactures and sells carbonation devices that enable consumers to make carbonated water and flavored carbonated beverages from tap water. In Finland, SodaStream markets these devices with a refillable carbon dioxide bottle, which it also sells separately. The companies that form SodaStream are the owners of the European Union trademarks and the national trademarks “SODASTREAM” and “SODA-CLUB”. The specified brands are found on the label and engraved on the aluminum body of these bottles.

MySoda, a company based in Finland, markets in that Member State carbonation devices under the brand name ‘MySoda’ in packaging that does not normally include a carbon dioxide bottle. Since June 2016, MySoda has been offering Finnish-filled carbon dioxide bottles for sale, which are compatible with both its own carbonators and those of SodaStream. Some of these bottles were originally marketed by SodaStream.

After receiving empty SodaStream bottles returned by consumers through distributors, MySoda refills them with carbon dioxide. It replaces the original labels with its own, leaving visible the SodaStream branding engraved on the bottles’ bodies.

For this purpose, MySoda uses two different labels. The first has the MySoda logo and the words “Finnish carbon dioxide for carbonation equipment” in large print in pink, and in small print MySoda’s name as the company that filled the bottle, as well as a link to its website for more detailed information. The second white label has the words “carbon dioxide” in capital letters in five different languages, and among the product information, in small print, MySoda’s name as the company that filled the bottle, as well as a statement that it has no relation to the original supplier of the bottle or his company or the claimed brand that appears on the bottle. In addition, this label contains a link to the MySoda website for more information.

SodaStream initiated a lawsuit for trademark infringement. The Supreme Court of Finland wasn’t sure whether such refilling and use of a trademark was a real infringement and asked the EU Court for clarification.

According to the EU Court:

Article 15, paragraph 2 of Regulation (EU) 2017/1001 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 14 June 2017 on the European Union trademark and Article 15, paragraph 2 of Directive (EU) 2015/2436 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 December 2015 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States on trademarks

shall be interpreted to mean that:

the proprietor of a trademark who has placed on the market in a Member State good bearing that trademark which are intended for repeated use and refilling, shall not be entitled under these provisions to oppose the further marketing of those goods in that Member State by a reseller, who has refilled them and replaced the original brand label with another label, leaving the original brand visible on those goods, unless this new label gives consumers the false impression that there is an economic relationship between the reseller and the brand owner. This likelihood of confusion must be assessed in light of the information on the product and its new label, as well as distribution practices in the relevant sector and the extent to which consumers are aware of those practices.

(unofficial translation from the Court’s decision)

Access to personal data in case of copyright infringements in the EU

The Advocate General of the European Court M. SZPUNAR has issue an opinion in the case C‑470/21 La Quadrature du Net, Fédération des fournisseurs d’accès à Internet associatifs, Franciliens.net, French Data Network v Premier ministre, Ministère de la Culture.

The dispute concerns the scope of access to personal data in case of copyright infringements on the internet. The case has the following background:

By application of 12 August 2019 and two supplementary submissions of 12 November 2019 and 6 May 2021, La Quadrature du Net, the Fédération des fournisseurs d’accès à Internet associatifs, Franciliens.net and French Data Network brought an action before the Council of State for annulment of the implied decision by which the Prime Minister, France rejected their application for the repeal of the Decree of 5 March 2010, even though, in their view, that decree and the provisions constituting its legal basis unreasonably interfere with the rights guaranteed by the French Constitution and, in addition, infringe Article 15 of Directive 2002/58 and Articles 7, 8, 11, and 52 of the Charter.

In particular, the applicants in the main proceedings argue that the Decree of 5 March 2010 and the provisions constituting its legal basis permit access to connection data in a manner which is disproportionate to minor copyright infringements committed online, without prior review by a court or an authority offering guarantees of independence and impartiality.

In that regard, the referring court states, first of all, that the Court, in its most recent judgment in La Quadrature du Net and Others, held that Article 15(1) of Directive 2002/58, read in the light of Articles 7, 8 and 11 and Article 52(1) of the Charter, does not preclude legislative measures which, for the purposes of safeguarding national security, combating crime and safeguarding public security, provide for the general and indiscriminate retention of data relating to the civil identity of users of electronic communications systems. Thus, such retention is permissible, without any specific time limit being imposed, for the purposes of investigating, detecting and prosecuting criminal offences in general.

The referring court infers from this that the plea raised by the applicants in the main proceedings, alleging that the Decree of 5 March 2010 is unlawful because it was adopted in the context of action to combat minor offences, must therefore be dismissed.

Next, the referring court observes that the Court, in its judgment in Tele2 Sverige and Watson, held that Article 15(1) of Directive 2002/58, read in the light of Articles 7, 8 and 11 and Article 52(1) of the Charter, must be interpreted as precluding national legislation governing the protection and security of traffic and location data, and more particularly, the access of the competent national authorities to retained data, where that access is not subject to a prior review by a court or an independent administrative authority.

It states that the Court, in its judgment in Tele2, made clear that, in order to ensure, in practice, that those conditions are fully respected, it is essential that access of the competent national authorities to retained data should, as a general rule, except in cases of validly established urgency, be subject to the requirement of a prior review carried out either by a court or by an independent administrative body, and that the decision of that court or body should be made following a reasoned request by those authorities submitted, inter alia, within the framework of procedures for the prevention, detection or prosecution of crime.

The referring court points out that the Court recalled that requirement in its judgment in La Quadrature du Net and Others, concerning the real-time collection of connection data by the intelligence services, and in its judgment in Prokuratuur (Conditions of access to data relating to electronic communications), concerning national authorities’ access to connection data.

Finally, the referring court notes that, since its establishment in 2009, Hadopi has issued over 12.7 million recommendations to subscribers under the graduated response procedure provided for in Article L 331-25 of the CPI, of which 827 791 were issued in 2019 alone. To that end, the officials of Hadopi’s Committee for the protection of rights must be able to collect, each year, a considerable volume of data relating to the civil identity of the users concerned. The referring court considers that, given the volume of those recommendations, making such data collection subject to a prior review might make it impossible for recommendations to be issued at all.

In those circumstances, the Conseil d’État (Council of State) decided to stay the proceedings and to refer the following questions to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling:

‘(1)  Are the civil identity data corresponding to an IP address included among the traffic and location data to which, in principle, the requirement [of] prior review by a court or an independent administrative entity [whose decisions are binding] applies?

(2) If the first question is answered in the affirmative, and having regard to the fact that the data relating to the civil identity of users, including their contact details, are not particularly sensitive data, is Directive [2002/58], read in the light of the [Charter], to be interpreted as precluding national legislation which provides for the collection of those data, corresponding to the IP addresses of users, by an administrative authority, without prior review by a court or an independent administrative entity [whose decisions are binding]?

(3)  If the second question is answered in the affirmative, and having regard to the fact that the data relating to civil identity are not particularly sensitive data, that only those data may be collected and they may be collected solely for the purposes of preventing failures to fulfil obligations which have been defined precisely, exhaustively and restrictively by national law, and that the systematic review of access to the data of each user by a court or a third-party administrative entity [whose decisions are binding] would be liable to jeopardise the fulfilment of the public service [mission] entrusted to the administrative authority which collects those data, which is itself independent, does [Directive 2002/58] preclude the review from being performed in an adapted fashion, for example as an automated review, as the case may be under the supervision of a department within the body which offers guarantees of independence and impartiality in relation to the officials who have the task of collecting the data?’

The Advocate’s opinion:

Article 15(1) of Directive 2002/58/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 12 July 2002 concerning the processing of personal data and the protection of privacy in the electronic communications sector (Directive on privacy and electronic communications), read in the light of Articles 7, 8, 11 and Article 52(1) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union,

must be interpreted as not precluding national legislation which allows providers of electronic communications services to retain, and an administrative authority, responsible for protecting copyright and related rights against infringements of those rights committed on the internet, to access data which is limited to civil identity data corresponding to IP addresses, so that that authority can identify the holders of those addresses suspected of having committed those infringements and, if appropriate, take action against them, where that access is not subject to a prior review by a court or an independent administrative body, provided that those data are the only means of investigation enabling the person to whom that address was assigned at the time of the commission of the infringement to be identified.

Proving ownership of intellectual property rights in case of infringements in the EU

The Advocate General of the European Union A. RANTOS has issued an opinion in the case C-628/21 TB, Castorama Polska Sp. z o.o., „Knor“ Sp. z o.o.

This dispute concerns when and to what extent IP ownership has to be proved in the process of collecting information for IP infringements on the territory of the EU. The case has the following background:

TB is a natural person who, through her online shops, markets decorative articles. In the context of her economic activity, she sells reproductions, produced mechanically by the applicant herself, with simple graphics, consisting of a limited number of colours and geometric figures and short sentences. In that regard, images A, B and C (‘the reproductions at issue’) contain, respectively, the following sentences: ‘Mój dom moje zasady’ (‘In my house, I make the rules’); ‘Nie ma ludzi idealnych a jednak jestem’ (‘Perfect persons do not exist, and yet I am one’) and ‘W naszym domu rano słychać tupot małych stopek. Zawsze pachnie pysznym ciastem. Mamy dużo obowiązków, mnóstwo zabawy i miłości’ (‘In our house, the sound of tiny feet can be heard. There is always the aroma of delicious cake. We have many obligations, much pleasure and much love’). TB claims to be the creator of the images which she reproduces, which in her contention are works for the purposes of the legislation on copyright.

Exact copies of images A and B, supplied by ‘Knor’ Sp. z o.o. (‘Knor’), are sold without TB’s consent in the ‘bricks and mortar’ shops and online shop of Castorama Polska Sp. z o.o. (‘Castorama’). Neither TB’s reproductions of those images nor the reproductions offered by Castorama indicate the author or the origin of those images. Castorama also sells reproductions, supplied by Knor, with identical wording to that of image C, but with certain differences in terms of their graphics and fonts. On 13 October 2020, TB gave notice to Castorama to cease and desist its infringements of the economic and moral copyright in the works created by her which that company was selling without her consent.

On 15 December 2020, TB brought an action before the Regional Court, Warsaw, the referring court, under Article 479113 of the Code of Civil Procedure. In the course of those proceedings, she requested Castorama and Knor to provide her with information, concerning the reproductions at issue, on the distribution networks and the quantity of goods received and ordered, a complete list of suppliers, the date on which the goods were placed on sale in Castorama’s ‘bricks and mortar’ shops and online shop, the quantity involved and the price derived from the sale of the goods, broken down into physical sales and online sales. TB relied on her economic and moral copyright in the reproductions at issue and stated that the information requested was necessary for the purpose of bringing an action for infringement of her copyright and, in the alternative, an action for damages for unfair competition.

Castorama contended that that request for information should be refused and, in the alternative, that the scope of the judicial decision should be as narrow as possible, strictly limited to works classified as such for the purposes of the legislation on copyright, and disputed the very possibility that the reproductions at issue might be classified as ‘works’. It also relied on the protection of business secrets and claimed that TB had not proved that she held the economic copyright in those reproductions. In Castorama’s contention, the intellectual works to which TB’s request refers are not original and TB has not proved that the ‘novelty’ condition was satisfied. Granting her request would amount to affording copyright protection to ideas and concepts, because the reproductions at issue belong to the current fashion for ‘simplified motivational artworks’ with trite sentences. Castorama maintained, moreover, that all the graphic elements of the reproductions at issue are trite and repetitive and are not distinguished in any original manner, as far as concerns composition, colours or the fonts used, from the other images available on the market.

In answer to those arguments, TB did not adduce any evidence to prove the existence of an intellectual property right in the reproductions at issue and calling for special knowledge (with a view to an expert report) in the field of graphics and design. The evidence which she produced in her application of 15 December 2020 consisted of printouts of pages of articles on sale in her online shops and of sales invoices from 2014, and also of printouts of pages from Castorama’s websites and sales invoices of images in the latter’s online shops.

When examining TB’s request, the referring court was uncertain about the interpretation to be given to Article 8(1) of Directive 2004/48, in particular as regards the question whether it is necessary to adduce proof of the legal nature of the asset to which the request for information relates, or merely to lend credence to it, in view of the fact that Articles 6 and 7 of that directive use different formulations and that Article 4 of that directive refers to the ‘holders of intellectual property rights’. The referring court’s doubts also related to the possibility that a different standard of proof might be applied as regards the status of the reproductions at issue, namely whether or not they are works, and consequently on TB’s standing to bring proceedings.

The referring court observes that Article 479113 of the Code of Civil Procedure constitutes the transposition of Article 8 of Directive 2004/48 and that Article 47989 of that code, which defines the scope of intellectual property cases, refers, in paragraph 2(1), to cases relating to ‘the prevention and combating of unfair competition’. Referring to recital 13 of that directive, (5) the referring court emphasises that, for the purposes of the present case, although the Polish case-law has not yet given an unequivocal answer to that question, that court accepts the interpretation according to which national law extended, for domestic purposes, the application of that directive to acts involving unfair competition which consist in producing exact copies of goods, even if those goods are not the subject of exclusive rights such a those of the copyright holder. In the light of those factors, as regards the part of the request relating to images A and B, no problem of interpretation of EU law arises, since TB has proved that Castorama has sold reproductions consisting of exact copies of those images.

On the other hand, in order to adjudicate on the request relating to image C, it is necessary to interpret EU law, since the reproduction sold by Castorama is not an exact copy of that image, in that the text has been reproduced and its position on the page has been retained, but with the use of other graphic elements and other fonts. According to the Polish case-law, which coincides with the Court’s, (6) it is for the court dealing with the matter to examine the creative characteristics of a work. In that regard, according to the referring court, where the facts of the case are complex and the judge’s experience is insufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to an expert’s opinion, while the burden of proof and responsibility for requesting an expert report are generally borne by the applicant.

Polish legal commentators have expressed two contradictory viewpoints on the interpretation of Article 479113 of the Code of Civil Procedure and have considered either that the applicant must adduce proof that she is the holder of the intellectual property right in question or that she is not required to prove the infringement of the protected right, but is required merely to lend credence to such an infringement, since the request for information may also be addressed to a third party.

The referring court states that in its view Article 8(1) of Directive 2004/48, read in conjunction with Article 4 of that directive, must be interpreted as meaning that it refers to a measure to protect intellectual property rights only when the ownership of the intellectual property right is proved and that credence being lent to the fact that that measure relates to an existing intellectual property right is not sufficient, since it is necessary to adduce proof of that circumstance, in particular where the request for information on the origin and the distribution networks of goods or services precedes the assertion of claims for compensation on account of an infringement of intellectual property rights.

In those circumstances, the Sąd Okręgowy w Warszawie (Regional Court, Warsaw) decided to stay the proceedings and to refer the following questions to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling:

‘(1) Should Article 8(1) read in conjunction with Article 4(1) of [Directive 2004/48] be understood to refer to a measure to protect intellectual property rights only when the rightholder’s intellectual property right has been confirmed in these or other proceedings?

–   if Question (1) is answered in the negative:

(2) Should Article 8(1) …, read in conjunction with Article 4(1) of Directive [2004/48] be interpreted as meaning that it is sufficient to lend credence to the fact that that measure refers to an existing intellectual property right, and not to prove that circumstance, especially in a case where a request for information about the origin and distribution networks of goods or services precedes the assertion of claims for compensation on account of an infringement of intellectual property rights?’

The Advocate’s opinion:

In the light of the foregoing considerations, I propose that the Court of Justice should answer the questions for a preliminary ruling referred by the Sąd Okręgowy w Warszawie (Regional Court, Warsaw, Poland) as follows:

Article 8(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 meaning that in the context of an action relating to an infringement of an intellectual property right, the applicant must lend credence, by submitting sufficient evidence, to the fact that he or she is the holder of the intellectual property right in question, in particular where the request for information precedes the assertion of claims for compensation on account of the infringement of the intellectual property right. The national court must also assess the merits of that request and take due account of all the objective circumstances of the case, including the conduct of the parties, in order to ascertain, in particular, that the applicant has not abused that request.