A French court has ruled in luxury jewelry design house Van Cleef & Arpels' favor this week. In a lengthy battle, former Van Cleef employee, Thierry Berthelot, initially brought suit in Paris alleging that he had ownership rights to the jewelry that he designed while employed by Van Cleef, namely pieces from the Frivole collection.
The Parisian trial court ruled against Berthelot, based on a lack of evidence to prove that Berthelot owned the rights to the designs at issue. He appealed this decision and on Friday, the Court of Appeals ruled against Berthelot, stating that designs made by an employee should be considered merely a contribution to collective works owned by the company. Thus, the employee has no ownership rights over the designs. Things only get worse for Berthelot from here. For what it deems to be “malicious behavior," the court ordered him to pay Van Cleef 10,000 euros (about $12,500). Turns out, Berthelot withheld his drawings of the jewelry in question for the duration of the seven-year legal battle. Berthelot plans to appeal this decision to Cour de Cassation, France’s highest court.
The outcome is not very different from the standard for U.S. employees, which is largely that the copyright to any work prepared by an employee within the scope of his employment belongs to the individual's employer or employing corporation, unless there is signed documentation that states otherwise. Further, there is a list of certain types of works (found in the Copyright Act) that if they are created by non-employees, but are specially commissioned and the necessary documentation requirements are met, the rights to the work belong to the commissioner, as opposed to the artist or designer. As such, this ruling is of little surprise in terms of U.S. law but it certainly is a landmark decision for French IP law.