A recent decision issued by the Tribunal of Milan (full-text in Italian available here), Specialized IP Section, has acknowledged special artistic merit, hence copyright protection (under Art. 2.10 of Italian Copyright Act implementing Art 17 of EU Directive 71/98) to after-sky boots, branded Moon Boots (as designed after the US astronauts’ boots ), a popular model marketed (also) in Italy since more than 40 years.
(As known, in some countries like Germany and Italy, copyright protection of industrial design products requires a plus of artistic merit than the mere ‘individual character’ requested by the general copyright paradigm).
The trump card for this recognition was the Louvre Museum’s choice of Moon Boots as one of the 100 most representative industrial design works of the XX century. The readers will think, and with reason, that this position is not novel, either in Italy or in other countries (Germany,i.a.). And with reason: as a matter of fact, Milan’s Tribunal just follows the blueprint of Flos.
So, it is not for its peculiarities that we are recalling the Moon Boots decision. Rather, it is an occasion for some critical comments on the general position – general: aside from the specific case – espoused by the Milan Court.
First: is the selection/exposition by even prestigious museums a per se decisive argument for assessing special artistic value? More precisely: is it so without inquiring whether the exhibition was the Museum’s choice an autonomous initiative, or was it sponsored by the producers of the industrial design products? We all know how quite often, nowadays, public and private museums and art galleries, as well as the press, generalist and specialized, specialized struggle for balancing their budgets. And how a skillfully set up ‘environment’ can frame prestige and ‘cultural’ aura for the presentation of even everyday household appliances. And we know, of course, how intense is the ‘race’ by industrial design producers to obtain that prestigious upgrading, which translates in a potentially over 100 years rent-seeking position.
So, at least Courts should adopt the test ‘sponsored or autonomous’?
One might add that an even more significant test could be adopted. By checking whether this or that industrial product, of which the producer/plaintiff claims special artistic value, has ever been auctioned at art sales by famed houses as Christie’s, Sotheby’s and the like. Or, just by checking with same houses if they are prepared to auction such products as after-sky boots… (I am personally interested to this, I must confess: in my garage I have a couple of forgotten old used boots that I was going to throw away…).
Let’s now give a broader glance at the issue. First of all, its ‘competitive cost’. Is it reasonable, and consistent with the principle of freedom of competition, that utilitarian products sold since many years, even after the expiry of the 25 years design registration, and whose basic model has been currently adopted, after such expiry, by many competitors (usually SMEs ) — is it reasonable, then, that a sudden ‘copyright baptism’ makes them again object of exclusive rights? — possibly, repeat, for more than a century ahead! I do not think so: however, the question of an ‘easy’ building of such rent/seeking positions is not worth neglecting. Also for an additional reason. Under Berne Conventions’ rule on derivative works (Art.2.3) the rightholders on the original design retain the faculty to inhibit the production and marketing of competing products bearing variants.
At least — at the very least— a more balanced regime should establish a suitable term for competitors, who entered the market after the expiry of the registration, to continue production and sales as not to waste the investments poured therefor. On the determination of such ‘transition’ period, it is well known, lobbies of big international furniture producers are actively at work, e.g. now in UK after the disgraceful repeal (itself lobby-driven), of Sec. 52 of Design Act by the Enterprise Act of 2013 .
Finally: let alone SMEs, do Courts worry about the cost for consumers, i.e. effect on price, of such… baptism? Not that I know.
Court of Milan, IP Section, decision of 7 July 2016, No. 8628/2016