The Paris Court of Appeal delivered a ruling dated 14 December 2012 on a case brought against Van Cleef & Arpels by one of its in-house designers who claimed copyright on some of his designs.
Under French law, copyright originates with the employee and not with the employer, since the latter must give up its rights in order to use a design. Consequently, when a company hires someone, it has an obligation, if the employee is the owner of a creative work, to make provisions in the contract for copyright assignment and/or remuneration of the hired designer.
In this particular case, the employee argued that as the owner of a creative work, he was able to make a claim for copyright for it even though he was an employee. The important point to note here is that his working contract did not provide for any automatic copyright assignment to his employer.
For their part, Van Cleef & Arpels considered that a “piece of jewelry is the result of collective work” and that “the design is only one of the stages before final production”. They also contended that the plaintiff “merely drew on the company’s files” and that it was his job to “carry out instructions”.
In its ruling of 14 September 2012, the Paris Court of Appeal confirmed the judgment of the first court dismissing the employee.
As a matter of fact, in its ruling, the Court found that the employee’s work was carried out in “a constrained environment which obliged him to conform to the aesthetic instructions that he received from his hierarchal superiors as part of the creative committee […] Each design is only the employee’s individual contribution to a collective work” and that it was therefore “not possible to attribute separate rights to each of the individuals involved in the designs produced”.
With this reasoning, the Court of Appeal sided with the employer even though the employee’s working contract contained no automatic copyright assignment clause. This sends quite a signal to the Jewelry and Luxury industry.
Although this position is in line with a recent trend in case law, where consistency and coherence are not signature traits of French judges, we must remind you that it is important to ensure that you make provisions for copyright assignment in the contracts of the designers whom you recruit.
Jérémy GIACOPAZZI – IP lawyer