On 5 September 2016, the French Court of Jurisdictional Conflicts (Tribunal des Conflits) issued a decision with respect to the extent of the authority of competent courts to hear disputes related to the infringement of moral copyrights of architects involved in the construction or renovation of public buildings.

This decision was rendered within the frame of a legal dispute initiated by the well-known French architect Jean Nouvel against the owner of the Paris Philharmonie, a concert hall commissioned by the French State and the city of Paris. Jean Nouvel designed the Paris Philharmonie, which opened in Paris in 2015. Taking the view that the owner of the Philharmonie had modified and thus defiled his architectural work, Jean Nouvel had sued the former before the Paris Court of First Instance (civil court) asking the court to order the owner to perform all works necessary for the restoration of his work so as to comply with the architectural plans he had initially drawn. In its decision, the Tribunal des Conflitsruled that, although civil courts (as opposed to administrative courts) have jurisdiction to determine whether or not the moral (copy)rights of an architect have been infringed, civil courts have no jurisdiction to order injunctions which are likely to affect a public building. Such injunctions can be ordered by administrative courts only.

Such ruling is noteworthy as legal actions initiated by architects claiming that their moral (copy)rights have been violated are quite common in France. Indeed, French law is rather protective of authors who enjoy copyright protection on their works from their mere creation provided that these works are original. As the originality requirement is very low under French law, architects enjoy copyright protection over their architectural works quite easily.

Copyright protection encompasses protection of the architect's moral rights, which include four main prerogatives, namely: (1) the right of disclosure (which is the author's right to decide when and how his work will be disclosed to the public); (2) the right of paternity (which is the author's right to be identified as such or not to be identified as the author of the work if he no longer wishes to); (3) the right of withdrawal (which enables the author to take back works which have been disclosed to the public); and (4) the right of integrity (which is the author's right to prevent his work from being modified or ruined).

The right of integrity is the main concern in case of modifications to existing architectural works as it theoretically enables an architect to oppose any change that would alter his works. The situation is further complicated by the fact that moral rights are perpetual (they are thus transferred to heirs in case of the author's death), imprescriptible and inalienable (in particular, they cannot be transferred or waived) under French law.

The scope of the architect's moral rights as well as their relationships with the rights of the owner of the building have therefore raised strong legal issues regarding both the right of the proprietor to implement changes on the building and the remedies awarded by courts in cases where such modifications are considered as infringing the prior architect's moral rights. The case at hand renews the debate on the difficulties of granting remedies which constitute an acceptable way to balance the proprietor's rights and the moral rights of architects.

Indeed, French courts consider that the utilitarian aspect of a building ordered from an architect prohibits the latter from requesting absolute intangibility of his work, and that changes to architectural works are possible if such changes fulfill new needs (such as, for instance, solving issues with the building or district, complying with regulatory requirements or allowing the commercial development of a district), and are strictly necessary and proportionate in order to fit those needs.

If an architect considers that the owner of the building fails to comply with such requirements, he usually sues the latter for damages but also attempts to obtain from the court an injunction against the owner of the building to restore the building to its original condition or even to stop the changes to his architectural works if the infringing acts (such as renovation works) are ongoing.

This is what Jean Nouvel did in the case at hand, trying to obtain from the court an order that additional works be carried out on the building so as to comply with his initial architectural plans.

However, although architects generally receive damages, injunctions to restore the building to its original condition or to stop the infringing works are rarely granted by French courts. The reason is that such injunctions are often considered to be disproportionate in view of the damage suffered by the architect or that the proceedings are being brought after the modification or the destruction of the protected works already occurred. It is nevertheless worthy to note that, in a recent decision of 2015, the Paris Court of First Instance handed down an injunction to temporarily stop the works for the extension of the tennis courts of Roland Garros pursuant to the request of the heirs of the architect of a garden (Les Serres d'Auteuil) that was going to be destroyed within the frame of said works. In another decision of 2008, the Paris Court of First instance handed down an injunction against the owner of a building to restore it to its original condition (i.e., by repainting its façade in its original color) when proceeding to the next restoration of the building.

These judgments are however unusual. In the Jean Nouvel case, if the civil court rules that Jean Nouvel's moral rights have indeed been infringed, administrative courts will have to decide whether renovation works should be performed on the building. Given the public nature of the building at stake and the fact that such renovations works would lead to significant public expenditure, the outcome of Jean Nouvel's request remains uncertain.