Montana loses dispute over shelving unit
Since 2004, the Danish furniture companies Montana Møbler and ABC-Reoler have been at war. The dispute revolves around shelving units, and whether or not ABC-Reoler has infringed Montana Møbler’s rights by producing and selling a shelving unit that resembles Montana’s.
Montana Møbler believed that ABC-Reoler’s shelving unit was an infringement of both Danish copyright law and marketing law, and they filed a lawsuit with the Danish Maritime and Commercial Court, demanding 2,5 million DKK in damages from ABC Reoler.
The parties agreed that the Montana shelving unit was protected by copyright. The question was, however, how wide the protection was, and whether or not the shelving unit from ABC Reoler violated this protection.
For industrial designs – such as shelving units – a high degree of similarity is required before an infringement is present. Industrial designs are often predetermined by functional demands, which leave less room for creativity. In the case between Montana Møbler and ABC-Reoler it was therefore crucial to determine, whether or not the ABC shelving unit could be classified as being too close to the design of the Montana unit.
To answer this question, an independent expert’s report was obtained. The report stated that there were significant similarities between the two units, but also a few differences – inter alia differences in the construction and the finish of the units.
The Danish Maritime and Commercial Court decided, on the basis of the expert’s report, that the ABC unit was not an imitation of the Montana unit. The design of the ABC unit originated from the overall development in the furniture business, and was not an intended replica of the Montana unit. There was therefore no violation of Montana’s copyright.
Furthermore, the court decided that no violation of the Danish marketing law was present. Even though the marketing material of the two companies had some similarities, the companies used different approaches and looks in the material, and there was therefore no risk of confusion for the consumers.
ABC-Reoler was acquitted, and Montana Møbler was sentenced to pay 800.000 DKK in legal costs.
Montana Møbler was not satisfied with this verdict, and they appealed to the Danish Supreme Court. Before the Supreme Court, Montana Møbler demanded a payment of about 4 million DKK. They stated that the expert’s report was incorrect and self-contradictory, and could not be used in court.
The case came to an end earlier this month, when the Supreme Court upheld the verdict by the Maritime and Commercial Court. The court found no reason to disregard the expert’s report, as Montana Møbler had not substantiated their critique of the report in any way.
The Supreme Court stated, in accordance with the verdict by the Maritime and Commercial Court, that the distinctiveness of the Montana unit was the overall impression – not the minor details. On this basis, the court took the view of the expert’s report and found the units to be too different for a copyright infringement to be present.
Furthermore, the court found the ABC unit to be a natural refinement of a previous model by ABC-Reoler, and there was therefore no disloyal behavior or market displacement on Montana Møbler’s market position.
The Danish Supreme Court upheld the verdict by the Maritime and Commercial Court and sentenced Montana to pay 500.000 DKK in legal costs.
The case shows just how narrow the copyright of industrials design are, and how hard it can be to establish that another design is an intended imitation. What Montana believed to be an obvious infringement turned out to be a losing case, and after almost 10 years of fighting with ABC-Reoler, Montana has to pay up and accept the competition from the ABC shelving unit.