Oxford University v Oxford Nanoimaging. On unfair trading terms in retained EU consumer law, the Brussels regime and substantive consumer law.

In Oxford University Innovation Ltd v Oxford Nanoimaging Ltd [2022] EWHC 3200 (Pat) Daniel Alexander KC in a lengthy judgment eventually held for the University in a dispute on the validity of the University’s contractual terms claiming intellectual property over research students’ work. The case is of interest to the blog in that it contrasts the consumer provisions in the ‘Brussels (conflict of laws) regime’ with those of substantive consumer law.

[8] The thrust of ONI’s case is that Oxford’s approach to allocation of the commercial fruits of research is unfair to DPhil students and, more particularly, unfair to Mr Jing, the young researcher, in the circumstances of the case. More specifically it is said that Oxford’s policies are unfairly weighted in favour of the University and senior academics, who may have contributed less to the detail of the work than more junior researchers or inventors.

Applicability or impact of consumer protection legislation on terms relating to intellectual property rights of students is core to the case. The Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999/2083 – UTCCR are derived from the European Directive on Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts 93/13, the ‘Unfair Consumers Terms Directive’ UCTD, which is retained EU law and the CJEU authority on same is retained EU case law [240] . They only apply to contracts between a “consumer” and a “seller or supplier”. Was Mr Jing such a ‘consumer’?

UK courts regularly made recourse to Brussels  Convention and later Brussels Ia cases in the absence of much CJEU UCTD authority. The judge correctly holds [242] that one must be cautious with such approach pro inspiratio, as indeed I have also pointed out on this blog before, and discusses ia CJEU Benincasa, Gruber, Schrems, Milivojevic, albeit not CJEU Reliantco, and the UK cases of Standard Bank v Apostolakis, AMT Futures v Marzillier and Ang v Reliantco. In the discussion on whether the Brussels case-law has an impact on the UCTD, he refers ia to Weco Projects. [288] he points out that when later CJEU authority did interpret the term ‘consumer’ in the UCTD directly (eg Karel de Grote), it made fairly little reference to Brussels authority. [306] he decides the UCTD approach to ‘consumer’ is ‘more expansive’ and ‘not as strictly’ as under the Brussels regime and [310] rejects Oxford’s submission that it is necessarily the right approach to this case under the UCTD to adopt the framework of analysis of dual-purpose contracts of the Brussels Convention/Regulation case law. This also includes [320] a different approach to the burden of proof.

[410] the final conclusion is that a ‘DPhil student is normally entitled to be treated as a consumer under the UCTD and that it does not matter for this purpose whether the student is undertaking that educational qualification with a view to her career, profession and/or professional advancement’  and [425] that ‘Oxford has not shown that Mr Jing’s circumstances were such that it would be wrong to treat him as a consumer in entering into the DPhil Contract he did.’ However eventually [639] the terms were not judged to be ‘unfair’.

Many of the issues raised are new and one imagine permission to appeal may have been sought.

Geert.

EU private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, 2.231 ff.

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