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.
Over the last week, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) released reports on the current state of intellectual property (IP) protections for U.S. businesses abroad. These reports provide updated insights on foreign countries and foreign retail markets (both physical and online) that have recently caused U.S. businesses the most IP protection difficulties.
Here is a summary of the reports:
IIPA 2014 Special 301 Report Submission
On February 8th, the IIPA submitted their 2014 Special 301 Report Submission to the USTR. As one of the largest U.S. lobbying groups for the copyright-based industries, the IIPA’s submission identifies the foreign countries the IIPA believes provides the most ineffective IP legal protections for U.S. businesses. The USTR’s final Special 301 Report (released annually April-May) provides reporting to the U.S. government and the general public on the countries that, according to the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act (19 U.S.C. § 2242(a)), deny “adequate and effective protection of [IP] rights” or “fair and equitable market access to United States persons that rely upon [IP] protection.”
Although the U.S. government rarely imposes trade sanctions based on the Special 301 Report, a country’s listing in the final report often impacts the U.S.’ trade relations with that country and the degree to which the U.S. government initiates trade promotional activities with the same. From both a private sector and practical standpoint, the Report also represents a review of the markets that U.S. businesses have had the most IP protection challenges.
What countries did the IIPA recommend for inclusion in the 2014 Special 301 Report?
Priority Foreign Countries. For a second year in a row, the IIPA has identified Ukraine as being a “Priority Foreign Country.” This is the least favorable designation available under the Special 301 reporting system. Specifically, it identifies that country as one with the “most onerous or egregious acts, policies, or practices” that “have the greatest adverse impact (actual or potential) on the relevant [U.S.] products” without making efforts to ameliorate their status. 19 U.S.C. § 2242(b)(1)). Ukraine’s designation as a Priority Foreign Country was based on a number of factors, most notably the absence of effective online copyright enforcement, and unfair and non-transparent royalty society collections. Shockingly, the classification was also based on reports of widespread software pirating by Ukrainian government agencies.
Priority Watch List and Watch List Countries. The IIPA’s Special 301 Report Submission lists Argentina, Chile, China, Costa Rica, India, Indonesia, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam on the “Priority Watch List,” and Belarus, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Ecuador, Greece, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Mexico, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan as “Watch List” countries. Although not as a severe rating as a Priority Foreign Country, being listed as a country on the Priority Watch List or simply Watch List means that a country has potential IP protection deficiencies that require varying levels of USTR monitoring.
Newly Non-Listed Countries. It is also important to note that the IIPA has recommended removing a number of countries from the final 2014 Special 301 Report due to their improvements in IP protection. These countries include Barbados, Bolivia, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Finland, Guatemala, Jamaica, Lebanon, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela.
Out-of-Cycle Review of Notorious Markets
Also, on Wednesday, the USTR released an Out-of-Cycle Review of Notorious Markets that identified physical and online markets reported by U.S. businesses and industry organizations as being engaged in substantial IP piracy and counterfeiting. The Review includes particular social media and file transferring sites hosted abroad, including sites hosted in Antigua and Barbuda, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Finland (possibly), Netherlands, Poland, Russian Federation, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, United Kingdom and Vietnam. Specific physical markets in Argentina, China, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Paraguay, Spain, Thailand and Ukraine were also deemed notorious.
What’s The Takeaway? Every foreign market has its own IP protection challenges. U.S. businesses that are exploring expansion into new markets should consider the IIPA’s Special 301 Report Submission (as well as the USTR’s Final Special 301 Report due out later this year), and the USTR’s Out-of-Cycle Review of Notorious Markets to help evaluate the IP risks associated with such markets. Doing so can help to ensure that such businesses can better protect their IP assets as they expand.
The ongoing trade dispute between the U.S. and the Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda has produced unexpected and potentially harmful consequences for U.S. copyright owners. Antigua announced last week its plans to establish a website selling media and software protected under U.S. copyright law—and will do so without obtaining permission of its copyright owners or paying any form of royalties.
Surprisingly, Antigua has the right to establish this pirating website under international law. It won a 2007 World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement against the U.S. (Dispute Settlement 25 – DS 25), where the U.S.’ blocking of Antiguan online gambling sites from U.S. customers was found to be a violation of the U.S.’ General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) commitments. Consequently, Antigua was granted the right to suspend its WTO obligations to the U.S. under the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). This has allowed Antigua to legally sell pirated U.S. copyright content in amounts not exceeding $21 million annually until the U.S. removes its blockade of Antiguan gambling websites or pays compensation. As of yet, the U.S. has done neither.
To Antigua’s credit, it has yet to enforce its entitled remedies in the six years since DS 25’s ruling. According to reports, Antigua’s main goal is not to become a copyright pirate—it simply wants the U.S. to comply with DS 25. Yet, the U.S.’ continued failure to do so has made Antigua feel that it has no other choice but to open the pirating website to pressure the U.S. into compliance.
Ultimately, U.S. copyright owners will pay the price for the U.S. government’s failure to comply with DS 25. Reports are that the U.S. government will compensate U.S. copyright owners for lost royalties who are infringed from Antigua’s pirate website. However, international copyright law gives U.S. copyright owners legal protections beyond mere royalties. Qualifying U.S. copyright owners have the right under both U.S. copyright law (17 U.S.C. § 602(a)(2)) and Antiguan copyright law (2003 Copyright Act) to restrict movements of their works across borders for commercial use, namely to prevent the unauthorized trade in protected works known as parallel importation or grey goods. As controlling the availability and flow of protected content is crucial to capitalizing on foreign markets opportunities, U.S. copyright owners whose works are infringed through the Antiguan pirate website will be harmed by their inability to control the flow or distribution of their works, with no apparent recourse or compensation under international, U.S., or Antiguan law.
As any business who has foreign IP protection concerns know, protecting IP rights abroad is hard enough even with protections under international law. The developments in the U.S.-Antiguan trade dispute are harmful beyond mere infringement as they act to undermine what minimum protections U.S. copyrighted works enjoy abroad under international law, and according to commentators, they help to establish a negative precedent that could lead to similar outcomes in larger trade disputes with potentially more severe damages for U.S. copyright owners. Time will tell whether this will come true.
What do you think of the U.S.-Antiguan trade dispute? Will you be affected by it and how?