Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Call to action: Munich should remain a leading patent litigation venue in Europe

Roughly two thirds of all European patent infringement cases are brought in Germany. Unlike in the U.S., where patent cases can be filed with any district court in the country, only a limited number of German courts have in rem jurisdiction over such cases, and only three of them really matter: Düsseldorf (this venue gets most cases, but not in the smartphone industry), Mannheim (the primary smartphone venue, where some judges almost deserve an honorary doctorate in radio frequency electronics), and Munich, where I grew up though I'm westbound by now.

Munich has two regional courts. Munich I has in personam jurisdiction over cases involving actions or persons within the city border, and in rem jurisdiction over patent cases; Munich II serves the outskirts (and doesn't try patent cases).

Munich I earned its place among the top three German patent venues--and, I would say, among the top five in Europe--for a combination of reasons:

  • It used to be a rocket docket, about as speedy as Mannheim and clearly faster than Düsseldorf.

  • It has its own--I'll use a U.S. term--patent local rules. Unlike Mannheim and Düsseldorf, where everything substantive is discussed in a single trial, Munich has broken the trial up into two parts, an "early first hearing" ("frühe erste Anhörung") and a "main hearing" ("Hauptverhandlung"). The first hearing usually takes place a few months after the complaint was served, and is somewhat similar to a U.S. Markman hearing, though they usually don't write down a claim construction the way U.S. courts do and, beyond the Markman scope, start to discuss infringement questions. The early first hearing gives parties a chance to fine-tune their argument with a view to the second hearing, which is the actual trial.

  • Many patent-focused firms have a strong presence in Munich (for an example, Quinn Emanuel's German center of gravity appears to be shifting from Mannheim to Munich) because of the strength of the regional economy (including many subsidiaries of major U.S. tech companies) and all those proceedings taking place before the European Patent Office (oppositions to recently-granted patents) and the Federal Patent Court of Germany ("Bundespatentgericht"; nullity proceedings against German patents or, typically, German parts of European patents).

  • While this is only a minor factor, Munich is also far more of a tourist attraction than Düsseldorf, let alone Mannheim, which is almost creepy and has an increasing problem with violent crime.

But there's a serious problem--a lack of political support for this patent venue.

While the government of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, regardless of whether the state is run by conservatives in name only (as it is now) or by the self-declared political left (as it was before), recognizes patent infringement litigation as a regional economic development factor, the party that has been in government in the state of Bavaria for half a century (CSU) appears to be pretty clueless, which is irreconcilable with its "Laptop und Lederhose" (laptop and Oktoberfest-style leather pants) slogan. Instead of strengthening the "civil law chambers" ("Zivilkammern") that hear patent cases in Munich, the court's former chief judge even reduced staff size by one judge, which sounds like a minor difference but has huge practical implications whenever one of the three judges (and they need three to form a panel that can hear and adjudicate a case) is on vacation or ill.

That's why I'm asking those of you who have a professional interest in Munich remaining a major patent litigation venue, also with a view to the future Unified Patent Court (UPC), to help those provincial folks figure out the problem and, more positively speaking, the potential.

A new Bavarian state government has just been formed, and a new state AG (again I used a U.S. term; in German, he's called "Justizminister", or "minister of justice"), who is ultimately in charge of providing the Munich I court (unlike a U.S. district court, a German regional court is a state--not federal--court) with sufficient resources, has just been appointed. Georg Eisenreich was previously in charge of (among other areas of responsibility) "digitization," a fact that may make him much more receptive to patent-related issues than the average state-level politician.

You can find his ministry's contact data on this web page. If you care about Munich as a patent litigation venue, please write to him and explain that you've learned about a recent staff cut affecting the "7. Zivilkammer" of the Landgericht München I, and that you would like to express your concerns about how this decision, beyond its practical implications, sends out a signal that threatens to reduce the relevance of Munich as a patent litigation venue. You may wish to highlight the following points:

  • It's important for Bavaria as a state that prides itself on its strong technology sector to have a strong patent infringement court.

  • Patent infringement cases tend to generate very high court fees for the state, so strengthening--not weakening--the venue will pay for itself, and more.

  • The state government should strive to ensure that Munich remains a significant venue if and whenever the Unified Patent Court starts.

  • Many patent litigants travel to German patent litigation venues from other countries (very often even from other continents). The government of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia appears to be aware of the economic benefits of such business travel, and so should its Bavarian counterpart.

  • Patent prosecution and litigation firms have created, and will continue to create, many high-paid jobs in the Munich area, some of which depend on the ability to enforce patents in their backyard. Also, many inventors may seek patent attorneys in cities they read about in the context of high-profile patent litigation involving U.S. and Asian technology giants.

  • If the state government fails to act, other specialized judges, whom it is hard to replace, may follow the example of former presiding judge Dr. Peter Guntz, who was hired away by the European Patent Office, where his after-tax income is presumably a lot higher.

None of this is meant to criticize the work performed by the court's patent judges. It's all about what the state government should do in order to let those specialized judges do their work as efficiently as their peers in other major German patent litigation venues.

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