Limitation period for copyright infringement actions in France

This Kat always eagerly awaits decisions from the French Cour de Cassation, so he was delighted to find out about an important recent decision on copyright (Cour de cassation, 1st Civil Chamber, 15 November 2023, n° 22-23.266). The judgment focuses on a procedural aspect, namely the limitation period for an action for copyright infringement.

"The Horses Fountain"


In 1985, Frédéric Jaeger, artist, sculptor, and painter, was commissioned by Yves Bienaimé, founder of the Museum of the Living Horse at the Grandes Ecuries of Chantilly, the creation of a sculpture titled "La Fontaine aux chevaux". The work depicts three horses in a circular half-shell, one of which is arched. The artist noticed that several reproductions of his work or parts of it had been made without his permission. One of the disputed copies was exhibited in the gardens of the company Le potager des Princes, founded by Mr Bienaimé and located in Chantilly.
On 17 December 2008, the Paris Court of Appeal recognised the infringing nature of the reproduction on display. In a letter dated 5 May 2020, Mr Jaeger tried unsuccessfully to reach an amicable settlement with Mr Bienaimé. On 5 March 2021, Mr Jaeger sought a temporary injunction against the founder and his company for copyright infringement.
In an order dated 9 November 2021, the judge of the Lille court ruled that possession of the disputed statue constituted a manifestly unlawful infringement of the artist’s copyright. The same court rejected the argument that Mr Jaeger’s action was time-barred. The defendants appealed.
In a decision dated 22 September 2022, the Court of Appeal declared that the artist's action was time-barred. Mr Jaeger then appealed to the French Cour de cassation.


The Cour de Cassation issued a brief but important decision here, focusing solely on the reading of article 2224 of the French Civil Code. This provision sets forth a five-year limitation period for personal or movable actions from the day when the holder of a right knew or ought to have known the facts enabling them to exercise it (IPKat on the former limitation period for deceptive trade mark here).
In this case, confirming the position of the Court of Appeal, the Court of Cassation declared that the copyright infringement action brought by Mr Jaeger had been time-barred since 17 December 2013 (i.e., 5 years after the date of the judgment confirming the infringing nature of the disputed statue). The date of 17 December 2008 is the starting point for the running of the statute of limitations, even if the infringement had been going on for some time. The artist's appeal was therefore logically dismissed as he had acted some 8 years too late.

"The Kats fountain"


The application of article 2224 of the Civil Code to copyright infringement proceedings is not new. The Court had already emphasised in a 2022 ruling, in similar terms, that "an action for damages for copyright infringement shall be barred after five years from the date on which the owner of the copyright knew or should have known of the facts enabling [them] to bring the action". The present decision endorses this past solution. Indeed, the absence of any specific provision in the French Intellectual Property Code concerning the limitation period for such an action means that the ordinary law (i.e., article 2224 of the Civil Code) must be applied.
It should be noted that, in this case, the artist argued that his action was not subject to any limitation period since the acts at issue had not ceased. The Court rejected this argument, adding that it was irrelevant whether the acts in question had continued over time.

The major contribution of this judgment is its practical scope, which can be extended to any copyright infringement action. Such a decision necessarily calls for great vigilance on the part of those who consider themselves the victims of acts of copyright infringement. It implies the need to take legal action as soon as possible after becoming aware of facts that could amount to copyright infringement, with a view to obtain compensation. In this case, the date on which the limitation period begins to run is that of the judgment stating that the unauthorised sculpture infringes copyright. In a ruling relating to the infringement of musical works, the limitation period ran from the letter of formal notice.

This Kat does not necessarily perceive the present ruling as a weakening of the author's protection. Clarifying the application of such procedural rules ensures legal certainty. What's more, while such an action for damages may be time-barred in respect of certain disputed facts, this does not mean that it will be time-barred in respect of others, including as regard moral rights.
Limitation period for copyright infringement actions in France Limitation period for copyright infringement actions in France Reviewed by Kevin Bercimuelle-Chamot on Thursday, November 23, 2023 Rating: 5

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