Copyright over web sites

Published onMay 2014

Creating a web site requires functional, technical and even esthetic qualities. But is it enough to consider all web sites may be protected by copyright?

The Court of Appeals of Rennes (in Brittany, France) has just decided it does not. In its judgment dated 13 May 2014, the Court dismissed the action brought against her former employer (a web design agency) by a computer graphics designer who claimed copyright ownership over web sites she had created for various clients while she was working under contract (1).

But claiming copyright ownership does not exempt the plaintiff from defining and characterizing the originality of his/her work, from showing what original features his/her work bears, and how the work reflects his/her personality (2).

And this is precisely what the Court stated in this case. Sure the web sites designed by the computer graphics artist showed some technical and esthetic skills and know-how, but technical expertise must not be mistaken with creativity and originality that copyrightable works of the mind imply.

In addition, the employer managed to evidence that (i) the freedom of creation of the web designer was limited by very detailed instructions received by the clients and that (ii) in many cases graphic designs used by the artist on the web sites were in fact graphic designs already used by the clients.

Such decision should remind everyone employing or hiring a graphics artist to design or create a web site, a logo, a brochure or any other type of communication tools, that the only solution to avoid any bad surprises or difficulties is to rely from the beginning on a solid copyright transfer agreement.

© INSCRIPTA

(1) According to French Intellectual Property law, the existence of an employment contract does not affect the fact that copyright ownership lies with the author of the work.

(2) See our article about copyright infringement action.