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Sunday, 23 July 2017

French Commercial Tribunal : clarity in paternity is key

The Commercial Tribunal of Lyon recently settled a dispute over the right of paternity in light design creations owned jointly by its authors (TGI de Lyon, Ch. 3 cab 3 C, 16 May 2017, L'Atelier Lumière and M. Nègre. v Les Eclaireurs and M. Goy - here in French language). In the decision, the tribunal reasserts the strength of this moral right by finding for infringement even in cases where the paternity is neither omitted nor incorrect but only "ambiguous".
Light design of 'Berre L'Etang'  by L'Atelier Lumière,
Pierre Nègre and Lucas Goy.

The parties to this case used to work together for the company "L'atelier Lumière" specialized in light design, also founded and managed by the claimant, Pierre Nègre. In 2008, the defendant, Lucas Goy, had left "L'atelier Lumiere" to set up a competing company trading as "Les Eclaireurs".

On his website, Goy shared photographs of six design projects he had contributed to during his time at L'Atelier Lumière. The light creations were presented as part of his design portfolio, together with other designs he had created throughout his career and since the foundation of his company. Whilst the website credited the works to Nègre and "L'Aletier Lumière", some reproductions also bore the name of the competing company.

Cat loving the back-light of this design
by Pottercraft Pictures
The claimant, Nègre, took issue with the fact that the reproductions of these light designs published would lead clients to believe that the competing company co-authored the works, breaching the right of paternity owed to his business (L'Atelier Lumière). He held that the mere reproduction of light design projects on Goy's website, created an unlawful form of "ambiguity" around the paternity of the works, even when the latter were credited correctly.

The claimant asked the Commercial Tribunal to order the take-down of the photographs from Goy's website, together with damages in the amount of 23,600 euros for breaching his company's moral right, 10,000 euros for moral damage ('préjudice moral'), and 247,400 euros for unfair competition and passing off. Nègre also also asked to have the outcome of the judgment published on the main page of the competitor's website as well as in at least three high-profile architecture magazines or newspapers, at the defendant's expense.

'Ambiguous' you say?
The Tribunal concurred that that the mere presence of the works on the company's website, even in the absence of wrongful credits, sufficed to breach of their owners' moral right as they were "ambiguous" about their paternity. The Tribunal thus ordered the take-down of the wrongful credits, and asked for any "ambiguity" with regard to the paternity of the works to be addressed. The decision awarded 10,000 euros in the form of damages for the moral right infringement and denied any publications of the judgment on the competitor's website or in the specialist press. However, the Tribunal rejected the claimant's request to prohibit the defendant, Goy, from referring to the light design works that he had co-created with Nègre on the website of his new company. The panel found the claim disproportionate, as it would prevent the defendant from accounting for his professional experience to clients and potential customers (unambiguously).

This decision evidences that the protection conferred by the moral right of paternity does not wither with collective ownership. It even extends to cases where credits are neither inaccurate nor omitted but merely "ambiguous". This certainly gives "teeth" to an old doctrine of authors' rights in the era of internet where companies' websites and online marketing strategies are ever so critical in attracting clientele.

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