Sovereign Immunity
Subscribe to Sovereign Immunity's Posts

Pardon My French: France Wins Trademark Dispute Using Sovereign Immunity

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed a district’s court denial of sovereign immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA) and remanded the case to be dismissed with prejudice, holding that France was immune from a trademark infringement claim in the United States brought by the former owner of the domain name France.com. France.com, Inc. v. The French Republic, Case No. 20-1016 (4th Cir. Mar. 25, 2021) (Motz, J.)

Jean-Noel Frydman and his company France.com, Inc. (collectively, Frydman) purchased and registered the domain name France.com and trademarked the name in the United States and in the European Union. In 2015, the Republic of France (RoF) intervened in an ongoing lawsuit between Frydman and a third party, asserting the exclusive right to the use of the term “France” commercially. The RoF also insisted that the use of “France” by a private enterprise infringed on its sovereignty. The Paris District Court agreed and ordered the transfer of the domain name to the RoF.

Frydman filed suit for trademark infringement, expropriation, cybersquatting and reverse domain name hijacking, and federal unfair competition in a Virginia district court against the RoF. The RoF moved to dismiss the claim based on the FSIA. The district court denied the motion, stating that the FSIA immunity defense would be best raised after discovery. The RoF appealed.

The Fourth Circuit first determined, based on Supreme Court precedent, that sovereign immunity was a threshold question to be addressed “as near to the outset of the case as is reasonably possible” and not to be postponed until after discovery.

The Court next considered whether the RoF was immune to suit. The FSIA provides a presumption of immunity for foreign states that can only be overcome if the complaint provides enough information to satisfy one of the specified exceptions. Frydman argued that the commercial activity and expropriation exceptions applied.

The commercial activity exception removes immunity where a foreign state has commercial activity in, or that has a direct effect in, the United States. Essentially, a court must determine whether the actions of the foreign state are those of a sovereign or those of a private party engaged in commerce. The Fourth Circuit first identified that the actual cause of the injury at issue to Frydman was the French court’s ruling that the domain name belonged to the RoF, and found that all claims of wrongdoing by the RoF flowed form the French court’s decision. Additionally, even if it was solely the transfer of the domain name that harmed Frydman, and not the French court’s judgment, the transfer was still based on the French court’s judgment that provided the basis for RoF to obtain the domain name. Because the cause of action was based on the powers of a sovereign nation (the foreign judgment) and not the actions of a private citizen in commerce, the Fourth Circuit found that the commercial activity exception did not apply.

The Fourth Circuit next rejected Frydman’s assertion of the expropriation exception. This exception [...]

Continue Reading




State University Challenges Board on Sovereign Immunity in Inter Partes Review

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reiterated that “[s]overeign immunity does not apply to IPR proceedings when the patent owner is a state.” Board of Regents of the University of Texas System v. Baylor College of Medicine, Case No. 20-1469 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 10, 2020) (per curiam).

Baylor College of Medicine petitioned for inter partes review (IPR) of two patents owned by the Board of Regents of the University of Texas System (UT). UT moved to dismiss the petitions on state sovereign immunity grounds. The Patent Trial and Appeal Board denied the motion, citing Regents of the University of Minnesota v. LSI Corp. (IP Update, Vol. 22, No. 7).

UT appealed, arguing that University of Minnesota was wrongly decided, but admitted that the panel was bound by it. Predictably, the panel affirmed the Board.

Practice Note: UT’s strategy implies that it intends to use its case as a vehicle to seek en banc (and possibly Supreme Court) review of the University of Minnesota decision.




Advertising Falls within Commercial Activity Exception to Sovereign Immunity

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of a motion to dismiss a copyright infringement suit on the ground of sovereign immunity, holding that advertising activity in the United States on behalf of a sovereign government falls within the commercial activity exception to sovereign immunity. Pablo Star Ltd. v. Welsh Gov’t, Case No. 19-1262 (2d Cir. June 8, 2020) (Lynch, J.).

Pablo Star is a company registered under the laws of Ireland and the United Kingdom. The Welsh government is a political subdivision of the United Kingdom. Pablo Star sued the Welsh government, along with multiple New-York-based media companies working with the Welsh government, for copyright infringement. Pablo Star alleged infringement of its copyrights in photographs that the Welsh government used in online and printed materials advertising Welsh-themed events in New York and promoting tourism to Wales. The Welsh government moved to dismiss, asserting sovereign immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), which provides for presumptive immunity of a foreign state in federal court. The district court denied the motion to dismiss, holding that the commercial activity exception to the FSIA applied because the acts of the Welsh government that resulted in Pablo Star’s claims constituted commercial activity, and the activity had substantial contact with the United States. The Welsh government sought an interlocutory appeal.

The Second Circuit affirmed, finding that the Welsh government abrogated its sovereign immunity by engaging in commercial activity that had substantial contact with the United States. On the commercial activity prong, the Court rejected the argument that the Welsh government’s conduct was governmental, rather than commercial, because it promoted tourism to Wales. The Court explained that an activity is deemed commercial based on its nature rather than its purpose. Activity is commercial if a foreign state performs the types of actions typical of a private party engaging in commerce. A state’s motives, including motives without profit or to fulfill sovereign objectives, are irrelevant. The Welsh government’s assertion that it acted as a sovereign government to promote Welsh culture and tourism conflated the act with its purpose. The broader characterization of promoting tourism also did not distinguish the activity from functions regularly undertaken by private entities because the profit motive was irrelevant. Because the publication of advertising materials is an activity regularly performed by private-sector businesses, the court affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the Welsh government engaged in commercial activity.

The Second Circuit also distinguished Pablo Star’s claims from those in cases where sovereign immunity applied. Claims dismissed on the ground of sovereign immunity lacked a sufficient nexus between a party’s injury and the governmental entity’s commercial activity. They instead stemmed from functions unique to government, such as detention and punishment or the employment of civil service personnel. Pablo Star’s copyright infringement claim, by contrast, directly resulted from the Welsh government’s commercial conduct, including its unauthorized use of photographs in advertising materials promoting Welsh culture and tourism.

On the substantial contact prong, the Second Circuit agreed that the [...]

Continue Reading




BLOG EDITORS

STAY CONNECTED

TOPICS

ARCHIVES