The Gray Blog reports that the Canadian Supreme Court has rejected an attempt — the sort made all day all over North America — to utilize IP law as a “guaranteed distribution network protection act.” It’s the “grey market” or “parallel market” issue: Does a company have the right to demand that its goods be sold only through “authorized dealers”?
The law is pretty clear that it can’t, but firms cook up all sorts of causes of action — tortious interference with contract, trademark infringement and dilution — to try to make get around the free market and to protect their distributors. This, in turn, protects their ability to control both retail prices and brand placement. These are completely legitimate business goals, but misusing the IP laws to achieve them is crooked. Unfortunately, the courts — typically dizzied by the assertion of the strong trademark rights that companies big enough to have this isue are likely to have — go along with this all too often.
Copyright, if you can make it work, is the best for this, because it has those famous teeth: Attorneys’ fees and statutory damages. The prospect of losing a copyright case is devastating for a small business. So big firms claim that all sorts of things, such as product descriptions, labels, the way the sun reflects off the bottle — are “protected works.”
Well, in Canada at least, that goose won’t fly. In this case, the focus was on the applicability of the first-sale doctrine (which gives someone who owns stuff to sell it to whomever he wants once he himself bought it lawfully) to an overseas sale:
The Court explained that â€œ[f]or KCI to succeed, it must show that Euro imported works that would have infringed copyright if they had been made in Canada by the persons who made them.â€ However, in the case of KCI, the products at issue were Toblerone bars bearing copyrighted works which where first manufactured and sold in Europe by the Licensors and owners of the copyrights. The Court reasoned that under section 27(2)(e) of the Copyright Act KCI as a licensee may not sue the owners of the copyrights for copyright infringement. Its only remedy is for breach of contract. Accordingly, no cause for copyright infringement exists against the legitimate purchaser.
“Toblerone bars bearing copyrighted works.” It’s preposterous that the court even got this far. The distortion of the IP regime seems irreversible.