Design’s artistic value: no univocal definition according to the Italian Supreme Court

With the decision at stake (dated November 13, 2015, full decision here) on the possible copyright protection of an out-door seat, the Supreme Court interestingly expressed a subtle (but crucial) critic on the current approach adopted by some Italian decisions that seem to ‘generously’ recognize the existence of artistic value for design objects, leaning on apparently weak – or lonely – evidence. This appears to be, for example, the case of the recent decision of the Supreme Court affirming that Moon Boots were artistic, as allegedly proved by the fact that the boots were exposed in an exhibition of industrial design works at the Louvre Museum (see full decision here).

A more severe approach seems to be adopted by the decision in comment, concerning the design of a line of outdoor seats called “Libre”, created by the plaintiff and claimed to be eligible for protection under copyright law. The Court of first instance and the Court of Appeal of Venice excluded the existence of an artistic value and thus excluded any copyright infringement by a line of similar outdoors seat created by a competitor. So, the plaintiff asked the Supreme Court to interpret such notion.

Capture Libre

The Italian Supreme Court, after having made a useful recognition of the current trends adopted by Italian Courts in the interpretation of such requirement, affirmed that the concept of artistic value cannot be confined in one, unique and exhaustive definition. The cases being too various, it is more useful defining a number of parameters that Judges can apply on a case-by-case basis, considering in depth the concrete facts occurred. Those parameters, continues the Court, have both subjective and objective aspects.

As to the former, they consist in the capability of the object to stir aesthetic emotions, in the greater creativity or originality of the shape – compared the others normally found in similar products on the market – transcending the practical functionality of the good: aesthetic have its own independent and distinct relevance. These emotions, admits the Supreme Court, are inevitably subject to the personal experience, culture, feeling and taste of the individual doing the evaluation. The result of the assessment on the existence of artistic value may thus change depending on who looks at the piece of design. So, it is necessary to indicate more objective parameters.

It is therefore to be considered the recognition that the piece of design has received within the cultural and institutional circles with respect to its artistic and aesthetic features. This witnesses that the aesthetic appearance is considered capable of giving to the object a value and a meaning independent from its strict functionality. In concrete, this is shown by the presence of the object at museum or exhibitions, mentions in specialized newspapers and journals (not having a commercial scope), the critics, awards, prices and similar. On top of that, crucial appears the circumstance that the object has gained an autonomous value on the market of pieces of art, parallel to the commercial one or, more commonly, that it has reached a high economic value showing that the public appreciates and recognizes (and is ready to pay) its artistic merits. All the above elements are inevitably influenced by time: if a product is new it would have had no time to receive such prices, honors and awards from third parties. Even this parameter shall thus not be considered as absolute, but still connected to a case by case analysis.

With the above, wide and flexible interpretation of the concept of artistic value, the Supreme Court appears to distance itself from a jurisprudence that focused the existence of  even just one of the above circumstances.  In particular, it seems to downplay the current trend, more and more popular in the merit Courts,  whereby the presence of the piece of design in museums and exhibitions constitutes per se a sufficient evidence of the artistic merits of an object. The decision in comment seems to ask the lower Courts to be more selective and in ascertaining the existence of an artistic merit in the design object. And to do this on a case-by-case analysis, excluding any “a priori” single-criterion-based assessment.

By this decision the Supreme Court gives objectively rules in favor of small or new designers and firms, whose products could achieve protection on the basis of a concrete analysis of the single object’s potentialities, independently from its long-lasting presence on the market, huge marketing efforts, or the capability to  exhibit  the object in a museum. The current approach, criticized by the Supreme Court, seems indeed to privilege ( moreover, in an era of crisis) companies that are already solidly established and powerful on the market. This decision is good news for competition.

Maria Luigia Franceschelli

Italian Supreme Court, case No. 23292/2015, 13 November 2015, Metalco S.p.A. vs City Design S.r.l. and City Design S.p.A..

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