A case commentary on Inter IKEA Systems B.V. v. Taizhou Zhongtian Plastic Co.

Please write a case commentary on Inter IKEA Systems B.V. v. Taizhou Zhongtian Plastic Co. This is a case about copyright dispute based in China. The commentary should include the facts of the case, the Court’s ruling and most importantly, a critique of the case. 

A brief background of the case: IKEA (a Dutch corporation) alleged that defendant Zhongtian Company infringed IKEA’s copyrights by copying its Mammut series of children’s furniture. The court acknowledged that China is a member of the Berne Convention, and foreign works of applied art are protected by Chinese laws. The court further explained that the People’s Court considers “works of applied art from the angles of utility and artistry.” Utility is not protected by copyright law, but a work’s artistry may be protected as a work of fine art under Article 3(4) of the Copyright Law; that is, the artistic aspect of works of applied art have to reach the minimum requirement for art to be protectable under Copyright Law. In this instance, the court found that the appearance of the Mammut chairs and stools were generally the same as that of the majority of ordinary children’s chairs and stools. The court held that the design of the Mammut chairs and stools were “relatively simple and did not reach the artistic level that a work of fine art needed to reach”. As a result, the designs could not be protected and, even if the furniture produced by the defendant was similar or identical to the Mammut designs, it did not infringe IKEA’s copyright. 

The focus of this case commentary is mainly on opinion regarding the originality requirement and creativity standard in “works of applied art” in China. In the case of Swiss Interlige v Tianjin Kego Toy Corp (Beijing High Court, 2002), the court states that art requires that the article has a certain degree of artistic creation, which should at least enough to make the general public to regard it as work of art. Therefore in Ai Lu Mu International Stock Co v Huizhou Xin Li Da Electronic Instrument Co, the Guangdong High People’s Court denied copyright in a work for applied art because its artistic element did not exhibit artistic meaning or aesthetic value, and therefore failed to achieve the level of artistic creativity necessary to constitute a copyrightable artistic work. The reasoning is that if the minimum art aesthetic values were not required, all useful articles whose utilitarian function and shape are separable would be protectable under copyright law, which would apparently beyond the category of ‘works of fine art’. 

The existing Copyright Law only provides protection for useful articles which constitute ‘works of fine art’. This leads to the high requirement of aesthetic values for useful articles to be protectable. The test is whether the work of applied art had reached the artistic level that a work of fine art was supposed to reach. This requires analysing the sense of aesthetics, and generally, consideration should be given to whether the idea, manner of expression, etc. of a work of applied art were original. This standard is similar to that of Germany, in which the German Court decided the “Cathedral of Cologne model” care that more “individual intellectual creation” was needed for works of applied art than pure works of art. However, the German Supreme Court in the case of Birthday Train confirms that the court no longer adheres to the precondition that works of applied art require a significantly higher level of creativity than that required for fine arts.

Germany and China’s approach can be contrasted with UK’s approach in which there are two hurdles to overcome before a work deserves copyright protection. First, they must fall within the strict, closed classificatory system in relation to subject matter. Secondly, certain types of work, including artistic works, must fulfil the criterion of originality. Originality in the UK has traditionally not required any qualitative considerations of creativity or merit (aesthetic or otherwise). The rationale of copyright protection in the UK have been accepted as protecting labour and investment. This has led to a very modest threshold of originality, namely ‘skill, labour and judgement’. From this, one can easily accept that UK copyright law protects all sorts of things, irrespective of the question whether the quality or style is high. 

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