Gered Mankowitz is a British photographer who photographed many famous musicians such as Mick Jagger and Annie Lennox. He took several photographs of Jimi Hendrix in 1967. One of these photographs represents the musician, wearing a military jacket, holding a cigarette and puffing a cloud of smoke while looking at the photographer. An original print recently sold at auction for £2,750.
This photograph was used without authorization in 2013 for an advertising campaign by Egotrade, a French electronic cigarette company. The ad showed Jimi Hendrix holding an electronic cigarette and the “Egotabaco” brand was printed on the ad.
Gered Mankowitz and Bowstir Ltd, the company to which Mr. Mankowitz has assigned his patrimonial rights to the photography, filed suit in France. Bowstir claimed copyright infringement and Mr. Mankowitz claimed droit moral infringement. On May 21, the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance (TGI), a court of first instance, ruled that the Jimi Hendrix photograph could not be protected by French intellectual property law, as it was not original.
|Ceci n'est pas une oeuvre originale pour le TGI|
French intellectual property law does not provide a definition of “originality.” Article L. 111-1 of the French Intellectual Property Code provides that “[t]he author of a work of the mind shall enjoy in that work, by the mere fact of its creation, an exclusive intangible property right enforceable against all. This right shall include attributes of intellectual and moral attributes as well as patrimonial attributes.” Article L. 112-1 specifies that the law “protects the rights of authors in all works of the mind, whatever their kind, form of expression, merit or purpose.”
The TGI cited the European Court of Justice (ECJ) Eva Maria Painer. v. Standard Verlags case, where the Court had discussed the originality of a picture taken by a school photographer. For the ECJ, which the TGI cited verbatim,
“[a]s stated in recital 17 in the preamble to Directive 93/98, an intellectual creation is an author’s own if it reflects the author’s personality. That is the case if the author was able to express his creative abilities in the production of the work by making free and creative choices. … As regards a portrait photograph, the photographer can make free and creative choices in several ways and at various points in its production. In the preparation phase, the photographer can choose the background, the subject’s pose and the lightening. When taking a portrait phoograph, he can choose the framing, the angle of view and the atmosphere created. Finally, when selecting the snapshot, the photographer may choose from a variety of developing techniques the ones he wishes to adopt or, where appropriate, use computer software. By making those various choices, the author of a portrait photograph can stamp the work created with his ‘personal touch’” (ECJ 88-92).
Indeed, Recital 17 of Directive 93/98/EEC states that a photograph is original “if it is the author’s own intellectual creation reflecting his personality, no other criteria such as merit or purpose being taken into account.” Article 6 of the same Directive states that photographs are original if “they are the author’s own intellectual creation.” This directive was repealed by Directive 2006/116/EC, of which Recital 16 reprises the same words than Recital 17.
The TGI then examined the Jimi Hendrix photograph. Gered Mankowitz had explained to the court that
“this photograph of Jimi Hendrix, as extraordinary as it is rare, succeeds in capturing a fleeting moment of time, the striking contrast between the lightness of the artist’s smile and the curl of smoke and the darkness and geometric rigor of the rest of the image, created particularly by the lines and angles of the torso and arms. The capture of this unique moment and its enhancement by light, contrasts and the narrow framing of the photograph on the torso and head of Jimi Hendrix reveal the ambivalence and contradictions of this music legend and make the photograph a fascinating work of great beauty which bears the stamp and talent of its author.”
This argument did not convince the TGI as Mr. Mankowitz,
“as doing so, satisfied himself by highlighting the aesthetic characteristics of the photography which are distinct from its originality which is indifferent to the merit of the work, and does not explain who the author of the choices made regarding the pose of the subject, his costume and his general attitude. Also, nothing [in this argument] allows the judge and the defendants to understand if these elements, which are essential criteria in assessing the original features claimed, that is, the framing, the use of black and white, the light decor meant to highlight the subject, and the lighting being themselves typical fora portrait photography showing the subject facing, with his waist forward, are the fruit of the reflection of the author of the photograph or the subject, and if the work bears the imprint of the personality of Mr. Mankowitz or of Jimi Hendrix.”
Since the judges are therefore not able to appreciate whether this photograph is indeed original, the TGI ruled hat the photography lacked the originality necessary for its protection by French law, and that “the failure of the description of the characteristic elements of the alleged originality also constitutes a violation of the principle of defense rights.” The TGI thus concluded that Mr. Mankowitz had no intellectual property rights over the photograph.
By doing so, the TGI did not deny that this particular photography of Jimi Hendrix is not original. Rather, the court was not convinced that originality of the work was the result of choices made by Mr. Mankowitz. This case is less about what is an original work than how to prove that a work is indeed original.
As such, this ruling should give pause to French IP practitioners defending the rights of a photographer, as they must now prove why the author chose the different elements of a photograph and how these choices reflect his personality in such a way that the work is original. However, the case will be appealed, and so the debate on what is an original work, and how to prove, it is still ongoing in France.