Monday, July 30, 2007

Euro v . Kraft - Further Thoughts

Some further thoughts beyond my first take on the Kraft decision of the Supreme Court of Canada delivered July 26, 2007:

1. While it is true that there is much comment about the interesting arithmetic comparing counts of how the four opinions split on the various issues, one thing is quite clear. Seven out of nine judges decisively ruled against Kraft.

2. In terms of arithmetical predictions for future cases based upon various splits on various issues, the law is not based on arithmetic. Otherwise, lawyers wouldn’t have much to do. The bottom line in this case presumably is that the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled - 7/2 - that based on these facts, there is no copyright infringement.

3. Several lawyers have suggested in blogs, law firm web sites, or in media interviews that assignments could now replace exclusive licenses and that the result would be different if Kraft had chosen this strategy. In fact, a Kraft spokesperson was quoted by Bloomberg as saying:

``We believe the outcome would've been in Kraft's favor if we had assignment of copyright,'' Galia said. ``So we do see an opportunity to look at further options.''
4. However, it has long been known that assignments - as contrasted with exclusive licenses - avoid the difficulties with the “hypothetical maker” doctrine as clearly now enunciated by Rothstein, J., with whom three other Justices agreed. Assignments, as opposed to exclusive licences, are “old news”, as they say.

5. So - why has nobody successfully used a strategy involving assignment of copyright in packaging elements before? There have been many reasons - and it’s not my job to set them out here. Let me simply say that any company contemplating such a strategy should make sure that it is getting not only well informed copyright advice, but also good trade-marks, tax, corporate and competition law advice as well - for starters.

6. One thing, however, that is news is that now, based on what we can see from last week’s decision, at least four of the current Justices - and maybe more - might well see through and reject a strategy based on assignments as either copyright abuse or misuse or, as Fish, J. stated, as “an instrument of trade control not contemplated by the Copyright Act.” They may see such a strategy as a blatantly artificial attempt to use copyright in a trade restrictive manner for products not themselves protected by copyright. The abuse/misuse issue was mentioned but not dealt with on the merits in last week’s ruling, which was quite predictable because there was no need to deal with it and there was an insufficient record. But it may be very different next time. It has been expressly mentioned and left open for another day.

7. As I often say, copyright owners must be careful what they wish for. A carefully developed strategy to thwart gray marketing of products not themselves protected by copyright based upon assignments (as contrasted with exclusive licenses) in packaging or labelling elements may well provoke an unintended and unpleasant result (from the owner’s viewpoint) on the copyright abuse/misuse front.

8. There are also several other good arguments not mentioned in the judgment that could sink any attempt to refloat this same ship with slightly different sails. They, too, may be left for another day.

9. As the old cliché about grey marketing goes, the law is rarely black and white. The underlying issue never goes away - which is that some IP owners crave monopolistic exploitation by market segmentation of their alleged rights, while the market place seeks competition and free trade in genuine goods. This issue has been in the Courts since the at least 1871 and nobody expected it to come to an end last week. It has a hydra-like aspect - one cuts off one head and more soon appear. Anyway, the last round went to the parallel importers and free traders - as it seems to more often than not overall, except with respect to books, records DVDs and other products actually protected themselves (and not simply their packaging) by copyright.

10. One can expect much more attention to the issue now with this decision and with a CDN $ dollar approaching par with the US $.

11. And there may be demands that this issue be dealt with by legislative reform - as has happened in Australia and the UK. But that would be extremely controversial.

12. For now, we have a 7/2 judgment and I’m glad to have been on the winning side. Full disclosure - we acted for an intervener supporting the successful Appellant in this case - but these views are purely my own.



  1. Mr.Knopf,

    I apologize in advance if my question may seem pedestrian. Does this means Kraft will have to de-valuate their intangible assets (or goodwill) on their next financial statements?

    Thank You,

  2. Howard,
    I appreciate your comments on the practical problems of assignmemnts and possibility that courts might well see through and ignore inter-corporate arragnements designed to prevent parallel trade, but I wonder what would you think of the following: If instead of assigning the rights to the Canadian subsidiary Kraft Europe had set up a wholly owned subsidiary in Europe who would be the maker of the copy in Europe under an exclusive license, would that render the parallel importation infringing?