In a significant judgment, the High Court of Australia has changed an aspect of patent law in Australia, ruling by a 4-3 majority that the first sale of a patented product exhausts the patentee’s exclusive rights in that product: Calidad Pty Ltd v Seiko Epson Corporation  HCA 41. For over a century, an alternative approach, based on an ‘implied licence’ theory, has applied. While the distinction between these two approaches may not necessarily produce a different outcome in most practical circumstances, the implied licence approach has generated complications, and left Australian law out-of-step with some of our major trading partners, most notably the US and the European Union. For reasons of simplification and harmonisation, therefore, the High Court’s ruling will be welcomed by many – myself included.
The decision of the High Court majority is also notable for the fact that the court has wasted no time in recognising the ‘objects clause’ in section 2A of the Patents Act 1990. This clause, which sets out underlying purposes of the Act (in economic and social terms) was only enacted in February 2020, and this is literally the very first patent case that the High Court has decided since then.
The case involves printer ink cartridges, and in particular the refurbishment, refilling, and resale of cartridges, which are generally available at a lower price than cartridges sold by the original manufacturer. Australian consumers will therefore be pleased to learn that the High Court has determined – in addition to the esoteric legal question of ‘exhaustion’ – that, in this case at least, the refilled cartridges do not infringe patent rights held by the original manufacturer, and can therefore be imported and sold in Australia. I will discuss the ‘exhaustion’ aspect in this article, and save a review of the infringement decision for a separate post.