14 July, 2020

Function Above Form - CJEU Discusses Copyright Protection over Functional Designs

Protection over functionality in relation to copyright is a bit of a contentious subject. Many laws around the world, including in the EU, preclude protection from extending to methods of procedures, potentially including functional aspects of a particular form of expression. The idea of this is to prevent the use of copyright in the way of patents to protect some specific function, giving the rightsholder a much longer period of protection than under patent legislation. Nevertheless, the issue has been litigated before, and the CJEU was set to decide on the matter once and for all earlier this Summer, and finally handed down its decision in June 2020. 

The case of Brompton Bicycle Ltd v Chedech/Get2Get concerned a folding bicycle sold by Brompton, whose design's comprises three different folding positions. The design was patented, however the patent has expired. Get2Get sold a similar bike (called the "Chedech"), which also featured three folding positions. Brompton subsequently took Get2Get to court over copyright infringement, with the defendant arguing that you cannot have copyright in functional designs, i.e. the technical function of the bike design. After a period of litigation in the Belgian courts the matter ultimately ended up with the CJEU. 

The CJEU was asked two questions, which it combined into one; "...whether Articles 2 to 5 of [the InfoSoc] Directive must be interpreted as meaning that the copyright protection provided for therein applies to a product whose shape is, at least in part, necessary to obtain a technical result", meaning, can Brampton have copyright in the three-fold design of their bike. 

The court first discussed the requirements for a "work" under EU case law, namely, that it has to be an original subject matter which is the author’s own intellectual creation and an the expression of that creation. This is slightly different when it comes to subject matter that has been dictated by technical considerations, such as the design of a bike. 

In relation to originality, the courts will have to keep in mind that there can be no "work" as such if "...that subject matter cannot be regarded as possessing the originality required for it to constitute a work", which leaves it ineligible for copyright protection. In relation to expression of that 'work' it needs to be identifiable with sufficient precision and objectivity. 

With that said, the Court noted that "...a subject matter satisfying the condition of originality may be eligible for copyright protection, even if its realisation has been dictated by technical considerations, provided that its being so dictated has not prevented the author from reflecting his personality in that subject matter, as an expression of free and creative choices". This would allow for works with functional designs to be protected, provided that the technical considerations included in that design haven't prevented the author from creating it using their own determination as discussed above in relation to originality. 

The Court then moved onto discussing the actual design of the Brampton bike and whether it could be protected by copyright. 

The design of the bike is clearly necessary to obtain a certain technical result, namely that the bicycle may be folded into three positions. Even though there remains the possibility that choice shaped the design of the bike, the Court was unable to conclude that it was indeed a 'work' pursuant to the above Articles, as further evidence would be required. 

The Court further noted that even though the existence of other possible shapes which can achieve the same technical result makes it possible to establish that there is a possibility of choice, this does not in itself show that the design is an original one. In addition, the intention of any alleged infringer is not relevant for the assessment of originality, but courts can indeed consider the existence of a patent over the design (even if expired), but only to the extent that the patent(s) make it possible to reveal what was taken into consideration in choosing the shape of the product concerned.

After all of the above discussions the Court summarized their decision on the matter: "... Articles 2 to 5... must be interpreted as meaning that the copyright protection provided for therein applies to a product whose shape is, at least in part, necessary to obtain a technical result, where that product is an original work resulting from intellectual creation, in that, through that shape, its author expresses his creative ability in an original manner by making free and creative choices in such a way that that shape reflects his personality, which it is for the national court to verify, bearing in mind all the relevant aspects of the dispute in the main proceedings"

The decision opens the door for national courts to consider the application of copyright in relation to functional designs, and will be quite important for companies wishing to protect those designs going forward. The big hurdle will be evidence, at least in this writer's opinion, as it will be difficult to demonstrate clear decision-making and choice by the author simply by showing designs of a bike. It would clearly have to show a trail of decision-making, potentially even deviations from earlier designs, to show that the author has exercised sufficient thought and scrutiny to fulfill the requirements of originality. It will remain to be seen how national courts will apply this going forward, and what evidence will/might be sufficient to establish copyright in functional designs. 

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