A musical box infringes author’s moral rights, says the French Cassation Court

Kat readers who have been to Paris surely remember the numerous shops selling musical boxes. Such musical boxes, especially popular among tourists, commonly feature classical French songs. In recent years, they also became the protagonist in a protracted litigation that reached the French Cassation Court. The case went as follows.

Charles Trenet (1913-2001) was a renown French singer, composer and lyricist. His most famous songs included “Douce France”, “Y a d’la joie”, “Je chante” and “La Mer”. During his lifetime, Trenet assigned his economic rights to these songs to his music publisher, Editions Raoul Breton. After Trenet’s death, all his patrimony (including the moral rights to the songs) were inherited by his friend, Georges El Assidi.

PML is a company that manufactures hand crank musical boxes. In 2016, PML started manufacturing musical boxes with Trenet’s songs. To do so, the company obtained a license from SACEM, a French collective management society that represents Editions Raoul Breton. This license covered the economic rights to the four Trenet’s songs, namely the right of reproduction.

Upon discovering PML’s musical boxes with Trenet’s songs, Georges El Assidi filed a lawsuit against PML in the Paris Court of First Instance. He claimed the infringement of Trenet’s moral rights, namely the integrity right in the work.

In the first instance, the court dismissed the claim in its entirety. According to the court, the use made by the musical boxes only affected the reproduction right, which was covered by a license from SACEM.

Georges El Assidi appealed to Paris Appeal Court, which issued its decision in December 2021 (No 20/04760). The Paris Appeal Court sided with Georges El Assidi.

First, the Court confirmed that Georges El Assidi is entitled to defend Trenet’s integrity right in the works. The Court quoted L.121-1 of the French Intellectual Property Code. According to this provision, the author enjoys the right to respect for his work (also known as the integrity right). This right is perpetual, inalienable and imprescriptible. After the death of the author, this right may be inherited.

The Court then proceeded to rule on deciding whether the musical boxes are infringing Trenet’s integrity right in the work. According to the Court, the melody from the musical boxes “is a musical arrangement devoid of words [and it] constitutes an extreme simplification of the original melody”.

The Court also stated that the melody varies significantly depending on the speed at which the crank is operated: at some speeds, the song may become completely unrecognizable. This extreme simplification takes away the “richness and texture of the original music”.

According to the Court, the 12-second melody that is played by the musical box is not a simple reproduction, for which the necessary license had been received from SACEM. The musical boxes transform and trivialize the original songs, thus impairing the author’s integrity right. As such, PML should have sought a permission from Trenet’s heirs.

Unhappy with the ruling, PML appealed to the Cassation Court (No 22-13.854). PML claimed that the Paris Appeal Court erred in its analysis of the case, because musical boxes do not affect the author’s integrity right. This use, according to PML, only concerns the reproduction rights, which had been cleared.

In a brief ruling, the Cassation Court affirmed the judgment by the Paris Appeal Court. For the reasons previously explained by the Paris Appeal Court, the use of songs in a musical box does affect the author’s integrity right and thus it requires prior authorisation.

Beyond the immediate relevance this ruling has for Trenet’s legacy, this Kat also wonders whether moral rights have been cleared for other musical boxes in those numerous Paris shops?
A musical box infringes author’s moral rights, says the French Cassation Court A musical box infringes author’s moral rights, says the French Cassation Court Reviewed by Anastasiia Kyrylenko on Tuesday, May 30, 2023 Rating: 5


  1. If the song as displayed by the musical boxes is so different from the original, I wonder how the copyright can still extend to it, i.e. is it really an infringing song ? I assume that it comes from the indication on the boxes by PML that these are the songs of Trenet ?

    1. Dear Anonymous, what the Paris Appeal Court said is that, at certain speeds of the hand crank, the melody is perfectly recognizable, while at others, it is not. I must admit that it is strange argument for me, considering how a musical box works...


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