China Copyright Protection for Applied Art

With no explicit provisions in China’s copyright law for the protection of works of applied art, courts have until now used different approaches when considering the issue. In some cases, protection has been extended based on the protections afforded to works of fine art. However, in last year’s Guiding Case No. 157 (指导案例157号), the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) endorsed the view that works of applied art are entitled to copyright protection in their own right.

Applied art refers to “an artistic work applied to objects for practical use, whether handicraft or works produced on an industrial scale.” Examples of applied art drawn from Chinese jurisprudence considering the issue include the Hennessy Paradis bottle and ALPA cameras.

As a signatory to the Berne Convention, China is obliged to protect such works. However, the Copyright Law and its implementing regulations are silent on the topic of applied art. Some courts have opted to rely on the Copyright Law’s protections for works of fine art (Article 3(4)). A couple of years ago, however, a court ruled that works of applied art were entitled to copyright protection, without reliance on provisions regarding works of fine art.

In the Tang Yun Cloakroom Furniture (唐韵衣帽间家具) case, copyright protection was sought for a wardrobe “with an overall design of wood color lines, metal parts, Chinese-style symmetrical arrangements, and combined Chinese and Western elements.” Counsel for the party claiming infringement successfully argued that, “as long as they meet the requirements of originality, reproducibility and a certain level of an artistic or aesthetic value, works of applied art (such as furniture) should be entitled to copyright protection under a different category from works of fine art.”

The SPC noted that, “in the case where the practicality and artistry of a work of art cannot be separated, it cannot be a work of art protected by copyright law.” Needless to say, determining if practicality and artistry can or cannot be separate is not a straightforward question. Despite the top court’s high-level pronouncement on applied art copyright, courts around China will continue to delineate the contours of which works are entitled to protection. With this in mind, brands should guard against overreliance on the uniqueness of their product designs in their marketing strategies, no matter how stunning those designs are.