Two recent CJEU decisions and the fuzzy border between trademarks and designs

While no definite trend toward the approximation of trademark and design law has so far emerged in European case law, two recent decisions of the CJEU relating to designs show how fuzzy the border between trademark and design rights may be.

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In Doceram (C-395/16, ECLI:EU:C:2018:172), the CJEU had to interpret the concept of designs subsisting “in features of appearance of a product which are solely dictated by its technical function”, which are excluded from protection under Article 8(1) of Regulation 6/2002 on Community designs (RCD). The Court was asked, in particular, to state whether such exclusion applies even when alternative designs exist which can perform the same technical function, so that the features of the design cannot be considered indispensable for performing said  function.

It is a classic dilemma. As AG Henrik Saugmandsgaard Øe noted in his opinion, in Europe the Courts and legal scholars have given both negative and positive answers.

The position whereby Article 8(1) RCD and the corresponding national provisions only apply when copying the design is the sole way to achieve the technical result is commonly referred to as the “mandatory” (or “multiplicity of forms”) theory. The opinion whereby, to the opposite, it does not matter whether or not alternative designs can fulfil the same function, insofar as the function in question is the sole driver of the shape, is usually referred to as the “causative theory”. In the past the EUIPO has ruled in line with the first theory [also supported by AG Colomer in the opinion submitted in Philips v. Remington (paragraph 34); and followed by the EU General Court in Industrias Francisco Ivars (see paragraph 22)], which is much more favorable to design right holders. Recently it seems to have veered towards the latter. As far as Italy is concerned, there is probably greater support for the “mandatory theory”.

In Doceram the Court (and before the Court AG Saugmandsgaard Øe) endorsed, with little hesitation, the “causative” theory:

if the existence of alternative designs fulfilling the same function as that of the product concerned was sufficient in itself to exclude the application of Article 8(1) of Regulation No 6/2002”, it said,

then

“a single economic operator would be able to obtain several registrations as a Community design of different possible forms of a product incorporating features of appearance of that product which are exclusively dictated by its technical function” (paragraph 30).

 That, added the Court,

“would enable such an operator to benefit, with regard to such a product, from exclusive protection which is, in practice, equivalent to that offered by a patent, but without being subject to the conditions applicable for obtaining the latter, which would prevent competitors offering a product incorporating certain functional features or limit the possible technical solutions, thereby depriving Article 8(1) of its full effectiveness” (ibidem).

By stating this, the CJEU de facto extended to designs the principles it affirmed with regard to trademarks “consisting exclusively of the shape of goods which is necessary to obtain a technical result”.

As is well known, in Philips v. Remington the CJEU stated that the relevant impediment to registration [now contained in Article 4(1)(e)(ii) of Directive 2015/2436] “cannot be overcome by establishing that there are other shapes which allow the same technical result to be obtained: which is, mutatis mutandis, what the CJEU said in Doceram.

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Interestingly, another recent CJEU decision ended up extending the interpretation of provisions concerning trademarks to provisions concerning designs.

In Nintendo v. Bigben (C‑24/16 and C‑25/16, ECLI:EU:C:2017:724), the Court had (inter alia) to issue a preliminary ruling with regard to Article 20(c) RCD, which prevents design right holders from exercising their rights in respect of “acts of reproduction for the purpose of making citations or of teaching, provided that such acts are compatible with fair trade practice and do not unduly prejudice the normal exploitation of the design, and that mention is made of the source”.

The dispute in the main proceedings concerned the use of images of goods corresponding to EU registered designs in the advertisement of goods intended to be used as accessories to the above goods corresponding to EU registered designs. As in the following picture, which shows Nintendo Wii remote controllers, registered as EU designs, together with the charger for such controllers produced and sold by the defendant Bigben.

bigben

In addressing the issue, the Court said that Article 20(c) RCD, insofar as it refers to “acts … compatible  to fair trade practice”, can be interpreted in the light of the case law regarding uses of trademarks made in accordance with “honest practices in industrial or commercial matters” under Article 6(1) of Directive 89/104 [now Article 14(2) of Directive 2015/2436]. And it explicitly applied to designs – again: mutatis mutandis – the principles asserted in Gillette (17 March 2005, C-228/03, ECLI:EU:C:2005:177) with respect to the limitation of trademark rights:

an act of reproduction of a protected design for the purpose of making citations or of teaching is not compatible with fair trade practice … where it is done in such a manner that it gives the impression that there is a commercial connection between the third party and the holder of the rights conferred by those designs, or where the third party, who wishes to rely on that limitation in the course of selling goods that are used jointly with goods corresponding to the protected designs, infringes the rights conferred on the holder of the design protected by Article 19 of Regulation No 6/2002, or where that third party takes unfair advantage of the holder’s commercial repute” (paragraph 80).

Riccardo Perotti

The EU General Court dismissed an action to invalidate a Registered Community Design held by Nike for electronic wristbands.

In 2012, Nike registered successfully a Community Design for an electronic wristband. One year later, Mr. Murphy filed for a declaration of invalidity of Nike’s design on the basis of a prior registered design for “Flexible LCD watch bands”.

murplhy design.jpgwristband.jpg

Mr. Murphy argued that Nike design infringed Article 6(1)(b) of the Community Designs Regulation, submitting that it lacked individual character as the overall impression on the informed user did not differ from that produced by Murphy’s prior design.

Neither the Invalidity Division of the EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) nor the EUIPO Board of Appeal agreed with Mr. Murphy.

The case came before the EU General Court upon Mr. Murphy’s appeal of the Board of Appeal decision.

The General Court rejected Murphy’s application for a declaration of invalidity of the Nike design on the following grounds (here).

Firstly, it considered that, in order for a wristband to be able to fulfil its function properly, its designers would be limited by several constraints, as the need to be relatively small, thin, light, ergonomic in order to fit the wrist and to contain measuring instruments. These technical constraints led to conclude that the degree of freedom of the designer was high rather than very high, as argued by Mr. Murphy.

The degree of freedom must be taken into consideration in assessing individual character pursuant to Article 6(2) of the Designs Regulation, because the more the freedom of the designer in developing a design is restricted, the more likely it is that minor differences between the designs being compared will be sufficient to produce a different overall impression on an informed user. (see judgment of 10 September 2015, Handbags, T‑525/13, EU:T:2015:617, paragraph 29 and the case-law cited).

In any case, even taking account of a high degree of freedom afforded to the designer of electronic wristbands, the Court reiterated the position from earlier case law that the overall impression produced by the Nike design on the informed user was clearly different to that produced by Murphy’s design.

Indeed there were a number of differences between the two designs, namely that (i) the Nike design was larger and thicker than Murphy’s design, (ii) Nike’s design featured a large oval button on the surface of the wristband which was not present in Murphy’s design, (iii) the internal components of the Nike design were visible, giving it a more technical aspect than Murphy’s design, which appeared as opaque and elegant, and (iv) the Nike design had less ornamentation than Murphy’s design, on which the image of a diver and a line running along the wristband were clearly visible.

On the contrary, the clasps’ similarity in both designs alone was not sufficient to make them similar as a whole. Indeed, the overall impression must be determined in light of the manner in which the product is used and when using an electronic wristband, the informed user attaches more importance to the part displaying the data than to the clasp.

The General Court disregarded Murphy’s argument, based on UK case law, that his prior design enjoyed a higher degree of protection because it was a significant advance over the prior art in existence at the time of its registration in 2005. The Court has pointed out that it was not bound to consider decisions of national courts, even where the latter are based on provisions analogous to those of that regulation (see judgment of 29 October 2015, Éditions Quo Vadis v OHIM — Gómez Hernández (‘QUO VADIS’), T‑517/13, not published, EU:T:2015:816, paragraph 46 and the case-law cited). In addition, the new and unusual character of Murphy’s design did not prevent the informed user from perceiving the differences in subsequent designs (see, to that effect, judgment of 21 May 2015, Senz Technologies v OHIM — Impliva (Umbrellas), T‑22/13 and T‑23/13, EU:T:2015:310, paragraph 95).

Appeal has already been brought before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) (C-538/17 P). It does not seem unreasonable to predict the confirmation of the here mentioned decision. Indeed, the General Court seems to have applied the long standing principles formulated by the ECJ in relation to the assessment of the individual character and its judgment appears to be a matter of fact, that hardly may be challenged by the higher court.

Jacopo Ciani

General Court (Fifth Chamber), 4 July 2017, Thomas Murphy v European Union Intellectual Property Office, Case T-90/16

The shape of the worldwide famous Vespa obtains protection in Italy under copyright law

Piaggio, the Italian company producer of the world wide famous Vespa scooter, was recently sued by the Chinese company Zhejiang Zhongneng Industry Group (“ZZIG”) in a quite complex case.

ZZIG offered for sale three scooters named “Revival”, protected by a Community design registration no. 001783655-0002, “Cityzen” and “Ves”, the shape of which was not covered by any registered IP right in Italy or in the European Union.

Capture ZZIG

As to Piaggio, the company owns the Italian 3D trademark no.1556520 claiming priority of the Community trademark no. 011686482, filed on 7 August 2013 and registered on 29 August 2013.

Capture Vespa

When Piaggio obtained the seizure of the three above motorbike models in the context of a Fair held in Milan, the Chinese company started an ordinary proceeding on the merits before the Court of Turin against Piaggio, seeking the declaration of non-infringement of Piaggio Vespa 3D trademark by its “Revival”, “Cityzen” and “Ves” scooters. Besides, it asked a declaration of invalidity of Piaggio’s Vespa trademark, based on the fact that it was anticipated by their design and thus not novel. Also, it held that the 3D trademark was void, as it does not respect the absolute ground for refusal established by the law.

Piaggio resisted and asked the Court of Turin to reject the above claims, declare that the Vespa shape is protected under copyright law, trademark law and unfair competition law and that those rights were infringed by ZIGG three models of scooters. As a matter of fact, Vespa was offered for sale by Piaggio since 1945.

First of all, the Court of Turin declared that the Vespa trademark does not lack of novelty, as it reflects a model of Vespa marketed since 2005, before the commercialization of ZZIG first scooter, i.e. “Cityzen”. Moreover, the Court of Turin excluded the existence of any absolute ground for refusal, stating that its shape was not technical nor standard and not even substantial as the reason why consumers chose the Vespa were not merely aesthetical. Based on these findings, the Court finally affirmed that only the “Ves” scooter constitute an infringement of Piaggio trademark.

This  said, the Court of Turin further held that the Vespa shape is eligible for protection under copyright law, as it is since long time worldwide recognized as an icon of Italian design and style, shown in advertising and movies, presented plenty of times at museum and exhibitions and part of many books, articles, magazines and publications. All considered, safe and sound evidence show that the shape of Vespa is unequivocally believed to be an artistic piece of designs by the main communities of experts worldwide. Nevertheless, the Court held that, again, only Ves scooter infringed Piaggio rights vested on its scooter as it presents features similar to the ones protected both under the Vespa trademark and copyright.

The decision (full text here) is indeed interesting as it critically examines the similarities and differences between the “original” good and the ones that are claimed to be infringing products and, while asserting the eligibility for protection of the Vespa shape both under trademark and copyright law, it excludes infringement for two products through a detailed and careful examination. This narrow approach is indeed interesting because it affirms the principle that the infringement of designs protected under copyright law shall be evaluated with an analytical examination similar to those applied in cases of trademark infringement.

A doubt might remain about the overlapping of trademark and copyright protection. Since the former never expires as long as the product is on the market (plus the subsequent five years, according to Italian law), one might ask what advantage for the right holder might subsist by ‘adding’ a protection limited in time, such as copyright’s. The answer might be: the dual protection functions as a ‘parachute’ for the case that one of the two, in a subsequent Judgement (Appeal or High Court: Cassazione in Italy) should be successfully challenged by a competitor.

Maria Luigia Franceschelli

Court of Turin, case No. 13811/2014, 6 April 2017, Zhejiang Zhongneng Industry Group, Taizhou Zhongneng Import And Export Co. vs Piaggio & c. S.p.a..

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..

Industrial Design works: exhibition in museums as proof of special artistic merit?

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.

nasa
Aldrin’s boot and footprint in lunar soil – credit: Nasa

(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 testsponsored 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.

Gustavo Ghidini

 

Court of Milan, IP Section, decision of 7 July 2016, No. 8628/2016