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24 September 2012
The Tripp Trapp children's chair (seen in the left-hand image below) was designed in the early 1970s. It is designed to be adjusted as children grow by moving the seat and the footrest up and down. The technical principle behind this was patented in 1972. The chair became popular both in and outside Norway.
Manufacturer Stokke AS, together with designer Per Opsvik, has been waging war against similar chairs in numerous jurisdictions since the patent expired in 1992, claiming infringement of Opsvik's copyright.
The Oliver chair (on the right in the image above) was marketed by Trumf AS from 2007; Stokke and Opsvik filed a legal complaint against it in 2009. The district court ruled in favour of Trumf, holding that the Tripp Trapp chair did not meet the artistic step criterion set out in the Copyright Act. However, the appeal court found that the Tripp Trapp chair did enjoy copyright protection as a work of art (or rather, of craft), and that the Oliver chair infringed the copyright in the Tripp Trapp chair.
The Supreme Court agreed that the Tripp Trapp chair was protected under the Copyright Act and found this conclusion to be "doubtless" even if the artistic step criterion should be "relatively strict" for utility articles. Therefore, the question was whether the Oliver chair constituted an infringement of these rights. Trumf had argued that the curved side pieces of its chair were sufficiently different to distinguish it from the Tripp Trapp chair, but the Supreme Court dismissed this argument. The court agreed with the findings of the appeal court to the effect that Oliver chair was not an independent work of art (or craft). Moreover, the Tripp Trapp chair's combination of new, innovative elements and other known elements was also present to a high degree in the Oliver chair, leaving a very similar impression - not the least in view of the wide variety of available alternative shapes.
The decision is the first of its kind since 1962, when the Supreme Court held that a sewing table was too crude and inexpensive to constitute infringement of an elegantly designed similar table. In the case at hand, neither chair was more or less elegant than the other, and what was copied appeared to be the technical solution of the adjustable seat and footrest and the L-shaped side pieces. Therefore, the decision is worrying as it means that a design which was originally patented until 1992 may now remain protected for 70 years after Opsvik's death. A design registration would also have expired a long time ago, leaving competitors free to market similar chairs. Thus, it may be that a form of protection originally intended for works of art is poorly suited to the protection of utility articles.
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