EU Expands Enforcement Protections Against Counterfeit Goods: What IP Rights Holders Should Know

Last month, the European Parliament passed legislation and the European Court of Justice (CJEU) handed down a ruling that expands trade-related intellectual property (IP) protections in the European Union (EU) and beyond. Particularly, the European Parliament passed laws granting EU customs officials the ability to detain trademark counterfeit transshipments transiting the EU, while the CJEU ruled that EU customs authorities can seize counterfeit goods in the EU that were purchased for personal use from sellers outside the EU. Although these are positive developments that provide IP rights holders the ability to stem the flow of infringing goods, and ultimately better enforce their IP rights across borders, they also have important requirements and limitations that need to be understood.

Counterfeit Transshipments. On February 25th, the European Parliament approved amendments to the EU’s main trademark act (Council Regulation (EC) 207/2009) that will permit EU customs authorities to seize suspected trademark counterfeit goods that are being transshipped through the EU. According to reports, these reforms follow previous limitations on customs seizures that were handed down in recent CJEU decisions. Particularly, a joint 2011 CJEU decision (Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV v. Lucheng Meijing Industrial Co. Ltd. (C-446/09) and Nokia Corporation v. HMRC (C-495/09)) held that copyright and trademark counterfeit goods could only be seized by EU customs officials if they were intended for sale in the EU, and not merely transiting through EU territory.

The new Directive (T7-0118/2014) is an attempt to reverse (in part) the 2011 joint CJEU ruling by granting EU trademark owners expanded rights to legal action. According to the legislative text, a EU trademark owner will have the right to prevent others from bringing non-circulated goods into the EU that bear the owner’s trademark without authorization. This includes the “right to request national customs authorities to take action in respect of goods which allegedly infringe the [IP rights holder’s] rights.”

Beyond giving IP rights holders valuable protection against the flow of counterfeit goods into the EU, the Directive also has IP protection implications beyond Europe. According to the latest statistics available from the World Shipping Council, eight of the 50 largest container ports in the world are located in the EU. The Directive thereby gives IP rights holders the ability to stop counterfeit goods leaving a substantial number of the world’s major transshipment points, thereby limiting the global dissemination of goods infringing their marks.

Although the reforms are a welcomed enhancement of cross-border protections for IP rights holders, there are a few considerations and limitations IP rights holders should be aware of:

Trademarks Only. The Directive only applies to trademarks. Although an IP rights holder can register their EU trademarks, copyright, patents and geographical indications for monitoring by EU customs officials, the Directive’s transshipment protections only apply to trademark counterfeit goods. Similar measures may be soon adopted to prevent transshipments of counterfeit copyright goods through the EU as the European Commission is currently evaluating copyright reforms. Yet, the Directive’s exclusion of copyright counterfeit goods is particularly problematic as copyright counterfeit goods constitute a substantial amount of counterfeit goods being transshipped through the EU and other major markets.

Community Trademark Registration Required. To qualify for transshipment counterfeit protections under the Directive, a trademark owner would likely need to register their mark on a community-wide (EU) level with the Office of Harmonization for the Internal Market (OHIM). Each EU member state maintains their own trademark offices, granting a registered mark exclusive protection in their state respectively. Yet, a trademark owner would likely need a community trademark registration to qualify for the Directive’s transshipment protections as the Directive’s text only identifies “European Union trademarks” as qualifying for such protections. Fortunately, qualifying foreign IP rights holders may be able to more easily (and cheaply) obtain community registration(s) through registering their trademark(s) through the Protocol Relating to the Madrid Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Marks (Madrid Protocol). However, requiring a community trademark registration to qualify for the Directive’s new protections puts EU member state trademark owners at a disadvantage compared to community trademark owners.

Customs Recordation Required. A trademark owner or rights holder would need to record their community trademark registration with EU customs authorities to qualify for the Directive’s new transshipment protections. Although customs recordation is not a specific requirement under the Directive to qualify for the enhanced transshipment protections, it is required to ensure EU customs officials are made aware of a community mark owner’s or right holder’s registration.

Directive Has Yet to be Enacted. Lastly, it is important to note that the Directive has yet to be enacted in EU member states and it remains to be seen how it will be implemented. EU member states have 30 months to implement the new Directive into their national laws, and although they are obligated to adopt the laws effectively and in the spirit of the Directive, the member states’ implementing legislation may have specific divergences.

Counterfeits for Personal Use. On February 6, 2014, CJEU ruled in Blomqvist v. Rolex SA (C‑98/13) that EU customs officials could seize and destroy non-EU originating counterfeit goods in the EU that were purchased by EU citizens for personal use. In Blomqvist, a Danish citizen bought a fake Rolex watch from a Chinese online seller. When the watch entered Denmark, Danish customs reported the suspected counterfeit to Rolex’s IP rights holder, who in turn demanded the destruction of the counterfeit watch. Danish courts found that because the counterfeit watch was purchased from a non-EU seller who was not directly selling or advertising to EU consumers, and because the watch was purchased for personal use, such a purchase did not constitute trademark or copyright infringement by the purchaser under Danish law.

The CJEU in Blomqvist reversed and found that Rolex’s copyright and trademarks were infringed, and that a EU IP rights holder does not have to prove that a non-EU seller was directly trying to sell or advertise counterfeit goods for personal use in the EU in order for EU customs officials to seize imports of the counterfeit goods. Under the EU’s previous customs regulations (Council Regulation 1383/2003), a EU trademark or copyright owner would have to prove that the counterfeit seller was directly trying to market their counterfeit goods to EU consumers in order for the personal purchase to be subject to infringement and seizure. As reported by commentators, the Blomqvist Court differed from the Council Regulation by establishing that an IP rights holder is entitled to protection of their EU trademark or copyright whenever an infringement of the same occurs in EU territory, and that counterfeit goods can be seized whenever such infringing goods enter EU territory.

Although the Blomqvist ruling gives IP rights holders stronger protections against foreign counterfeit sellers, like the Directive, there are considerations and limitations IP rights holders should be aware of:

EU IP Protection and Customs Recordation Required. Like the Directive, a trademark or copyright owner would need to ensure that their IP qualifies for protection in the EU and that they have recorded such IP with EU customs authorities in order to qualify for protections under Blomqvist.

Additional Investigation Suggested. Qualifying IP rights owners will likely need to investigate and track suspected non-EU counterfeit sellers to determine when and to whom they are selling personal counterfeit goods to ensure effective protection under Blomqvist. Rolex was fortunate in Blomqvist that a single counterfeit of their watch was detected by EU customs authorities. Unfortunately, not all brands are as well known as Rolex. A similar counterfeit personal purchase shipment for a lesser known brand may not have been as easily identified by EU customs authorities. These circumstances mean that an IP rights holder may need to perform their own monitoring to effectively detect personal shipments of counterfeit goods entering the EU. Unfortunately, this can be an expensive service that many IP rights owners do not have the resources to obtain.

What’s The Takeaway? These recent EU counterfeit enforcement reforms show that the EU is serious about preventing the cross-border flow of counterfeit goods. IP rights owners who have had problems with IP enforcement in the EU or through transshipments originating in the EU, now (or will soon) have enhanced means to protect their IP against counterfeits. Despite these advancements, IP rights holders should work closely with their counsel to ensure they understand and comply with the requirements and limitations of these recent reforms.

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