Top French Court Upholds Copyright Ruling

The Cour de Cassation upheld a lower court’s verdict in a ruling that has wide-ranging implications for luxury-goods brands worldwide.

PARIS — In a ruling that has wide-ranging copyright implications for luxury goods brands worldwide, France’s highest court on Thursday upheld a verdict in a landmark case pitting French fine-jewelry house Van Cleef & Arpels against one of its former designers.

This story first appeared in the December 20, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The Court of Cassation in Paris said the Court of Appeals was justified in ruling in September 2012 that designs made by an employee of a jewelry firm should be considered a simple contribution to collective works owned by the company, rather than the intellectual property of the individual designer.

Thursday’s final decision came after the plaintiff, Thierry Berthelot, appealed the verdict handed down by the Court of Appeals, in the latest twist in an eight-year legal battle.

Nicolas Bos, chief executive officer of Van Cleef & Arpels, hailed what he termed a “historic” ruling.

“For decades, our industry’s creations have been the fruit of a collective effort and of the sum of individual contributions that go beyond the input of one single individual,” he told WWD. “That is the reality, the way our industry, our world, has always functioned, but [until now] it was not recognized in legal terms.”

Luxury executives had lauded last year’s verdict, which has now been endorsed, as providing much-needed clarity for all players in the luxury goods industry in France by stating that the fashion house is the first holder of the copyright of collective works, since it directs and originates the process.

The legal decision applies solely to full-time employees of fashion houses. French law contrasts with the system in place in many other jurisdictions, where employees automatically relinquish their rights to their employer under the terms of their employment contract, a mechanism known as “work made for hire.”

“France has had a much stronger framework historically for the protection of individual copyright, which applies to many other fields, but the way our houses and our teams work had never been recognized or described by a legal authority in the way that it was today,” noted Bos.

Berthelot’s lawyers had argued in court that his creative process had been performed independently of any instructions or supervision from his employer. Berthelot, who kept more than 500 sketches made during his time at Van Cleef, said he was the designer of the brand’s Frivole collection, among others.

Vincent Fauchoux, the lawyer who represented Van Cleef in the case, said the Court of Cassation had cemented a ruling unprecedented in its depth and clarity. “This case is going to come as a relief and reinforces the rights of major houses,” he said. “It is the recognition in law of an economic reality.”

In its pronouncement last year, the Court of Appeals detailed the various elements that determine whether a work should be considered collective. This ranges from the house’s heritage to the amount of instructions given to employees and the role of internal committees and organizations in assigning tasks.

Fauchoux said the Van Cleef verdict put France on a more even footing with other countries. “It confirms that France remains a center for creation that can be a world leader and that offers a safe and extremely solid framework,” he said.

Emmanuel Gouesse, a partner at law firm Pech de Laclause, Bathmanabane & Associés, which represented Berthelot, could not be reached for comment.

The legal case will drag on, as the Court of Cassation did not uphold the earlier decision by the Court of Appeals to sentence Berthelot to damages of 10,000 euros, or $13,600 at current exchange, for withholding his drawings for the duration of the court case, on the grounds that this amounted to “malicious behavior.”

That particular matter will now be sent back to a separate Court of Appeals in Lyon.