International Investment Tribunal Accepts Jurisdiction over Trademark Dispute involving US-company

By Gabriel M. Lentner

Background

On 13 December 2017, an international investment tribunal delivered its decision on expedited objections, accepting jurisdiction to hear the trademark dispute in the case of Bridgestone v Panama. The dispute arose out of a judgment of the Panamanian Supreme Court of 28 May 2014, in which it held the claimants liable to a competitor to pay US $5 million, together with attorney’s fees, due to the claimants’ opposition proceedings regarding the registration of a trademark (”Riverstone”). The claimants argued that the Supreme Court’s judgment weakened and thus decreased the value of their trademarks (“Bridgestone” and ”Firestone”). The tribunal rejected most of the expedited objections raised by Panama. The decision is particularly interesting because it is the first detailed exploration of the question whether and under what conditions a trademark and license can be considered covered investments.

 

Trademarks are investments

On this issue, the tribunal first followed the text of the definition of investment under the applicable investment chapter of the United States—Panama Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA) (Article 10.29 TPA). It held that the investment must be an asset capable of being owned or controlled. The TPA also included a list with the forms that an investment may take, including ”intellectual property rights”, as many BITs do (paras 164 and 166). However, the TPA also requires that an investment must have the ”characteristics” of an investment, giving the examples of commitment of capital or other resources; expectation of gain or profit; assumption of risk (para 164). The tribunal also noted that other characteristics, as those identified in the case of Salini v Morocco, are to be found, such as a reasonable duration of the investment and a contribution made by the investment to the host state’s development. In this respect, the tribunal held that “there is no inflexible requirement for the presence of all these characteristics, but that an investment will normally evidence most of them” (para 165).

In deciding this issue, the tribunal reviewed the way in which trademarks can be promoted in the host state’s market. The tribunal found that ”the promotion involves the commitment of resources over a significant period, the expectation of profit and the assumption of the risk that the particular features of the product may not prove sufficiently attractive to enable it to win or maintain market share in the face of competition.” (para 169) However, the tribunal noted that “the mere registration of a trademark in a country manifestly does not amount to, or have the characteristics of, an investment in that country” (para 171). According to the tribunal, this is because of the negative effect of a registration of a trademark. It merely prevents competitors from using it on their products and does not confer benefit on the country where the registration takes place. Nor does it create any expectation of profit for the owner of the trademark (para 171).

The exploitation of a trademark is key for its characterization as an investment (para 172). This exploitation accords to the trademark the characteristics of an investment, by virtue of the activities to which the trademark is central. It involves a “devotion of resources, both to the production of the articles sold bearing the trademark, and to the promotion and support of those sales. It is likely also to involve after-sales servicing and guarantees. This exploitation will also be beneficial to the development of the home State. The activities involved in promoting and supporting sales will benefit the host economy, as will taxation levied on sales. Furthermore, it will normally be beneficial for products that incorporate the features that consumers find desirable to be available to consumers in the host country.” (para 172)

 

Licenses are investments, too

Another way of exploiting a trademark is licensing it, i.e. granting the licensee the right to exploit the trademark for its own benefit (para 173). The tribunal then brushes aside the following counter-argument raised by Panama:

“Rights, activities, commitments of capital and resources, expectations of gain and profit, assumption of risk, and duration do not add up an ‘investment’ when they are simply the rights, activities, commitments, expectations, and risks associated with, and the duration of, cross-border sales.” (para 175)

The tribunal responded that Panama did not provide any authority for this argument and only rebuts that the “reason why a simple sale does not constitute an investment is that it lacks most of the characteristics of an investment.” (para 176 It further noted that ”[i]t does not follow that an interrelated series of activities, built round the asset of a registered trademark, that do have the characteristics of an investment does not qualify as such simply because the object of the exercise is the promotion and sale of marked goods.” (para 176).

The problem with this argument is that it is precisely the point raised by Panama that the legal requirement for characteristics of investments were developed to distinguish an investment from a mere cross-border sale of goods. Arguably, the tribunal did not explain how the characteristics related to the trademarks at issue differ from those related to the marketing of ordinary sales of goods.

Against this background, the finding of the tribunal that trademark licenses are also investments is even less convincing. Here the tribunal refers to the express wording of Article 10.29(g) of the TPA, which provides that a license will not have the characteristics of an investment unless it creates rights protected under domestic law of the host state (para 178). After reviewing the arguments and expert testimony presented during the proceedings, the tribunal concluded that the license to use a trademark constitutes an intellectual property right under domestic law (para 195), and is thus capable of constituting an investment when exploited (para 198). It reasoned that ”[t]he owner of the trademark has to use the trademark to keep it alive, but use by the licensee counts as use by the owner. The licensee cannot take proceedings to enforce the trademark without the participation of the owner, but can join with the owner in enforcement proceedings. The right is a right to use the Panamanian registered trademark in Panama” (para 195).

In conclusion, it will be interesting to see how future tribunals will deal with this question and react to the precedent set in this case.

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