Court Rejects Outright Infringement Proceedings Against IKEA Relating to Stuffed Animals

The Québec Superior Court (the “S.C.”) recently threw out a copyright infringement lawsuit alleging that IKEA had copied a line of stuffed animals from a local artist. Notwithstanding the resemblance between the concepts of the stuffed animals at issue, the court rejected the suit offhand, because it did not relate to any work recognized as such by the Canadian Copyright Act.

The case at issue, Bouchard v. Ikea Canada (2021 QCCS 1376), which pitted a Québec-based artist to the international retailer, alleged that IKEA had illegally copied a line of stuffed animals from Ms. Bouchard, which it then sold in its stores as the Sogoskatt collection. Faced with what she perceived to be a copy of her works, Ms. Bouchard filed copyright infringement proceedings against several parties, including IKEA, before Québec courts.

Unfortunately for Ms. Bouchard, Ikea managed to torpedo her lawsuit at an early stage. To do so, it filed a motion to throw out the case outright because, at law, there really was no real issue to be tried. After examining the motion at issue, the S.C. agreed this case did not present any real issue the judicial system should bother analyzing and taking on. Since this case was introduced as a copyright matter, without any “works” to justify the proceedings at issue, the courts should refuse to further hear the case. Period.

The explanation of this rejection of the case resides in what Ms. Bouchard argued was hers and which IKEA had illegally copied. Namely, the artist testified that, notwithstanding IKEA’s own stuffed animals being different from her own creations, she considered that there were substantial similarities reproducing the distinctive “style” or “look” of her own line of stuffed animals. Unfortunately for her, as you probably know, copyright law does NOT deal well with abstracts like inspiration, ideas, concepts, styles, etc. Rather, copyright is generally concerned with specific works being copied to a substantial degree. Before looking at the substantial degree to which a work has been copied, however, you first need to have… well… a “work”, as defined by the Copyright Act. No work, no possibility of any infringement.

In the case at issue, the works which the artist alleged had been copied had not been copied, or if there was a copy, it was the copy of a style, of a certain look or that of a certain way to make stuffed animals. This, of course, did NOT constitute a copy of the works (the actual stuffed animals) themselves, only of a sort of concept for stuffed animals such as these.

As a result, the S.C. had little trouble throwing out Ms. Bouchard’s case against IKEA. Sorry, but alleging you have a monopoly over a certain style of something does not a monopoly make. Sure, you may be the inventor of a new style or concept of something, but that does not mean you have the exclusive rights to it, at least certainly not by virtue of copyright law. Had this case been presented based on invention or patent rights, industrial designs or trademarks, it may have stood a chance but copyright does NOT extend to abstracts like concepts, ideas and styles. It never did and never will.

Québec’s Own French Language Open Source Licenses

While doing some work as to open source, I recently came across a section of the list of officially accredited open source license and that includes 3 licenses Made in Québec. These were apparently created by Québec authorities for its own purposes. Not too surprisingly, the original version of these 3 open source licenses is in French, contrary to most others of this kind.

The official site now lists these 3 licenses, which I’m linking below to a micro-site created by the Centre de services partagés du Québec called Forge gouvernementale”. The presentation of the documents on this site is much easier to read than the version posted on (that presents the text of each license in a single block of text):

The OSS licenses at issue were created with the government’s software development efforts in mind and (initially) presented in French, though an English translation is available. As with other open source licenses, the goal here is to free source code in the manner that maximizes the users’ rights and the ease with which it may be used and redistributed down the line. If you’re curious (I was), the Québec government published the following FAQ about these licenses.

The first license (LiLiQ-P) is akin to the Apache open source license and, thus fairly permissive. The code released under this license may be included in other software that is then distributed without having to make it available with the source code and without being required to distribute it through an open source license.

The other 2 licenses (LiLiQ-R and LiLiQ-R+) are relatively similar to somewhat more restrictive licenses such as the MPL license and the LGPL license, requiring that resulting software be made available, including as source code, through a LiLiQ-type license. Another feature of the licenses at issue resides in their reciprocity provisions, generally allowing the combination of LiLiQ code with code made available pursuant to most other open source licenses.

Is anyone really surprised that Québec would want to express how different it is from the rest of Canada (and the world) by creating its own version of an open source license? Eh, why not?

Québec Copyright Infringement Decision About the Photograph of a Sculpture Serves Valuable Lesson Regarding Risk of Relying on a Mere Permission from the Author

A Québec court issued a copyright infringement decision this week which seems worth mentioning even though it’s merely a small claims court decision. Not too surprisingly, the decision at issue, Gadbois v. 2734-3540 Québec Inc. (2020 QCCQ 11186), concludes that a photograph circulated by email did infringe the copyright of the author of the sculpture shown therein. Even though we’re dealing with a small claims decision and a simple fact pattern, the decision seems worth discussing a little this morning, if only for the lesson it serves us as to copyright-related permission.

This decision stems from the holding of a 1995 art exhibition which the organizer then sought to promote through email messages that included a photograph of one of the sculptures shown at the event. Twenty-five (yes, 25) years later, the sculptor sues the organizer of the exhibition for copyright infringement based on the alleged failure of the organizer to obtain his authorization to circulate photographs of his work.

Before the court, the organizer of the event claimed that the sculptor had given his permission, even though the company was unable to produce a copy of the writing through which such an authorization had allegedly been given. Unfortunately for the defendant, this prompted the judge to refuse to even entertain the possibility that permission had been given, something the judge may have been somewhat harsh about.

At any rate, this case illustrates that even though the Copyright Act does not require that reproduction permission be granted in writing (as opposed to assignments), relying on an authorization that was not documented in writing may prove hazardous once in front of a judge. Even though legally it does works, in principle, if litigation occurs, you may not be able to demonstrate adequately that sufficient permission really was granted by this particular author in those particular circumstances.

Even though this decision isn’t exactly revolutionary nor precedent-setting, it does serve as a good reminder that getting copyright permission in writing is a useful precaution, and may well avoid unnecessary litigation later. Failing to do so may well the author to later claim they had not in fact consented to whatever was done (such as sending photographs by email) and, thus, that they’re allowed damages because of the copyright infringement.

As to such writings, one should note that they need not be complicated or lengthy documents to prove effective for this purpose. Heck, a simple paragraph (or even one sentence) may sometimes be all you need to show that permission did exist. Contrary to what some may think, such permission need not be described in long-winded documents with numerous complicated provisions. What you want to avoid is simply being involved in eventual litigation where you end up having to testify that the author did authorize you to do X, where the author himself testifies to the contrary—this is not something that will normally require producing complex documentation.

Even though, in the case of Mr. Gadbois’s sculpture, we’re dealing with a fairly insignificant damage award ($1,000), the defendant may well have been better off retaining a writing showing the author’s permission. This decision also shows that such problems may materialize years after the events, like here, with events dating back to 1995. Given how long copyrights remain protected for, failing to document permission may come back to haunt you years and years later—one more reason to avoid this problem, especially through something as cheap and easy as a written permission.