Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Shanks v Unilever: Supremes identify outstanding benefit

The provisions of the Patents Act 1977 on compensation of employees for certain inventions (principally s.40) have no doubt been a disappointment to their proponents. The Trade Union Congress was influential in getting them included in the Act, and my friend Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran took the leading role (I think) in piloting them through Parliament, but they hardly ever deliver for the employee-inventor (Kelly and Chiu v GE Healthcare [2009] EWHC 181 (Pat) being the single swallow that could not make a summer). The problem is that the invention has to be of outstanding benefit to the employer, and the bigger the employer the harder it is to make that sort of impression on its business.

Shanks v Unilever [2017] EWCA Civ 2 was perhaps the paradigm case of an employee's invention not being of outstanding benefit to his employer because the company was too big to pay. £24 million is  not a lot to Unilever. Although the Court of Appeal recognised that the Hearing Officer who made the initial determination had to take many factors into account, it also recognised that the size of the employer eclipsed the others. "Too big to pay" is not the general rule, but it comes close. Or did, until today.

That case has now given us Shanks v Unilever Plc & Ors [2019] UKSC 45 (23 October 2019) in which Lord Kitchin (with whom the other Supremes, unsurprisingly given his background in IP law, agreed) warned that tribunals “should be very cautious before accepting a submission that a patent has not been of outstanding benefit to an employer simply because it has had no significant impact on its overall profitability or the value of all of its sales”.

A benefit, to be outstanding, has to stand out (the sort of statement of the obvious that judicial decisions are required from time to time to make). The consequence of this is perhaps rather less obvious: to stand out, the thing being considered has to be compared against something else. And what is the something else against which it has to be compared - the multinational ice-cream-to-deodorants behemoth, or Unilever UK Central Resources Ltd which actually employed him? The answer turns out to be a pracgmatic one - although Professor Shanks OBE FRS FREng (as the judgment calls him) worked for a small cog in the Unilever machine, it was right to consider the benefit to Unilever rather than strictly to his employer. The Act contains what are designed to work as anti-avoidance provisions, so the employer cannot licence the patent at a peppercorn royalty so as to avoid liability for compensation, and this approach seems consistent with this.

The decision also confirms that the outstandingness (my word) of the benefit must be assessed before tax, and that the employee should be compensated for what his Lordship rather nicely called the affect of time on the value of money. The application had been made in 2006, and only came before a hearing officer in 2012 since when it has taken a further seven years to get to this stage, which was not something for which the court thought blame should be laid at the Professor's door.

So Prof Shanks's invention was of outstanding benefit to his employer, and he was entitled to a fair share of that benefit. The lower instances had done the heavy lifting on the calculations, which I guess are not for the Supremes to interfere with except to say that Arnold J had been wrong to reduce the Hearing Officer's 5 per cent to 3 on the interesting basis that Unilever were able to drive a harder bargain than others in licensing transactions because they had deep pockets and would be able to protect their patents. The percentage was applied to the £24 million that the Hearing Officer had identified as the benefit, and the Professor receives a nice £2 million in recognition of the significance of his invention.

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