Legal framework

France is a signatory to all major international agreements in the IP field, such as the Paris Convention, the Berne Convention, the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of IP Rights and all substantive and procedural agreements dealing with patent, trademark and copyright law. As France is an EU member state, Community trademarks and designs are protected throughout its territory. France is a member of the Madrid Agreement and the Protocol to the Madrid Agreement.

The French IP Code brings together the main French statutes relating to IP matters. One of the last major amendments to the code was passed on October 29 2007, when Parliament transposed into French law the EU IP Rights Enforcement Directive (2004/48/EC). Additional provisions concerning certain criminal aspects of IP rights enforcement are included in the Customs Code.

The most recent reform was Law 2014-315, which entered into force on March 13 2014. The new law, which amended the IP Code and the Customs Code, improves the compensation of rights holders for infringement and strengthens the right to information and infringement seizure procedures. It also brings the IP Code and the Customs Code into line with the new EU Customs Regulation (608/2013).

Further, on March 14 2014 France ratified the Unified Patent Court (UPC) Agreement, which will enter into force on the later of:

  • four months after the 13th ratification (including Germany, the United Kingdom and France); or
  • four months after promulgation of the amendments to the Brussels I Regulation concerning its relationship with the UPC Agreement.

Paris will then welcome part of the central division of the UPC.

Border measures

Customs plays an important role in protecting the French market from counterfeit goods. Its powers – derived from the IP Code, the Customs Code and the EU Customs Regulation – are not limited to interventions at the borders; under the Customs Code, it is authorised to act anywhere in the territory of France, including overseas departments and territories.

Customs can detain goods that are suspected of infringing IP rights for up to 10 working days. Within this period, the rights holder must notify Customs that legal proceedings against the infringer have been initiated; otherwise, the goods will be released. The detention period may be extended for 10 additional working days if the detention is based on the new EU Customs Regulation or, since March 13 2014, on domestic proceedings. Customs detention measures are available for all IP rights under the EU Customs Regulation and – following promulgation of Law 2014-315, which extended the measures to IP rights for which they did not previously exist – under domestic law as well.

The so-called ‘simplified procedure’, which was optional under the previous EU Customs Regulation (1383/2003), has been made mandatory by the new EU regulation and by Law 2014-315. Under the simplified procedure, where the rights holder has notified the infringing character of the suspected goods, Customs can assume that the holder or declarant of the goods has agreed to their destruction if it does not oppose the proposed destruction within 10 working days of notification of the suspension of the release or detention of the goods.

The new regulation also introduced a specific procedure for monitoring small consignments of allegedly infringing goods. Such goods can also be destroyed if the holder or declarant has accepted the destruction or remained silent for 10 working days from the date of notification of Customs’ intention to destroy the goods. In order to benefit from this procedure, the applicant need only opt in when submitting its application.

Law 2014-315 also extends Customs’ competencies relating to infiltration and coups d’achat (purchases of infringing goods with the authorisation and under the control of the public prosecutor), which were previously limited to trademark and design infringement cases, to cover all other infringement cases (ie, involving patents, copyright, plant variety rights and geographical indications).

In order to benefit from customs actions, rights holders must file an application for customs intervention. The new regulation specifies the information and documentation that must accompany an application for customs intervention, such as technical documentation of the authentic goods and relevant information, such as a list of licensees or authorised distributors. The application is valid for one year and can be renewed. Customs also has the power to detain ex officio goods that are suspected of infringing IP rights for up to three working days. Within the same period, the rights holder may also file an application for customs intervention as mentioned above.

Since the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decisions in Nokia and Philips (December 1 2011), French Customs has reduced its control of goods in transit in the European Union, as goods cannot be regarded as infringing IP rights until the intention to put them on the market has been proven. The modification introduced by Law 2014-315 – which adds transshipment (ie, the direct or indirect transfer of goods from one means of transport to another) to the list of acts that constitute infringement of copyright, designs, patents, plant variety rights and geographical indications – is unlikely to change this situation immediately. Indeed, even though the transshipment of goods has been considered to be an act of infringement of trademark rights since 2004 (Article L716-9 of the IP Code), this provision is not applied by the French courts, as it contravenes EU law. However, Law 2014-315 is in line with the trademark reform package (ie, EU Regulation 2015/2424, which entered into force on March 23 2016, and the new EU Directive 2015/2436/EC, whose main provisions will be implemented into national laws by January 14 2019). Indeed, said reform allows EU trademark holders to have goods in transit seized on the basis of the EU Customs Regulation. To challenge the seizure, the declarant or holder of goods will need to establish that the EU trademark holder would not be entitled to prohibit the marketing of the goods at issue in the country of final destination. This new rule thus reverses the burden of proof which the ECJ established in Nokia and Philips. Law 2014-315 has therefore foreshadowed the new EU right.

Criminal prosecution

The infringement of IP rights may constitute a criminal offence under French law if there is criminal intent. Criminal proceedings are available for all IP rights.

Public prosecutors may initiate criminal proceedings against infringers, including emergency (accelerated) proceedings. However, this is unusual, as they more often act at the request of Customs or the rights holder. Criminal proceedings can also be initiated by rights holders directly.

In principle, criminal intent must be proven by material evidence. However, it can also be presumed from the circumstances of the infringement. In some cases, criminal courts may even find that criminal intent results from mere negligence on the part of the infringer – particularly in cases where the infringer is acting as a professional.

The infringer may be sentenced to imprisonment for up to five years and to a fine of up to €500,000. Moreover, criminal courts may order the total or partial, permanent or temporary closure (for up to five years) of the establishment that was used to commit the offence. In case of a second offence, or if the infringer is or has been bound by contract to the rights holder, the penalties may be doubled. Criminal courts can also order destruction of the infringing goods, as well as publication of the judgment as a supplementary measure.

Customs penalties may also be added to the criminal sentence. Under the Customs Code, the penalties can be increased to up to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to five times the value of the infringing merchandise if the offence was committed by an organised criminal group.

If the rights holder is a party to the criminal proceedings, the criminal courts may grant damages, but the amount is usually limited compared to damages granted in civil proceedings. Combined with the fact that criminal courts are not specialised in the IP field, this explains why criminal proceedings remain relatively uncommon in IP-related matters and why they are mostly initiated by Customs; rights holders themselves more often opt to bring civil proceedings.

Civil enforcement

The Paris court is the only court with jurisdiction over infringement and invalidation proceedings relating to patents, employee inventions, supplementary protection certificates, Community trademarks and Community designs. For all other IP-related matters, only 10 courts – including the Paris court – have jurisdiction.

Law 2014-315 establishes a five-year statute of limitations for all IP rights infringement claims, which is the same as the civil law statute of limitations.

Saisie-contrefaçon

In many IP lawsuits, proceedings on the merits are preceded by a ‘saisie-contrefaçon’ – a pre-trial procedure that allows the plaintiff to obtain an ex parte court order authorising a bailiff, along with a police officer, to collect and preserve evidence of the infringement wherever such evidence may be, including at the premises of the alleged infringer or in exhibition halls or trade fairs. Law 2014-315 aligned the seizure regime for copyright matters with the seizure regime for other IP matters – notably, seizures by police commissioners without a court order are no longer possible.

In most cases, the bailiff enforcing the court order is authorised to collect samples of the allegedly infringing goods, related brochures and catalogues, as well as copies of invoices from suppliers and invoices to customers. In more exceptional circumstances and with special authorisation, the entire stock of the allegedly infringing goods may be seized. Law 2014-315 also strengthened the effectiveness of the saisie-contrefaçon by allowing the bailiff to seize documents at the place of the seizure even if the allegedly infringing goods are missing, which is often the case when the seizure is performed at the alleged infringer’s head office. The saisie-contrefaçon must be followed by an action on the merits within 20 working days or 31 calendar days of the seizure (even in copyright matters); otherwise, it may be annulled. More than 650 saisies-contrefaçon are authorised each year by the Paris court (all IP matters included).

French case law has been inconsistent regarding whether a right to information may be exercised if a saisie-contrefaçon has not been carried out. In certain cases, plaintiffs that failed to have a saisie-contrefaçoncarried out before commencing action were subsequently denied the right to information in the course of the proceedings on the merits. However, Law 2014-315 ended this debate by expressly clarifying that rights holders may obtain any legally admissible investigative measure, even without a prior saisie-contrefaçon.

Preliminary injunctions

Preliminary injunction proceedings are available under French law in all IP-related matters in order to prevent the continuation of acts of alleged infringement. A preliminary injunction may be granted if the presiding judge of the court finds that the alleged infringement is plausible. The presiding judge will take into account both the prima facie validity of the IP right in question and the prima facie probability of the infringement. Urgency is not required.

Preliminary injunctions are granted within four to eight weeks of filing the complaint. In case of extreme urgency, the plaintiff may initiate urgency proceedings called ‘référé d’heure à heure’ and obtain a preliminary injunction in a few days. Further, in exceptional cases (eg, if there is a risk of irreparable harm to the plaintiff’s rights, since the award of damages alone could not constitute adequate compensation), the injunction may be granted ex parte.

Preliminary injunctions are obtained against the alleged infringer, but may also extend to intermediaries which supply services to the alleged infringer, including internet service providers (ISPs) and e-commerce platforms.

Preliminary injunction orders include the provisional prohibition of the alleged acts of infringement or the provisional seizure of infringing goods. If the defendant cannot seriously contest the harm suffered by the rights holder, the presiding judge may also order the defendant to pay provisional damages. Under Law 2014-315, the disclosure of documents or information held by the defendant or by third parties may also be ordered at this stage. The freezing of the defendant’s bank account(s) and other assets may additionally be ordered in order to secure funds in view of future payment of damages ordered by the court in proceedings on the merits.

Preliminary injunction proceedings can be initiated before or after the filing of proceedings on the merits. However, if a preliminary injunction is granted before the filing of proceedings on the merits, the plaintiff must initiate proceedings on the merits within 20 working days (or 31 calendar days if longer). Otherwise, the preliminary injunction may be revoked at the defendant’s request.

Proceedings on the merits

Proceedings on the merits follow a schedule by the reporting judge at the beginning of the proceedings. The schedule includes several case management hearings before the reporting judge, as well as a schedule for each party to file its written pleadings and evidence. The closure of the proceedings (ie, the end of the period during which the parties can file their briefs and exhibits) is usually ordered about 12 to 18 months after the proceedings begin. A final hearing for oral pleadings is held within a further two to four weeks of closing. The decision is then issued within four to six weeks of the final hearing. The decision is usually enforceable immediately, notwithstanding any appeal. If an appeal is lodged, the whole case is re-heard de novo. New arguments and evidence are admissible, but no new claims are admissible. Appeal proceedings are similar to first instance proceedings and take about the same length of time.

In accordance with the right to information, the French courts can order the defendant or a third party to disclose information relating to the infringement. The reporting judge may also so order in the course of proceedings on the merits. By removing the provisions of the IP Code which listed the specific information that may be communicated to the rights holder, (relating to distribution networks and the price and quantities of infringing goods), Law 2014-315 extended the scope of information and documents which may be disclosed.

In proceedings on the merits, the courts can grant permanent injunctions aimed at prohibiting the continuation of infringement, subject to penalties in case of breach. At the request of the plaintiff, the court may also order the recall and destruction of infringing goods.

To assess damages, under Law 2014-315 the court must separately consider:

  • the negative economic consequences of the infringement, including lost profits;
  • the moral damages suffered by the rights holder (ie, the damage caused by the depreciation of its IP rights and reputation); and
  • the profits made by the infringer, including intellectual investment savings and promotional materials.

The calculation of lost profits suffered by the rights holder is based on the quantity of infringing goods sold by the infringer and comprises the profits that the rights holder would have made if it had sold an equivalent quantity of genuine goods. Alternatively, if the plaintiff so chooses, the court may award a lump-sum amount. Under Law 2014-315, this amount must be higher than the amount of royalties that would have been due in case of authorised use.

Finally, the court may order publication of the decision in newspapers and on the infringer’s website.

Anti-counterfeiting online

Online infringement of IP rights in France is subject to the same legal proceedings as other kinds of infringement, with some adaptation due to the specific character of the Internet.

Specifically, the role played by ISPs is key to determining whether they are liable for IP rights infringement. If an ISP is a host playing a passive role (ie, the mere storage of information), it is entitled to treatment under the Act on Confidence in the Digital Economy (June 21 2004), according to which a host can be held liable only if, having been notified of the unlawful content, it fails to remove it promptly or to make access to such content impossible. On the contrary, if an ISP plays an active role, it may be held liable for having contributed to infringement. The rules conform to the EU E-commerce Directive.

In March 2009 a dedicated Cybercustoms Operations Unit was set up to fight the online sale of counterfeit goods. To this end, it can seek information directly from ISPs and banks. The unit can also purchase counterfeit products with the approval of the public prosecutor in order to track relevant payments and shipments.

Preventive measures/strategies

One of the most effective preventive measures for rights holders in France is the filing of an application for customs surveillance with Customs. Personal meetings with customs officers are always possible and often welcome.

Another anticipatory strategy consists of preparing ready-to-file applications for saisie-contrefaçon. This way, a court order authorising a seizure may be obtained ex parte within hours – even during the weekend – and infringing goods may be seized on the same day as they are detected on the market (eg, at a trade fair). If the seizure of the entire stock is authorised, the allegedly infringing goods may be removed quickly. Further, even if the saisie-contrefaçon is in principle only a procedural tool for collecting evidence with a view to future proceedings, securing evidence of the infringement and its negative economic consequences at an early stage often provides the rights holder with a decisive advantage in subsequent court proceedings, thus improving their efficiency.

Finally, preliminary injunctions are also an effective strategic tool to effect the swift interruption of counterfeiting activity – in particular on the Internet, where the exact location of the infringing goods remains unknown. 

Julien Fréneaux, Viviane Azard & Rebecca Delorey

This article first appeared in World Trademark Review. For further information please visit www.worldtrademarkreview.com.