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Supreme Court of Canada Decisions regarding Intellectual Property

It used to be that decades would go by without any Intellectual Property cases being considered by the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC).   The fact that there have been two significant SCC decisions on Intellectual Property within a period of 3 days at the end of June, is indicative of the importance of Intellectual Property in the new economy.

It is difficult to “police” the internet, due to the fact that the internet is worldwide and Court orders are unenforceable outside of the nation that granted them. On June 28, 2017 the SCC decided the Google Inc v. Equustek Solutions Inc. case.  In that case, Equustek (E) obtained an interim injunction prohibiting an infringer, D, from selling infringing products. D disappeared and, in a blatant breach of the injunction, continued sales over the internet.  A lower Court ordered that Google de-index the website of D from the search results on Google.  Google immediately complied, de-indexing the website of D from the Canadian search results available to Canadians through the Canadian default website, google.ca.   However, D continued its infringing activities and the website of D continued to be available on Google, except for google.ca.  E sought a Court order directing Google to de-index D’s websites from ALL Google search results worldwide and not just the Canadian search results.  Google resisted on the basis that the Canadian Court Order should not be given effect outside of Canada. The matter was appealed first to the British Columbia Court of Appeal and then to the SCC.

The SCC upheld the lower court order that required Google to de-index D’s website from search results worldwide, stating as follows:
“Where it is necessary to ensure the injunction’s effectiveness, a court can grant an injunction enjoining conduct anywhere in the world. The problem in this case is occurring online and globally. The Internet has no borders — its natural habitat is global. The only way to ensure that the interlocutory injunction attained its objective was to have it apply where Google operates — globally. If the injunction were restricted to Canada alone or to google.ca, the remedy would be deprived of its intended ability to prevent irreparable harm, since purchasers outside Canada could easily continue purchasing from D’s websites, and Canadian purchasers could find D’s websites even if those websites were de‑indexed on google.ca.”

“Google’s argument that a global injunction violates international comity because it is possible that the order could not have been obtained in a foreign jurisdiction, or that to comply with it would result in Google violating the laws of that jurisdiction, is theoretical. If Google has evidence that complying with such an injunction would require it to violate the laws of another jurisdiction, including interfering with freedom of expression, it is always free to apply to the British Columbia courts to vary the interlocutory order accordingly.”

A number of patents have been found to be “invalid” by lower Courts based on the so-called “Promise Doctrine”.   The Promise Doctrine created a higher threshold for utility based on the “promises” in the patent. Under the Promise Doctrine, where the specification of a patent does not promise a specific result, a “mere scintilla” of utility is sufficient; but where the specification sets out an explicit “promise,” utility will be measured against that promise. On June 30, 2017 the SCC decided the AstraZeneca Canada v. Apotex case.  A lower Court held that the AstraZeneca patent was invalid for lack of utility under the Promise Doctrine, as it promised more than it could provide. The matter was appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal and then to the SCC. AstraZeneca argued its patent was improperly invalidated on the basis of the Promise Doctrine.

In the result, the SCC found the Promise Doctrine to be unsound and characterized it as an interpretation of the utility requirement that is incongruent with both the words and the scheme of the Patent Act. The SCC held that the Promise Doctrine is excessively onerous in two ways: (1) it determines the standard of utility that is required of a patent by reference to the promises expressed in the patent; and (2) where there are multiple expressed promises of utility, it requires that all be fulfilled for a patent to be valid.  To determine whether a patent discloses an invention with sufficient utility, courts must first identify the subject matter of the invention. Second, courts must then ask whether that subject matter is useful, that is, whether it is capable of a practical purpose. The Act does not prescribe the degree of usefulness required, or that every potential use be realized. Therefore, a single use related to the nature of the subject matter is sufficient, and that utility must be established by either demonstration or sound prediction as of the filing date.

These decisions by the SCC are most welcome by the patent profession.  A patent holder no longer has to be concerned about an attack on the validity of the patent based upon the Promise Doctrine.  Should an infringer ignore a Court injunction obtained by the patent holder, steps can be taken to have companies that control search engines, such as Google, de-index the infringer’s website so that they no longer appear in the search results.

Patent agents are not stifling Canadian inventors

We are indebted to Robert Barrigar for permitting us to post this article that was published in the Globe and Mail on March 8, 2017.  Mr. Barrigar is past-president of the Intellectual Property Institute of Canada (IPIC) and was registered as a Canadian and U.S. patent agent and served four years on the Patent Agents Examining Board.

Innovation is a hot topic these days, but often not fully understood. The role of patent agents is one of the most misunderstood subtopics, and a recent argument in these pages (of the Globe and Mail) that patent agents are impeding innovation in Canada only served to cloud the waters. While the author recommended government action to redefine the regulation of Canadian patent agents, he failed to recognize that the Intellectual Property Institute of Canada (IPIC) had previously, on its own initiative, recommended such to the federal government. Canadian patent agents obtain protection for the inventions of Canadian clients; they do not present obstacles, except charging for their services.

It is important to understand the difficulties faced by Canadian innovators. Our market is small compared to that of the United States. For this reason, it is often more difficult for a Canadian innovator to receive financing for obtaining and exploiting a patent than is the case in the United States. Canadian innovators typically prefer to obtain U.S. patents as a first priority, and Canadian patents, at best, a second priority. Accordingly, a Canadian patent agent has to understand the requirements of U.S. patent law and practice, as a Canadian agent will often be charged by a Canadian client with writing and prosecuting a U.S. patent application. The principal challenges to Canadian innovators – financing, marketing, competition – do not involve Canadian patent agents.

A typical Canadian patent agent has a university degree in science or engineering, and an aptitude for effective communication about technical matters relating to clients’ inventions. Historically, the Canadian patent profession has been governed primarily by the Patent Act and Patent Rules, and secondarily by IPIC. At the present time, this set of relationships is under review both by IPIC and the federal government.

The patent profession is sufficiently small that no specific patent-agent-oriented university accreditation is available for individuals who plan to become professional patent agents – they must rely upon their work experience to qualify for writing the patent agents examinations, which they must pass in order to become registered. They need not have been apprenticed to a registered patent agent, but having had such as a mentor and tutor is clearly advantageous.

The members of the Examining Board who set and mark the examinations that must be passed for registration as a Canadian patent agent are appointed by the Commissioner of Patents. The chairperson of the Board and at least three other members must be professional employees of the Patent Office.

When I served on the Examining Board, the pass rate was appreciably below 50 per cent, partly due to the writing of the examinations by lawyers of limited experience; inadequate technical analysis; lack of familiarity with applicable statutory and case law and regulations; and inadequacy of written expression. It is clearly not in the public interest to accept as members of the patent profession those who cannot pass the patent agents examinations. Canada does not need consultants who fail to comprehend the complexities of patent practice nor those who draft inadequate documents. Perhaps the most underrated desirable qualification for a patent agent is adequacy of expression. Unfortunately, not even a PhD nor a law degree guarantees that this quality is among those obtained through an individual’s education. This reflects a deficiency in Canadian education at lower levels.

It is important to note that inventors may represent themselves before the Patent Office; they do not need to retain a patent agent. But they would be well advised to do so, as serious and sometimes irreversible errors can easily be made by untutored inventors. Chances are that any consultant who attempts to draft a patent application without having been registered as a patent agent will be at risk of drafting a legally invalid or economically useless or inferior document. And any such consultant who attempts to respond to a Patent Office Examiner’s objection will face the same set of problems.

It is important to note that patent agents are not, per se, advocates for clients’ inventions. Clients may wish to obtain and enforce their own patents, but they may wish to invalidate others’ patents or obtain opinions so that they do not infringe such. Subject to avoidance of conflicts of interest, patent agents must be prepared to assist clients to obtain any of these objectives.