Of all things, the notion of “a work” is not legally defined in any of the many EU directives on copyright, even though the term appears repeatedly in these directives. However, in recent years the European Court of Justice (CJEU) seems to have discovered this term for itself as an “autonomous concept of Union law” which must be interpreted and applied uniformly throughout the Union. For German jurisprudence, the Cofemel decision of the CJEU might result in concluding a full circle, as it points back into the direction the BGH once came from with its theory of a higher threshold for copyright protection in matters of applied art.
The European Concept of the (Copyright Protected) Work Continues to Take Shape: The CJEU decision C-683/17 – Cofemel
Of all things, the notion of “a work” is not legally defined in any of the many EU directives on copyright, even though the term appears repeatedly in these directives, as in Article 3(1) and Article 4(1) of the InfoSoc Directive (2001/29/EC). However, in recent years the European Court of Justice (CJEU) seems to have discovered this term for itself and sees it as an “autonomous concept of Union law” which must be interpreted and applied uniformly throughout the Union (para. 29 of the judgment C-683/17 – Cofemel).
The Path toward a European Concept of “Work”
So far, it had always been borderline phenomena for the CJEU to assess, so that it basically worked its way from the edge to the middle of the concept . The first judgment on this subject, C-5/08 – Infopaq, of 2009, concerned the protectability of an 11-word extract from a protected work (which the CJEU affirmed). In Case C-145/10 – Painer, of 2011, the CJEU then for the first time dealt in more detail with the concept of the scope of creative freedom, namely on the subject of portrait photography. This requirement of originality, whereby an author expresses his creative abilities in an independent manner by making free and creative choices, was then further elaborated in Case C-604/10 – Football DataCo. Such originality be always excluded where technical considerations, rules or constraints determine a design, which leave no room for artistic freedom.
Case C310/17 – Levola Hengelo – of 2018 dealt with the interesting question of whether the taste of a cheese could enjoy copyright protection. The protectability ultimately failed because in the case of the taste of a foodstuff, unlike, for example, a literary, pictorial, cinematic or musical work, identification is essentially based on taste sensations and experiences which are subjective and changeable. Here, the CJEU lacked the intersubjective concretizability of the object of protection. Nevertheless, the CJEU did not refrain from briefly summarizing the creative requirements for a work in this case. Accordingly, two conditions must be fulfilled cumulatively:
“First, the subject matter concerned must be original in the sense that it is the author’s own intellectual creation (…). (para. 36)
Secondly, only something which is the expression of the author’s own intellectual creation may be classified as a ‘work’ within the meaning of Directive 2001/29 (…).” (para. 37)
Does the BGH’s “Geburtstagszug” judgement collide with the Cofemel decision of the CJEU?
In its decision in Case C-683/17 – Cofemel of 12 September 2019, the CJEU is building on the basis outlined above. It concerns clothing models, i.e. the field of applied arts. For decades, in Germany a higher threshold for copyright protection used to be applied to such works in order to prevent competing copyright and design protection. Under the pressure of the European development of design law, the Federal Court of Justice (BGH) gave up this special path as early as 2014 in its decision I ZR 143/12 – Geburtstagszug (GRUR 2014, 175). The CJEU now expressly confirms this in para. 45 of the Cofemel decision. The principle of a cumulative protection as a design, on the one hand, and as copyright protected work, on the other, applies.
In the aforementioned decision, the BGH concluded its remarks in para. 41 as follows:
“Even though no higher requirements are to be placed on the level of originality of a work of applied art than in the case of works of art that are free of purpose, it must be taken into account, when assessing whether such a work achieves the level of design/originality required for copyright protection, that the aesthetic effect of the design can only justify copyright protection if it is not due to the intended purpose of use but is based on an artistic achievement (…). An author’s own intellectual creation presupposes that there is a scope for creative freedom and that it is used by the author to express his or her creative spirit in an original way (…) Furthermore, it must be noted that a low level of originality, although it constitutes copyright protection, leads to a correspondingly narrow scope of protection of the work in question.”
The CJEU now seems to contradict this in its Cofemel decision. According to the CJEU in para. 55 of the judgment, the fact that designs such as the clothing designs at issue generate, over and above their practical purpose, a specific and aesthetically significant visual effect is not such as to justify those designs being classified as “works” within the meaning of Directive 2001/29. That reflects the ‘anti-subjective’ argument put forward in the Levola decision on the taste of cheese.
Pursuant to the CJEU, the decisive factor is rather solely the above-mentioned definition of the autonomous concept of a work under Union law with its two cumulatively required elements, namely “own intellectual creation” and “creative work not determined exclusively by specifications or technology” (para. 29 to 31 of the judgment).
The future irrelevance of an aesthetic effect as a requirement for protection does not mean, however, that the cited position of the BGH would have to be revised, for it too was already based on the CJEU’s new concept of work. That the aesthetic effect of an object justifies protection does not seem to be postulated by the BGH – despite the misleading expression in the quoted passage. It mentions the aesthetic effect rather in the sense that it is the desired consequence of the individual exercising of artistic freedom (resembling the CJEU position in para. 54 of its decision).
In para. 35 of the ruling, the CJEU then says something else which at first glance seems to contradict the position of the BGH: if an object fulfils the requirements of the autonomous concept of a work, the scope of this protection does not depend on the degree of creative freedom of its author and is therefore, even in the case of an object with little freedom of design, not less than the protection which is granted to all works covered by the Directive. Had not the BGH ruled that a low level of creative freedom meant a correspondingly narrow scope of protection?
Here too, however, the BGH had already taken the boundary line drawn by the CJEU into account, since it does not reduce the material scope of protection, but merely emphasizes that in an area in which a lot is predetermined, i.e. in which individuality has only a limited scope within the specifications, all others working according to the same specifications will also achieve similar results.
Thus the creator of a four-wheeled pram – as the BGH and CJEU are to be understood in the same way – may not prohibit other creators from designing four-wheeled prams, provided that their four-wheeled prams stand out from each other as individual designs.
The remaining question is about the level of expression of creative freedom required for a design to be qualified for copyright protection in view of the parallel EU design protection. The CJEU expresses itself somewhat sibylline here when it says in para. 50f.: ” For its part, the protection attached to copyright, the duration of which is significantly greater, is reserved to subject matter that merits being classified as works. For these reasons (…) the grant of protection, under copyright, to subject matter that is protected as a design must not have the consequence that the respective objectives and effectiveness of those two forms of protection are undermined.” From that it follows that, although the protection of registered designs and the protection as copyrighted works may, under EU law, be granted cumulatively to the same subject matter, that concurrent protection can be envisaged only in certain situations.
One conclusion to be drawn from this could be that no too low requirements must be placed on the concept of “one’s own intellectual creation” in order to prevent design protection from being completely overlapped by copyright protection. This question, which is enormously important for practice, will almost certainly occupy the national courts and eventually lead up to the CJEU once again.
So far, in view of the open wording of § 2 German Copyright Act (UrhG), the concept of a copyright protectable work has not led to any conflict between European case law and German statutory law. Yet the development of European case law has more than once forced the BGH to revise the interpretation of law that had often been established for decades.
For the BGH, the Cofemel decision of the CJEU might result in concluding a full circle, as it points back into the direction the BGH once came from with its theory of a higher threshold for copyright protection in matters of applied art.