After Many Twists and Turns, the CJEU held that the Rubik’s Cube Trademark is Invalid

The First Chamber of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) held on 10 November 2016, that the famous Rubik’s cube cannot be registered as a three-dimensional trademark because its shape performs the technical function of the goods, a three-dimensional puzzle. The case is Simba Toys GmbH & Co. KG v. EUIPO, C-30/15 P.

The validity of the Rubik’s cube trade mark was challenged by a competitor

British company Seven Towns Ltd., acting on behalf of Rubik’s Brand Ltd., filed in April 1996 an application for registration of a Community trade mark at the Office for Harmonisation in the Internal Market (OHIM), now named the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), for a three-dimensional sign, the famous Rubik’s cube. The mark was registered in April 1999 and renewed in November 2006.

A few days later, competitor Simba Toys applied to have the trade mark declared invalid under Council Regulation 40/94, which has been repealed and was replaced by Council Regulation 207/2009. The CJEU considered the case to be still governed by Council Regulation 40/94. Articles 1 to 36 are the same in both Regulations, and so the case is relevant under current EU trademark law.
Article 7(1)(e)(ii) of Council Regulation 40/94 prevents registration as a trademark of a sign, such as the Rubik’s cube product, “which consists exclusively of… the shape of goods which is necessary to obtain a technical result.” The CJEU had held in the 2002 Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV v. Remington Consumer Products Ltd. that a sign consisting exclusively of the shape of a product cannot be registered as a trademark if the essential functional features of the shape are attributable only to a technical result (Philips § 79 and § 80).

Simba Toys argued that the Rubik’s cube mark should be declared invalid under the grounds [absolute ground for refusal] that the mark is the shape of the goods necessary to achieve a technical result. According to Simba, the Rubik’s cube black lines are attributable to technical functions of the three-dimensional puzzle.

The OHIM dismissed Simba’s application for a declaration of invalidity and the Second Board of Appeal of OHIM affirmed the dismissal in September 2009, reasoning that the shape of the trade mark does not result from the nature of the Rubik’s cube itself. On 25 November 2014, the General Court dismissed the action for annulment as unfounded. Simba appealed to the CJEU.

What are the essential characteristics of the Rubik’s cube trade mark?

The essential characteristics of three-dimensional signs are the most important elements of the signs, Lego Juris v. OHIM, C-48/09, § 68 and 69. They must be properly identified by the competent trademark registration authority, Lego Juris v. Ohim § 68, which must then determine whether the essential characteristics all perform the technical function of the goods (General Court § 41). The General Court identified the essential characteristics of the Rubik’s cube trademark is a “cubic grid structure,” that is the cube itself and the grid structure appearing on each of its surfaces (General Court § 45). Simba did not challenge this finding on appeal at the CJEU.

Do the essential characteristics of Rubik’s cube perform the technical function of the goods?

Under Article 4 of Regulation 40/94 and Regulation 207/2009, any sign capable of being represented graphically can be a trade mark, unless, under article 7(1)(e)(ii) of both Regulations, the sign consists exclusively of the shape of goods which is necessary to obtain a technical result.

Article 7(1) grounds for refusal to register a mark must be interpreted in light of the public interest underlying them. The public interest underlying Article 7(1)(e)(ii) is to prevent the use of trademark law to obtain a monopoly on technical solutions or the functional characteristics of a product (General Court § 32, citing Lego Juris v. OHIM, § 43). Advocate General Szpunar explained further in his Opinion that allowing such marks to be registered would give the registrant “an unfair competitive advantage” and thus trade mark law cannot be used “in order to perpetuate, indefinitely, exclusive rights relating to technical solutions” (AG Szpunar Opinion § 32 and § 34).

For the General Court, Article 7(1)(e)(ii) applies only if the essential characteristics of the mark perform the technical functions of the goods “and have been chosen to perform that function.” It does not apply if these characteristics are the result of that function (General Court § 53). Simba argued in front of the CJEU that the General Court erred in this interpretation of Article 7(1)(e)(ii).

Simba claimed that the black lines of the cube performed a technical function (General Court § 51). But the General Court found that an objective observer is not able to infer by looking at the graphic representation of the Rubik’s cube mark that the black lines are rotatable (General Court § 57). The General Court held that Simba’s “line of argument… [was] essentially based on knowledge of the rotating capability of the vertical and horizontal lattices of the Rubik’s cube. However, it [was] clear that that capability cannot result from the black lines in themselves or, more generally, from the grid structure which appears on each surface of the cube… but at most from [an invisible] mechanism internal to that cube” (General Court § 58). Therefore, the grid structure on each surface of the cube “d[id] not perform, or are not even suggestive of, any technical function” (General Court § 60). The General Court concluded that registering the Rubik’s cube shape did not create a monopoly on a technical solution and mechanical puzzles competitors could also incorporate movable or rotatable elements (General Court § 65).

But, for AG Szpunar, the General Court erred in its analysis as it should have taken into account the function of the Rubik’s cube, which is a three-dimensional puzzle consisting of movable elements. He noted that in both the Philips and the Lego Juris cases, the competent authorities had analyzed the shape of the goods using additional information other than the graphic representation (AG Szpunar Opinion § 86). While the competent authority does not have to concern itself with hidden characteristics, it must nevertheless analyze “the characteristics of the shape arising from the graphic representation from the point of view of the function of the goods concerned” (AG Szpunar Opinion § 88).

The CJEU followed its AG’s Opinion on this point and found that the General Court should have defined the technical function of the actual goods, namely, the three-dimensional puzzle, and it should have taken this into account when assessing the functionality of the essential characteristics of that sign (CJEU § 47). The General Court “interpreted the criteria for assessing Article 7(1)(e)(ii) . . . too narrowly”(CJEU § 51) and should have taken into account the technical function of the goods represented by the sign when examining the functionality of the essential characteristics of that sign (CJEU § 52). Failing to do so would have allowed the trademark owner to broaden the scope of trademark protection to cover any three dimensional puzzles with elements in the shape of a cube (CJEU § 52).

This case confirms, after Pi-Design AG v. Bodum, that the CJEU takes the view that the essential characteristics of a trade mark must not be assessed solely by the competent authority based on visually analyzing the mark as filed, but that the authority must also identify the essential characteristics of a sign, in addition to the graphic representation and any other descriptions filed at the time of the application for registration. This is necessary to protect the public interest underlying Article 7(1)(e)(ii), which is to ensure that economic operators cannot improperly appropriate for themselves a mark which incorporates a technical solution.

The image is courtesy of Flickr user Robin under a CC BY 2.0 license.

This article was first published on the TTLF Newsletter on Transatlantic Antitrust and IPR Developments published by the Stanford-Vienna Transatlantic Technology Law Forum

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CJEU rules that lending an e-book is legal if the first sale right has been exhausted

The Third Chamber of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled on 10 November 2016 that it is legal under EU law for a library to lend an electronic copy of a book. However, only one copy of the e-book can be borrowed at the time, the first sale of the e-book must have been exhausted in the EU, and the e-book must have been obtained from a lawful source. The case is Vereniging Openbare Bibliotheken v. Stichting Leenrecht, C-174-15.

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Legal framework

Article 2 of Directive 2001/29/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 May 2001 on the harmonisation of certain aspects of copyright and related rights in the information society (the InfoSoc Directive) provides authors exclusive rights in their works, including, under its Article 3, the exclusive right to communicate their works to the public by wire or wireless means. Its Article 4 provides that these exclusive rights are exhausted by the first sale or by other transfers of ownership of the work in the EU.

Article 6(1) of Directive 2006/115/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 12 December 2006 on the rental right and lending right and on certain rights related to copyright in the field of intellectual property, the Rental and Lending Rights Directive (RLR Directive), gives Member States the right to derogate from the exclusive public lending right provided to authors by Article 1 of the RLR Directive, provided that authors are compensated for such lending.

Article 15c(1) of the Dutch law on copyright, the Auteurswet, authorizes lending of a copy of a literary, scientific, or artistic work, provided that the rightsholder consented to the lending and is compensated for it. The Minister of Justice of the Netherlands set up a foundation to that effect, the Stichting Onderhandelingen Leenvergoedingen (StOL), which collects lending rights payments as a lump sum from lending libraries and then distributes those payments to rightsholders through collective management organizations.

The Dutch government took the view that e-books are not within the scope of the public lending exception of the Auteurswet and drafted a new law on that premise. The Vereniging Openbare Bibliotheken (VOB), which represents the interests of all the public libraries in the Netherlands, challenged this draft legislation and asked the District Court of The Hague to declare that Auteurswet covers lending of e-books.

The Court stayed the proceedings and requested a preliminary ruling from the CJEU on the question of whether Articles 1(1), 2(1)(b) and 6(1) of the Renting and Lending Rights Directive authorize e-lending, provided that only one library user can borrow the e-book at a time by downloading a digital copy of a book which has been placed on the server of a public library.

If this is indeed authorized by the Directive, the District Court asked the CJUE whether article 6 of the Directive requires that the copy of the e-book which is lent has been brought into circulation by an initial sale or other transfer of ownership within the European Union by the rightsholder, or with her consent within the meaning of Article 4(2) of the InfoSoc Directive.
The District Court also asked whether Article 6 of the RLR Directive requires that the e-book which is lent was obtained from a lawful source.

Finally, the District asked the CJEU to clarify whether e-lending is also authorized (if the copy of the e-book which has been brought into circulation by an initial sale or other transfer of ownership within the European Union by the right holder or with her consent) when the initial sale or transfer was made remotely by downloading.

First: Is e-lending legal under the renting and lending rights directive?

The CJEU noted that Article 1(1) of the RLR Directive does not specify whether it also covers copies which are not fixed in a physical medium, such as digital copies (§ 28). The CJEU interpreted “copies” in the light of equivalent concepts of the WIPO Copyright Treaty of 20 December 1996, which was approved by the European Community, now the European Union. Its Article 7 gives authors the exclusive right to authorize “rentals” of computer programs. However, the Agreed Statements concerning the WIPO Copyright Treaty, which is annexed to the WIPO Treaty, explains that Article 7’s right of rental “refer[s] exclusively to fixed copies that can be put into circulation as tangible objects,” thus excluding digital copies from the scope of Article 7.

The Court noted, however, that “rental” and “lending” are separately defined by the RLR Directive. Article 2(1) (a) defines “rental” as “making available for use, for a limited period of time and for direct or indirect economic or commercial advantage,” while Article 2(1) (b) defines “lending” as “making available for use, for a limited period of time and not for direct or indirect economic or commercial advantage, when it is made through establishments which are accessible to the public.” The Court examined preparatory documents preceding the adoption of Directive 92/100, which the RLD Directive codified and reproduced in substantially identical terms, and noted that there was “no decisive ground allowing for the exclusion, in all cases, of the lending of digital copies and intangible objects from the scope of the RLR Directive.” The Court also noted that Recital 4 of the RLR Directive states that copyright must adapt to new economic developments and that e-lending “indisputably forms part of those new forms of exploitation and, accordingly, makes necessary an adaptation of copyright to new economic developments” (§ 45).

The CJEU noted that borrowing an e-book as described by the District Court in its preliminary question “has essentially similar characteristics to the lending of printed works,” considering that only one e-book can be borrowed at the time (§ 53). The CJEU therefore concluded that that “lending” within the meaning of the RLR Directive includes lending of a digital copy of a book.

Second: May only e-books first sold in the EU be lent?

The InfoSoc Directive provides that the exclusive distribution rights of the author are exhausted within the EU after the first sale or other transfer of ownership in the EU of the work by the right holder or with his consent. Article 1(2) of the RLR Directive provides that the right to authorize or prohibit the rental and lending of originals and copies of copyrighted works is not exhausted by the sale or distribution of originals and copies of works protected by copyright.

The CJEU examined Article 6(1) of the RLR Directive in conjunction with its Recital 14, which states it is necessary to protect the rights of the authors with regards to public lending by providing for specific arrangements. This statement must be interpreted as establishing a minimal threshold of protection, which the Member States can exceed by setting additional conditions in order to protect the rights of the authors (at 61).

In our case, Dutch law required that an e-book made available for lending by a public library had been put into circulation by a first sale, or through another transfer of ownership, by the right holder or with his consent within the meaning of Article 4(2) of the InfoSoc Directive. The Court mentioned that Attorney General Szpunar had pointed out in his Opinion that if a lending right is acquired with the consent of the author, it may be assumed that the author’s rights are sufficiently protected, which may not be the case if the lending is made under the derogation provided by Article 6(1) (Opinion at 85). AG Szpunar concluded that therefore only e-books which had been made first available to the public by the author should be lent. The CJEU ruled that Member States may subject as condition to e-lending the fact that the first sale of the e-book has been exhausted in the EU by the right holder.

Third: May a copy of an e-book obtained from an unlawful source be lent?

Not surprisingly, the CJEU answered in the negative to this question, noting that one of the objectives of the RLR Directive, as stated by its Recital 2, is to combat piracy and that allowing illegal copies to be lent would “amount to tolerating, or even encouraging, the circulation of counterfeit or pirated works and would therefore clearly run counter to that objective” (at 68).
The Court did not answer the fourth question as it had been submitted only in the case the Court would rule that it is not necessary that the first sale of the e-books being lent had been exhausted in the EU.

This is a welcome decision since, as noted by AG Szpunar in his Opinion, it is crucial for libraries to be able to adapt to the fact that more and more people, especially younger ones, are now reading e-books instead of printed books.

Photo is courtesy of Flickr user Timo Noko under a  CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

This article was first published on the TTLF Newsletter on Transatlantic Antitrust and IPR Developments published by the Stanford-Vienna Transatlantic Technology Law Forum

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CJEU: The exhaustion rule does not authorize the resale of the back-up copy of a computer program

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled on 12 October  2016 that while the original acquirer of a software can resell his used copy of the program because the exclusive rights of the copyright holder have been exhausted by the first sale, reselling a back-up copy of the program is subject to the authorization of the rightsholder. The case is Ranks and Vasiļevičs, C-166/15.
Mr. Ranks and Mr. Vasiļevičs (Defendants) sold online, from 28 December 2001 to 22 December 2004, more than 3,000 back-up copies of Microsoft computer programs protected by copyright, for an amount evaluated at  264,514 euros. Defendants claimed to have bought these copies from the original owners. However, some of these programs were copies, which Defendants claimed had been legally made by the original owners after the original programs had been damaged, destroyed or lost.

thriftDefendants were charged by a Latvian court for selling unlawfully objects protected by copyright and found guilty. On appeal, the Criminal Law Division of the Riga Regional Court requested a preliminary ruling from the CJEU, asking the Court (1) if the acquirer of a copy of a computer program stored on a non-original medium can resell this copy, in such a case that the original medium of the program has been damaged and the original acquirer has erased his copy or  no longer uses it, because in such case the exclusive right of distribution of the right holder has been exhausted, and (2) if the person who bought the used copy in reliance of the exhaustion of the right to distribute can sell this program to a third person.

The Latvian court cited Directive 2009/24 in its request. However, as the facts took place before the Directive entered into force on 25 May 2009 and repealed Directive 91/250, the CJEU considered that these two questions had to be interpreted under the equivalent provisions of Directive 91/250, that is, its articles 4(c) about the first sale of computer program doctrine, and its articles 4(a), 5(1), and 5(2) about the exceptions to the exclusive right of reproduction of a computer program.

The exhaustion right protects the right of the original acquirer to resell his copy of the program

Article 4(a) of Directive 91/250 and Article 4.1(a) of Directive 2009/24 give the rightsholder the exclusive right to reproduce a computer program, by any means whatsoever, whether temporarily or permanently. That right is, however, exhausted, under Article 4(c) of Directive 91/250 and Article 4.2 of Directive 2009/24, if the copy of the program has been placed on the market in the European Union (EU) by the rightsholder or with her consent. The CJEU held in UsedSoft that the right of distributing a computer program is thus exhausted regardless of whether it is a tangible or an intangible copy of the program (UsedSoft paragraphs 55 and 61) and specified that “sale,” within the meaning of Article 4(2) of Directive 2009/24, includes purchasing the right to use a copy of a computer program for an unlimited period (UsedSoft, paragraph 49).

The CJEU noted that “the holder of the copyright in a computer program who has sold, in the European Union, a copy of that program on a material medium, such as a CD-ROM or a DVD-ROM, accompanied by an unlimited licence for the use of that program, can no longer oppose the resale of that copy by the initial acquirer or subsequent acquirers of that copy, notwithstanding the existence of contractual terms prohibiting any further transfer” (Ranks and Vasiļevič paragraph 30).

Reselling a back-up copy of a computer program is subject to the authorization of the rightsholder

However, the issue in our case was not about the right of the original acquirer to resell his used copy of a computer program, but instead whether the right of exhaustion gives a person who acquired, either from the original acquirer or from a subsequent acquirer, a used copy of a computer program stored on a non-original material medium, the right to resell that copy.
Microsoft argued that a non-original copy of a computer program can never benefit from exhaustion of the right of distribution and thus cannot be sold by the user without the rightsholder’s authorization. Defendants argued that even non-original copies benefit from the exhaustion right, if, as stated in UsedSoft, the right holder gave the acquirer of a program, in return for a fee corresponding to the economic value of the work, the right to use the copy for an unlimited period, and if the original acquirer had made every copy in his possession unusable at the time of the resale of the program.

Advocate General Saugmandsgaard wrote in his 1 June 2016 Opinion of the case that article 4(c) of Directive 91/250 must be interpreted as meaning that the right holder’s exclusive right of distribution is infringed if the user makes a copy of the computer program and then sells it without the right holder’s authorization, even if the original medium has been damaged and the seller makes all of his copies unusable (Opinion at 25 and 54). The CJEU followed the opinion of its AG.

While article 5(2) authorizes making a back-up copy of the computer program, it may only be done “to meet the sole needs of the person having the right to use that program” and, therefore, such copy cannot be made to resell the computer program to a third party, even if the original copy has been destroyed, damaged or lost (Ranks and Vasiļevič paragraph 43).

The CJEU had held in UsedSoft that the exclusive right of distribution of a computer program is exhausted after the first sale of the program in the EU. However, UsedSoft could be distinguished from this case as Mr. Ranks and Mr. Vasiļevič were not the original acquirer of the computer programs, and instead had been selling copies of computer programs “on non-original material media.” There was “nothing to suggest that they initially purchased and downloaded those copies from the rightholders website”( Ranks and Vasiļevič paragraph 51).

A back-up copy of a computer program cannot be transferred to a new acquirer without the authorization of the copyright holder, even if the original copy has been damaged, destroyed or lost (Ranks and Vasiļevič paragraph 44). For the CJEU, Mr. Ranks and Mr. Vasiļevič thus indeed possessed infringing copies of a computer program, which is forbidden by article 7.1(b) of Directive 91/250 and Directive 2009/24, and sold them, which is forbidden by article 7.1.(a) of Directive 91/250 and Directive 2009/24.

This case restricts the scope of the digital resale market.

Image is courtesy of Flickr user get directly down under a CC BY 2.0 license.

This article was first published on the TTLF Newsletter on Transatlantic Antitrust and IPR Developments published by the Stanford-Vienna Transatlantic Technology Law Forum.

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