L’Australie adopte l’épuisement automatique

La High Court

Par un arrêt du 12 novembre 2020 dans l’affaire Calidad Pty Ltd v Seiko Epson Corporation ([2020] HCA 41), la High Court d’Australie (Cour Suprême fédérale) opéré un revirement spectaculaire sur la question de l’épuisement des droits (en l’espèce en matière de brevets), en abandonnant la doctrine traditionnelle de l’épuisement facultatif (licence tacite) au profit de l’épuisement automatique. La Cour souligne notamment les avantages présenté par la seconde sur la première, dans les termes suivants (points 76 et 77):

« The exhaustion doctrine has the virtues of logic, simplicity and coherence with legal principle. It is comprehensible and consistent with the fundamental principle of the common law respecting chattels and an owner’s rights respecting their use. At the same time, it does not prevent a patentee from imposing restrictions and conditions as to the use of a patented product after its sale but simply requires that they be obtained by negotiation in the usual way and enforced according to the law of contract or in equity.

The implied licence doctrine is complicated in its operation and effects. It can achieve only a partial alignment with the fundamental principle of the law and then only when it is clear that no restrictions have been imposed at the point of first sale. It may give rise to difficult questions concerning whether restrictions were imposed and whether an owner many times removed from the first sale had notice of them. The prospect that restrictions might be imposed on the further use or sale of a patented product after its first sale may be more theoretical than real now. Even if such restrictions were acceptable to consumers, they would face the hurdle of modern statutes concerned with anti-competitive conduct in the market. It may well be that the practice of patentees upon which the doctrine is founded has less relevance today. »

La solution semble applicable à l’ensemble des droits de propriété intellectuelle. Elle pourrait influencer les tribunaux britanniques, traditionnelement attachés aux mécanismes de licence tacite.

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