The European Court has ruled in case C‑172/18 AMS Netve Ltd, Barnett Waddingham Trustees, Mark Crabtree v Heritage Audio SL, Pedro Rodríguez Arribas. This case concerns the territory where a trademark lawsuit has to be initiated in case of online sales. In details:
AMS Neve is a company established in the United Kingdom which manufactures and sells audio equipment. BW Trustees, also established in the United Kingdom, is the trustee of the AMS Neve executive pension scheme. Mr Crabtree is a director of AMS Neve.
Heritage Audio is a company established in Spain which sells and supplies audio equipment. Mr Rodríguez Arribas, who is domiciled in Spain, is the sole director of Heritage Audio.
On 15 October 2015 AMS Neve, BW Trustees and Mr Crabtree brought an action against Heritage Audio and Mr Rodríguez Arribas before the Intellectual Property and Enterprise Court (United Kingdom) claiming infringement of an EU trade mark of which BW Trustees and Mr Crabtree are the proprietors and for the use of which AMS Neve is exclusively licensed.
Their action concerns, in addition, the alleged infringement of two marks registered in the United Kingdom of which BW Trustees and Mr Crabtree are also the proprietors.
The EU trade mark relied on consists of the figure 1073 and was registered for goods within Class 9 of the Nice Agreement concerning the International Classification of Goods and Services for the Purposes of the Registration of Marks of 15 June 1957, as revised and amended. The description of the goods covered is in part as follows: ‘sound studio recording, mixing and processing equipment’.
The defendants in the main proceedings are alleged to have offered for sale to consumers in the United Kingdom imitations of goods of AMS Neve bearing a sign that is identical or similar to that EU trade mark and to the national trade marks or referring to that sign, and to have advertised those products.
The applicants in the main proceedings have submitted documents in support of their action, including the contents of the Heritage Audio website and the latter’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, an invoice issued by Heritage Audio to an individual residing in the United Kingdom and correspondence between Heritage Audio and a person established in the United Kingdom concerning possible deliveries of audio equipment.
The applicants in the main proceedings have in particular submitted screenshots from that website on which they claim appeared offers to sell audio equipment bearing a sign identical or similar to that EU trade mark. They have stressed that the offers for sale are worded in English and that a section headed ‘where to buy’ lists distributors established in various countries, including the United Kingdom. Further, they claim that it is apparent from the general sale conditions that Heritage Audio accepts orders from any EU Member State.
The defendants in the main proceedings pleaded that the court before which the action was brought had no jurisdiction.
While the defendants do not deny that Heritage Audio products might have been purchased, in the United Kingdom, through other companies, they assert that they have not, themselves, either advertised in the United Kingdom or made any sales in that Member State. They further assert that they have never appointed a distributor for the United Kingdom. Last, they contend that the content displayed on the Heritage Audio website and on the platforms to which the applicants in the main proceedings refer was, by the time of the period covered by the infringement action, obsolete and ought not therefore to be taken into account.
By judgment of 18 October 2016, the Intellectual Property and Enterprise Court held that it had no jurisdiction to hear the infringement action in so far as that action is based on the EU trade mark at issue.
That court states that the applicants in the main proceedings submitted evidence capable of proving that the Heritage Audio website was directed to, inter alia, the United Kingdom. That court considers, further, that the facts of the dispute before it enable it to find that Mr Rodríguez Arribas is jointly liable for the acts of Heritage Audio and that the courts of the United Kingdom have jurisdiction to hear the case in so far as that dispute concerns the protection of national intellectual property rights.
The Intellectual Property and Enterprise Court considers, on the other hand, that that dispute, in so far as it concerns infringement of the EU trade mark, is subject, in accordance with Article 97(1) of Regulation No 207/2009, to the jurisdiction of the courts of the Member State in whose territory the defendant is domiciled, in this case the Kingdom of Spain. The Intellectual Property and Enterprise Court adds that the jurisdiction of the Spanish courts also stems from Article 97(5) of that regulation, under which infringement actions may also be brought before the courts of the Member State in whose territory the act of infringement has been committed.
As regards the latter provision, the Intellectual Property and Enterprise Court considers that the court which has territorial jurisdiction to hear an action brought by the proprietor of a mark against a third party that has used signs identical or similar to that mark in advertising and offers for sale on a website or on social media platforms is the court with jurisdiction over the place where the third party decided to place that advertising or to offer for sale products on that site or on those platforms and took steps to give effect to that decision.
The referring court considers that the court of first instance, while referring in its judgment to certain judgments of the Court, such as those of 19 April 2012, Wintersteiger (C‑523/10, EU:C:2012:220), and of 5 June 2014, Coty Germany (C‑360/12, EU:C:2014:1318), misinterpreted those judgments and the case-law of the Court in general.
The referring court is of the opinion that such an interpretation would lead, in essence, to a finding that ‘the Member State in which the act of infringement has been committed’, within the meaning of Article 97(5) of Regulation No 207/2009, is the Member State in which the defendant set up its website and its social media accounts. According to the referring court, it follows, however, from the wording, purpose and context of that provision that the territory of the Member State subject to that provision is that in which the consumers or traders to whom the advertising and offers for sale are directed are resident.
The referring court adds that the Bundesgerichtshof (Federal Court of Justice, Germany), in its ‘Parfummarken’ judgment of 9 November 2017 (I ZR 164/16), held that the interpretation of the wording ‘law of the country in which the act of infringement was committed’, in Article 8(2) of Regulation (EC) No 864/2007 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 July 2007 on the law applicable to non-contractual obligations (Rome II) (OJ 2007 L 199, p. 40), adopted in the judgment of 27 September 2017, Nintendo (C‑24/16 and C‑25/16, EU:C:2017:724), can be transposed to Article 97(5) of Regulation No 207/2009. However, the referring court has some doubts with regard to that finding of the Bundesgerichtshof.
In those circumstances, the Court of Appeal (England & Wales) (Civil Division) decided to stay proceedings and to refer to the Court the following question for a preliminary ruling, adding in its decision that that question concerns the interpretation of Article 97(5) of Regulation No 207/2009:
‘In circumstances where an undertaking is established and domiciled in Member State A and has taken steps in that territory to advertise and offer for sale goods under a sign identical to an EU trade mark on a website targeted at traders and consumers in Member State B:
(i) does an EU trade mark court in Member State B have jurisdiction to hear a claim for infringement of the EU trade mark in respect of the advertisement and offer for sale of the goods in that territory?
(ii) if not, which other criteria are to be taken into account by that EU trade mark court in determining whether it has jurisdiction to hear that claim?
(iii) in so far as the answer to (ii) requires that EU trade mark court to identify whether the undertaking has taken active steps in Member State B, which criteria are to be taken into account in determining whether the undertaking has taken such active steps?’
The Court’s decision:
Article 97(5) of Council Regulation (EC) No 207/2009 of 26 February 2009 on the [European Union] trade mark must be interpreted as meaning that the proprietor of a European Union trade mark who considers that his rights have been infringed by the use without his consent, by a third party, of a sign identical to that mark in advertising and offers for sale displayed electronically in relation to products that are identical or similar to the goods for which that mark is registered, may bring an infringement action against that third party before a European Union trade mark court of the Member State within which the consumers or traders to whom that advertising and those offers for sale are directed are located, notwithstanding that that third party took decisions and steps in another Member State to bring about that electronic display.