Thursday, January 17, 2019

Ownership Can Be Raised as a Defence but Not as a Counterclaim

Farmobile, LLC v Farmers Edge Inc 2018 FC 1269 Mactavish J aff’g 2018 FC 915 Ring J
            2,888,742 / Farming data collection

Farmobile, the patentee in this action, sued Farmers Edge (FE) for infringement of the 742 patent. FE asserted, by way of both defence and counterclaim, that it was the rightful owner of the patent [915-3]. The defence and counterclaim were both based on the same facts [14], [914-38], to the effect that the right in the invention had been assigned to it [8]-[12], [914-4]. Farmobile sought to strike the allegations related to ownership from both the Statement of the Defence and the Statement of Counterclaim, which were considered separately. Ring J granted the motion to strike the counterclaim, but allowed the same allegations to stand as a defence (see here). Mactavish J has now affirmed.

In affirming that the allegation of ownership may stand as a defence, Mactavish J established what appears to be a novel point, albeit a minor one, namely that ownership of the patent by the defendant is indeed a defence to a claim of patent infringement which may be asserted in Federal Court, like non-infringement, invalidity and use pursuant to a licence [31]. This was in the face of Farmobile’s argument that the Federal Court lacked jurisdiction to entertain ownership in any context; it asserted that “while ownership is indeed a defence to a claim for patent infringement, it is not one that can be asserted in this Court” (Mactavish J’s emphasis). As Mactavish J pointed out, it is well-established that a licence to use is a valid defence, notwithstanding that assessing the merits of such a defence involves a matter of contractual interpretation, and “A licence is, after all, merely one form of contract” [32]. This holding seems clearly correct, but it is nonetheless a relief.

At the same time, Mactavish J affirmed that the Court does not have jurisdiction to consider exactly the same issue, based on exactly the same facts, by way of counterclaim. Mactavish J held that the contracts relating to ownership may be used a shield, but not as a sword [26], [35], [50]. The rationale is that in the defence, the essence of the litigation is patent infringement, while in the counterclaim, the essence of the litigation is patent ownership. This distinction does have support in the cases, in particular Innotech (1997) 74 CPR (3d) 275 (FCA), relied on by Mactavish J [34],[43]-[50]. And it is also reasonable to say the that the Federal Court can determine ownership when raised as a defence to an infringement action, even if it does not have jurisdiction to do so when ownership is raised independently.

However, the shield / sword distinction does not address, or affect, the more fundamental issue as to whether the Federal Court has jurisdiction to consider patent ownership when raised indepednently. If the Federal Court does not have such jurisdiction, then the sword / shield distinction makes sense; but if it does have such jurisdiction, then it doesn’t. Mactavish J’s reasoning is sound if one accepts that the Federal Court does not have jurisdiction to determine patent ownership on its own, but nothing in her decision addresses that fundamental point, one way or the other.

In previous posts, here and here, I have argued that the Federal Court does indeed have such jurisdiction, in light of s 20(2) of the Federal Court Act which gives the Federal Court “concurrent jurisdiction in all cases. . . in which a remedy is sought under the authority of an Act of Parliament or at law or in equity respecting any patent of invention.” In Kellogg [1941] SCR 242 the SCC interpreted the predecessor provision of the Exchequer Court Act as follows:

It will be noticed that subsection (c) deals with the "remedy" which is sought. And it enacts that the Exchequer Court shall have jurisdiction between subject and subject in all cases where a "remedy is sought" "respecting any patent of invention" "under the authority of any Act of the Parliament of Canada or at Common Law or in Equity." The remedy sought by the appellant, as a result of paragraph 8 of its statement of claim, is evidently a remedy in Equity respecting a patent of invention. The appellant claims that remedy as a consequence of the facts alleged in its paragraph 8 [that the appellant was owner by assignment]. It claims the remedy as owner deriving its title from the same alleged inventor of whom the respondent claims to be the assignee, through other assignors. In such a case, the invention or the right to the patent for the invention is primarily the subject-matter of the appellant's claim, and the remedy sought for is clearly "respecting any patent of invention." And this is covered by subsection (c) of section 22 of the Exchequer Court Act, as it stands at present.

Mactavish J interpreted Kellogg as holding that the Federal Court “may resolve contractual issues raised in an action that is in ‘pith and substance’ within the Court’s jurisdiction” [20]. I’m not sure that is exactly right: what the above passage says is that a party has jurisdiction when seeking a remedy respecting any patent of invention; which, of course, is what s 20(2) of the Act says on its face.In any event, whatever the broader principle, it seems to be to say quite explicitly that the Court does have jurisdiction in the circumstances at hand.

The argument endorsed above was made in the alternative (though that does not detract from its authority, as it was "obviously intended for guidance" and so should be accepted as authoritative: R v Henry 2005 SCC 76 [57]). Mactavish J implicitly distinguished Kellogg by saying that in that case the “primary issue” was a matter of patent law, not that alternative argument, citing pages 249-250. The exact “matter of patent law” at issue in Kellogg at 249 was as follows

the appellant is entitled to the benefit of the invention because John L. Kellogg, Jr. [the putative inventor], at the time when he is alleged to have made it, was in the employ of the appellant and then carrying out work which he was instructed to do on the plaintiff's behalf, and that, by virtue of his contract of employment and the circumstances under which the invention was made, he became and is a trustee of the invention for the company; if it be true further that, by reason of his being such a trustee, he was unable to transfer any right, title, or interest in the invention to any other party, and that the plaintiff is now the owner of any invention so made by John L. Kellogg, Jr., this would be one of the reasons why the appellant should be declared entitled, as against the respondent, to the issue of a patent including the claims in conflict as applied for by it.

That is, the "matter of patent law" is the question of who is the true owner of the patent in light of the contract of employment. This is exactly the question at issue in Farmobile: see the allegations [915-4], reproduced in my post on Ring J’s decision. The argument which I have previously discussed, based on what is now s 20(2), was an argument in the alternative. The primary basis for the decision in Kellogg, which Mactavish J acknowledged was a matter of patent law, is that ownership of a patent by virtue of contractual assignment and related circumstances, is essentially a matter of patent law and so the Federal Court has jurisdiction by virtue of that fact. This is entirely apart from any authority to award a remedy under s 20(2), or vary the Register under s 20(1). This aspect of Kellogg strikes as even more fundamental and directly on point. I cannot see how it is distinguishable from the facts at hand.

I remain perplexed by the Federal Court’s unwillingness to accept jurisdiction in these situations. When SCC precedent is unsound, I can understand that the Federal Court would resist its application by looking for tenuous distinctions. Indeed, that is in part how the common law “works itself pure.” But to my mind Kellogg makes perfect sense. The Federal Court consistently recognizes that it is “inconvenient” to require a party to commence a second proceeding in a provincial superior court in such circumstances [52]; the Court does not seem to be resisting jurisdiction out of concern that it would create some practical problem, which might not be apparent to an academic such as myself. It is of course true that inconvenience in itself is not a basis to assert jurisdiction where it does not exist [52], but conversely, creating inconvenience is not a basis to refuse jurisdiction where it does exist.

More broadly, a court faced with the question of who is the present owner of the patent must address who was the inventor, in order to determine who had the right to make a valid assignment in the first place, and that is surely a matter of patent law; as well as the question of how is the first owner, which is usually said to be a matter of patent law (see Comstock 38 CPR(3e) 29, 51-54; s 49); as well as the matter of priorities under s 51. Ultimately the remedy is amendment of the Register, which is established pursuant to s 12, and which the Federal Court, but not the provincial superior courts, has the authority to order amended, pursuant to s 52. Thus, patent law and the Patent Act is implicated at every stage of an patent ownership dispute. Consequently, while contacts of assignment are also implicated, the matter of ownership of a patent seems to me to be essentially a matter of patent law, and that is what Kellogg says on its face.

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