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Thursday, June 9, 2016

CJEU Case C 230/15: Advocate General advices interpretation "à caractère non formaliste"

On 26 May, European Court of Justice Advocate-General Saugmandsgaard Øe delivered his opinion in case C 230/15 (ECLI:EU:C:2016:366). The case may sound trivial: the The Hague court asked (in ECLI:NL:RBDHA:2015:5716) whether the Dutch courts and/or the Luxembourg courts have jurisdiction regarding the validity of Benelux mark 0877058 "Brite-Strike"?

The case is however relevant to put to rest a difference of judicial opinion on which jurisdiction rules apply regarding Benelux marks (and Benelux industrial designs): those in the Benelux Convention on Intellectual Property (BCIP) or those in the Brussels I regulation (EC 44/2001 when this case started, presently EU 1215/2012). See earlier posts on the exact questions referred to CJEU and how Belgian and Dutch judges have treated the matter in the past years.

Saugmandsgaard Øe is a new CJEU AG, so we have not seen much about him. In this opinion he is -in my opinion- sensible, his opinion can easily be followed, but it seems also slightly activist. Despite the wealth of judgements calling for a literal interpretation of Brussels I, Øe here strongly relies on the intention of the regulation. But I am getting ahead of myself, let's examine his points first:

This is a general problem

While the case at hand may be solved by giving a narrow answer regarding jurisdiction (focussing on a trademark invalidity rather than infringement of rights etc), the AG agrees with the Dutch court that the general problem is the hierarchy between BCIP and Brussels I and suggests the questions is treated that way (few! any narrowing down would give rise to more questions!)

Two formal requirements; and one more...

The AG first notes that the conflict between other conventions is treated in Article 71.1 and 71.2(a)
1. This Regulation shall not affect any conventions to which the Member States are parties and which in relation to particular matters, govern jurisdiction or the recognition or enforcement of judgments. 
2. With a view to its uniform interpretation, paragraph 1 shall be applied in the following manner:
  1. (a)  this Regulation shall not prevent a court of a Member State, which is a party to a convention on a particular matter, from assuming jurisdiction in accordance with that convention, even where the defendant is domiciled in another Member State which is not a party to that convention. The court hearing the action shall, in any event, apply Article 26 of this Regulation; (...)
and that thus -unlike other private international law EU regulations- it does not explicitly replace all pre-existing conventions between EU states. He concludes that 3 requirements have to be met for conventions to have precedence over Brussels I:

  1. It should govern a particular matter
  2. the Member States should already be a party to the other convention
  3. The jurisdiction rules cannot go against the objectives of EU law.
Point 1: A particular matter
The first point is relatively easy: the jurisdiction rules only govern Benelux Trademarks and Designs (the AG can't stop himself from pointing out that despite the wide scope suggested by the name of the convention on Intellectual Property, it only governs those two types), that that's clearly a particular matter. 

Point 2: EU countries should already be a party
This rule was new in the Regulation compared to the Brussels convention it replaced. So from around 2001 (approval of the regulation) or 2003 (entry into force) no new conventions could take precedence anymore. The BCIP is from 2005 and thus clearly a younger (or: posterior) convention and thus the European Commission argued that the convention should not take precedence. Saugsmandsgaard however notices the special character of the 2005 convention: it was a new convention merging and modernising  2 conventions regarding Benelux trademarks (1971) and industrial designs (1975). The jurisdiction rules in those conventions were essentially the same and were merely copied into the 2005 convention. Saugsmandsgaard thus concludes (in an approach he considers "à caractère non formaliste") the jurisdiction rules in relation to the matter they governed (trademarks/designs) should be considered older: the BCIP should thus NOT be regarded a posterior convention. 
point 3: The jurisdiction rules cannot go against the objectives of EU law
The third point doesn't stem from an interpretation of the text of article 71 per se, but from CJEU case law. The AG refers to C 533/08 (ECLI:EU:C:2010:243, TNT Express v AXA), requires those rules not to be applied against the objectives of EU law:
 While it is apparent from the foregoing considerations that Article 71 of Regulation No 44/2001 provides, in relation to matters governed by specialised conventions, for the application of those conventions, the fact remains that their application cannot compromise the principles which underlie judicial cooperation in civil and commercial matters in the European Union, such as the principles, recalled in recitals 6, 11, 12 and 15 to 17 in the preamble to Regulation No 44/2001, of free movement of judgments in civil and commercial matters, predictability as to the courts having jurisdiction and therefore legal certainty for litigants, sound administration of justice, minimisation of the risk of concurrent proceedings, and mutual trust in the administration of justice in the European Union.
In evaluating whether in BCIP this criterion is met, the AG notes that unitary intellectual property rights (the EU Trademark, the Community Design, the unitary patent, but even the European patent as far as proceedings for the EPO are concerned) are always treated specifically as the general Brussels I rules are not adapted to it. The AG thus argues that using the BCIP obtains a better result than applying 44/2001. 


The AG thus concludes that BCIP jurisdiction rules should govern Benelux trademarks and designs and thus dismisses decision ECLI:NL:GHDHA:2013:4466 of the Hague Court of Appeal of 2013 that started the confusion: before that case BCIP was always applied without discussion, but that court came to the opposite conclusion (Brussels I prevails) and was so certain that it explicitly remarked that it deemed CJEU questions not necessary. If followed, that is a welcome and sensible outcome!