Goods in Transit: When is a Fake not a Fake?!

In Insights, Uncategorized

16 December, 2011

You are, or you represent, a holder of rights. You become aware that some goods which you consider counterfeit have entered the EU on their way to, say, Canada. The goods are only in transit at a port or an airport before they continue their onward journey.

What do you do? You want to stop the goods but they are only in transit, i.e. not destined for the European market.

Recently, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has tried to shed some light on this. The court ruled in two joint cases:

Philips: in the port of Antwerp Belgian Customs inspected a shipment without a clearly stated destination. The cargo was from Shanghai and contained electrical shavers, similar in appearance to Philishave. Customs detained the goods and Philips brought action against the manufacturer based on Philips’ registered design rights in Belgium.

Nokia: UK Customs inspected a shipment of mobile phones and accessories for mobile phones at Heathrow Airport. The shipment came from Hong Kong and was on its way to Columbia. The goods were deemed fake by Nokia, but Customs refused to detain the shipment as the goods were in transit. Nokia brought this before the courts.

So, can the right holders, Nokia and Philips, enforce their rights against these goods? Or are they off bounds as they are not on the market in the EU?

The ECJ pondered this question for ages. Firstly, the ECJ confirmed that goods from outside the EU do not infringe IP rights in the EU when they are in transit. The exception is of course if there is marketing underway, directed against European consumers or if Customs suspects something fishy – which can later be verified. Secondly, the ECJ states that if it is 100 per cent clear that the goods are destined for a non-EU country, like Columbia, they cannot be considered counterfeit in the legal sense – (not very fortunate for the consumers in the destination market and a curious lack of consequence for IP right owners’ enforcement possibilities and costs of enforcing their rights). Thirdly – and finally – the CECJ says that any goods may still be seized by Customs if the goods violate other codes, for example if the goods pose a risk to health or safety.

Personally, I am not terribly happy with this ruling. The ECJ’s business is to interpret and that it has done. It is not to blame for the law. But – current law aside – it seems bizarrely without consequence that the EU as a champion of the protection of IP rights is not stretching this protection to the goods themselves, only to the domestic market. Counterfeit goods will damage the rights holder in Columbia too. Instead of being able to stop obvious counterfeits en route, the rights holder is now referred to spend further funds taking legal action in Columbia. This drives up the costs for enforcing the IP rights.

The ECJ has placed a huge burden on the shoulders of Customs and the rights holders. It is up to Customs and the owners to investigate and document whether the goods are actually meant for the European market. This seems out of proportion if we are dealing with clearly counterfeit goods. The same goes for the resources and time needed for such investigations.

The European Commission is currently reviewing the regulations. If the Commission is serious about protecting IP-rights it should also focus on the products. If you want to stop fake goods you will also have to make it financially difficult for the pirates. One way is not to provide cheap and easy transport routes through EU airports and cargo ports or, indeed, IP infringement immunity for the goods.

And the two cases at hand? Well, Philips is happy. The consignment did not have a clear destination and Belgian Customs and the ECJ considered this fishy enough to let Philips enforce their rights successfully. In the Nokia case there were no such extra insecurity relating to the shipment; UK Customs therefore were right in denying Nokia the right of enforcing their rights. Nokia will therefore face some unhappy customers in Columbia and possibly an unfortunate blow to its good-will there.

Thorbjørn Swanstrøm, Attorney at Law

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