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Important points 1994-1999

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Industrial designs: Consumer protection comes first

 

pf0601.jpg (18987 bytes)The legal protection of industrial designs and models was an issue which enabled Parliament to use its co-decision powers once again to protect consumers' interests.

The Commission proposed a directive to provide effective protection for industrial designs and models throughout the EU, the aim being to remove obstacles to the free movement of goods and guarantee undistorted competition. Parliament approves of this goal as it realises that protecting inventors' rights is essential if companies are to think it worthwhile investing in new industrial designs. The present situation, whereby each Member State is free to decide its own rules, is ultimately harmful to European industry. The EP therefore agreed to the principle of "EU protection" for five years, renewable five times, for holders of properly registered designs and models.

 

The automobile industry: a special case

At the same time, Parliament felt that other needs should sometimes be taken into account, especially those of consumers, and saw that this might entail restricting design holders' rights.

An example is the car parts industry, the EU market in which is estimated to be worth EUR 88bn a year. Parliament believes consideration must be given not only to the conflicting interests of car makers and spare parts manufacturers but also to the needs of consumers, who want cheaper, more reliable products. Car makers' "original" parts and those made by spare parts manufacturers are both sold on the market and their prices can differ by more than 100%. Should car makers be given exclusive rights or should competition be allowed, so that consumers can buy the, usually much cheaper, spare parts made by other firms?

 

Reconciling designers' rights and consumers' rights

Parliament called for a balanced position which would take account of consumers' interests while also ensuring adequate protection for car manufacturers. It said that where "complex products" (e.g. cars or motorcycles) were being repaired, the rights of design holders should not prevail absolutely over those of consumers. The use of spare parts made by firms other than the car manufacturers should be regarded as legitimate, provided design holders were notified by the repairers and offered a "fair remuneration" (based primarily on the investment made by the design holders).

Council was unwilling to follow Parliament's lead. However, as it was unable to reach a consensus, it simply proposed that the issue continue to be governed by national law according to the preferences of each Member State! There would thus be no further change in the situation, as some States would seek to protect consumers' interests while others would back the car manufacturers - the very antithesis of a single market!

 

Council drags its feet

This was utterly unacceptable to Parliament. The solution finally agreed in the ensuing conciliation procedure was "standstill plus", whereby Parliament agreed to a "freeze" on the legal situation in the Member States, with a ban on the introduction by individual States of any new obstacles to free movement, although changes in national law would be allowed if they represented a shift towards further liberalisation.

Parliament also extracted from the Commission a formal undertaking to promote a voluntary agreement between car makers and spare parts manufacturers, so that, within seven years of the directive coming into effect, proposals could be made for any changes needed to complete the single market in this field ... something which would not be necessary if Council had followed Parliament's lead!

 

Further information: José PACHECO (tel.32.2.284 2454, e-mail jpacheco@europarl.eu.int)

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