The Tianhe District People's Court in Guangzhou held that a work of interior design enjoys the same copyright protection as a work of engineering design and that copyright protection of a two-dimensional design or drawing extends to its three-dimensional use.

Guangdong Gongda Huanyi Design Engineering Co., Ltd. (Gongda Huanyi Designs) was commissioned by Guangzhou Second Heaven Pharmacy Chain Co., Ltd. (Second Heaven) to design store front and interior designs for its pharmacy chain stores and franchise stores. Between 2002 and 2006, Gongda Huanyi Design and Second Heaven entered into thirty-five individual contracts for the design of thirty-five stores. Although the store fronts and interior designs of the individual shops contained slight variations, the overall style and theme was consistent. Second Heaven paid Gongda Huanyi Designs remuneration of RMB 2,000 to RMB 53,254 per store.

Subsequently, Second Heaven used the designs in forty-nine other stores without Gongda Huanyi Designs' permission and without payment. Gonda Huanyi Designs sued Second Heaven for copyright infringement of its store front and interior designs.

The Tianhe District People's Court found Second Heaven liable for copyright infringement of Gongda Huanyi Designs' store front and interior designs as engineering designs.

The court said that because Second Heaven used the designs to renovate and transform its stores, the store front and interior designs were engineering designs and thus enjoyed copyright protection.

Examining the infringement, the court first explained that the copyright in a work included the right to make copies of the work by means of printing, photocopying, recording, video recording, translating and other means. The crux of copying was that it was an act resulting in one copy or many. This also included the copying "from two-dimensions to three-dimensions."

The court then found that Second Heaven's store front and interior designs were sufficiently similar to Gongda Huanyi Designs' designs and constituted an infringing copying of the designs for these reasons:

  • The slight variations in the designs of the individual stores were unavoidable because it was impossible that all stores looked exactly the same.
  • All stores incorporated the same style and distinctive features.
  • Second Heaven's customers would not have been able to distinguish the differences; and
  • Second Heaven intended the store front and interior designs of its stores to look the same because its business was running chain and franchise stores.

Consequently, the court granted the claims and awarded RMB 50,000 in damages.

This case is significant because it addresses two ambiguous aspects of copyright law. First, not all jurisdictions extend copyright protection to works of interior design. In addition, it is still debated as to whether the Berne Convention requires its member countries to protect interior designs as works. In China, although the Chinese copyright law does not expressly include interior design in its definition of "works," it protects works of architecture and engineering designs which have been identified in other jurisdictions as the basis for copyright protection of interior designs in the absence of express protection. This case appears to confirm copyright protection of interior designs in China.

Second, according to the general view of Chinese legal scholars and practitioners, in China, copyright protection of a two-dimensional design or drawing did not extend to three-dimensional applications. For example, the copyright in a drawing of a toy did not protect against the manufacture of a toy based on the drawing. The removal of the provision "to construct or manufacture an industrial product according to the engineering design, product design drawings and their specifications does not constitute an act of copying under this law" in the 2001 revision of the Chinese copyright law made some believe that it also meant the removal of the limitation on manufacturing and implementation. However, this was a common misconception and the prevailing view was that the provision was removed because the principle had become self-evident. Consequently, a three-dimensional use of a two-dimensional design or drawing was considered a new and separate work. This case, however, appears to take the position of many other jurisdictions in extending copying to the three-dimensional use of two-dimensional designs and drawings.

However, since the District People's Court's decision was not appealed, the impact of the decision on the jurisdiction of the Chinese courts which are not bound by precedents remains unclear. Furthermore, whether it is even considered as a correct application of the law is uncertain.