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1 December 2017
At first glance, it seems straightforward to assign intellectual property rights from one entity to another. A recent decision by the EPO’s Board of Appeal in T1201/14 (see here) shows that it can, and relatively often does, go wrong.
According to European jurisprudence it is generally accepted that the right to claim priority arising from a patent application is transferable independently from the corresponding title to the patent application itself and may be transferred individually for every country and to a number of different parties. What’s more, as this case confirms, the established interpretation of Article 87 EPC requires that the right to priority must be assigned to the relevant party before filing any subsequent patent applications.
However, the provisions of the EPC do not lend themselves to an autonomous determination of the formal requirements for assignments, which have been considered in previous decisions to be a matter of national law. In this case the patent proprietor tried to use this aspect to their advantage. In detail, the patentee argued that although they had not transferred the right to priority explicitly in a written contract before the date of filing of the European patent application, their priority claim was still valid, since:
While the Board accepted that there is no established jurisprudence of the Boards of Appeal as to which national law is generally applicable, they did not find any of the above arguments persuasive. In this regard, the Board ruled that even if all of the above national laws could be applied, this could not remedy the fact that the patentee failed to timely transfer the right to priority. Referring to the above numbering, the Board found:
Although the Board of Appeal did not establish which national laws could or should be applied to the transfer of priority rights, there are some practice points we can take home from this decision.
Firstly, the right to priority for a European patent application must ALWAYS be transferred before the filing date, even if under an applicable national law retrospective assignment of the right to priority is permissible. Secondly, the principle that the right to the priority application and the right to claim priority are separate rights, cannot be circumvented by the argument that the applicable national law does not foresee an independent priority right. Thirdly, if the applicable national law allows for verbal contracts and implicit transfer of rights, there is a chance that valid transfer of the right to priority can be proven even if no written contract is available BUT the burden of proof is on the party claiming that the transfer took place, and they must establish this “beyond reasonable doubt”. Witness statements that are not contemporaneous may not suffice.
Advanced Engineering group
If you require further information on anything covered in this briefing, please contact Frank Harner (firstname.lastname@example.org; 44 20 7940 3600) or your usual contact at the firm. This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Withers & Rogers LLP, December 2017