French court confirms copyright protection for "Tam Tam" stool

Works of applied art seem to be an inexhaustible source of intellectual property disputes [IPKat here, here and here]. This is surely due to their omnipresence in our daily lives, and the competition between the various players in the sector, thinks this Kat. This time, this Kat has found a recent decision issued by the Court of Appeal of Lyon [this Kat’s hometown] concerning an iconic model of stool, named “Tam Tam”.

Kat on a stool


The facts of this case are relatively straightforward. French company Stamp sold a model of a removable plastic stool called "Tam Tam", created by Henri Massonnet in 1968. A prototype and the stool were registered as designs on 5 November 1968 and 8 September 1983.

In May 2015, Stamp realised that La Foir'fouille was marketing a stool model resembling the Stamp stool. Stamp sued La Foir'fouille and FF Digitale for copyright infringement before the Tribunal de Grande Instance of Lyon. In a ruling dated 20 October 2020, the court upheld the copyright protection of the "Tam Tam" stool but dismissed the plaintiff's infringement action. Stamp appealed.

The "Tam Tam" stool


In reaching its decision, the Lyon Court of Appeal divided its reasoning into several steps. After considering several procedural issues, including the validity of the counterfeit seizure requested by Stamp, the Court of Appeal turned to the question of copyright infringement.

The Court of Appeal first examined whether the stool was protectable under copyright law. Referring to article L. 111-2 of the French Intellectual Property Code (CPI), the court recalled that “a work is deemed to have been created, independently of any public disclosure, by the sole fact of the realisation, even unfinished, of the author's conception. A work can only be protected if it bears the stamp of its author's personality, and the burden of proving its originality lies with the person claiming the corresponding right”.

The reiteration of these principles is not surprising on two counts. When it comes to originality, the French courts have a curious tendency not to want to use the exact terms used in the case law of the CJEU (i.e. Funke Medien, C-469/17, at [23]). Nevertheless, this difference does not imply any error of assessment in the judgment under review. Furthermore, the fact that a person claiming copyright infringement must first establish the originality of their work is a principle that is now well established in French case law [IPKat here].

Accordingly, elements such as the "diabolo shape resulting from the use of plastic, the twin parts that can be disassembled and fitted together at a point whose relative thinness makes it possible to support the weight of a body, the possibilities offered by these disassembled and interlocking features, which do not respond to a technical challenge, but make it possible to play between the multiple interlocking profiles" characterized the originality of the Tam Tam stool for the Court of Appeal. It should be remembered that the originality of the 'Tam-Tam' model had already been acknowledged on in previous judgements. The plaintiff has therefore merely confirmed previously adopted conclusions.

On this, the Court of Appeal's analysis of the demonstration of originality appears to be consistent with case law [IPKAT on protection of work of applied art here]. Contrary to the defendant's argument, the duration of the intellectual and material investment is irrelevant to the concept of originality. It should also be added that the popularity of a work should not be taken into account when assessing its originality. Fortunately, such was not the case here.

Another important point in this ruling deserves some explanation. La Foir'fouille attempted to ‘weaken’ the originality of the Tam Tam stool by producing other similar stools. The Court of Appeal concluded that there was no evidence of the existence of prior art incorporating the specific combination claimed by Stamp.

Care must be exercised in this regard. The concept of prior art cannot be applied as such in copyright law, unlike design law. However, in disputes involving works of applied art, it is common practice to produce documents setting out the characteristics that underpin the originality of the allegedly infringed work. The aim is to demonstrate that this work is a simple iteration of a trend or style, a banal reworking of what may already exist, which cannot be protected by copyright as such [IPKat here].

In the end, the Court of Appeal held that the defendant had committed acts of infringement by selling a stool reproducing the original characteristics of Stamps’s one. In fact, the stool sold by La Foir'Fouille incorporated all the features that made the Tam-Tam stool original.

From a practical point of view, this ruling is a reminder that a work of applied art, such as a piece of furniture, can be protected under copyright law, if it is sufficiently original. The fact that a certain work has been declared original by a previous judgment should not necessarily lead to this characterisation being avoided in the new dispute. In fact, it may seem judicious to repeat the demonstration of originality that was validated by the court.

French court confirms copyright protection for "Tam Tam" stool French court confirms copyright protection for "Tam Tam" stool Reviewed by Kevin Bercimuelle-Chamot on Saturday, March 16, 2024 Rating: 5

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