Paris Court of Appeal, Decision of 14 September 2012, Van Cleef & Arpels v. Mr Berthelot

In a much-anticipated decision, the Paris Court of Appeal ruled on the author rights of designs for jewelry created by an employee designer during his employment for the jewelry Van Cleef & Arpels. The court applied the doctrine of collective works provided by French copyright law in author rights and granted the ownership of the rights to Van Cleef & Arpels.

Under French law, a work created by an employee within the scope of his employment contract does not imply the automatic assignment of his author's rights to his employer. Thus, an employer wishing to be vested with the author rights of its employees should obtain an assignment of the rights. By exception, the so-called collective work is owned by the company at the initiative of which it was created.

Judges hardly apply this doctrine; indeed, the conditions for it are not easy to meet: the company has to supervise the creative process and disclose the creation to the public under its name. The personal contributions of the various authors who participate in the production of the work are to be merged into the overall work, without each author getting a separate right in the work.

In the case at issue, an ex-designer of the well-known jewelry Van Cleef & Arpels, Mr Berthelot, claimed that he created his designs independently of any instructions or supervision from his employer. He attempted to prove ownership of the designs by filing as evidence several drawings of jewelry bearing his initials. He also reported that Van Cleef & Arpels had proposed an arrangement for assigning his author rights to the jewelry.

The Court of Appeal of Paris disagreed with Mr Berthelot and ruled that "each drawing at issue is the particular contribution of the employee to a collective work whose purpose was to create a model of jewelry; for neither of the drawings for which Mr Berthelot claims ownership, he could prove that he had a real creative autonomy as well as a freedom in aesthetic choices which could have given reason for him being the sole owner of author rights on these drawings reflecting an expression of his personality."

Hence, the court concluded that the drawings were mere contributions to the overall global creative process, supervised by Van Cleef & Arpels. The jewelry had to be regarded as collective works owned by Van Cleef & Arpels. The court, therefore, denied the author rights to Mr Berthelot and, consequently, rejected his claims.

By implementing the doctrine of collective work, the court made a pledge of judicial security for the fashion and luxury industry.