(Supreme Court Guideline Case No. 157)
On June 30, 2021, the Supreme Court of the People’s Republic of China issued the 28th batch of guidance cases, among which, No. 157 related to the protection of works of applied art.
Highlights of the judgment
For a work of applied art to be protected under the Copyright Law, it must be original, have a certain artistic value, and the latter must be clearly distinguishable from its practical meaning. Furthermore, the Copyright Act protects the “artistic” rather than the “practical” aspects of a work of functional art.
In 2009, Crosplus Home Furnishings (Shanghai) Co., Ltd. (hereinafter referred to as “Crosplus”) designed a traditional Chinese-style wardrobe called “Tang Yun Wardrobe”. Between September and October 2011, it was displayed on a third-party website, and on December 10, 2013, Crosplus registered the three-dimensional pattern of the Tang Yun Wardrobe through the China Copyright Protection Centre.
In 2013, Crosplus discovered that Mengyang Furniture Sales Center (hereinafter referred to as “Mengyang”), a distributor of Beijing Zhongrong Hengsheng Wood Co., Ltd. (hereinafter “Hengsheng”), was selling a cabinet manufactured by Hengsheng that was substantially similar in appearance to the “Tang Yun”. Crosplus then sued the Mengyang sales centre and Hengsheng for copyright infringement of its work of applied art, the “Tang Yun Wardrobe”.
The court opposed the plaintiff’s claims, and the decision was overturned in the court of appeal.
The second instance court analysed the case in two steps:
- Was the “Tang Yun Wardrobe” a work protected by the Copyright Act?
Article 2 of the Implementing Regulations of the Copyright Law of the People’s Republic of China provides that “The term “works” as referred to in the Copyright Law means intellectual creations with originality in the literary, artistic or scientific domain, insofar as they can be reproduced in a tangible form”.
Article 4(8) of the Implementing Regulation stipulates that ““works of fine arts” means two- or three-dimensional works of the plastic arts created in lines, colors or other media which impart aesthetic effect, such as paintings, works of calligraphy and sculptures”.
Therefore, any intellectual creation with originality that can be reproduced in a tangible form is protected by the Copyright Act as a “work”.
Although China’s Copyright Law does not cover “works of applied art” explicitly, in practice they are often protected as works of art. For an industrial product to be considered a “work of applied art”, it must, in addition to meeting the common requirements of a general work (independent realisation and creative expression), have an aesthetic effect. Furthermore, the scope of protection of the Copyright Act is limited to the author’s expression and does not protect technical utility. Therefore, the protection of a work of applied art by the Copyright Act also requires that its artistic and its functional character are clearly differentiated.
In this case, the plaintiff’s wardrobe fulfilled both the aesthetics and utility requirements. On the one hand, the claimant’s creative work is reflected in the choice of materials, the patterns and the specific positions of the fittings. The colour of the furniture panels is not the wood grain itself, but mimics the colour and elements of traditional Chinese furniture redesigned with abstract techniques, and the front cabinet doors, drawer handles and drawer pulls use handmade pure brass hardware, among other features.
On the other hand, the artistic nature of the wardrobe can be clearly differentiated from its practicality, as the modification of the artistic elements would not affect the practical function of the wardrobe, which is the storage and display of clothes.
Based on the above, it was confirmed that the plaintiff’s wardrobe could be considered an artistic work which can be protected by the Copyright Act.
- Does the manufacture and sale of a product substantially similar in appearance to a registered work of applied art infringe the latter’s copyright?
To determine whether a product infringes the copyright of a protected work, the court must ascertain and decide whether the product is “substantially similar” to the protected work and whether the infringer had “access” to it.
As noted above, the Copyright Act protects only the artistic character of works of applied art, so the comparison between the infringing product and the protected work must be limited to the “artistic aspect”.
Following the comparison, the court found that the creative elements of the two works were substantially similar, inter alia, because of the general L-shape of the cabinet, the similar arrangement of the doors, the decorative fittings, the pattern of the panels and the general shape.
Since the defendant did not provide evidence to show when the design of the infringing products was completed, nor did he provide information about the designers -coupled with the fact that the defendant and the plaintiff were competitors in the same industrial field-, the court found that there was reason to believe that the defendant had “access” to the plaintiff’s works.
Based on this analysis, the court ultimately ruled that the defendant’s products infringed the copyright of the plaintiff’s protected work.
Author: Dan Liu
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