(i) relating to a European Patent
(ii) aimed at obtaining a declaration of non-infringement of different national portions of said European Patent
(iii) brought before Italian Courts
(iv) against a patentee who is not domiciled in Italy
are commonly known as Italian torpedoes (the expression is a fortunate coinage of Mario Franzosi).
These actions are often started to take advantage of the rules concerning lis pendens. Where a non-infringement action is pending before a Court (say an Italian Court) with regard to the national portion of a European Patent (say the German portion), any infringement action subsequently brought before the Court of another country (say a German Court) with regard to the same portion of the same European Patent may be stayed. This stay – and the consequent delay in ascertainment of infringement – is the goal of torpedo-launchers.
Of course, the slower the jurisdiction, the longer the stay. Thus, launching a torpedo is particularly effective in slow jurisdictions, like – at least in the past – that of Italy.
Traditionally Italian Courts have not looked with favor on such actions, seeing them as tools for misusing the (flaws of the Italian) legal system.
This traditional view was authoritatively expressed by a 2003 decision of the Joint Divisions of the Court of Cassation (the Windmöller decision), which deracinated torpedo actions on the grounds that Article 5.3 of the Brussels Convention of 1968 does not apply to non-infringement claims (Italian Court of Cassation, decision no. 19550/2003, in Giur. Ann. Dir. Ind., 2004, pp. 61 ff.). If it is the plaintiff itself which denies the existence of a harmful event, said the Court, then by definition there cannot be jurisdiction under Article 5.3 of the Brussels Convention.
A few years later, in the GAT case (here), the EU Court of Justice struck another blow against torpedoes by stating that the rule of exclusive jurisdiction laid down by Article 16.4 of the Brussels Convention of 1968 [corresponding to Article 22.4 of Regulation 44/2001] concerns all proceedings relating to the registration or validity of a patent
“irrespective of whether the issue is raised by way of an action or a plea in objection” (the principle was later incorporated in Article 24.4 of Regulation 1215/12).
As a result – and even regardless of the restrictive interpretation of Article 5.3 of the Brussels Convention given by the Windmöller ruling -, in order not to fall into the exclusive jurisdiction under Article 16.4 of the Brussels Convention and 22.4 of Regulation 44/2001, torpedo actions had to be based on pure non-infringement arguments.
In this scenario, most certainly not favorable to torpedoes, a decision of the Joint Divisions of the Court of Cassation reopened the discussion on the admissibility of this kind of action (Court of Cassation, 10 June 2013, in Giur. ann. dir. ind., 2013, pp. 60 ff.: the Asclepion case; a full English translation of the decision has been published in IIC, 2014, pp. 822 ff.). In the context of a non-infringement case brought before the Court of Rome by a German company with regard to the Italian and German portions of a European Patent owned by a US company, the Joint Divisions – quoting, word for word, the EUCJ Folien Fischer decision (here) – stated that
(a) “Article 5.3 of Regulation 44/2001 … must be interpreted “as meaning that an action for a negative declaration seeking to establish the absence of liability in tort, delict, or quasi-delict falls within the scope of that provision”
and also that
(b) “therefore [pertanto, in the original Italian text] with regard to the declaration of non-infringement sought … before the Court of Rome, the Italian Courts must be considered to have jurisdiction, on the grounds that they are the Courts of the place where the harmful event may occur, also with regard to the “German portion” of the European Patent” [my translation].
The 2013 Asclepion ruling certainly lent itself to interpretation as a general permit to launch torpedoes, at least when they do not rely on any arguments of invalidity. This is, indeed, what the Court said. But, looking more closely, a missing step can be seen in the reasoning of the Asclepion ruling, between statements (a) and (b). This significantly limits its practical impact.
If closing the jurisdictional door of Article 5.3 of Regulation 44/2001 to non-infringement actions, as the Windmöller 2003 decision did, fatally blocks any attempt to launch torpedoes, interpreting Article 5.3 as covering both infringement and non-infringement actions does not necessarily mean – in spite of the adverb “therefore” used by the Court of Cassation – that the Italian Courts have jurisdiction under this provision over actions concerning the foreign portions of a European Patent. To this end, something more must exist, and namely a link with Italy.
It is precisely because of the (non-) existence of this link that the torpedo actions brought before Italian Courts after the Asclepion ruling have been stopped.
In Schindler v. Otis, in line with Asclepion, the Court of Milan (Judge Dr. Marina Tavassi; decision of 27 January 2014, published in Giur. ann. dir. Ind., 2014, pp. 741 ff.) admitted that, in itself, a non-infringement action may be brought against a foreign defendant under Article 5.3. Nevertheless, it declined its jurisdiction on the non-infringement claims submitted against a US patentee, insofar as the Spanish portions of the European patent in suit were concerned. According to the Court,
“Italy can be the place where the harmful event occurs or may occur only with regard to the Italian portion of a European patent, because there cannot be harm – actual or potential – caused in Italy by the alleged infringement of the Spanish portions of the patents in suit. Indeed, any national portion of a European patent is effective only in the relevant country and may be infringed only in that country” [my translation].
Therefore, in the opinion of the Court of Milan, when it comes to the infringement/non infringement of foreign portions of European patents owned by foreign patentees, there can never be a link with the country of Italy.
In the more recent Basf v. Bayer case, the Court of Milan (Judge Dr. Alessandra Dal Moro; the decision, dated 14 December 2016, published in Riv. dir. ind., 2017, I, pp. 309 ff. and also available here) fully confirmed the above approach and declared its lack of jurisdiction over the non-infringement of the foreign portion of a European patent (in particular, the German portion). In doing so, the Court explicitly dealt with the reasoning of Asclepion, clarifying why, in its view, the Court of Cassation’s decision could not be read as allowing torpedoes:
“the fact that article 5.3 of Regulation 44/2001 (now replaced by Regulation 1215/2012) may be applied to non-infringement actions in no way changes the stance of the Supreme Court with regard to the existence of jurisdiction in the case of infringement (or non-infringement) of non-Italian portions of European Patents. A claim seeking a declaration whereby certain conduct does not constitute infringement of a patent means that the patent is effective, and this effectiveness is geographically limited to the perimeter of the legal system to which it refers. Outside that perimeter of effectiveness, it is not possible to discuss infringing or non-infringing conduct and it is therefore not even possible to allege an, actual or potential, ‘harmful event’” [my translation].
A further decision was issued on torpedoes in 2014, but on different grounds. In Agilent v. Oerlikon, the Court of Genova (Judge Dr. Rossella Silvestri; the decision, dated 23 April 2014, is available here) declined its jurisdiction because the torpedo-launcher had raised invalidity arguments in support of non-infringement claims concerning the German portion of a European patent and a German utility model. The claims thus fell into the exclusive jurisdiction of the Courts of the place of registration.
Hence, all the torpedoes launched in Italy after the Asclepion ruling have been dismissed on the grounds of lack of jurisdiction. Does this mean that the torpedo saga has finally come to an end?