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An Italian copyright authorship saga: The armchair of Gio Ponti

The heirs of the acclaimed architect and designer Gio Ponti and the company Molteni & C. S.p.A. filed a lawsuit before the Court of Milan against Cassina S.p.A.. Both companies claimed exclusive rights on a model of armchair designed by Gio Ponti in the fifties.

On the one hand, Molteni & C. S.p.A manufactured and marketed armchair “Molteni & C. D.156.3”, which was ready to be presented on the International Furnishing Accessories Exhibition held annually in Milan. Molteni acted based on an exclusive license with the architect and his successors, covering “all the works of Gio Ponti not falling within other agreements”.

On the other hand, Cassina alleged infringement of its economic rights on the design of armchair “811”, which was designed by Gio Ponti under the employment agreement in place between the latter and Cassina from 1949 and 1964. Hence, Cassina was vested with all the economic rights to manufacture armchair “811”, in its quality of employer of Gio Ponti (or at least in its quality of commissioner of the design work in question). In any event, Cassina claimed that armchair “811” was a result of a joint work of Gio Ponti and Fausto Redaelli, responsible of the Technical Office of Cassina.

According to Molteni, defendant mistakenly interpreted the sources of its economic rights. In particular, there was no written employment agreement between Gio Ponti and Cassina and the fact that the economic rights did not belong to Cassina was proved by a number of circumstances. Firstly, Cassina paid royalties to Mr. Ponti for all specimens of armchair “811” sold by the former. Secondly, defendant contacted successors of Ponti in order to acquire the exclusive license for the manufacture and marketing of new prototypes of armchair “811”.

The Court of Milan held, first of all, that the industrial design of armchair “811” was protected by copyright, contrary to what argued by Cassina. This was based on a number of indications (i) the work has been consistently included in the archive of the works of Gio Ponti; (ii) the price reached by the item in auctions was considerably high; and (iii) even the catalogue of Cassina clearly recognised copyright protection by means of advertising the recast of the armchair “811” as “an original furniture of the 1950’s model”.

As to copyright authorship, defendant failed to provide evidence on the existence of an employment relationship. The fact that Gio Ponti undertook his activity as creative director of Cassina did not entail the existence of an employment agreement. Further, there was no evidence of a transfer of IP rights on the armchair at stake in favour of Cassina. Lastly, there were no elements to infer that the armchair was a work made for hire in the interest of Cassina.

In addition, the ambiguous behaviour of Cassina was assessed in favour of plaintiff by the Court of Milan, as the registration of the industrial design No. 47286 by the sons of Mr. Amedeo Cassina in 1953 was clearly aimed at obtaining the right to manufacture and market the furniture. In any event, the design in question had little to do with armchair “811”. The same applied to the moulds and prototypes held by Cassina, which pertained to different models of armchairs and not to the “811” armchair. Lastly, the intention of defendant to acquire a license for the manufacture of armchair “811” and to pay royalties for the successors of Ponti in 2013 and 2016, revealed that Cassina was well-aware that it had not acquired exclusive rights on the design in question.

Finally, the collaboration between Gio Ponti and Fausto Redaelli of Cassina was for adapting efficient production techniques. However, the selection of different materials and articles of furniture was the result of the creative activity of Gio Ponti alone. Also, the defendant’s catalogue underlined that “Excellence of execution is the basis of the success of the Cassina family”, without mentioning any joint work. Therefore, armchair “811”, as well as the previous model recalled by defendant, were solely designed by Gio Ponti.

For further information on authorship and copyright protection of industrial designs, please contact Elena Varese (elena.varese@dlapiper.com) and Leda Barkai (leda.barkai@dlapiper.com).