French High Court Rules For Luxury - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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French High Court Rules For Luxury

French High Court Rules For Luxury

After an eight-year legal battle between French fine-jewelry house Van Cleef & Arpels and one of its former designers, France’s High Court, the Court of Cassation in Paris, upheld the lower court’s verdict in Van Cleef & Arpel’s favor. The court ruled that Van Cleef & Arpels owned the copyright to their former employee’s jewelry designs and contributions. This outcome is likely to have wide-ranging implications for luxury brands worldwide.

Unlike other jurisdictions, France does not provide “work for hire” rights to employers. Consequently, the former designer’s attorney argued that Van Cleef & Arpels was not entitled to over five hundred of his client’s independently and unsupervised jewelry designs. The court ruled otherwise, and France now joins other jurisdictions that recognize the employer as the legal owner of original works made for hire.

The verdict does not exclusively apply to jewelry design but also to fashion designs created by full time employees of luxury houses. The French legal system, therefore, now recognizes the design company as the primary holder of the copyright for collective designs despite individual contributions. The court reasoned that because fashion companies direct the creative process, it is consistent to consider the company the primary owner of collective works rather than the designer-employee.

Previously, luxury executives were unsure about who owned their brand’s creations. The ruling, however, now establishes a framework to analyze whether or not a company should receive copyright ownership for collective designs. The various factors to consider include the house’s heritage, the company’s instructions, and the employee’s involvement in the design process. While this framework provides a more searching inquiry than a bright-line rule, it is best suited for the conflicting interests of company executives and individual designers.

However, France has historically favored protection for individual copyright. But as luxury brands started to fear their economic and legal position, France started to recognize more company protection in order to remain the center for creative businesses. In fact, unlike the United States, France awards copyright protection for fashion designs. Therefore, despite France’s preference for awarding individual copyright, this verdict is more consistent with France’s stance as a safe harbor for luxury fashion houses.

Interestingly, this case reflects a shift that United States law fails to take. Even though “work for hire” is a well recognized component of copyright law, federal law continues to proscribe fashion design from copyright protection (but not jewelry design). As France continues to strengthen the position for luxury brands that create fashion, United States law continues to ignore this profitable industry, which affects the United States’ potential to dominate these markets. However, federal courts are unlikely to favorably rule on this issue unless the legislature provides protection. So just as it seemed high time for France to align with other jurisdictions, the United States should start considering fashion design protection either sui generis or under copyright if it desires more of the design pie.

Michael Busiashvili