NautaDutilh recently marked an important victory before the Mons Court of Appeal in Belgium.
Philippe Péters represented the claimants, two large French automotive makers, against the distributors of non-original car body parts. The action was intended to put a halt to this activity, notably on the basis of copyright law.
The court confirmed that the parts for which the claimants sought copyright protection each have their own original character and that the functions they fulfil could be achieved using models very different from those which the car makers had adopted at the end of a creative process, in the course of which choices were made based not only on technical constraints such as aerodynamics, interior space and visibility (….) but also for the purpose of contributing to the general aesthetics of the vehicle in which the parts are used. The choices that were made go beyond know-how. Individually, the parts, which make up one component of a complex whole, are the result of intellectual effort by their designer and represent a subjective, aesthetic choice from amongst numerous possibilities.
With respect to ownership of the copyright, the court held that the parts in question, even if all do not bear the maker's mark, are integrated into the vehicles sold under these marks and appear in the makers' catalogues. The car makers can thus rely on the presumption of ownership provided for by Article 6(2) of the Belgian Copyright Act.
Finally, the court confirmed that any reproduction, even in part, of a work protected by copyright is sufficient to find an infringement when the reproduction concerns original elements.
The significance of this decision, which is a first in Belgium, is that it protects car body parts despite the fact that the Benelux countries introduced, effective 1 January 2003, the so-called repair clause into the Benelux legislation on designs and models. Pursuant to this clause, designs and models that constitute part of a complex product and are used for repair purposes are no longer afforded any protection.
This decision is also significant as it shows that copyright remains an effective means of protection, even when other IP rights are not available.