In the case of Google vs. Equustek, some weeks back a Canadian Supreme Court ordered Google to eliminate a number of search results from a previous distributor that was reportedly using its sites to sell, illegally, the defendant Equustek Solutions’s IP. On November 2nd 2017, a California district court granted Google’s request for a preliminary injunction preventing US enforcement of the order. Below, Gwilym Roberts, Chairman and Partner at Kilburn & Strode, discusses the Canadian Supreme Court’s decision and what it means for the prospects of more global injunctions.
As walls spring up everywhere internationally, we are seeing a counter-intuitive move towards cross-border injunctions in Intellectual Property cases. IP is becoming a test bed for remedying infringement in multiple jurisdictions, with the internet at the root of the issues.
Two recent developments are at the forefront – firstly the ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada in Google vs. Equustek, and secondly a draft EU convention on the recognition and enforcement of foreign judgements. Each deals with cross-border issues in a different way – the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) by imposing an injunction which it can enforce at least in Canada if it is not obeyed globally, and the other by asking EU governments to actively sign up to mutual recognition. And each raises practical and legal issues.
In the Google case, the facts were straightforward. Canadian company Equustek Solutions sued distributor Data Link Technology Gateways for listing its products on Google as their own. The facts were agreed and so Google’s case was merely that it was not even a party (which was quickly dismissed) and that there was a “freedom of information” angle which could be breached by an injunction being awarded in other jurisdictions even if not in Canada. Google cooperated initially by de-indexing pages on Google.ca but the SCC issued a global “Google Order” requiring Google to de-list around the world.
Many rights holders have welcomed the decision as providing fair protection, but free speech organisations characterise the decision as “race to the bottom”. The SCC itself has indicated that if Google can demonstrate that the injunction does cause problems in other jurisdictions it will reconsider but points to other instances of global injunctions that have seemed acceptable including the take down of defamatory material, copyright enforcement and the EU “right to be forgotten”.
The EU meanwhile continues to strive for multi-territory enforcement. The current draft EU recognition convention proposes cross-border enforcement for a range of rights and, for now, leaves IP open for discussion. Its principal IP target may well be online infringement of the type dealt with by the SCC, but broader rights, including patents, are still up for grabs.
In any event, IP emerges as a common denominator for cross jurisdictional disputes, fuelled by the ease of infringement on the web. The internet after all provides perfect data liquidity, with IP acting as its legal vessel. However, IP law sharply defines territorial boundaries and problems emerge with the combination of the internet, information, and intellectual property.
Long before the draft recognition convention appeared, assorted enforcement initiatives had been tried in relation to IP – pan-European patent injunctions faded, the EU Criminal Enforcement Directive for IP floundered and the proposed Unified Patent Court, having tripped over Brexit, has now landed hard on a German constitutional challenge.
For now, therefore, it may well be that judicially-driven pan-territorial remedies may be the practical option rather than Directives. This raises practical considerations for rights holders. Google’s example casts light on this – Canada is evidently a huge market for them, they can’t pull out, therefore, they either need to observe the SCC injunction globally or face sanctions at least in Canada. So for other, less international companies, a consideration of where their headquarters are based may be highly relevant. Setting yourself up in a country which is less likely to issue an injunction, particularly a global one, may make some sense if you have the freedom to drop out of other risky territories.
At the moment, it remains to be seen whether courts will enforce an injunction issued in another jurisdiction, and it seems fairly unlikely without some form of international convention of the type proposed by the EU. However, economically speaking, global injunctions clearly still have teeth if they issue in commercially important territories.
As elsewhere, the internet has provoked a major rethink of how businesses operate internationally. Mixing the internet, unlimited data and the highly territorial nature of IP law creates a potent cocktail. Even in the absence of government-level cooperation we can expect to see ever more creative legal/commercial solutions to global disputes, with IP at the forefront.