After the Judgement by the CJEU of 11 June 2020 in the Brompton Case (C 833/18) the answer, as the song goes, is blowing in the wind. This is not surprising.
Let us recall the case. Brompton is an English company that markets a folding bicycle, sold in its current form since 1987, which had been protected as a patent due to its particular technical features: the bicycle can have three different positions (a folded position, an unfolded position and a stand-by position) enabling the bicycle to stay balanced on the ground.
Once the patent rights expired, Brompton brought an action against the company Get2Get, on grounds of copyright infringement, for marketing a bicycle whose appearance is visually very similar to that of the Brompton bicycle and which may fold into the three positions mentioned in the preceding paragraph.
The question is, therefore, whether an object that is constrained by its technical characteristics, to the point that it was protected as a patent, can constitute an intellectual work. The CJEU returns the matter to the national court but highlights some important points.
For the Court it is true that the shape of the cited bicycle is necessary to achieve a particular technical effect, namely, the ability of that bicycle to fold into three positions, one of these enabling it to stay balanced on the ground. However, the national court must ascertain whether, notwithstanding this circumstance, the bicycle constitutes an original work resulting from an intellectual creation.
In this respect, the judgment warns that this is not the case where the realisation of a subject matter has been dictated by technical considerations, rules or other constraints which have left no room for creative freedom or room so limited that the idea and its expression become indissociable. Where the shape of the product is solely dictated by its technical function, that product cannot be covered by copyright protection.
In order to verify this, the national court must determine whether, through that choice of the shape of the product, its author has expressed his creative ability in an original manner by making free and creative choices and has designed the product in such a way that it reflects his personality.
At this point, the Court adds that the existence of other possible shapes which allow the same technical result to be achieved is not decisive in assessing the factors which influenced the choice made by the creator. Likewise, the intention of the alleged infringer is irrelevant in such an assessment.
As regards the existence of an earlier, now expired, patent in the case in the main proceedings and the effectiveness of the shape in achieving the same technical result, these factors should be taken into account only in so far as they make it possible to reveal what was taken into consideration in choosing the shape of the product concerned.
The Court reaches the conclusion that Articles 2 to 5 of Directive 2001/29 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 an 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 the shape reflects his personality, this being for the national court to verify, bearing in mind all the relevant aspects of the dispute in the main proceedings.
In summary, it seems clear that the limits setting the boundaries between intellectual work and other industrial property rights (patents, designs, trademarks) remain unclear to a certain extent and that, in practice, national courts continue to have a wide scope of discretion in spite of, or thanks to, the criteria, so precise yet so ambiguous, laid down by the CJEU.
Author: Antonio Castán
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