UK Copyright Amendment Provokes Controversy in the Art and Design World

By Christopher Visentin*

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 9.59.46 AMThe British government has recently moved to repeal section 52 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (the “CDPA”). Removing this section would increase the copyright duration for artistic designs—as opposed to traditional artistic works—from 25 years from the year the designs were first marketed, to the more common term of life of the author plus 70 years. In a report published February 18, 2015, the British government detailed provisions for implementing the change, set to take place April 6, 2020, and also published responses to comments made by those affected by the law. It seems, however, that the new arrangement has stirred up some controversy in the process.

As in the United States, the United Kingdom has long grappled with what copyright protection—if any—should be available for functional, yet arguably artistic, designs (see Brandir International, Inc. v. Cascade Pacific Lumber Co. for a famous U.S. treatment of a similar issue, involving the design of ribbon bike racks). Such artistic designs can be hard to define, but certain iconic mass-produced pieces, such as Arne Jacobsen’s “Egg Chair,” or Robin Day’s “Polypropylene Chair,” serve as examples of the types of works implicated in this change.

Egg (1958)

Arne Jacobsen, “Egg Chair” (1958).

In such cases, there is a tension between rewarding an individual the full copyright protection for his or her work, and the public’s desire to access functional designs and articles. S. 52 of the CDPA offered a solution in the U.K. by limiting copyright protection for artistic designs to 25 years.

  1. 52 effectively carved out an exception for artistic designs. Instead of the standard ‘life of the author plus 70 years’ term of copyright protection, mass-produced artistic designs would receive a shorter term of protection. More specifically, designs “derived from…artistic work[s]” that have been made by “industrial process” and subsequently marketed to the public would enjoy protection of only 25 years from the date the design was first manufactured.
  2. 52 thus separates designs derived from artistic works from both pure ‘artistic works’ and pure utilitarian designs. Under this scheme, the CDPA seems to conceptualize the work in question as an intermediate work between utilitarian design and art, deserving of likewise intermediate copyright protection.

Admittedly, some might find that the fine lines s. 52 draws over-simplify the breadth of creation in the art world. Take, for example, works like Ingo Maurer’s “Bulb,” a playful design of a lightbulb within a lightbulb, created in 1966 and part of the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. With s. 52 in place, Maurer’s design would perhaps only enjoy 25 years of copyright protection because of its functional design, and because it has been industrially manufactured and marketed. The functional elements would thus render the piece no longer protectable by copyright. Conversely, one might argue that Maurer should enjoy the full copyright term of his life plus 70 years for his creative expression. This distinction between types of artistic expression might seem unfair to some in the art world and beyond.

One argument against the repeal is that a limited copyright term would encourage artist-designers to create new designs, while also ensuring that the more practical, utilitarian benefits conferred by the designs would not be kept from the broader public for too long. After 25 years, others could lawfully create copies or other articles based on the previously protected design. Furthermore, the economic advantage that mass-produced artistic designs have over other artistic works may be great enough to justify limiting the benefits of an exclusive right of ownership to only 25 years. Presumably, the limited copyright period would balance the public interest in new, improved designs with the designers’ interest in profiting off of their mass-produced work.

Now, however, this exception for artistic design is set to disappear come April 6, 2020. With the repeal of s. 52, designers of artistic works would enjoy the same length of copyright protection as other artists, writers, and musicians. The British government moved to repeal s. 52, claiming  “to update and clarify UK legislation in line with EU law.” The change is an effort to adhere to an interpretation of the EU Design Directive (71/98/EC), promulgated by the European Court of Justice. By repealing s. 52, the British government’s protection will no longer provide a shorter term of protection than other member states for industrially manufactured artistic designs.

Extending the duration of copyright from 25 years to 70 years further distinguishes artistic designs from those designs that are not “artistic works,” and thus can only enjoy protection according to the UK Registered Designs Act 1949 (the “RDA”). Under s. 52, artistic designs that were industrially produced only enjoyed the same amount of protection as other designs governed by the RDA, which had separate registration requirements.

The extension of copyright protection provides additional incentive to artistic designers to create and mass produce new designs. Baroness Neville-Rolfe, Minister for Intellectual Property, says that the repeal is “an important step, to bring about the fair treatment of all types of artistic works and to reward those that innovate and inspire.” She further states, “[t]he innovative work of designers will have the appropriate copyright protection, whilst ensuring that UK-based businesses can adapt and thrive.”

Others affected by the change, by some reports, are less than enthusiastic. Repealing s. 52 would require manufacturing companies to pay licensing fees to rights holders long after the previous 25-year period in order to produce replicas. The change would also require permission and possible licensing fees to reproduce the images of designs in books and other publications, as well as restrict what new designers could do if they wanted to build off of an existing, protected design.

One of the most controversial aspects of the reform is that it will have retroactive effect. This means that some artistic designs whose 25-year copyright protection term has expired will once again be covered under the more expansive 70-year term, assuming it did not already expire. Those that have lawfully reproduced or otherwise used designs after the old 25-year term of copyright expired may not have to pay for their prior reproductions, but they will have to pay licensing fees for future use.

This retroactive effect may prove to be a particular burden on museums. Like many others, museums that have displayed and sold replicas of artistic designs whose 25 years of copyright have since expired may now have to pay licensing fees to continue to do so. These extra fees would introduce much higher costs to museums and could end up being entirely prohibitive.The impact of the statement for the repeal of s. 52 in the government report includes one museum’s estimate of a loss over £850,000 a year.

Beyond the licensing costs, however, museums and publishers will have to survey their collections, including an inventory of books and photographs published therein to ensure that the photographs and publications do not contain any newly protected copyright works. Even images depicting a protected work may end up infringing on the newly revived copyright. Needless to say, the cost of reassessing collections and catalogues will add to the burden.

Some argue that another side effect of the change may occur within the design industry itself. As Ivan Macquisten of the Antique Gazette notes, “some of the leading intellectual property specialists in the country have argued that [repealing s. 52] will have a chilling effect on new design, because young designers must ensure that they do not fall foul of the law when inspired by earlier designers.” Inspired designers seeking to build off of prior work will either need to secure permission from the original designer, or take care that any work that they do will not infringe on the extended copyright of the prior work.

Ultimately, there is a chance that this bolstered protection may slow down the output of new designs, as well as threaten the manufacture of current designs that are adaptations (or ‘derivative works’) of works that will regain or have extended copyright. Of course, the counter argument would be that any chilling effect the extended copyright may have might be mitigated by the increased protection due to the same designers when they create an original work.

Despite protests and appeals to lawmakers by members of the intellectual property community—including efforts by Professor Lionel Bently of Cambridge, joined by faculty members of the University of Oxford, King’s College, London, and Edinburgh University, to name a few—the House of Lords has approved the reform. Originally, the government sought a three-year transition period, but due to feedback from commenters, the three years has been increased to the current five-year period—ending April of 2020—in order to give those affected by the change more time to prepare. It seems that designers, museums, publishers, and onlookers alike will have to sit down and wait until then to determine the true outcome of the change.

Robin Day, “Polypropylene Chair.”

Robin Day’s “Polypropylene Chair” (1963).

Sources:

About the Author: Christopher Visentin is a rising third-year law student at Boston University, where he concentrates his studies on intellectual property law, art law, and law and literature. He is also pursuing a master’s degree in English literature at Boston University.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Any views or opinions made in the linked article are the authors alone. Readers are not meant to act or rely on the information in this article without attorney consultation.

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