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.
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,
“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.
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.
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).