The taste of a food product is not eligible for copyright protection

On November 13 2018, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has handed down its judgment in the case Levola Hengelo BV v. Smile Foods BV(C-310/17, ECLI:EU:C:2018:899) answering to a request for a preliminary ruling referred by the Regional Court of Appeal, Arnhem-Leeuwarden, Netherlands, concerning whether copyright could vest in the taste of a spreadable cream cheese called ‘Heksenkaas’ and produce since 2007.

The request for preliminary ruling was made in a proceedings concerning an alleged infringement of intellectual property rights relating to the taste of such a product by Smilde, a company manufacturing a taste-alike product called ‘Witte Wievenkaas’.

Until this judgement, there was wide divergence in the case-law of the national courts of the European Union Member States when it comes to the question as to whether a scent may be protected by copyright.

While countries as Italy and the Netherlands accepted in principle the possibility of recognising copyright in the scent of a perfume (see. judgment of 16 June 2006, Lancôme, NL:HR:2006:AU8940), other countries such as France or Great Britain has rejected such possibility (Cour de Cassation, judgment of 10 December 2013,FR:CCASS:2013:CO01205).

This is the first time that the CJEU rules on the copyright of the taste of a food product.

Until now, the Court has taken a position only in respect of smells’ registration as trademarks in Europe. The CJEU held in Sieckmann v Deutsches Patent- und Markenamt(Case C-273/00, 12 December 2002) that “smells” are capable of performing the function of a trademark, but they are not capable of registration, since they cannot be represented in a trademark register in a clear, precise, self-contained, easily accessible, intelligible, durable and objective manner.

In the present case, the CJEU ruled that a company should not have the right to copyright the flavour of a food product on very similar grounds.

Following the AG Melchior Wathelet’ s Opinion, the Court stated that the flavour of food can not be regarded as a “work” under Directive 2001/29.

For there to be a ‘work’ as per Directive 2001/29, the subject matter protected by copyright must be expressed in a manner which makes it identifiable with sufficient precision and objectivity, even though that expression is not necessarily in permanent form.

That is because, first, the authorities responsible for ensuring that the exclusive rights inherent in copyright are protected must be able to identify, clearly and precisely, the subject matter so protected. The same is true for individuals, in particular economic operators, who must be able to identify, clearly and precisely, what is the subject matter of protection which third parties, especially competitors, enjoy”.

Secondly, the need to ensure that there is no element of subjectivity –– given that it is detrimental to legal certainty –– in the process of identifying the protected subject matter means that the latter must be capable of being expressed in a precise and objective manner” (decision, para. 41).

Unlike, for example, a literary, pictorial, cinematographic or musical work, which is a precise and objective form of expression, the taste of a food product will be identified essentially on the basis of taste sensations and experiences, which are subjective and variable since they depend, inter alia, on factors particular to the person tasting the product concerned, such as age, food preferences and consumption habits, as well as on the environment or context in which the product is consumed” (decision para. 42).

Moreover, “it is not possible in the current state of scientific development to achieve by technical means a precise and objective identification of the taste of a food product which enables it to be distinguished from the taste of other products of the same kind” (decision para. 43).

It must therefore be concluded that the taste of a food product cannot be pinned down with precision and objectivity and, consequently, “cannot be classified as a ‘work’ within the meaning of Directive 2001/29” (decision para. 44).

This case is particularly interesting as the CJEU attempt for the first time to harmonise the meaning of “works” at EU level, giving to it “an autonomous and uniform interpretation throughout the European Union”.

This should limit the ability for national courts to assess autonomously the protectability of non-conventional categories of work (such as the smell of perfume) and contribute to favour a uniform application of EU law.

While the author shares the CJEU’s concerns about granting copyright protection to smells which cannot be identified precisely, doubt remains about whether copyright protection should be granted to them, when the available technology should make it possible such objective identification in the next future.

Likewise in the Sickmann case, it seems that the CJEU would have preferred to provide a non-definitive response to the issue.

CJEU, 13 November 2018, Levola Hengelo BV v. Smile Foods BV, C-310/17, ECLI:EU:C:2018:899

Jacopo Ciani

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.