The Supreme Court has now dismissed Saurer’s appeal, to the extent it has been considered at all.
First, the appellant apparently aimed at protective measures for the documents to be provided in compliance with the FPC’s order on information and accounting accounting. The Supreme Court did not grant protective measures, in the absence of a specific request towards this end. A procedural — and unspecific — request was not sufficient.
Second, the appellant essentially argued that the injunction as ordered by the FPC reaches beyond the scope of the patent. The Supreme Court did not agree: The injunction requires that the tip only penetrates the layer which is to be cut, and this is well within the scope of the patent.
The appellant also objected to the claim construction and its application on the attacked embodiment. Both objections were held unfounded, to the extent considered at all.
Reported by Martin WILMING
Case No. 4A_371/2016 (Supreme Court) ¦ Decision of 14 October 2016 ¦ “HeatCut”
I have reported on the main hearing before the FPC on this Blog here. For a brief review of the underlying decision O2014_002 of the FPC, see this Blog here.
Long awaited, now here it is: The first decision of the Supreme Court on the Doctrine of Equivalents since ages; see fulltext below. You hoped for a ready-mix for assessment of equivalency? I’m sorry, there is none.
But let’s have a look at the very basic facts first.
The patent in suit is EP 1 579 133 B1 (embedded below), and it’s all about a non-return valve for a urinal. The independent claim reads as follows (mark-up added):
A non-return valve (3), comprising an inlet section (5) in the form of a self-supporting trough-shaped section and an outlet section, the outlet section being made of a flexible resilient material connected to the inlet section (5), whereby the outlet section comprises a flat flexible resilient strip (6) with a high inherent degree of flexibility, the strip (6) being connected with the inlet section (5) at its upper edge; and further comprising a component that is separate from the strip (6) providing a complementary surface against which the lower end of the flexible strip (6) may seal.
The technology is not difficult to understand: The strip (6) and the ‘component with a complementary surface’ — actually, yet another strip — are arranged in a way as to allow fluid passing through the valve in the one direction of the valve. The valve closes when the fluid has passed, to prevent unpleasant odor from rising up. Flattened tubes instead of separate strips had been known in the prior art for the same purpose; see D1, US 3 835 857).
The million dollar word is “separate”. What does the feature
[…] a component that is separate from the strip (6) providing a complementary surface against which the lower end of the flexible strip (6) may seal
actually mean? There is no explicit definition of “separate” in the patent. Actually, the word as such was not even used in the application as filed at all. It had been introduced during prosecution, based on the overall specification and figures which all show (completely) separate strips; see figures 1 and 2, above.
On the other hand, the two strips are interconnected by lateral connectors in the attacked embodiment. Noteworthy, this configuration is protected by EP 2 553 299 B1 of the defendant (embedded below; EP’299 explicitly acknowledges the patent in suit as closest prior art in para. -).
The assessment of the Supreme Court is straight forward — and in line with the decision of the FPC. In light of the figures, the description and in differentiation over the prior art (flattened tube) the feature is construed to imply a full-length separation. The Supreme Court explicitly holds that the embodiment with loose ends is not merely a preferred embodiment:
Die Ausführungsbeispiele weisen auf dieses Verständnis eindeutig hin, ohne dass Anhaltspunkte für ein weiteres Verständnis von ‘separate’ in dem Sinne bestehen würden, dass das Ausführungsbeispiel mit den losen Enden nur als eine – wie die Beschwerdeführerin behauptet, bevorzugte – Ausführung erschiene.
Thus, no literal infringement.
INFRINGEMENT UNDER THE DOCTRINE OF EQUIVALENTS
Almost no decision on equivalency is uncontroversial, and people mostly have a very firm opinion pro or contra infringement under the Doctrine of Equivalents. So do I. But I feel there are plausible arguments for both views in the present matter, and I won’t take position for either side. No use crying over spilt milk anyway; this case has been finally decided now.
But let’s have a closer look at what can be learned about how the Supreme Court nowadays assesses infringement under the Doctrine of Equivalents on the basis of the three-step questionnaire as defined by the FPC (see S2013_001).
THE FIRST QUESTION
Do the replaced features have the same objective function? (same effect / “Gleichwirkung”)
Erfüllen die ersetzten Merkmale [Austauschmerkmale] die objektiv gleiche Funktion? (Gleichwirkung)
First of all, what is the replacing feature? The Supreme Court identifies the replacing feature essentially as follows:
[…] component and the strip (6) are separate for a sufficient length to allow for a sealing effect when a fluid has passed.
The first question is a no-brainer here: Fulfilment of the same function has been beyond dispute.
THE SECOND QUESTION
Are the replaced features and their same objective function made obvious to the skilled person by the teaching of the patent? (accessibility / “Auffindbarkeit”)
Werden die ersetzten Merkmale [Austauschmerkmale] und deren objektiv gleiche Funktion dem Fachmann durch die Lehre des Patentes nahe gelegt? (Auffindbarkeit)
This question had unfortunately been left undecided by the FPC (since the third question was answered in the negative). Nevertheless, the FPC had clarified in the headnote of the underlying decision how it expects this question to be addressed; see this Blog here. This hn reads as follows:
The assessment of accessibility is not to be confused with the assessment of inventiveness. Starting point for the assessment of accessibility is not the general state of the art, but the patent in suit. Therefore it is not to be assessed whether the replaced feature is inventive in view of the state of the art. It is rather to be assessed whether, starting from the teaching of the patent in suit, it is evident for the skilled person that the replaced feature has the same effect (r. 184.108.40.206).
(Clarification of the case law with respect to S2013_001, decision dated 21. März 2013)
The reasons 220.127.116.11 referred to in the hn read as follows:
It is to be determined whether, once the features are replaced, the same effect is evident for the person of skill in the art when objectively assessed in consideration of the teaching of the patent.
Zu beurteilen ist, ob, wenn die Merkmale ausgetauscht sind, die Gleichwirkung für den Fachmann bei objektiver Betrachtung unter Berücksichtigung der Lehre des Patents offensichtlich ist.
According to the hn in light of the reasons, this test compares two already given situations (one with the replaced/claimed feature and another one with the replacing feature) and only then asks whether the same effect is evident. As I have outlined earlier, this really makes a big difference.
Now, this is what the Supreme Court asked (mark-up added):
[…], whether the skilled person who intends to add a fixation at the lower end of the strips instead of the loose ends will readily understand that the strips have to be separate at a length which is sufficient to achieve the effect which the patent intends to achieve.
[…], ob der Fachmann, der statt der losen Enden der Streifen am unteren Ende der Streifen eine Befestigung anbringen will, ohne weiteres erkennt, dass die Streifen auf einer hinreichenden Länge getrennt werden müssen, um die mit dem Patent angestrebte Wirkung zu erreichen.
I don’t think that this is what the FPC had in mind when drafting the hn and r. 18.104.22.168. In the assessment of the FPC, there is no need at all for a skilled person intending to add a fixation. The skilled person rather only compares two given scenarios, i.e. the claimed solution and the attacked embodiment. If the same effect of these two embodiments is evident, the question is to be answered in the affirmative. Else, it’s not. Frankly speaking, I just cannot say whether the Supreme Court is supportive of this approach or not.
THE THIRD QUESTION
With due consideration of the wording of the claim in the light of the description, would the skilled person have considered the replacing features as a solution of equal value? (equal value / “Gleichwertigkeit”)
Hätte der Fachmann bei Orientierung am Anspruchswortlaut im Lichte der Beschreibung die ersetzten Merkmale [Austauschmerkmale] als gleichwertige Lösung in Betracht gezogen? (Gleichwertigkeit)
Assessment of this question by the Supreme Court in r. 6.3.2 starts with a summary of what the FPC had held, i.e. that the skilled person would not have considered the replacing features as an equivalent solution, with due consideration of the claim. Really? Is that it? I feel the FPC did more than that — and there is more to do according to the wording of the third question recited above, i.e. to give due consideration to the claim wording in view of the description. And it had been the description and the figures which strictly limited the term “separate” to only cover loose ends. Consequently, the FPC had discussed the actual meaning of the claim wording (see section 22.214.171.124 of the underlying decision O2014_002):
Thus, it is not apparent for the skilled person in view of the claim construction that the claimed subject-matter (separately) could equivalently be replaced with a modification of this feature (lateral connectors).
So ist in diesem Fall für den Fachmann bei Orientierung am ausgelegten Anspruchswortlaut auch nicht erkennbar, dass die anspruchsgemässe Lehre (separat) mit einer Abwandlung des betroffenen Merkmals (Verbindungsstege) gleichwertig realisiert werden kann.
From the decision as such, it is not clear to me whether (or to which extent) the Supreme Court has paid attention to the description when answering the third question. The meaning of “separate” is interpreted more broadly again, based only on the wording of the claim as such:
Actually, a complete separation […] with loose ends is not required by the wording of the claim as such.
Eine vollständige Trennung […] mit losen Enden wird vom Anspruchswortlaut für sich genommen gerade nicht verlangt.
If that was indeed the case, then why is there no literal infringement?
The Supreme Court finally holds:
Thus, the loose end of the strips can equally be replaced by a fixation.
Danach lässt sich das lose Ende der Streifen gleichwertig durch eine Befestigung ersetzen.
In my perception, the great achievement of the third question reaches far beyond that. It had been intended to be all about providing a reasonable degree of legal certainty for third parties, i.e. to reasonably confine the potential scope under the Doctrine of Equivalents. Therefore, it essentially asks whether the skilled person would really have considered the replacing feature as an equivalent, with due consideration of the claim and the description — not merely whether it objectively is an equivalent replacement.
The Supreme Court notes in passing that the attacked embodiment has been patented (explicitly over the patent in suit as prior art), but holds that this does not change the fact that it still makes use of the patent in suit. The bottom line of the decision is a reference to a famous Swiss legal scholar:
Subsequent inventions are directly covered by the scope of the prior teaching if this prior teaching is fully embodied while providing for an improved, non-obvious variant; and inventions which make use of the core of the inventions that has been patented earlier (ALOIS TROLLER, Immaterialgüterrecht, Bd. II, 3. Aufl. 1985, S. 891). Art. 36(1) PatA provides for a non-exclusive license in such cases (cf decision 4C.502/1997 of April 20, 1998, r. 5b).
Vom Schutzbereich der älteren Lehre direkt umfasst sind spätere Erfindungen, wenn sie die ältere Lehre vollständig anwenden, aber eine verbesserte, nicht naheliegende Ausführung lehren, und ebenso Erfindungen, bei deren Anwendung der Kern der früher patentierten Erfindung mitverwendet wird (ALOIS TROLLER, Immaterialgüterrecht, Bd. II, 3. Aufl. 1985, S. 891). Dafür sieht Art. 36 Abs. 1 PatG eine nicht ausschliessliche Lizenz vor (vgl. Urteil 4C.502/1997 vom 20. April 1998 E. 5b).
Reference to Art. 36(1) PatA looks like an easy way out, but the right to be granted a non-exclusive license is explicitly only given by law if the invention represents an important technical advance of considerable economic significance in relation to the invention that is the subject-matter of the prior patent. It will not necessarily be easy to meet this precondition.
I hope we will see further decisions of the Supreme Court in the near future which provide some more guidance on the actual interpretation of the second question and how the reasonable degree of legal certainty for third parties is to be safeguarded when answering the third question. Addressing infringement under the Doctrine of Equivalents with a set of three questions that somehow resemble the questionnaires used in the U.K. and Germany surely is an achievement of harmonization. But I do not yet see much harmony in how the questions are interpreted and answered.
Reported by Martin WILMING
Case No. 4A_131/2016 (Supreme Court) ¦ Decision of 03 October 2016 ¦ “Urinalventil”
The good news from the first decision of the Supreme Court on the Doctrine of Equivalents since ages: The third question of the FPC’s questionnaire is approved. The sad news: There is little to no guidance in the decision with respect to how the second and the third question are to be interpreted. In particular, it still remains unclear how the reasonable degree of legal certainty for third parties is to be safeguarded when answering the third question.
BE ON THE KNOW
You liked this? And you would like to be notified of new posts? Here you go.
Case No. 4A_131/2016 (Supreme Court) ¦ Decision of 03 October 2016 ¦ “Urinalventil”
For a brief review of the underlying decision O2014_002 of the FPC, see this Blog here. The decision of the Supreme Court has been published today.
An important take-away message is: The third question (which has been applied by the FPC for the first time in S2013_001, somewhat similar to Schneidmesser in Germany and Improver in the UK) has now been approved by the Supreme Court. Welcome!
With due consideration of the claim wording in view of the description: Would the person skilled in the art have taken the replacing features into account as being an equivalent solution? (“Gleichwertigkeit”)
On the merits of the case, the Supreme Court overruled the FPC’s decision on equivalence. It will take me a few days to digest the decision and to put it into perspective. Asking three questions is a first step; the devil surely is in the detail of the answers. Stay tuned.
Reported by Martin WILMING
Case No. 4A_131/2016 (Supreme Court) ¦ Decision of 03 October 2016 ¦ “Urinalventil”
Note that Hepp Wenger Ryffel AG is involved in this case on behalf of the defendant.
For the background of the case and the underlying decision of the FPC in detail, please see this blog here. In brief, the FPC had decided that if the actual rights in the invention of a former employee reside with the former employer, it is an element of the former employee’s duty and care under Art. 321a CPC to sign documents that are necessary to secure the rights of his former employer. In summary proceedings (as a remedy in clear cases), the FPC had ordered an unwilling former employee to execute an assignment document (actually, an assignment confirmation) required for proceedings before the USPTO.
The employee’s appeal against this decision has now been entirely dismissed. In particular, the Supreme Court confirmed that the FPC correctly declared the case admissible under summary proceedings since (i) the facts were largely undisputed and readily proven (Art. 257(1) lit. a CPC); and the legal situation was clear (Art. 257(1) lit. b CPC).
The Supreme Court also expands on the question whether an employee’s ongoing duty of care and loyalty (Art. 321a(1) CPC) includes a duty to co-operate during prosecution of patent applications pertaining to employee inventions. The Supreme Court now for the first time explicitly confirmed that this is indeed the case.
Ob sich aus dieser allgemeinen Treuepflicht eine Verpflichtung des Arbeitnehmers zur Mitwirkung bei der Anmeldung seiner Erfindung zum Patent ergibt, hatte das Bundesgericht zwar bis anhin nicht zu entscheiden. In der Lehre ist dies indessen zu Recht unbestritten ([…]). Andernfalls könnte der Arbeitgeber Diensterfindungen […] gar nicht sinnvoll nutzen.
This decision of the Supreme Court pertains to the appeal of the (then) defendant / patentee against the decision of the FPC in nullity proceedings O2012_030 (decision of 17 September 2013); please see this blog here for a detailed discussion of that underlying decision. In brief, the Swiss part of EP 1 508 436 B1 had been revoked by the FPC.
The appellant raised various objections pertaining to substantial procedural violations, based on Art. 55(1) CPC (adversarial system), Art. 150 CPC (subject of evidence), Art. 53 CPC / Art. 29(2) FC (right to be heard), and Art. 154 CPC (ruling on evidence). However, the Supreme Court held that no procedural violation had occured with respect to any of these provisions.
Moreover, the appellant objected that the FPC had wrongly construed the subject-matter of the patent-in-suit, in violation of Art. 51 PatA and Art. 69 EPC. The Supreme Court did not agree. In particular, it was emphasized again that the problem-and-solution approach is not a mandatory tool to be used in the assessment of inventive step. What counts is the overall distinction of the claimed invention over the prior art. See also the decision 138 III 111, r. 2.2, of the Supreme Court.
For reasons of lack of inventive step of all requests, the Supreme Court could leave the question of admissibility of the limitation undecided. Unfortunately, I admit. In particular in view of the further limitation that the appellant had requested with the EPO and which has been allowed in the meantime. This centrally allowed limitation literally corresponds to AR3 dealt with in proceedings at the FPC; see EP 1 508 436 B3-2. However, it will now remain unclear whether requirements for limitation indeed are more stringent in Switzerland than elsewhere under the EPC.
However, the present decision of the Supreme Court does not pertain to the merits of the case yet; it only clarifies a question of recusal of a member of the board of the FPC.
The potential appearance of bias of judges is undoubtedly a matter of an ongoing debate amongst practitioners. How comes, you ask? Well, the FPC has been set up with only two permanent judges which are supported by a pool of 36 non-permanent judges (11 with a background in law, 25 with a technical background). Most of the non-permanent judges are attorneys-at-law and patent attorneys, either in private practise or in industry. A non-permanent judge in one case may also act as representative / assisting in patent matters in other cases. Evidently, there are pros and cons of this setup: On the one hand, this makes a lot of technical and legal competence available for the FPC to recruit for a specific case. Mostly, the FPC is thus in a position to handle cases without costly and time-consuming court opinions to be obtained from external experts. On the other hand, it is an intrinsic risk that judges might need to recuse in view of a conflict of interests. Of course, it must not be forgotten that the judges have sworn an oath (or taken a vow) pertaining to fulfilling their duties conscientiously; cf. Art. 15 PatCA. Nevertheless, it was only a matter of time that case-law would figure out the boundaries.
1. Factual situation
In the present matter, the parties had already been summoned to an oral hearing when they were informed by the president that TSWpat, i.e. the firm of the non-permanent judge Peter RIGLING who was appointed reporting judge in the present matter, meanwhile represents a sister company of one of the defendants in the prosecution of a single trademark application in Switzerland. The president of the FPC had informed the parties that this did not constitute a ground of recusal in the sense of Art. 3 or 4 of the Guidelines on Independence. However, the plaintiffs requested that judge Peter RIGLING shall recuse himself or shall be recused ex officio.
The relationship of parties and persons involved in the present matter is summarized in the following chart (and will become even clearer hereinbelow). The parties to the proceedings are boxed in red; connected undertakings to parties to the proceedings are boxed in green; click image to enlarge:
2. What was argued
Judge Peter RIGLING outlined in writing, why — in his point of view — there was no reason for him to recuse. First, the affiliated (sister) company is not a party to the present proceedings. Moreover, the subject-matter of the present proceedings has no points of contact with the trademark prosecution handled by his firm. Finally, the trademark matter handled by his firm is not associated with significant income.
Defendants refrained from providing any comments.
Plaintiffs argued that defendant Denner belongs to the Migros group of companies, as well as the applicant of the trademark application handled by the firm of judge Peter RIGLING. Not only Denner, but also Migros sells coffee capsules which are compatible with Nespresso® machines. Consequently, the plaintiffs had sued Migros for patent infringement, too. These proceedings are also pending (no publications on this parallel case are available to date). In both cases, inter alia the interpretation and infringement of one and the same patent is at stake (EP 1 646 305 B1; cf. the EPO Patent Register and Swissreg for more details). To the extent of these similarities, the outcome of the present case will prejudice the proceedings against Migros, in the plaintiffs’ view.
Plaintiffs further argued that Migros is not only proprietor of Denner, but also handles Denner’s intellectual property matters, such as e.g. the administration of trademarks. Plaintiffs also presumed that a representative of Migros would have taken part in the oral hearing. At that time, the parties had already informed the FPC by Email about the persons attending the scheduled hearing, but the FPC did not share this information with the respective other parties.
3. Decision of the FPC
By now, the decision of the FPC is not published. From citations contained in the (surprisingly unredacted) decision of the Supreme Court, the following conclusions can be drawn with respect to the reasoning of the underlying decision of the FPC.
The FPC relied on Art. 28 PatCA (considering it as lex specialis to Art. 47 CPC). According to this provision, a judge has to recuse in proceedings where a member of the judge’s law firm or patent law firm or employer represents one of the parties. This is not the case here, since Migros France is not a party to the present proceedings. With reference to Art. 47 CPC, the FPC held that there are no special circumstances that might point to a potential bias of the objected judge. The whole setup of the FPC hinges on the assumption that the non-permanent judges are not led by considerations like those brought forward by the plaintiff; there is thus no room left for speculations in this respect.
Das System des Bundespatentgerichts […] stehe und falle mit der Annahme, dass die nebenamtlichen Richter sich nicht von solchen Überlegungen leiten liessen. Für Vermutungen in der von den Klägerinnen geäusserten Art bestehe deshalb kein Raum, […].
The FPC thus dismissed the plaintiffs’ request for recusal of judge Peter RIGLING.
4. Decision of the Supreme Court
First, the Supreme Court emphasizes that any person whose case falls to be judicially decided has the right to have the case heard by a legally constituted, competent, independent and impartial court (Art. 30(1) Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation). This constitutional guarantee cannot justify a differentiation between permanent and non-permanent judges involved (r. 2.1.3).
An appearance of bias of a judge may not only arise when a judge represents or has recently represented a party to the proceedings, but also in case of representation of a counterparty of a party to the proceedings at stake (cf. BGE 135 I 14, r. 4.1-4.3, confirmed in BGE 138 I 406, r. 5.3-5.4; BGE 139 III 120, r. 3.2.1); see r. 2.1.4.
The same reasoning holds true when not the objected judge himself but rather a colleague of the same law firm is engaged in either one of the attorney-client relationships outlined above (cf. r. 2.1.5 with further reference to BGE 138 I 406, r. 5.3 and 4A_256/2010, r. 2.5).
The situation can get (and got here!) even more complicated when connected undertakings are involved. The Supreme Court explicitly holds that a schematic approach in the assessment of an appearance of bias is not applicable in such cases (r. 2.1.6).
Angesichts der Vielfalt möglicher Verbindungen zwischen verschiedenen Gesellschaften wäre ein streng schematisches Vorgehen verfehlt: Weder kann ohne Weiteres von der Befangenheit des nebenamtlichen Richters ausgegangen werden, wenn ein offenes Mandatsverhältnis zu einer mit der Prozesspartei irgendwie verbundenen Konzerngesellschaft besteht, noch wäre es im Hinblick auf den massgebenden Gesichtspunkt des Anscheins der Befangenheit bei objektiver Betrachtung angebracht, unbesehen der Konzernwirklichkeit ausschliesslich auf die rechtliche Unabhängigkeit der Verfahrenspartei abzustellen.
It rather depends on the actual circumstances. It needs to be individually assessed whether the indirect relationship (via a connected undertaking) is too close, i.e. comparable to a direct relationship:
Vielmehr ist unter Berücksichtigung der konkreten Umstände zu beurteilen, ob das offene Mandatsverhältnis zwischen dem nebenamtlichen Richter bzw. seiner Kanzlei und einer Konzerngesellschaft mit einer vergleichbaren Nähe zur mit dieser verbundenen Verfahrenspartei einhergeht.
In this respect, it is irrelevant whether such assessment is cumbersome or not.
Entgegen dem, was die Vorinstanz anzunehmen scheint, können praktische Schwierigkeiten bei der Beurteilung von Ausstandsgründen oder der damit verbundene Aufwand nicht dazu führen, bestimmte Beziehungen – wie etwa ein Mandatsverhältnis zu einer verbundenen Gesellschaft – bei der Beurteilung von Ausstandsgründen einfach auszublenden.
Moreover, the Supreme Court holds that Art. 28 PatCA is not a lex specialis to the CPC in a general sense. Art. 28 PatCA explicitly deals with the situation where a member of the judge’s law firm or patent law firm or employer represents one of the parties. This was not the case here. There is no room for an argumentum e contrario based on Art. 28 PatCA, i.e. that only the specific situation governed by Art. 28 PatCA might constitute a reason of recusal; cf. r. 2.2.
Finally, the Supreme Court states that the plaintiff had the right to consult the case files and to obtain copies thereof; cf. Art. 53(2) CPC. This also pertains to the Email communication prior to the scheduled hearing (cf. Section 2, above). Apparently, there is no conflict with overriding public or private interests. In the said Email, the head of the legal department of the Migros-Genossenschafts-Bund (MGB) was announced to be present at the hearing, with authorization of Denner AG. The Supreme Court thus holds that it was evident for the judges that Migros has an immediate interest in the outcome of the present proceedings. Consequently, it cannot be decisive whether Migros itself is formally party to the proceedings or not.
Aus dem fraglichen E-Mail vom 25. September 2012 geht hervor, dass auf Seiten der Beschwerdegegnerinnen die Leiterin Rechtsabteilung des Migros-Genossenschafts-Bunds an der vom Bundespatentgericht angesetzten Instruktionsverhandlung mit Vollmacht der Denner AG teilgenommen hätte. Der Migros-Genossenschafts-Bund ist demnach am Ausgang des vorliegenden Patentverletzungsverfahrens – für die Richter erkennbar – unmittelbar interessiert, womit es für die Beurteilung des Ausstandsbegehrens nicht darauf ankommen kann, ob er selbst oder seine Tochtergesellschaft Denner AG formell Verfahrenspartei ist.
Consequently, the Supreme Court approved the appeal and decided to recuse judge Peter RIGLING.
For the background of the case and the underlying decision of the FPC in detail, please see this blog here. In brief, the FPC had ruled that it is competent to decide on claims for injunctive relief and damages, pertaining to infrastructure for collecting the performance-related heavy vehicle fee (HVF) levied in Switzerland.
The Swiss Confederation lodged an appeal against the decision of the FPC. For now, only the issues of competency of the FPC are at stake.
The Supreme Court ruled as follows:
1. Competency of the FPC with respect to injunctive relief
The Supreme Court stressed that a patentee’s rights are emanating from the Federal Act on Invention Patents which is part of the civil law. A patent is a property in the sense of Art. 26(1) of the Federal Constitution and as such is protected by the constitutional principle of guarantee of ownership (BGE 126 III 129, reasons 8a). The Confederation can be patentee, and on the other hand it has to respect patent rights. Consequently, the Confederation is not entitled to infringe a patent, even if it acts in public interest (reasons 2.3.1).
Das Gemeinwesen wird somit auch im Rahmen der Erfüllung öffentlicher Aufgaben vom Ausschliesslichkeitsrecht nach Art. 8 PatG erfasst und ist insoweit grundsätzlich dem patentrechtlichen Unterlassungsanspruch (Art. 72 i.V.m. Art. 66 PatG) ausgesetzt.
Thus, the Supreme Court confirmed: The Confederation has to face requests for injunctive relief under Art. 72 PatG, and the FPC has exclusive jurisdiction in this respect (Art. 26(1) lit. a PatCA).
In a detailed obiter dictum (reasons 2.3.2 ff), the Supreme Court also expanded on the competency of the FPC to decide on a claim of the Confederation for a compulsory license in the interest of the public. In case of public, non-commercial use it is not mandatory that the Confederation tries to obtain a license under market-reasonable conditions prior to filing a suit to be granted a compulsory license (Art. 40(1) and Art. 40e of the Federal Act on Invention Patents; similar to Art. 31 lit. b TRIPS). The FPC has exclusive jurisdiction in such cases (Art. 26(1) lit a PatCA). Further, the Supreme Court briefly touched on the topic whether the injunctive relief (as a right conferred by a patent) could be subject to expropriation under Art. 32(1) Federal Act on Invention Patents, but did not provide further guidance in this respect.
2. Competency of the FPC with respect to damages
The plaintiff / respondent requested damages of CHF 62’466’022,85 based on civil law (Art. 73(1) Federal Act on Invention Patents; Art. 41 ff, Art. 62 ff and Art. 423 Code of Obligations). However, the Confederation is only liable under civil law in case of commercial activities, not in case of activities that concern a public function. The Supreme Court held that the use of the infrastructure and the collection of the HVF is undoubtedly carried out by the Confederation in a public function (see also BGE 128 III 76, reasons 1a in this respect).
Die strittige Verwendung der technischen Infrastruktur […] erfolgt unbestreitbar im Rahmen der Wahrnehmung einer öffentlichen Aufgabe. Eine gewerbliche Tätigkeit, die grundsätzlich Privaten wie Nichtprivaten offensteht und bei welcher die Erzielung von Gewinn eine Rolle spielt, liegt beim fraglichen Betrieb der technischen Infrastruktur nicht vor […].
Consequently, the Supreme Court overruled the decision of the FPC with respect to the competency to decide on damages: Liability of the Confederation in this case is to be assessed under the Government Liability Act. The FPC has no jurisdiction in this respect; cf. Art. 10 of the Government Liability Act.