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The unusual case of international copyright and iconic furniture: Knoll’s “Tulip” chair

February 15, 2021, By

A recent decision from the French Supreme Court has taken the world of iconic furniture design by surprise, taking an alternative approach to the enforcement of international copyright law.

The key legislation when someone is looking to enforce their copyright – in this case for the protection of iconic furniture – in another country is the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (Berne). Berne provides protection for the work of authors/artists worldwide.

In this case, the famous US furniture company Knoll and its French subsidiary brought a copyright claim against a small French company that was selling replicas of the iconic Tulip chair designed by Eero Saarinen in 1956, whose designs are owned and sold by Knoll worldwide.

The court had to consider two things. First, they had to ascertain whether the Tulip chair was protected by US copyright law. If so, copyright protection would have been granted also in France. Alternatively, if the US only granted protection to the chair as a design, then the chair would have only been entitled to protection under French design law.

Under USA copyright law, an object which has a utilitarian purpose such as a chair can only enjoy copyright protection if it is made by separable and identifiable artistic elements (i.e. pictorial, graphical and sculpture works). If those elements have a separate identification and an independent existence, the whole article will be copyrightable.

However, when analysing the design of the Tulip chair, the court stated that it was impossible to separate the functionality of the shape of the chair from its artistic elements.  The chair was therefore excluded from the scope of protection of US copyright law. It could only be protected by design law.

In the USA, furniture designs enjoy protection only for 20 years from the date they were registered. The Tulip chair was designed in the 1950’s and its protection expired many years ago. The design of the Tulip chair therefore is no longer protected, and it is up for grabs for designs company to market it pretty much everywhere.

This case is interesting because it creates a rare precedent against big furniture companies that have a very proactive and litigious approach towards their design protection.

It will be interesting to see whether further cases will be brought forward challenging the artistic nature of these iconic designs, making the market more open to replicated modernist furniture.

Briffa are experts in all aspects of intellectual property law and practice and advise clients operating in a broad range of sectors, including in international design and copyright laws. If you would like to arrange a free consultation with one of our specialist intellectual property lawyers, please contact us on 020 7288 6003 or [email protected].

Written by Elisabetta Bestetti, Solicitor

 

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