When a competitor which used to reign as a warlord in a particular market becomes challenged by a new player, this competitor may use tactics such as systematic and heavy-handed enforcement of alleged intellectual property rights, as well as aggressive smearing and denigration campaigns, to deter this new entrant. The situation may soon become untenable for the new kid on the block, as potential customers are scared away and dissuaded by the blows forcefully and repeatedly inflicted upon by the dominant player. What to do if you and your business are targeted by such hyper-aggressive competitor? How can you defend yourself against these abuses of dominant position?
The right balance between intellectual property rights (“IPRs“) and free competition is very difficult to strike, especially in markets and jurisdictions which are hyper protective of IPRs of right owners, like in Europe. When the right owner is manipulative, hyper-aggressive and unprepared to share his or her turf, they may use the so-called enforcement of IPRs to drive any new entrants in their specific market away; thus creating many abuses of dominant position.
1. What’s going on?
Nowhere as seriously have I witnessed such anti-competitive behaviour from a competitor occur, than in the automotive sector.
I was instructed to attend a trade show in the South of France, last year in September 2019, in order to assist a Chinese automotive company and its Spanish distributor on their stand, as they were systematically and repetitively subjected to court-ordered police raids and interim seizures, on any European trade fair that they had attended, and were attending, since the launch of their new automotive business two years’ prior.
As you might have guessed, it is their competitor, a German company in a monopolistic situation on that particular segment of the automotive sector, which was behind this constant derailing of each one of my clients’ trade exhibitions in Europe.
None of my clients’ trade shows in the USA were perturbed by these court-ordered seizures and police raids and court orders to immediately close down their stand on the tradeshows, based on the allegations of IPR counterfeiting made by such German competitor: no US court was accepting to grant the German competitor such overarching measures to stop free competition on a pretence of infringement of IPRs.
However, each one of the European courts to which such over-the-top interim and immediate measures were requested by such German competitor, in the context of European trade fairs held in Germany, Spain, France and Monaco, happily obliged and granted such court orders. As a result, these interim measures had forced my clients to close down their stand on each of these European trade shows prematurely, because my clients were deprived of their products and prototypes taken away during those police-led raids and seizures on their stands, as well as forced sales and seizures of their prototypes and products, ordered by some of these European courts.
Not only was the German competitor using its monopolistic status to manipulate European courts into driving its Spanish and Chinese competitors (my clients) away, alleging some IPRs infringements right and left, but it also conducted a vast, well-oiled and well-orchestrated denigration and smearing campaign against my clients, through the use of private eyes in various European locations, as well as through listening and taping the phone calls and text messages exchanged by my clients on their mobile phones. As a result, the German monopolist was able to always contact, before my clients, all the trade fair organisers, potential distributors and other third parties and business partners interested in my clients’ products, in order to denigrate my clients as “Chinese counterfeiters” who manufactured “dangerous and unfit automotive sea products” (sic). Consequently, European trade show organisers, potential European distributors and potential European end-consumers of my Chinese and Spanish clients were spooked, and took an enormous amount of convincing and cajoling, in order to establish, or re-establish, a rapport with my two clients.
Thanks to my intervention, during two of my clients’ trade fairs in Cannes, France, and Monaco, in September 2019, the humiliating option of having to close down their stand before the end of these trade shows was spared, since I efficiently liaised with the bailiff instructed by the French lawyers of the German competitor, in order to salvage some of my clients’ prototypes from a forced sale imposed by the Paris “tribunal de grande instance” on some quaint and unfounded allegations of patent and design infringement made by this German competitor.
I had seen some prior abuses of dominant position, in particular in the fashion sector and the fashion textile trade shows’ segment, perpetrated by luxury conglomerates and the largest fashion textile trade fair in the world, in the past. However, this first-hand experience of abuse of IPRs, abuse of dominant position and smearing and denigration campaigns against my automotive clients was on another level.
2. What can you do to protect yourself against some abuses of IPRs and of dominant position perpetrated by a competitor?
Consequently, and since France is extremely protective of IPRs owners, there are no restrictions on how IPRs may be enforced by right owners against third parties, in the French Intellectual property code; provided that any mandatory prior depositing and registration procedures (which are applicable to industrial IPRs such as design rights, trademarks and patents) have been complied with.
Under English law, there are some key restrictions on the ability to enforce IPRs, which include:
specific defences to infringement and restrictions on available remedies for each IPR.
Therefore, if your dominant competitor raises some alleged IPRs infringement claims against you and your business in the UK, then you may make the most of these legal tools offered to you, from the “actionable threats” defense, to the “unjustified threats” defense, via UK civil court proceedings.
When an IPRs owner abuses its dominant position, it starts with obtaining some interim IPRs measures, such as the seizures and force sales on my clients’ stands in their trade show, against its competitors. Then, the dominant abuser lodges some IPRs infringement proceedings in front of the competent civil – and sometimes criminal – courts, against its smaller competitors, to obtain some damages for the alleged acts of IPRs infringements.
In France, the Tribunaux judiciaires (district courts) have exclusive jurisdiction in hearing cases concerning copyright, national trademarks and national design rights; while the Paris Tribunal judiciaire has exclusive jurisdiction in hearing cases concerning patents and EU rights (i.e. EU trademark and design rights). For example, after the Cannes yachting trade show in September 2019, the German monopolist lodged a fully-fledged patent infringement lawsuit against the Spanish distributor of the Chinese manufacturer, with the Paris Tribunal judiciaire, within 30 days from the day of the seizure and forced sale which took place during the Cannes trade fair. Copyright holders can also take action in the French criminal courts for counterfeiting.
In the UK, IPRs are primarily enforced via civil court proceedings, and the English High Court is the most common venue. IPRs proceedings in the English High Court are heard in the Chancery division, and different specialist lists are available:
the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (“IPEC“) can hear any IPRs claim of relatively low complexity and value: the IPEC is suitable for claims which can be tried in two days or less, damages are capped at GBP500,000 and recoverable legal costs are subject to a cap of GBP50,000;
the Patent Court can hear claims relating to patents, registered designs, semiconductor rights and plant varieties. There is no cap on damages or recoverable legal costs; and
all other IPRs claims can be heard in the Intellectual Property List of the Chancery Division, of which the Patent Court and IPEC are sub-lists.
The problem, though, is that aside from the above-mentioned “actionable threats” and “unjustified threats” defenses, which can only be invoked in front of UK courts, neither the French Tribunaux judiciaires, nor the English High Court and its specialist lists, can review and decide on any anti-competitive behaviour and abuse of dominant position claims raised, as a counter-offensive, by the new entrant in a particular industrial sector, which is being subjected to IPRs infringement claims in front of these IP courts by the dominant player in that particular industry.
So, to continue with the example of my Spanish and Chinese clients, the Spanish distributor which is now the defendant in the patent infringement lawsuit lodged by the German monopolist in the automotive sector (the claimant), with the Paris Tribunal judiciaire, cannot make some counterclaims of abuse of dominant position and anti-competitive behaviour, as a counter-offensive, within the scope of that lawsuit with the Paris Tribunal judiciaire. Why? Because the Paris Tribunal judiciaire is not competent to review such claims relating to breaches of competition law: like the other French tribunaux judiciaires, it is only competent to review claims in relation to breaches of IPRs and laws on intellectual property.
So what is a quashed new entrant in this industrial sector to do then, under these circumstances? Well, the first priority is to find and retain expert and very aggressive legal counsel who will defend it against the wrongful allegations of IPRs infringement made by the monopolistic competitor. Such lawyer specialised in intellectual property matters shall also file some counterclaims against such abusive competitor, on behalf of its client, for like-for-like breaches of its client’s IPRs, invoking free riding and unfair competition (if in front of French courts) or passing off (if in front of UK courts).
The second priority, for the new entrant being wrongfully sued for alleged IPRs infringement by its dominant competitor, is to simultaneously file a claim against that abusive competitor with the national authorities responsible for reviewing and investigating the competitive effects of conduct related to the exercise of IPRs.
In France, the French Competition Authority (“FCA“) is the independent administrative body that specialises in analysing and regulating the operation of competition on markets to protect the economic public order. Its goal is to supervise the free play of competition in France. It can issue an opinion on the investigations it carries out, which can be subject to appeal only to the Paris Court of appeal. The rulings of the Court of appeal can also be the subject of recourse to the French Supreme court (“cour de cassation”). However, any judicial action relating to an infringement concerning the application of competition law can be taken before the Marseilles, Bordeaux, Lille, Fort-de-France, Lyon, Nancy, Paris and Rennes Commercial tribunals on the first instance jurisdictions.
Therefore, our Spanish and Chinese clients should not only fight the patent infringement allegations lodged by their German dominant competitor in front of the Paris Tribunal judiciaire, but also file some claims against that German competitor with either the FCA, or the Paris Commercial tribunal, for abuse of dominant position and anti-competitive behaviour. The claimants will try to obtain a judgment against these anti-competitive practices, as well as some paid damages for the prejudice suffered.
In the UK, the competition authority is the Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA“), which reviews and investigates compliance with competition law. The CMA’s remit includes the review and control of the exercise of IPRs insofar as they affect competition. The Competition Appeal Tribunal (“CAT“) is a specialist competition tribunal and hears appeals against the decisions of the CMA. An appeal from the CAT can be made to the Court of Appeal. Follow-on and standalone claims for competition law damages can be raised in the High court and in the CAT.
As you might have inferred from the above, the new entrant who is subjected to these various IPRs infringement claims by the abusive and dominant competitor, better have very deep pockets and unlimited wells of patience and resilience, in order to not only fight off an IPRs infringement lawsuit against its monopolistic competitor, but also drive through to completion some well-evidenced abuse of dominant position and anti-competitive behaviour claims in front of the competent competition authorities or courts, in either France or the UK.
It may all be worth it in the long term, though, as the recent high-profile cases dealing with the intersection of competition law and IPRs detailed below attest.
In 2014, the FCA ruled against Nespresso, the market leader for machines and capsules. Nespresso linked the purchase of its capsules with that of its coffee machines, thereby excluding manufacturers of competing capsules. Such exclusionary practices were reported by its competitors DEMB and Ethical Coffee to the FCA, as abuse of dominant position. In the decision issued by the FCA dated 4 September 2014, Nespresso was required to make several commitments intended to remove the obstacles to the entry and development of other manufacturers of capsules that would work with the brands’ coffee machines.
In 2016, the CMA fined GSK and two other pharmaceutical companies (the generic companies) in relation to anticompetitive patent settlement agreements. The CMA also found that GSK abused its dominant position in the UK market, by seeking to delay the generic companies’ entry into the market.
3. What can you do to protect yourself against some the acts of denigration and smearing perpetrated by a competitor?
A new form of abusive conduct has been identified, namely the practice of dominant companies excluding or reducing competition from competitors, by identifying exactly what non-price parameters are important for competition, and setting up some strategic campaigns to influence the purchasing behaviour of customers, typically by portraying competing products or services as unsafe and/or inefficient or of significantly lower quality.
These practices are usually referred to as “denigration” and “smearing campaigns”. Denigration means to criticize a competitor’s products or services in a derogatory manner, ultimately with a view to influencing customers purchasing patterns.
While such practices are usually dealt with under the unfair marketing rules in national legislations, some very serious cases found their way into the competition law arena.
Indeed, in several cases, the denigrating conduct has been part of dominant companies’ communication strategies with the clear object of disseminating information to customers about a competitor in order to create an air of uncertainty and/or doubt regarding either the competitor’s ability to carry out certain activities or putting a question mark on the quality, safety or efficacy of their products and services.
Denigrating conduct is most often seen in the form of dissemination of negative information based on false or misleading assertions in regard to competing products with the intention of having an impact on customers’ purchasing decisions.
Denigration of competitors’ products have long-lasting effects in the market because the unjustified doubts or fears can only be overcome with a significant effort by the target company to (re)educate and (dis)prove the denigrating statements in front of end-customers, distributors, etc.
Whilst at the European level, the European Commission has not yet had the opportunity to take a decision on a dominant company denigrating competitor products, there is considerable body of law at national level under article 102 TFEU, in particular in France.
The French cases have covered not only the pharmaceutical sector, but also the telecoms, electricity and pay-TV industries. Common to all these cases is that the dominant player has attempted to hinder market entry and product switch through denigrating competitor products in a number of different ways. Typically, the dominant company conducted a consistent, widespread strategy of misinformation to people who took or influenced purchasing decisions.
For example, in the matter with my Chinese and Spanish clients, their German dominant competitor would spread the word, before each trade show, that they had been sentenced to paying some counterfeiting damages to such German competitor, by a German court, and that their China-made sea scooters were of inferior quality and breaking all the time. This false information was diffused to the trade fair organisers, by the German competitor, in order to push the trade fairs to refuse access to their show to my clients, who were branded “counterfeiters” by their German competitor. But this denigration was also done with each one of the European potential distributors my clients, with threats made by the German competitor that it would stop trading with the distributor if the latter started any business with the Chinese manufacturer and its Spanish representative.
In France, the FCA has thus in its more than 10 denigration cases consistently held that denigration of competitors or their products, does not constitute competition on the merits and as as result, denigration can constitute an abuse of dominant position in certain circumstances. In French case law, for denigration to infringe article 102 TFEU, four clear elements have to be proven:
there is denigration of a competitor’s product with a view to obtaining a commercial advantage;
a link between the dominance and the practice of denigration has to be established;
it has to be verified whether the statements put forward in the market by the dominant company are based on objective findings or assertions that are not verified, and
whether the commercial statements are liable to influence the structure of the market.
The denigration cases assessed by the FCA and other European competition authorities have so far turned on the dominant company identifying the most important non-price parameters to be able to compete in a market and concluding that the relevant customer decision process could be influenced by instilling fears or concerns that are then conveyed to decision makers and stakeholders in a systematic and consistent smearing campaign.
Therefore, it seems that abuse of a dominant position as a consequence of denigrating conduct is more likely to be sanctioned in sectors where non-price competition parameters are more relevant than price. The more important a given parameter is, the more critical it is when a dominant company tries to exclude competitors through either false or misleading information, or tries to make information credible in a covert manner.
To conclude, a new entrant in a market, which is subjected to an abuse of IPRs and/or a smearing campaign to systematically denigrate its products, by the dominant player in that particular industry, has more than one string to its bow in order to fight back. However, such new kid on the block must brace himself or herself for lengthy, draining and expensive legal battles, both as a defendant against the wrongful alleged claims of counterfeiting of its IPRs, raised by the dominant and abusive competitor, and as a claimant in front of the competent European competition authority, through which it will have raised some claims against such competitor for abuse of dominant position, in particular by way of denigration and smearing campaign.
These various legal battles will eventually neutralise the dominant competitor, while having a rigorous and well-organised IPR registration and maintenance strategy in place, for the new entrant in the market, is essential. All new models, products, brands, services should have their respective IPR registered, and then listed in a catalogue of IPRs maintained by the legal counsel of the new entrant. All evidence, and certificates, of registration should be kept and archived meticulously, to anticipate any IPRs infringement claim that the dominant competitor may bring. Non-disclosure and confidentiality clauses should be set out in all the contracts entered into with new employees, distributors, service providers who will assist the new entrant before and during the trade shows (PR agencies, hostesses’ agencies, logistics companies, etc).
Since its inception in 2003, the law of luxury goods and fashion law have evolved, matured, and become institutionalised as a standalone area of specialisation in the legal profession. Here is Crefovi’s 2020 status update for the law of luxury goods and fashion law in France, detailing each legal practice area relevant to such creative industry.[hr]
1. Market spotlight & state of the market
1 | What is the current state of the luxury fashion market in your jurisdiction?
France is the number one player worldwide in the luxury fashion sector, as it is home to three major luxury goods conglomerates, namely:
• LVMH Moet Hennessy-Louis Vuitton SE (full year (FY) 2017 luxury goods sales US$27.995 billion and the number one luxury goods company by sales FY2017, with a selection of luxury brands, such as: Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Fendi, Bulgari, Loro Piana, Emilio Pucci, Acqua di Parma, Loewe, Marc Jacobs, TAG Heuer, Benefit Cosmetics);
• Kering SA (FY2017 luxury goods sales US$12.168 billion and the number four luxury goods company by sales FY2017, with a selection of luxury brands, such as: Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Brioni, Pomellato, Girard-Perregaux, Ulysse Nardin); and
• L’Oreal Luxe (FY2017 luxury goods sales estimate US$9.549 billion and the number seven luxury goods company by sales FY2017, with a selection of luxury brands, such as: Lancome, Kiehl’s, Urban Decay, Biotherm, IT cosmetics).
2. Manufacture and distribution
2.1. Manufacture and supply chain
2 | What legal framework governs the development, manufacture and supply chain for fashion goods? What are the usual contractual arrangements for these relationships?
The French law on duty of vigilance of parent and outsourcing companies, dated 27 March 2017 (article L 225-102-4 inserted in the French commercial code), is the French response to the UK Modern Slavery Act and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act.
This is a due diligence measure that requires large French companies to create and implement a ‘vigilance plan’ aimed at identifying and preventing potential human rights violations – including those associated with subsidiaries and supply chain members.
The law applies to any company headquartered in France that has (i) 5,000 or more employees, including employees of any French subsidiaries; or (ii) 10,000 or more employees, including French and foreign subsidiaries.
The law requires that the vigilance plan address activities by the company’s subcontractors and suppliers (‘supply chain entities’), where the company maintains an ongoing business relationship with these supply chain entities, and such activities involve its business relationship. The vigilance plan, as well as the minutes related to its implementation, must be made available to the public.
As of February 2019, the enforceability of this new French law was mitigated, at best. Certain corporations had still not published a vigilance plan regardless of their legal obligation to do so (eg, Lactalis, Credit Agricole, Zara or H&M). Those that had published vigilance plans merely included them in their chapter on social and environmental responsibility within their company’s annual report. Such vigilance plans were vague and had gaps, the actions and measures were not detailed enough and only very partially addressed the risks mentioned in the risk mapping. There is, therefore, room for improvement.
The usual contractual arrangements for the relationships relating to the development, manufacture and supply chain for fashion goods in France are standard French law-governed manufacturing agreements or supplier agreements.
Such contractual arrangements are subject to the French civil code on contract law, and the general regime and proof of obligations, which was reformed in October 2016, thanks to Order No. 2016-131 of 10 February 2016. The order codified principles that had emerged from the case law of French courts, but also created a number of new rules applicable to pre-contractual, and contractual, relationships, such as:
• new article 1104 of the French civil code, which provides that contracts must be negotiated, concluded and performed in good faith, and failure to comply with such obligation can not only trigger the payment of damages, but also result in the nullification of the contract;
• new article 1112-1 provides that if a party to the contractual obligations is aware of information, the significance of which would be determinative for the consent of the other party, it must inform such other party thereof if such other party is legitimately unaware of such information, or relies on the first party;
• new article 1119 provides that general conditions invoked by a party have no effect against the other party, unless they have been made known to such other party and accepted by it. In the event of a ‘battle of the forms’, between two series of general conditions (eg, general sales conditions and general purchase conditions), those conditions that conflict are without effect;
• new article 1124, which provides that a contract concluded in violation of a unilateral promise, with a third party that knew of the existence thereof, is null and void; and
• new article 1143 provides that violence exists when a party abusing the state of dependency in which its co-contracting party finds itself, obtains from such co-contracting party an undertaking which such co-contracting party would not have otherwise agreed to in the absence of such constraint, and benefits thereby from a manifestly excessive advantage.
2.2. Distribution and agency agreements
3 | What legal framework governs distribution and agency agreements for fashion goods?
In addition to the reform of the French civil code on contract law and the general regime and proof of obligations explained in question 2 above, distribution and agency agreements for fashion goods need to comply with the following legal framework:
• European regulation (EU) No. 330/2010 dated 20 April 2010 on the application of article 101(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which places limits on restrictions that a supplier could place on a distributor or agent (the Regulation);
• article L134-1 of the French commercial code, which sets out what the agency relationship consists of;
• article L134-12 of of the French commercial code, which sets out that a commercial agent is entitled to a termination payment at the end of the agency agreement;
• Books III and IV, and article L442-6 of the French commercial code, which set out that a relationship between two commercial partners needs to be governed by fairness and which prohibit any strong imbalance between the parties; and
• the Law No. 78-17 dated 6 January 1978 relating to IT, databases and freedom (French Data Protection Act) and its implementation decree No. 2005-1309.
French luxury houses often use selective distribution to sell their products. It is, indeed, the most-used distribution technique for perfumes, cosmetics, leather accessories or even ready-to-wear.
The Regulation provides for an exemption system to the general prohibition of vertical agreements set out in article 101(1) of the TFEU. The lawfulness of selective distribution agreements is always assessed via the fundamental rules applying to competition law, in particular article 101 of the TFEU.
Selective distribution systems may qualify for block exemption treatment under the vertical agreements block exemption set out in article 101(3) of the TFEU.
4 | What are the most commonly used distribution and agency structures for fashion goods, and what contractual terms and provisions usually apply?
Under French law, it is essential to avoid any confusion between a distribution agreement and an agency agreement.
French law sets out that a distributor is an independent natural person or legal entity, who buys goods and products from the manufacturer or supplier and resells them to third parties, upon the agreed trading conditions, and at a profit margin set by such distributor.
A distributor may be appointed for a particular territory, either on an exclusive, or non-exclusive, basis.
Under French law, there is no statutory compensation for the loss of clientele and business due to the distributor upon expiry or termination of a distribution agreement. However, French case law has recently recognised that some compensation may be due when some major investments had been made by the distributor, on behalf of the manufacturer or supplier, in the designated territory.
Moreover, there is no statutory notice period to terminate a distribution agreement under French law. However, most distribution agreements set out a three-to-six-month termination notice period. French law sets out a detailed legal framework relating to the role of commercial agent, which is of a ‘public policy’ nature (ie, one cannot opt out from such statutory legal provisions). In particular, commercial agents must be registered as such, on a special list held by the registrar of the competent French commercial court.
Under French law, not only is it very difficult to terminate a commercial agent (except for proven serious misconduct), but also there is a statutory considerable compensation for the loss of clientele and business that is due to the terminated agent by the manufacturer or supplier.
Selective distribution is the most commonly used distribution structure for luxury goods in France, as explained in question 3.
Such selective distribution systems of luxury products can escape the qualification of anticompetitive agreements, pursuant to article 101(3) of the TFEU (individual and block exemption). However, in 2011, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) held that the selective distribution agreement that has as its object the restriction of passive sales to online end-users outside of the dealer’s area excluded the application of the block exemption in its decision in Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmétique SAS v Président de l’Autorité de la concurrence and Ministre de l’Économie, de l’Industrie et de l’Emploi. The ECJ ruled that it was down to the French courts to determine whether an individual exemption may benefit such selective distribution agreement imposed by French company Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmétique SAS to its distributors. To conclude, it is clear that the ECJ set out that the prohibition of internet sales, in a distribution agreement, constitutes an anticompetitive restriction.
2.3. Import and export
5 | Do any special import and export rules and restrictions apply to fashion goods?
A French company, upon incorporation, will be provided with the following numbers by the French authorities:
• an intra-community VAT number, provided to all companies incorporated in a member state of the European Union (EU);
• a SIRET number, which is a unique French business identification number; and
• an EORI number, which is assigned to importers and exporters by the French tax authorities, and is used in the process of customs entry declaration and customs clearance for both import and export shipments, travelling to and from the EU and countries outside the EU.
Fashion and luxury products manufactured outside of the EU, and brought into the EU, will be deemed to be ‘imports’, by French customs authorities.
In case such fashion and luxury products are transferred from France, or another member state of the EU, to a third party country in the rest of the world (outside of the EU), then these products will be deemed to be ‘exports’ by French customs authorities.
For imports of fashion and luxury products, (ie, when they enter the EU), the French importer will have to pay some customs duties or other taxes when it imports these products from a third-party country to France or another member state of the EU.
Such customs duties are the same in each of the 27 member states of the EU because they are set by EU institutions. The importer can compute such customs duties by accessing the RITA encyclopedia, which sets out the integrated referential to an automated tarif, for each luxury and fashion product.
Through rather complex manipulations on the RITA encyclopedia, the importer can find out the relevant customs duties, additional taxes and any other fees (such as anti-dumping rights) payable for each type of fashion product and other imported merchandise.
For example, if you are importing a man’s shirt in France or any other EU member state from China, there will be a 12 percent customs duty to pay (the ‘customs duty’).
Such customs duty will be payable on the price paid to the Chinese manufacturer for the man’s shirt in China plus all transportation costs from China to France (or another EU member state).
Therefore, if the man’s shirt has a manufacturing price (set out on the invoice of the Chinese manufacturer) of €100, and if there are €50 of transportation costs, the customs value basis will be €150 and the customs duty amount will be €18 (€150 multiplied by 12 per cent).
The computation of customs duties, additional taxes and other charges being such a complicated and specialised area, and the filling out of customs declarations being done only on the Delta software that is accessible only to legal entities that have received an authorisation to use such software, most EU companies that sell fashion and luxury goods use the services of registered customs representatives, also called customs brokers or customs agents.
For exports of fashion and luxury products (ie, when they leave the EU to go to a third party in the rest of the world), a French company will not have to pay any customs duties or other taxes. However, it is also important to check whether such third-party country will charge the French exporter some customs duties, additional taxes and other charges, upon the luxury and fashion products entering its territory.
In addition, it is important for the importers to double check whether the EU, and consequently France, may be giving preferential treatment to fashion and luxury products imported from certain developing countries, which names are set out on the list entitled Systeme Generalise de Preference (SPG). SPG is a programme of trade preferences for goods coming from developing countries, such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, etc. It may be financially more advantageous to manufacture luxury and fashion products in the countries that are included on the SPG list, to ensure that lower tariffs and customs duties will apply when importing these products to the EU.
Finally, and especially if the goods are in the luxury bracket, it may be possible to put a ‘Made in France’ label on them, provided that such products were assembled in France.
2.4. Corporate social responsibility and sustainability
6 | What are the requirements and disclosure obligations in relation to corporate social responsibility and sustainability for fashion and luxury brands in your jurisdiction? What due diligence in this regard is advised or required?
As explained in question 2 above, the French law on duty of vigilance for parent and outsourcing companies, dated 27 March 2017 (article L 225-102-4 inserted in the French commercial code) is the legal framework that applies to disclosure obligations in relation to corporate social responsibility and sustainability for fashion and luxury brands in France.
The vigilance plan made compulsory by such French law must set out a detailed risk mapping stating the risks for third parties (ie, employees, the general population) and the environment. French companies subject to this law must then publish their risk mapping, explicitly and clearly stating the serious risks and severe impacts on health and safety of individuals and on the environment. In particular, the vigilance plan should provide detailed lists of risks for each type of activity, product and service.
It is these substantial risks (ie, negative impacts on third parties and the environment deriving from general activities) on which vigilance must be exercised and which the plan must cover. Moreover, the vigilance plan must include the evaluated severity criteria regarding the level, size and reversible or irreversible nature of the impacts, or the probability of the risk. This prioritisation should allow the French company to structure how it implements its measures to resolve the impacts or risks of impact.
The vigilance plan, as well as the minutes related to its implementation, must be made available to the public.
The French law on duty of vigilance of parent and outsourcing companies sets out some stringent enforcement mechanisms. Any person with a demonstrable interest may demand that a company comply with the due diligence requirements (ie, creating and implementing a vigilance plan) and, if the French company fails to comply, a court may fine the offending company up to €10 million, depending on the severity of the breach and other circumstances. Additionally, if the activities of a French company – or the activities of its supply chain entities – cause harm that could have been avoided by implementing its vigilance plan, the size of the fine can be trebled (up to €30 million), depending on the severity and circumstances of the breach and the damage caused, and the company can be ordered to pay damages to the victims.
7 | What occupational health and safety laws should fashion companies be aware of across their supply chains?
As set out above in our answers to the questions set out in sub-paragraphs 2.2. and 2.4. above, the French law on duty of vigilance of parent and outsourcing companies, dated 27 March 2017 (article L 225-102-4 inserted in the French commercial code) is the legal framework that applies to disclosure obligations in relation to occupational health and safety across their supply chains, for fashion and luxury brands in France.
In addition, the main legislation on occupational health and safety in France is set out in Part IV of the French labour code, entitled ‘Health and Safety at Work’. Health and safety at work legislation is supplemented by other parts of this labour code (ie, work time legislation, daily rest period, respect of fundamental freedoms, bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination, execution in good faith of the employment agreement, work council competencies, employee delegates’ abilities).
Collective bargaining is also a source of health and safety legislation (via inter-branch agreements, branch agreements, company-level agreements) in France. These collective agreements regulate employer versus employee relationships, in particular as far as occupation health and safety are concerned.
3. Online retail
8 | What legal framework governs the launch of an online fashion marketplace or store?
The ‘Hamon’ law of 17 March 2014 transposes the provisions of the Directive 2011/83/EU on consumer rights, which aims at achieving a real business-to-consumer internal market, striking the right balance between a high level of consumer protection and the competitiveness of businesses. This law strengthened pre-contractual information requirements, in relation to:
• the general duty to give information that applies to any sales of goods or services agreement entered into on a business-to- consumer basis (for on-premises sales, distance sales and off-premises sales); and
• information specific to distance contracts about the existence of a withdrawal right.
Thanks to this law, the withdrawal period has been extended from 7 to 14 days. It introduced the use of a standard form that can be used by consumers to exercise their withdrawal rights. Such form must be made available to consumers online or sent to them before the contract is entered into. If a consumer exercises this right, the business must refund the consumer for all amounts paid, including delivery costs, within a period of 14 calendar days.
With respect to the cookies policy, e-commerce stores must comply with the cookies and other tracking devices guidelines published by the CNIL in July 2019.
3.2. Sourcing and distribution
9 | How does e-commerce implicate retailers’ sourcing and distribution arrangements (or other contractual arrangements) in your jurisdiction?
As explained in our answer to question 4, luxury and fashion brands (manufacturers, suppliers) cannot ban their distributors from selling their products online, through e-commerce, since this would be a competition law breach under article 101 of the TFEU, entitled an anticompetitive restriction.
However, luxury and fashion brands may impose some criteria and conditions for their distributors to be able to sell their products online, in order to preserve the luxury aura and prestige of their products sold online, via the terms of their distribution agreements.
3.3. Terms and conditions
10 | What special considerations would you take into account when drafting online terms and conditions for customers when launching an e-commerce website in your jurisdiction?
As explained in our answer to question 8, these terms and conditions for customers of an e-commerce website must comply with the GDPR, the French Data Protection Act and the cookies and other tracking devices guidelines from the CNIL.
Therefore, those terms must comply with the following principles: • privacy by design, which means that fashion and luxury businesses must take a proactive and preventive approach in relation to the protection of privacy and personal data;
• accountability, which means that data controllers, such as an e-commerce website, as well as its data processors, must take appropriate legal, organisational and technical measures allowing them to comply with the GDPR. They must be able to demonstrate the execution of such measures to the CNIL;
• privacy impact assessment, which means that an e-commerce business must execute an analysis relating to the protection of personal data, on its data assets, to track and map risks inherent to each data process and treatment put in place, according to their plausibility and seriousness;
• a data protection officer must be appointed, to ensure the compliance of treatment of personal data by fashion businesses whose data treatments present a strong risk of breach of privacy;
• profiling, which is an automated processing of personal data allowing the construction of complex information about a particular person, such as his or her preferences, productivity at work and whereabouts. This type of data processing may constitute a risk to civil liberties; therefore, online businesses doing profiling must limit their risks and guarantee the rights of individuals subjected to such profiling, in particular by allowing them to request human intervention or contest the automated decision; and
• right to be forgotten, which allows an individual to avoid that information about his or her past that interferes with their current, actual life. In the digital world, that right encompasses the right to erasure, as well as the right to dereferencing.
11 | Are online sales taxed differently than sales in retail stores in your jurisdiction?
No, online sales are not taxed differently than sales executed in brick-and- mortar stores. They are all subjected to a 20 percent VAT rate, which is the standard VAT rate in France, and which is applicable on all fashion and luxury products.
4. Intellectual property
4.1. Design protection
12 | Which IP rights are applicable to fashion designs? What rules and procedures apply to obtaining protection?
French fashion designs are usually protected via the registration of a design right in France, with the Institut National de la Propriété Industrielle (INPI). Articles L 512-1 et seq and R 511-1 et seq of the French intellectual property code govern the design application and registration process.
Of course, this French design protection applies in addition to any registered or unregistered community design right that may exist.
To qualify for protection through the French design right, the design must be novel and have individual character. Functional forms, as well as designs in breach of public policy or morality, are excluded from protection.
French fashion designs are protected by copyright, as long as they meet the originality criteria. Indeed, article L 112-2 14 of the French intellectual property code provides that ‘the creations of the seasonal industries of garments and dresses’ fall within the remit of copyright, as ‘works of the mind’.
Copyright being an unregistrable intellectual property right in France, the existence of copyright on fashion products is often proven via the filing of an ‘envelope SOLEAU’ with INPI, or by keeping all prototypes, drawings and research documents on file, to be able to prove the date on which such copyright arose.
Indeed, under the traditional principle of unity of art, a creation can be protected by copyright and design law. Recent case law distinguishes between these IP rights, by stating that the originality required for copyright protection differs from the individual character required for design protection, and that both rights do not necessarily overlap.
In the same way, the scope of copyright protection is determined by the reproduction of the creation’s main features; while in design law the same overall visual impression on the informed user is required.
As far as the ownership of commissioned works is concerned, the default regime in France is that both an independent creator (ie, a fashion freelancer, contractor, creative director) and an employee of any French fashion house is automatically deemed to be the lawful owner of all intellectual property rights on a fashion and luxury item that he or she has created during the course of his or her service or employment. Therefore, it is essential in all French law-governed service providers agreements entered into with third-party consultants, and in all French law-governed employment agreements entered into with employees, to set out that an automatic and irrevocable assignment of all intellectual property rights in any fashion creation will always occur, upon creation.
13 | What difficulties arise in obtaining IP protection for fashion goods?
France enjoys the most extensive and longstanding intellectual property rights in connection with fashion designs. As explained in our answer to question 12, copyright protection is extended to any original work of the mind.
Even spare parts are protectable under French design law, which means that a design protecting only a spare part (eg, a bag clip) is valid without taking into consideration the product as a whole (ie, the bag).
Therefore, IP protection for fashion goods is very achievable in France, and it is important for applicants to systematically register their designs (not rely simply on copyright law) to be on the safe side.
4.2. Brand protection
14 | How are luxury and fashion brands legally protected in your jurisdiction?
Luxury and fashion brands are usually protected by a French trade mark registration filed with INPI.
French trade marks are governed mainly by Law 1991-7, which implements the EU first council directive related to trade marks (89/104/EEC) and is codified in the French Intellectual Property Code. This code was amended several times, in particular by Law 2007-1544, which implements the EU IP rights enforcement directive (2004/48/EC).
Ownership of a trade mark is acquired through registration, except for well-known trade marks within the meaning of article 6 bis of the Paris convention for the protection of industrial property dated 20 March 1883. Such unregistered well-known trade marks may be protected under French law if an unauthorised use of the trade mark by a third party is likely to cause damage to the trade mark owner or such use constitutes an unjustified exploitation of the trade mark.
To be registered as a trade mark, a sign must be:
• represented in a way that allows any person to determine precisely and clearly the subject-matter of the trade mark protection granted to its owner;
• not deceptive;
• lawful; and
French trade marks, registered with INPI, may coincide with EU trade marks (filed with the EUIPO) and international trade marks (filed with WIPO, through the Madrid protocol).
Under French law, unauthorised use of a trade mark on the internet also constitutes trade mark infringement. The rights holder may sue those that unlawfully use its trade mark on the ground of trade mark infringement or unfair competition.
Moreover, luxury and fashion brands are also protected by domain names, which may be purchased from domain name registrars for a limited period of time on a regular basis.
French domain names finishing in .fr can only be purchased for one year, once a year, pursuant to the regulations of the French registry for .fr top level domains, Afnic.
It is the responsibility of the person purchasing, or using, the domain name in .fr to ensure that he or she does not breach any third party rights by doing so.
A dispute resolution procedure called Syreli is available for disputes relating to .fr domains, along with judiciary actions. This procedure is managed by Afnic and decisions are issued within two months from receipt of the complaint.
With online ransom, a proliferation of websites being used for counterfeit sales, fraud, phishing and other forms of online trade mark abuse, most French luxury and fashion companies take the management and enforcement of domain name portfolios very seriously.
With the advent of new generic top-level domains (gTLDs), it is now an essential strategy for all French luxury and fashion houses to buy and hold onto all available gTLDs relating to fashion and luxury (eg, .luxury, .fashion, .luxe).
15 | What rules, restrictions and best practices apply to IP licensing in the fashion industry?
French IP rights may be assigned, licensed or pledged. The French intellectual property code refers to licences over trade marks, patents, designs and models, as well as databases. With respect to copyright, this code only refers to the assignment of the patrimonial rights of the author (ie, representation right and reproduction right) in its article L122-7. In practice, copyright licences often occur, especially over software.
When it involves French design rights, the corresponding deed, contract or judgment must be recorded in the French Design register, to be enforceable against third parties. The documents must be in French (or a translation must be provided). Tax will be incurred only up to the 10th design, in a recordal request filed with INPI. For community designs, recordal must be made with EUIPO. For the French designation of an international design, recordal must be requested through WIPO for all or part of the designation.
When it involves French trade marks, the corresponding deed, contract or judgment should be recorded in the INPI French trade mark register, especially for evidentiary and opposability purposes, for the licensee to be able to act in infringement litigation and for such deed, contract or judgment to be enforceable against third parties. Again, the copy or abstract of the deed, or agreement, setting out the change in ownership or use of the trade marks should be in French (or a French translation be provided).
Of course, copyright of fashion products does not have to be recorded in any French register, as there is no registration requirement for French copyright. However, best practice is for the parties to the deed, agreement or judgment to keep, on record, for the duration of the copyright (70 years after the death of the creator of the copyright) such documents, so that the copyright assignment, pledge or licence may be enforceable against third parties.
Fashion brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Benetton and Ermenegildo Zegna use franchising to access new markets, increase their online presence and develop flagship stores. Franchise agreements generally include a trade mark, trade name or service mark licence, as well as the transfer of knowhow by the franchisor, to the franchisee. On this note, knowhow licences exist in France, although knowhow does not constitute a proprietary right benefiting from specific protection under the French intellectual property code.
A licensor must make some pre-contractual disclosure to prospective licensees, pursuant to article L330-3 of the French commercial code, when he or she makes available to another person a trade name or a trade mark, and requires from such other person an exclusivity undertaking with respect to such activity. The precontractual information must be disclosed in a document provided at least 20 days prior to the signature of the licence agreement. Such document must contain truthful information allowing the licensee to commit to the contractual relationship in full knowledge of the facts.
A licensing relationship governed by French law must comply with the general contract law principles, including the negotiation, conclusion and performance of contracts in good faith (article 1104 of the French civil code). This statutory legal provision implies an obligation on each party of loyalty, cooperation and consistency. In case of breach of this good faith principle, the licence may be terminated and damages potentially awarded.
16 | What options do rights holders have when enforcing their IP rights? Are there options for protecting IP rights through enforcement at the borders of your jurisdiction?
Lawsuits involving the infringement or validity of a French design, or the French designation of an international design, may be lodged with one of the 10 competent courts of first instance (Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nanterre, Nancy, Paris, Rennes, Strasbourg and Fort-de-France).
Lawsuits involving the infringement, in France, of a registered or unregistered community design may be lodged only with the Paris court of first instance. An invalidity action against a community design may only be brought before EUIPO. However, invalidity may be claimed as a defence in an infringement action brought before the Paris tribunal.
The scope of protection for the design is determined exclusively by the various filed views, on the design registration, irrespective of actual use. Therefore, applicants should pay great care to those views, when filing a design application, so as to anticipate the interpretation made by the judiciary tribunal.
Infringement is identified when a third-party design produces, on the informed observer, the same overall visual impression as the claimant’s design.
The infringement lawsuit may be lodged by the design owner, or the duly recorded exclusive licensee.
The claimant will be indemnified for lost profits, with the court taking into account: (i) the scope of the infringement; (ii) the proportion of actual business lost by the claimant; and (iii) the claimant’s profit margin for the retail of each unit.
Damages may also be awarded for the dilution or depreciation of a design.
As far as trade marks are concerned, lawsuits may be lodged before the 10 above-mentioned competent courts at first instance if they are French trade marks or the French designation of an international trade mark. Lawsuits relating to the infringement of EU trade marks may only be lodged with the Paris judiciary tribunal.
Such infringement proceedings may be lodged by either the trade mark owner or the exclusive licensee, provided that the licence was recorded in the trade mark register.
To determine trade mark infringement, the judiciary tribunal will assess: (i) the similarity of the conflicting trade marks, on the basis of visual, phonetic and intellectual criteria; and (ii) the similarity of the goods or services, bearing such trade marks, concerned. Such trade mark infringement may be evidenced by any means.
To secure evidence of the infringement, and to obtain any information related to it, rights holders may ask, and obtain, from the competent judiciary tribunal, an order to carry out a seizure on the premises where the products that infringe the copyright, trade marks, designs, etc are located. Such order authorises a bailiff to size the suspected infringing products, or to visit the alleged infringer’s premises to collect evidence of the infringement by taking pictures of the suspected infringing products, or by taking samples. The IP rights holder must lodge a lawsuit against the alleged infringer with the competent judiciary tribunal within 20 working days, or 31 calendar days, whichever is the longer, from the date of the seizure. Otherwise, the seizure may be declared null and void on the request of the alleged infringer, who may also ask for some damages.
In addition, IP rights holders may also request an ex parte injunction, to prevent an imminent infringement, which is about to happen, or any further infringement, to the competent judiciary tribunal.
Infringement action, for all IP rights, must be brought within three years of the infringement. There is one exception, for copyright, which statute of limitations is five years from the date on which the copyright owner was made aware, or should have been aware, of such copyright infringement.
There is also an option to protect design rights, copyright, trade marks, patents, etc at French borders, which we often recommend to our fashion and luxury clients. They need to file their IP rights with the Directorate-General of Customs and Indirect Taxes, via a French and EU intervention request, and obtain some certifications from those French customs authorities, that such IP rights are now officially registered on the French and EU customs databases. Therefore, all counterfeit products infringing such IP rights registered on these French and EU customs databases, which enter the EU territory via French borders, will be seized by customs at French borders for 10 days. Potentially, provided that certain conditions are met, French customs may permanently destroy all counterfeit products thus seized, after 10 days.
5. Data privacy and security
17 | What data privacy and security laws are most relevant to fashion and luxury companies?
As explained in questions 8 and 10, fashion and luxury companies must comply with the GDPR, the French Data Protection Act and the cookies and other tracking devices guidelines from the CNIL.
5.2. Compliance challenges
18 | What challenges do data privacy and security laws present to luxury and fashion companies and their business models?
The strict compliance with the GDPR, as well as the amended version of the French Data Protection Act, do present some challenges to luxury and fashion companies and to their business models.
Indeed, on a factual level, most small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) incorporated in France are still not in compliance with the GDPR, the French Data Protection Act and the cookies and other tracking devices guidelines from the CNIL. Most of the time this is because such SMEs do not want to allocate time, money and resources to bringing their business in compliance, while they are fully aware that a serious breach may trigger a fine worth up to 4 per cent of their annual worldwide turnover, or €20 million, whichever is greater.
Fashion and luxury companies now have to take ownership of, and full responsibility for, the rigorous management and full protection of their data assets. They can no longer rely on a ‘I was not aware this may happen’ defence strategy, which was very often used by fashion companies before the GDPR entered into force when their internal databases or IT systems got hacked or leaked to the public domain (eg, Hudson’s Bay Co, which owns Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Adidas, Fashion Nexus, Poshmark). The way to rise up to such challenge, though, is to see the GDPR as an opportunity to take stock of what data your company has, and how you can take most advantage of it. The key tenet of GDPR is that it will give any fashion company the ability to find data in its organisation that is highly sensitive and high value, and ensure that it is protected adequately from risks and data breaches.
With the GDPR, almost all fashion and luxury businesses worldwide that sell to EU customers (and therefore French customers), either online or in brick and mortar locations, now have a Data Protection Authority (DPA). Businesses will determine their respective DPA with respect to the place of establishment of their management functions as far as supervision of data processing is concerned, which will allow them to identify the main establishment, including when a sole company manages the operations of a whole group. However, the GDPR sets up a one-stop DPA: in case of absence of a specific national legislation, a DPA located in the EU member state in which such organisation has its main or unique establishment will be in charge of controlling its compliance with the GDPR. This unique one-stop DPA will allow companies to substantially save time and money by simplifying processes.
To favour the European data market and the digital economy, and therefore create a more favourable economic environment, the GDPR reinforces the protection of personal data and civil liberties. This unified regulation will allow businesses to substantially reduce the costs of processing data currently incurred in the 27 member states: organisations will no longer have to comply with multiple national regulations for the collection, harvesting, transfer and storing of data that they use.
The scope of the GDPR extends to companies that are headquartered outside the EU, but intend to market goods and services into the EU market, as long as they put in place processes and treatments of personal data relating to EU citizens. Following these EU residents on the internet to create some profiles is also covered by the scope of the GDPR. Therefore, EU companies, subject to strict and expensive rules, will not be penalised by international competition on the EU single market. In addition, they may buy some data from non-EU companies, which is compliant with GDPR provisions, therefore making the data market wider.
The right to portability of data allows EU citizens subjected to data treatment and processing to gather this data in an exploitable format, or to transfer such data to another data controller, if this is technically possible. Compliance with the right to portability is definitely a challenge for fashion and luxury businesses.
5.3. Innovative technologies
19 | What data privacy and security concerns must luxury and fashion retailers consider when deploying innovative technologies in association with the marketing of goods and services to consumers?
Innovative technologies, such as AI and facial recognition, involve automated decision making, including profiling. The GDPR has provisions on:
• automated individual decision making (making a decision solely by automated means without any human involvement); and
• profiling (automated processing of personal data to evaluate certain things about an individual), which can be part of an automated decision-making process.
These provisions, set out in article 22 of the GDPR, should be taken into account by fashion and luxury businesses when deploying innovative technologies. In particular, they must demonstrate that they have a lawful basis to carry out profiling or automated decision making, and document this in their data protection policy. Their Data Protection Impact Assessment should address the risks, before they start using any new automated decision making or profiling. They should tell their customers about the profiling and automated decision making they carry out, what information they use to create the profiles, and where they get this information from. Preferably, they should use anonymised data in their profiling activities.
5.4. Content personalisation and targeted advertising
20 | What legal and regulatory challenges must luxury and fashion companies address to support personalisation of online content and targeted advertising based on data-driven inferences regarding consumer behaviour?
There is a tension, and irrevocable difference, between the GDPR’s push towards more anonymisation of data, and the personalisation of online content and targeted advertising based on data-driven inferences regarding consumer behaviour. This is because the latter needs data that is not anonymous, but, instead, traceable to each individual user.
Indeed, a fashion and luxury business cannot truly personalise an experience in any channel – a website, a mobile app, through email campaigns, in advertising or events in a store – unless it knows something about that customer, and the luxury business cannot get to know someone digitally unless it collects data about him or her. The GDPR and the increasing concerns around privacy complicate this process.
However, GDPR does not prohibit fashion businesses from collecting any data on customers and prospects. However, they must do so in compliance with the core GDPR principles set out in question 10.
6. Advertising and marketing
6.1. Law and regulation
21 | What laws, regulations and industry codes are applicable to advertising and marketing communications by luxury and fashion companies?
Advertising and marketing communications are regulated by the following French laws:
• Law dated 10 January 1991 (Evin law) that prohibits advertising alcohol on French TV channels and in cinemas, and limits such advertising on radio and on the internet;
• Law dated 4 August 1994 (Toubon law) that provides that the French language must be used in all advertising in France; and
• Decree dated 27 March 1992 that provides for specific rules relating to advertising on TV.
Various legal codes set out some specific rules governing advertising and marketing communications in France, such as: the French consumer code, which prohibits deceptive and misleading advertising, and regulates comparative advertising; or article 9 of the French civil code, which protects individuals’ images and privacy.
Moreover, there are some industry codes of practice, drafted by the French advertising self-regulation agency (ARPP), which represents advertisers, agencies and the media. These codes of practice set out the expected ethical standards and ensure proper implementation of these standards, through advice and pre-clearance, including providing mandatory advice before the broadcast of all TV advertising.
The French consumer and competition governmental authority (DGCCRF) has investigative powers in relation to all matters relating to the protection of consumers, including advertising and marketing practices.
DGCCRF agents are entitled to enter the professional premises of the advertiser, advertising agency or communication agency during business hours to request an immediate review of documents, take copies of these documents, and ask questions.
The ARPP works with an independent jury that handles complaints against advertisements that violate ARPP standards. Its decisions are published on its website.
If there is a data breach within a marketing campaign, the CNIL, the French DPA, may fine the culprit data controller (such as an advertiser or an agency) up to €20 million, or 4 percent of their worldwide annual turnover, whichever is the highest.
6.2. Online marketing and social media
22 | What particular rules and regulations govern online marketing activities and how are such rules enforced?
Online marketing activities are regulated in the same manner as activities conducted in the ‘real world’, pursuant to the French digital economy law dated 21 June 2004. However, more specific to the online world, the digital economy law provides that pop-ups, advert banners, and any other types of online adverts must be clearly identified as such and therefore distinguished from non-commercial information.
Article L121-4-11 of the French consumer code provides that an advertiser who pays for content in the media to promote its products or services must clearly set out that such content is an advertisement, through images or sounds clearly identifiable by consumers. Otherwise, this is a misleading advert or an act of unfair competition.
The ARPP issued a standard relating to digital adverts, communications carried out by influencers, native advertising, etc emphasising the fact that all such online marketing communications and advertising should be clearly distinguishable as such by consumers.
7. Product regulation and consumer protection
7.1. Product safety rules and standards
23 | What product safety rules and standards apply to luxury and fashion goods?
French law dated 19 May 1998, which is now set out in articles 1245 et seq of the French civil code, transposes EU directive 85/374/EEC on the liability for defective products in France.
Alongside this strict civil liability for defective products exists some criminal liability for defective products on the grounds of deceit, involuntary bodily harm, involuntary manslaughter or endangering the lives of others.
Articles 1245 et seq of the French civil code apply when a product is considered unsafe. Therefore, a fashion business would be liable for damage caused by a defect in its products, regardless of whether or not the parties concluded a contract. Consequently, these statutary rules apply to any end-user in possession of a fashion product, whether or not such end-user had entered into an agreement with the fashion company.
Articles 1245 et seq of the French civil code provide for a strict liability, where the claimant does not need to prove that the ‘producer’ made a mistake, committed an act of negligence or breached a contract. The claimant only has to prove the defect of the product, the damage suffered and the causal link between such defect and such damage.
A defective product is defined in article 1245-3 of the French civil code, as a product that does not provide the safety that any person is entitled to expect from it, taking into account, in particular, the presentation of such product, the use that can reasonably be expected of it and the date on which it was put on the market.
Such strict civil liability rules apply to the ‘producer’, a term that may refer to the manufacturer, the distributor, as well as the importer in the EU, of defective products.
As soon as a risk of a defective product is recognised, the ‘producer’ should comply with its duty of care and take all necessary actions to limit harmful consequences, such as a formal public warning, a product recall or the mere withdrawal of such product from the market.
7.2. Product liability
24 | What regime governs product liability for luxury and fashion goods? Has there been any notable recent product liability litigation or enforcement action in the sector?
The regime governing product liability for luxury and fashion goods is described in our answer to question 22.
The ‘Hamon law’ dated 17 March 2014 introduced class action for French consumers. Consequently, an accredited consumer association may take legal action to obtain compensation for individual economic damages suffered by consumers placed in an identical or similar situation, that result from the purchase of goods or services.
There has been no notable recent product liability litigation in the fashion and luxury sectors. However, a health class action matter is currently pending before the Paris judiciary tribunal. A pharmaceutical company was sued by 4,000 French individuals because it sold an anti-epileptic drug without providing adequate information relating to the use of such drug during pregnancy. As a result, some French babies were born with health defects because such drug has detrimental effects on foetal development. The judiciary tribunal should hand down its decision about the laboratory’s liability soon.
8. M&A and competition issues
8.1. M&A and joint ventures
25 | Are there any special considerations for M&A or joint venture transactions that companies should bear in mind when preparing, negotiating or entering into a deal in the luxury fashion industry?
As set out in question 2, the general contract law provisions included in the French civil code, which underwent a major reform in 2016, must be complied with. Therefore, for private M&As, the seller would seek to promote competition between different bidders through a competitive sale process, which conduct must comply with the statutory duty of good faith.
In France, it is compulsory for the transfer of assets and liabilities from the seller to the buyer to cover all employment contracts, commercial leases and insurance policies pertaining to the business. Except from those, all other assets and liabilities relating to the transferred business may be excluded from the transfer transaction by agreement. Furthermore, the transfer of contracts requires the approval from all relevant counterparties, thus making the prior identification of such contracts in the course of the due diligence an important matter for any prospective buyer.
In private M&As, there is no restriction to the transfer of shares in a fashion company, a fashion business or assets in France. However, French merger control regulations (in addition to merger control regulations of other EU member states) may require a transaction to be filed with the French competition authority (FCA) if: (i) the gross worldwide total turnover of all the fashion companies involved in the concentration exceeds €150 million; and (ii) the gross total turnover generated individually in France by each of at least two of the fashion companies involved in the concentration exceeds €50 million.
There are no local ownership requirements in France. However, French authorities may object to foreign investments in some specific sectors that are essential to guarantee France’s interests in relation to public policy, public security and national defence. As of today’s date, fashion and luxury are not part of these sectors that are protected for national security purposes.
In addition to prior agreements, such as non-disclosure agreements or promises, final agreements will set out the terms relating to the transaction; in particular, a description of the transferred assets, the price, the warranties granted by the seller, the conditions precedent, any non-competition or non-solicitation clauses. Asset purchase agreements must set out compulsory provisions, such as the name of the previous owner, some details about the annual turnover, otherwise the buyer may claim that the sale is invalid. Most of these agreements, and most sales of French targets and assets, are governed by French law; in particular, the legal transfer of ownership of the target’s shares or assets.
More specific to the fashion and luxury industries, any sale of a fashion business would entail transferring the ownership of all intellectual property rights tied into that fashion target. As such, the trade marks, which have sometimes been filed on the name of the founding fashion designer of the acquired fashion business (eg, Christian Dior, Chantal Thomass, John Galliano, Ines de la Fressange) would be owned by the buyer, after the sale. Thus, the founding fashion designer would no longer be able to use his or her name to sell fashion and luxury products, without infringing on the trade mark rights of the buyer.
26 | What competition law provisions are particularly relevant for the luxury and fashion industry?
Articles L 420-1 and L 420-2 of the French commercial code are the equivalent to articles 101-1 and 102 TFEU and provide for anticompetitive agreements and abuses of a dominant position, respectively.
Specific provisions of the French commercial code are also applicable, such as article L 410-1 et seq on pricing, article L 430-1 et seq on merger control, L 420-2-1 on exclusive rights in French overseas communities, L 420-5 on abusively low prices and L 442-1 et seq on restrictive practices.
For example, a decision handed down by the Paris court of appeal on 26 January 2012 confirmed the existence of price fixing agreements, and anticompetitive behaviour, between 13 perfume and cosmetics producers (including Chanel, Guerlain, Parfums Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent Beaute) and their three French distributors (Sephora, Nocibe France and Marionnaud). The court also upheld the judgment from the FCA, dated 14 March 2006, sentencing each of these luxury goods companies and distributors to fines valued at €40 million overall.
Court action for breach of competition law may be lodged with a French court of the FCA by any person having a legal interest. Class actions have been available since the entering into force of the Hamon law dated 17 March 2014, but only when the action is filed by a limited number of authorised consumer associations.
There has been a rise in antitrust damage claims lodged in France, and French courts are now responsive to such claims. A section of the Paris commercial court has been set up to review summons lodged in English, with English-language exhibits, and can rule on competition cases with proceedings fully conducted in the English language.
As set out in question 4, while selective distribution is tolerated as an exemption, pursuant to article 101(3) TFEU, total restriction of online sales by a manufacturer, to its selective distributors, is a breach under article 101(1) TFEU (Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmétique SAS v Président de l’Autorité de la concurrence and Ministre de l’Économie, de l’Industrie et de l’Emploi, ECJ, 2011).
The ECJ has refined its case law (which, of course, applies to France) in its 2017 ruling in Coty Germany GmbH v Parfümerie Akzente GmbH. The ECJ ruled that a contractual clause, set out in the selective distribution agreement entered into between Coty and its selective distributors, and which prohibits members of such selective distribution network from selling Coty cosmetics on online marketplaces, such as Amazon, complies with article 101(1) TFEU. This is because, according to the ECJ, the clause is proportionate in its pursuit of preserving the image of Coty cosmetics and perfumes, and because it does not prohibit distributors from selling Coty products on their own online e-commerce sites, provided that some quality criteria are met.
This new ECJ case law is useful guidance for national courts on how to assess, in pragmatic terms, the prohibition of selling luxury products in marketplaces. Indeed, the Paris court of appeal handed down a judgment in relation to the validity of a similar clause set out in the contracts for Coty France on 28 February 2018, and used the ECJ analysis to confirm the validity of such prohibition, in relation to a marketplace that sold Coty perfumes during private sales.
9. Employment and labour
9.1. Managing employment relationships
27 | What employment law provisions should fashion companies be particularly aware of when managing relationships with employees? What are the usual contractual arrangements for these relationships?
Employer–employee relationships are governed by the following complex set of laws and regulations that leave little room for individual negotiation:
• the French labour code set out a comprehensive legal framework for both individual and collective relationships between employers and employees;
• collective bargaining agreements have been negotiated between employers’ associations and labour unions covering the industry as a whole, or between employers and labour unions covering a company. In the former case, the collective agreement usually applies to the industry sector as a whole, even to companies within that sector that are not part of the employers’ associations (for the fashion and luxury sectors, the ‘clothing industry collective agreement’, the ‘textile industry collective agreement (OETAM)’, or the ‘collective agreement for the footwear industries’ may apply, for example); and
• individual employment agreements, which relate only to the aspects of the employer–employee relationship not already covered by the labour code or relevant collective bargaining agreement.
Because more than 90 per cent of French employees are protected by collective bargaining agreements, the rules set out in the French labour code are supplemented by more generous rules in areas such as paid leave, maternity leave, medical cover and even working time.
Under the ‘Aubry law’ dated 19 January 2000, a standard 35-hour working week became the rule. Employees working beyond 35 hours are entitled to overtime. A company-wide collective bargaining agreement may provide for a maximum working time of 12 hours, and a maximum weekly working time of 46 hours over 12 consecutive weeks. Extra time is either paid via overtime, or compensating by taking extra days off (called RTT).
Any dismissal of a French employee must be notified in writing, and based on a ‘real and serious’ cause. A specific procedure must be followed, including inviting the employee to a pre-dismissal meeting, holding such meeting with the employee, and notifying the dismissal by registered letter with an acknowledgement of receipt. Dismissal for economic reasons and dismissals of employee representatives are subject to additional formalities and requirements, such as the implementation of selection criteria to identify the employees to be dismissed, the involvement of, and approval from, the French labour authorities and compulsory consultation with employee representatives. Upon termination, French employees are entitled to a number of indemnities (severance payment, notice period, paid holidays, etc) and, should the dismissal be deemed to be unfair, the ‘Macron scale’, set out in article L 1235-3 of the French labour code, provides that, in case of a court claim for unfair dismissal, French labour courts must allocate damages to former employees ranging between a minimum and a capped amount, based on the length of service with the former employer. Because many regional labour courts were resisting the application of the Macron scale to their court cases, the French supreme court ruled in July 2019 that such Macron scale is enforceable and must apply.
Of course, French freelancers and consultants who work for fashion and luxury houses are not protected by the above-mentioned French labour rules applying to employer–employee relationships. However, French labour courts are prompt at requalifying an alleged freelancing relationship into an employment relationship, provided that a subordination link (characterised by work done under the authority of an employer, which has the power to give orders, directives, guidelines, and to control the performance of such work, and may sanction any breach of such performance) exists, between the alleged freelancer and the fashion company. Most creative directors of French fashion houses are consultants, not employees, and therefore have the right to execute other fashion projects or contracts, for other fashion houses (for example, Karl Lagerfeld was the creative director of both Chanel and Fendi).
Article L 124-1 et seq of the French education code provide that a ‘gratification’ (not a salary) may be paid to an intern, in France, if the duration of his or her internship is more than two consecutive months. Below that time frame, a French company has no obligation to pay a gratification to an intern. The hourly rate of such gratification is equal to a minimum of €3.90 per internship hour; however, in certain sectors of the industry where collective bargaining agreements apply, the amount may be higher than €3.90.
9.2. Trade unions
28 | Are there any special legal or regulatory considerations for fashion companies when dealing with trade unions or works councils?
As mentioned in question 24, an employer may have to consult employee representatives if it wants to dismiss, for economic reasons, some of its employees. Also, trade unions, either covering a company or a group of companies, or covering an industry as a whole, negotiate, and will renegotiate and amend, any collective bargaining agreements in place in France.
Unsurprisingly, employee representatives play a very important role, in French employer–employee relationships. Depending on the size of a company, some employee delegates or a works council, as well as a health and safety committee, may have to be appointed and set up. Such employee representatives not only have an important say on significant business issues such as large-scale dismissals, but must be consulted prior to a variety of changes in the business, such as acquisitions, or disposals, of business lines or of the company itself. In French companies with work councils, employee representatives are entitled to attend meetings of the board of directors, but are not allowed to take part in any votes at such meetings. As a result, most strategic decisions are made outside of board of directors’ meetings.
Dismissals of employee representatives are subject to additional formalities and requirements, such as the approval given by French labour authorities.
While the top creative management of French fashion houses may be terminated at will, because most creative directors are freelancers, the core labour force of most French fashion and luxury houses (eg, blue-collar workers on the shop floor (seamstresses etc), lower to middle management, etc) is almost immovable because of the above-mentioned strict French labour laws relating to hiring and firing. One advantage of such ‘job security’ is that French students and the young labour force do not hesitate to train for, and take on, highly specialised and technical manual jobs, which are necessary to creative and exceptionally high-quality luxury products (eg, embroiderers working for Chanel-owned Lesage, bag makers working for Hermes, feather workers employed by Chanel-owned Lemarie and all the seamstresses working for Chanel and all the haute couture houses in Paris).
29 | Are there any special immigration law considerations for fashion companies seeking to move staff across borders or hire and retain talent?
Yes, the multi-year ‘passeport talent’ residence permit was created to attract foreign employees and self-employed persons with a particular skillset (eg, qualified or highly qualified employee, self-employed professional, performer or author of a literary or artistic work) in France.
Such residence permit provides the right to stay for a maximum of four years in France, starting from the date of arrival in France. A multi-year residence permit may also be granted to the spouse and children of the ‘talented individual’.
10. Update and trends
30 | What are the current trends and future prospects for the luxury fashion industry in your jurisdiction? Have there been any notable recent market, legal and or regulatory developments in the sector? What changes in law, regulation, or enforcement should luxury and fashion companies be preparing for?
The future prospects of the luxury and fashion sectors in France are extremely high, because the Macron reforms are slowly but surely transforming the French economy into a liberalised and free-trade powerhouse, bringing flexibility and innovation at the forefront of the political reform agenda. However, the downside to these sweeping changes is the resistance, violence and riots that have taken place, and still regularly happen, in France, and in Paris in particular, emanating from a French people unsettled about, and scared of, a more free and competitive economic market.
Fashion and luxury businesses are the first to bear the brunt of these violent acts of resistance, as their retail points on the Champs Elysees and other luxurious locations in Paris and in the provinces have been heavily disrupted (and sometimes ransacked) by rioters, some ‘yellow vests’ and ‘anti-pension reforms’ social unrest movements.
However, in the medium to long term, fashion and luxury businesses will be among the first to benefit from those sweeping reforms, thanks to a highly productive, and more flexible, French workforce, better contractual and trade conditions to conduct business in France and abroad, and a highly efficient legal framework and court system that are among the most protective of IP rights owners, in the world.
Founding and managing partner of Crefovi
Reproduced with permission from Law Business Research Ltd. This article was first published in Lexology Getting the Deal Through – Luxury & Fashion 2020 (Published: April 2020). For further information please visit https://www.lexology.com/gtdt.
It is high time France and the UK up their game in terms of accounting for, reporting and leveraging the intangible assets owned by their national businesses and companies, while Asia and the US currently lead the race, here. European lenders need to do their bit, too, to empower creative and innovative SMEs, and provide them with adequate financing to sustain their growth and ambitions, by way of intangible assets backed-lending. [hr]
However, in the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic which constrains us all to work from home through virtual tools such as videoconferencing, emails, chats and sms, I came to realise that I omitted a very important topic from that 2004 study, which is however acutely relevant in the context of developing, and growing, creative businesses in the 21st century. It is that intangible assets are becoming the most important and valuable assets of creative companies (including, of course, luxury and fashion houses).
Indeed, traditionally, tangible and fixed assets, such as land, plants, stock, inventory and receivables were used to assess the intrinsic value of a company, and, in particular, were used as security in loan transactions. Today, most successful businesses out there, in particular in the technology sector (Airbnb, Uber, Facebook) but not only, derive the largest portion of their worth from their intangible assets, such as intellectual property rights (trademarks, patents, designs, copyright), brands, knowhow, reputation, customer loyalty, a trained workforce, contracts, licensing rights, franchises.
Our economy has changed in fundamental ways, as business is now mainly “knowledge based”, rather than industrial, and “intangibles” are the new drivers of economic activity, the Financial Reporting Council (“FRC“) set out in its paper “Business reporting of intangibles: realistic proposals”, back in February 2019.
However, while such intangibles are becoming the driving force of our businesses and economies worldwide, they are consistently ignored by chartered accountants, bankers and financiers alike. As a result, most companies – in particular, Small and Medium Enterprises (“SMEs“)- cannot secure any financing with money men because their intangibles are still deemed to … well, in a nutshell … lack physical substance! This limits the scope of growth of many creative businesses; to their detriment of course, but also to the detriment of the UK and French economies in which SMEs account for an astounding 99% of private sector business, 59% of private sector employment and 48% of private sector turnover.
How could this oversight happen and materialise, in the last 20 years? Where did it all go wrong? Why do we need to very swiftly address this lack of visionary thinking, in terms of pragmatically adapting double-entry book keeping and accounting rules to the realities of companies operating in the 21st century?
How could such adjustments in, and updates to, our old ways of thinking about the worth of our businesses, be best implemented, in order to balance the need for realistic valuations of companies operating in the “knowledge economy” and the concern expressed by some stakeholders that intangible assets might peter out at the first reputation blow dealt to any business?
1. What is the valuation and reporting of intangible assets?
1.1. Recognition and measurement of intangible assets within accounting and reporting
In the European Union (“EU“), there are two levels of accounting regulation:
the international level, which corresponds to the International Accounting Standards (“IAS“), and International Financial Reporting Standards (“IFRS“) issued by the International Accounting Standards Board (“IASB“), which apply compulsorily to the consolidated financial statements of listed companies and voluntarily to other accounts and entities according to the choices of each country legislator, and
a national level, where the local regulations are driven by the EU accounting directives, which have been issued from 1978 onwards, and which apply to the remaining accounts and companies in each EU member-state.
The first international standard on recognition and measurement of intangible assets was International Accounting Standard 38 (“IAS 38“), which was first issued in 1998. Even though it has been amended several times since, there has not been any significant change in its conservative approach to recognition and measurement of intangible assets.
An asset is a resource that is controlled by a company as a result of past events (for example a purchase or self-creation) and from which future economic benefits (such as inflows of cash or other assets) are expected to flow to this company. An intangible asset is defined by IAS 38 as an identifiable non-monetary asset without physical substance.
There is a specific reference to intellectual property rights (“IPRs“), in the definition of “intangible assets” set out in paragraph 9 of IAS 38, as follows: “entities frequently expend resources, or incur liabilities, on the acquisition, development, maintenance or enhancement of intangible resources such as scientific or technical knowledge, design and implementation of new processes or systems, licenses, intellectual property, market knowledge and trademarks (including brand names and publishing titles). Common examples of items encompassed by these broad headings are computer software, patents, copyrights, motion picture films, customer lists, mortgage servicing rights, fishing licences, import quotas, franchises, customer or supplier relationships, customer loyalty, market share and marketing rights“.
However, it is later clarified in IAS 38, that in order to recognise an intangible asset on the face of balance sheet, it must be identifiable and controlled, as well as generate future economic benefits flowing to the company that owns it.
The recognition criterion of “identifiability” is described in paragraph 12 of IAS 38 as follows.
“An asset is identifiable if it either:
a. is separable, i.e. capable of being separated or divided from the entity and sold, transferred, licensed, rented or exchanged, either individually or together with a related contract, identifiable asset or liability, regardless of whether the entity intends to do so; or
b. arises from contractual or other legal rights, regardless of whether those rights are transferable or separable from the entity or from other rights and obligations“.
“Control” is an essential feature in accounting and is described in paragraph 13 of IAS 38.
“An entity controls an asset if the entity has the power to obtain the future economic benefits flowing from the underlying resource and to restrict the access of others to those benefits. The capacity of an entity to control the future economic benefits from an intangible asset would normally stem from legal rights that are enforceable in a court of law. In the absence of legal rights, it is more difficult to demonstrate control. However, legal enforceability of a right is not a necessary condition for control because an entity may be able to control the future economic benefits in some other way“.
In order to have an intangible asset recognised as an asset on company balance sheet, such intangible has to satisfy also some specific accounting recognition criteria, which are set out in paragraph 21 of IAS 38.
“An intangible asset shall be recognised if, and only if:
a. it is probable that the expected future economic benefits that are attributable to the asset will flow to the entity; and
b. the cost of the asset can be measured reliably“.
The recognition criteria illustrated above are deemed to be always satisfied when an intangible asset is acquired by a company from an external party at a price. Therefore, there are no particular problems to record an acquired intangible asset on the balance sheet of the acquiring company, at the consideration paid (i.e. historical cost).
1.2. Goodwill v. other intangible assets
Here, before we develop any further, we must draw a distinction between goodwill and other intangible assets, for clarification purposes.
Goodwill is an intangible asset that is associated with the purchase of one company by another. Specifically, goodwill is the portion of the purchase price that is higher than the sum of the net fair value of all of the assets purchased in the acquisition and the liabilities assumed in the process (= purchase price of the acquired company – (net fair market value of identifiable assets – net fair value of identifiable liabilities)).
The value of a company’s brand name, solid customer base, good customer relations, good employee relations, as well as proprietary technology, represent some examples of goodwill, in this context.
The value of goodwill arises in an acquisition, i.e. when an acquirer purchases a target company. Goodwill is then recorded as an intangible asset on the acquiring company’s balance sheet under the long-term assets’ account.
Under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (“GAAP“) and IFRS, these companies which acquired targets in the past and therefore recorded those targets’ goodwill on their balance sheet, are then required to evaluate the value of goodwill on their financial statements at least once a year, and record any impairments.
Impairment of an asset occurs when its market value drops below historical cost, due to adverse events such as declining cash flows, a reputation backlash, increased competitive environment, etc. Companies assess whether an impairment is needed by performing an impairment test on the intangible asset. If the company’s acquired net assets fall below the book value, or if the company overstated the amount of goodwill, then it must impair or do a write-down on the value of the asset on the balance sheet, after it has assessed that the goodwill is impaired. The impairment expense is calculated as the difference between the current market value and the purchase price of the intangible asset. The impairment results in a decrease in the goodwill account on the balance sheet.
This expense is also recognised as a loss on the income statement, which directly reduces net income for the year. In turn, earnings per share (‟EPS”) and the company’s stock price are also negatively affected.
The Financial Accounting Standards Board (“FASB“), which sets standards for GAAP rules, and the IASB, which sets standards for IFRS rules, are considering a change to how goodwill impairment is calculated. Because of the subjectivity of goodwill impairment, and the cost of testing impairment, FASB and IASB are considering reverting to an older method called “goodwill amortisation” in which the value of goodwill is slowly reduced annually over a number of years.
As set out above, goodwill is not the same as other intangible assets because it is a premium paid over fair value during a transaction, and cannot be bought or sold independently. Meanwhile, other intangible assets can be bought and sold independently.
Also, goodwill has an indefinite life, while other intangibles have a definite useful life (i.e. an accounting estimate of the number of years an asset is likely to remain in service for the purpose of cost-effective revenue generation).
1.3. Amortisation, impairment and subsequent measure of intangible assets other than goodwill
That distinction between goodwill and other intangible assets being clearly drawn, let’s get back to the issues revolving around recording intangible assets (other than goodwill) on the balance sheet of a company.
As set out above, if some intangible assets are acquired as a consequence of a business purchase or combination, the acquiring company recognises all these intangible assets, provided that they meet the definition of an intangible asset. This results in the recognition of intangibles – including brand names, IPRs, customer relationships – that would not have been recognised by the acquired company that developed them in the first place. Indeed, paragraph 34 of IAS 38 provides that “in accordance with this Standard and IFRS 3 (as revised in 2008), an acquirer recognises at the acquisition date, separately from goodwill, an intangible asset of the acquiree, irrespective of whether the asset had been recognised by the acquiree before the business combination. This means that the acquirer recognises as an asset separately from goodwill an in-process research and development project of the acquiree, if the project meets the definition of an intangible asset. An acquiree’s in-process research and development project meets the definition of an intangible asset when it:
a. meets the definition of an asset, and
b. is identifiable, i.e. separable or arises from contractual or other legal rights.“
Therefore, in a business acquisition or combination, the intangible assets that are “identifiable” (either separable or arising from legal rights) can be recognised and capitalised in the balance sheet of the acquiring company.
After initial recognition, the accounting value in the balance sheet of intangible assets with definite useful lives (e.g. IPRs, licenses) has to be amortised over the intangible asset’s expected useful life, and is subject to impairment tests when needed. As explained above, intangible assets with indefinite useful lives (such as goodwill or brands) will not be amortised, but only subject at least annually to an impairment test to verify whether the impairment indicators (“triggers”) are met.
Alternatively, after initial recognition (at cost or at fair value in the case of business acquisitions or mergers), intangible assets with definite useful lives may be revalued at fair value less amortisation, provided there is an active market for the asset to be referred to, as can be inferred from paragraph 75 of IAS 38:
“After initial recognition, an intangible asset shall be carried at a revalued amount, being its fair value at the date of the revaluation less any subsequent accumulated amortisation and any subsequent accumulated impairment losses. For the purpose of revaluations under this Standard, fair value shall be measured by reference to an active market. Revaluations shall be made with such regularity that at the end of the reporting period the carrying amount of the asset does not differ materially from its fair value.”
However, this standard indicates that the revaluation model can only be used in rare situations, where there is an active market for these intangible assets.
1.4. The elephant in the room: a lack of recognition and measurement of internally generated intangible assets
All the above about the treatment of intangible assets other than goodwill cannot be said for internally generated intangible assets. Indeed, IAS 38 sets out important differences in the treatment of those internally generated intangibles, which is currently – and rightfully – the subject of much debate among regulators and other stakeholders.
Internally generated intangible assets are prevented from being recognised, from an accounting standpoint, as they are being developed (while a business would normally account for internally generated tangible assets). Therefore, a significant proportion of internally generated intangible assets is not recognised in the balance sheet of a company. As a consequence, stakeholders such as investors, regulators, shareholders, financiers, are not receiving some very relevant information about this enterprise, and its accurate worth.
Why such a standoffish attitude towards internally generated intangible assets? In practice, when the expenditure to develop intangible asset is incurred, it is often very unclear whether that expenditure is going to generate future economic benefits. It is this uncertainty that prevents many intangible assets from being recognised as they are being developed. This perceived lack of reliability of the linkage between expenditures and future benefits pushes towards the treatment of such expenditures as “period cost”. It is not until much later, when the uncertainty is resolved (e.g. granting of a patent), that an intangible asset may be capable of recognition. As current accounting requirements primarily focus on transactions, an event such as the resolution of uncertainty surrounding an internally developed IPR is generally not captured in company financial statements.
Let’s take the example of research and development costs (“R&D“), which is one process of internally creating certain types of intangible assets, to illustrate the accounting treatment of intangible assets created in this way.
Among accounting standard setters, such as IASB with its IAS 38, the most frequent practice is to require the immediate expensing of all R&D. However, France, Italy and Australia are examples of countries where national accounting rule makers allow the capitalisation of R&D, subject to conditions being satisfied.
Therefore, in some circumstances, internally generated intangible assets can be recognised when the relevant set of recognition criteria is met, in particular the existence of a clear linkage of the expenditure to future benefits accruing to the company. This is called condition-based capitalisation. In these cases, the cost that a company has incurred in that financial year, can be capitalised as an asset; the previous costs having already been expensed in earlier income statements. For example, when a patent is finally granted by the relevant intellectual property office, only the expenses incurred during that financial year can be capitalised and disclosed on the face of balance sheet among intangible fixed assets.
To conclude, under the current IFRS and GAAP regimes, internally generated intangible assets, such as IPRs, can only be recognised on balance sheet in very rare instances.
2.1. Improving the accurateness and reliability of financial communication
Existing accounting standards should be advanced, updated and modernised to take greater account of intangible assets and consequently improve the relevance, objectivity and reliability of financial statements.
Not only that, but informing stakeholders (i.e. management, employees, shareholders, regulators, financiers, investors) appropriately and reliably is paramount today, in a corporate world where companies are expected to accurately, regularly and expertly manage and broadcast their financial communication to medias and regulators.
As highlighted by Janice Denoncourt in her blog post “intellectual property, finance and corporate governance“, no stakeholder wants an iteration of the Theranos’ fiasco, during which inventor and managing director Elizabeth Holmes was indicted for fraud in excess of USD700 million, by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC“), for having repeatedly, yet inaccurately, said that Theranos’ patented blood testing technology was both revolutionary and at the last stages of its development. Elizabeth Holmes made those assertions on the basis of the more than 270 patents that her and her team filed with the United States patent and trademark office (“USPTO“), while making some material omissions and misleading disclosures to the SEC, via Theranos’ financial statements, on the lame justification that “Theranos needed to protect its intellectual property” (sic).
Indeed, the stakes of financial communication are so high, in particular for the branding and reputation of any “knowledge economy” company, that, back in 2002, LVMH did not hesitate to sue Morgan Stanley, the investment bank advising its nemesis, Kering (at the time, named “PPR“), in order to obtain Euros100 million of damages resulting from Morgan Stanley’s alleged breach of conflicts of interests between its investment banking arm (which advised PPR’s top-selling brand, Gucci) and Morgan Stanley’s financial research division. According to LVMH, Clare Kent, Morgan Stanley’s luxury sector-focused analyst, systematically drafted and then published negative and biased research against LVMH share and financial results, in order to favor Gucci, the top-selling brand of the PPR luxury conglomerate and Morgan Stanley’s top client. While this lawsuit – the first of its kind in relation to alleged biased conduct in a bank’s financial analysis – looked far-fetched when it was lodged in 2002, LVMH actually won, both in first instance and on appeal.
Having more streamlined and accurate accounting, reporting and valuation of intangible assets – which are, today, the main and most valuable assets of any 21st century corporation – is therefore paramount for efficient and reliable financial communication.
2.2. Improving and diversifying access to finance
Not only that, but recognising the worth and inherent value of intangible assets, on balance sheet, would greatly improve the chances of any company – in particular, SMEs – to successfully apply for financing.
Debt finance is notoriously famous for shying away from using intangible assets as main collateral against lending because it is too risky.
For example, taking appropriate security controls over a company’s registered IPRs in a lending scenario would involve taking a fixed charge, and recording it properly on the Companies Registry at Companies House (in the UK) and on the appropriate IPRs’ registers. However, this hardly ever happens. Typically, at best, lenders are reliant on a floating charge over IPRs, which will crystallise in case of an event of default being triggered – by which time, important IPRs may have disappeared into thin air, or been disposed of; hence limiting the lender’s recovery prospects.
Alternatively, it is now possible for a lender to take an assignment of an IPR by way of security (generally with a licence back to the assignor to permit his or her continued use of the IPR) by an assignment in writing signed by the assignor (1). However, this is rarely done in practice. The reason is to avoid “maintenance”, i.e. to prevent the multiplicity of actions. Indeed, because intangibles are incapable of being possessed, and rights over them are therefore ultimately enforced by action, it has been considered that the ability to assign such rights would increase the number of actions (2).
Whilst there are improvements needed to the practicalities and easiness of registering a security interest over intangible assets, the basic step that is missing is a clear inventory of IPRs and other intangible assets, on balance sheet and/or on yearly financial statements, without which lenders can never be certain that these assets are in fact to hand.
Cases of intangible asset- backed lending (“IABL“) have occurred, whereby a bank provided a loan to a pension fund against tangible assets, and the pension fund then provided a sale and leaseback arrangement against intangible assets. Therefore, IABL from pension funds (on a sale and leaseback arrangement), rather than banks, provides a route for SMEs to obtain loans.
There have also been instances where specialist lenders have entered into sale and licence-back agreements, orsale and leaseback agreements, secured against intangible assets, including trademarks and software copyright.
Some other types of funders than lenders, however, are already making the “intangible assets” link, such as equity investors (business angels, venture capital companies and private equity funds). They know that IPRs and other intangibles represent part of the “skin in the game” for SME owners and managers, who have often expended significant time and money in their creation, development and protection. Therefore, when equity investors assess the quality and attractiveness of investment opportunities, they invariably include consideration of the underlying intangible assets, and IPRs in particular. They want to understand the extent to which intangible assets owned by one of the companies they are potentially interested investing in, represent a barrier to entry, create freedom to operate and meet a real market need.
2.3. Adopting a systematic, consistent and streamlined approach to the valuation of intangible assets, which levels the playing field
If intangible assets are to be recognised in financial statements, in order to adopt a systematic and streamlined approach to their valuation, then fair value is the most obvious alternative to cost, as explained in paragraph 1.3. above.
How could we use fair value more widely, in order to capitalise intangible assets in financial statements?
IFRS 13 “Fair Value Measurements” identifies three widely-used valuation techniques: the market approach, the cost approach and the income approach.
The market approach “uses prices and other relevant information generated by market transactions involving identical or comparable” assets. However, this approach is difficult in practice, since when transactions in intangibles occur, the prices are rarely made public. Publicly traded data usually represents a market capitalisation of the enterprise, not singular intangible assets. Market data from market participants is often used in income based models such as determining reasonable royalty rates and discount rates. Direct market evidence is usually available in the valuation of internet domain names, carbon emission rights and national licences (for radio stations, for example). Other relevant market data include sale/licence transactional data, price multiples and royalty rates.
The cost approach “reflects the amount that would be required currently to replace the service capacity of an asset“. Deriving fair value under this approach therefore requires estimating the costs of developing an equivalent intangible asset. In practice, it is often difficult to estimate in advance the costs of developing an intangible. In most cases, replacement cost new is the most direct and meaningful cost based means of estimating the value of an intangible asset. Once replacement cost new is estimated, various forms of obsolescence must be considered, such as functional, technological and economic. Cost based models are best used for valuing an assembled workforce, engineering drawings or designs and internally developed software where no direct cash flow is generated.
The income approach essentially converts future cash flows (or income and expenses) to a single, discounted present value, usually as a result of increased turnover of cost savings. Income based models are best used when the intangible asset is income producing or when it allows an asset to generate cash flow. The calculation may be similar to that of value in use. However, to arrive at fair value, the future income must be estimated from the perspective of market participants rather than that of the entity. Therefore, applying the income approach requires an insight into how market participants would assess the benefits (cash flows) that will be obtained uniquely from an intangible asset (where such cash flows are different from the cash flows related to the whole company). Income based methods are usually employed to value customer related intangibles, trade names, patents, technology, copyrights, and covenants not to compete.
In order to make these three above-mentioned valuation techniques more effective, with regards to intangible assets, and because many intangibles will not be recognised in financial statements as they fail to meet the definition of an asset or the recognition criteria, a reconsideration to the “Conceptual Framework to Financial Reporting” needs being implemented by the IASB.
These amendments to the Conceptual Framework would permit more intangibles to be recognised within financial statements, in a systematic, consistent, uniform and streamlined manner, therefore levelling the playing field among companies from the knowledge economy.
Let’s not forget that one of the reasons WeWork cofounder, Adam Neumann, was violently criticised, during WeWork’s failed IPO attempt, and then finally ousted, in 2019, was the fact thathe was paid nearly USD6 million for granting the right to use his registered word trademark “We”, to his own company WeWork. In its IPO filing prospectus, which provided the first in-depth look at WeWork’s financial results, WeWork characterised the nearly USD6 million payment as “fair market value”. Many analysts, among whichScott Galloway, begged to differ, outraged by the lack of rigour and realism in the valuation of the WeWork brand, and the clearly opportunistic attitude adopted by Adam Neumann to get even richer, faster.
2.4. Creating a liquid, established and free secondary market of intangible assets
IAS 38 currently permits intangible assets to be recognised at fair value, as discussed above in paragraphs 1.3. and 2.3., measured by reference to an active market.
While acknowledging that such markets may exist for assets such as “freely transferable taxi licences, fishing licences or production quotas“, IAS 38 states that “it is uncommon for an active market to exist for an intangible asset“. It is even set out, in paragraph 78 of IAS 38 that “an active market cannot exist for brands, newspaper mastheads, music and film publishing rights, patents or trademarks, because each such asset is unique“.
Markets for resale of intangible assets and IPRs do exist, but are presently less formalised and offer less certainty on realisable values. There is no firmly established secondary transaction market for intangible assets (even though some assets are being sold out of insolvency) where value can be realised. In addition, in the case of forced liquidation, intangible assets’ value can be eroded, as highlighted in paragraph 2.2. above.
Therefore, markets for intangible assets are currently imperfect, in particular because there is an absence of mature marketplaces in which intangible assets may be sold in the event of default, insolvency or liquidation. There is not yet the same tradition of disposal, or the same volume of transaction data, as that which has historically existed with tangible fixed assets.
In addition, global licensing activity leaves not doubt that intangible assets, in particular IPRs, are, in fact, very valuable, highly tradable and a very portable asset class.
It is high time to remove all market’s imperfections, make trading more transparent and offer options to the demand side, to get properly tested.
3. Next steps to improve the valuation and reporting of intangible assets
3.1. Adjust IAS 38 and the Conceptual Framework to Financial Reporting to the realities of intangible assets’ reporting
Mainstream lenders, as well as other stakeholders, need cost-effective, standardised approaches in order to capture and process information on intangibles and IPRs (which is not currently being presented by SMEs).
This can be achieved by reforming IAS 38 and the “Conceptual Framework to Financial Reporting”, at the earliest convenience, in order to make most intangible assets capitalised on financial statements at realistic and consistent valuations.
In particular, the reintroduction of amortisation of goodwill may be a pragmatic way to reduce the impact of different accounting treatment for acquired and internally generated intangibles.
In addition, narrative reporting (i.e. reports with titles such as “Management Commentary” or “Strategic Report”, which generally form part of the annual report, and other financial communication documents such as “Preliminary Earnings Announcements” that a company provides primarily for the information of investors) must set out detailed information on unrecognised intangibles, as well as amplify what is reported within the financial statements.
3.2. Use standardised and consistent metrics within financial statements and other financial communication documents
The usefulness and credibility of narrative information would be greatly enhanced by the inclusion of metrics (i.e. numerical measures that are relevant to an assessment of the company’s intangibles) standardised by industry. The following are examples of objective and verifiable metrics that may be disclosed through narrative reporting:
a company that identifies customer loyalty as critical to the success of its business model might disclose measures of customer satisfaction, such as the percentage of customers that make repeat purchases;
if the ability to innovate is a key competitive advantage, the proportion of sales from new products may be a relevant metric;
where the skill of employees is a key driver of value, employee turnover may be disclosed, together with information about their training.
3.3. Make companies’ boards accountable for intangibles’ reporting
Within a company, at least one appropriately qualified person should be appointed and publicly reported as having oversight and responsibility for intangibles’ auditing, valuation, due diligence and reporting (for example a director, specialist advisory board or an external professional adviser).
This would enhance the importance of corporate governance and board oversight, in addition to reporting, with respect to intangible assets.
In particular, some impairment tests could be introduced, to ensure that businesses are well informed and motivated to adopt appropriate intangibles’ management practices, which should be overseen by the above-mentioned appointed board member.
3.4. Create a body that trains about, and regulates, the field of intangible assets’ valuation and reporting
The creation of a professional organisation for the intangible assets’ valuation profession would increase transparency of intangibles’ valuations and trust towards valuation professionals (i.e. lawyers, IP attorneys, accountants, economists, etc).
This valuation professional organisation would set some key objectives that will protect the public interest in all matters that pertain to the profession, establish professional standards (especially standards of professional conduct) and represent professional valuers.
This organisation would, in addition, offer training and education on intangibles’ valuations. Therefore, the creation of informative material and the development of intangible assets’ training programmes would be a priority, and would guarantee the high quality valuation of IPRs and other intangibles as a way of boosting confidence for the field.
Company board members who are going to be appointed as having accountability and responsibility for intangibles’ valuation within the business, as mentioned above in paragraph 3.3., could greatly benefit from regular training sessions offered by this future valuation professional organisation, in particular for continuing professional development purposes.
3.5. Create a powerful register of expert intangible assets’ valuers
In order to build trust, the creation of a register of expert intangibles’ valuers, whose ability must first be certified by passing relevant knowledge tests, is key.
Inclusion on this list would involve having to pass certain aptitudes tests and, to remain on it, valuers would have to maintain a standard of quality in the valuations carried out, whereby the body that manages this registry would be authorised to expel members whose reports are not up to standard. This is essential in order to maintain confidence in the quality and skill of the valuers included on the register.
The entity that manages this body of valuers would have the power to review the valuations conducted by the valuers certified by this institution as a “second instance”. The body would need to have the power to re-examine the assessments made by these valuers (inspection programme), and even eliminate them if it is considered that the assessment is overtly incorrect (fair disciplinary mechanism).
3.6. Establish an intangible assets’ marketplace and data-source
The development most likely to transform IPRs and intangibles as an asset class is the emergence of more transparent and accessible marketplaces where they can be traded.
In particular, as IPRs and intangible assets become clearly identified and are more freely licensed, bought and sold (together with or separate to the business), the systems available to register and track financial interests will need to be improved. This will require the co-operation of official registries and the establishment of administrative protocols.
Indeed, the credibility of intangibles’ valuations would be greatly enhanced by improving valuation information, especially by collecting information and data on actual and real intangibles’ transactions in a suitable form, so that it can be used, for example, to support IPRs asset-based lending decisions. If this information is made available, lenders and expert valuers will be able to base their estimates on more widely accepted and verified assumptions, and consequently, their valuation results – and valuation reports – would gain greater acceptance and reliability from the market at large.
The wide accessibility of complete, quality information which is based on real negotiations and transactions, via this open data-source, would help to boost confidence in the validity and accuracy of valuations, which will have a very positive effect on transactions involving IPRs and other intangibles.
3.7. Introduce a risk sharing loan guarantee scheme for banks to facilitate intangibles’ secured lending
A dedicated loan guarantee scheme needs being introduced, to facilitate intangible assets’ secured lending to innovative and creative SMEs.
Asia is currently setting the pace in intangibles-backed lending. In 2014, the intellectual property office of Singapore (“IPOS“) launched a USD100 million “IP financing scheme” designed to support local SMEs to use their granted IPRs as collateral for bank loans. A panel of IPOS-appointed valuers assess the applicant’s IPR portfolio using standard guidelines to provide lenders with a basis on which to determine the amount of funds to be advanced. The development of a national valuation model is a noteworthy aspect of the scheme and could lead to an accepted valuation methodology in the future.
The Chinese intellectual property office (“CIPO“) has developed some patent-backed debt finance initiatives. Only 6 years after the “IP pledge financing” programme was launched by CIPO in 2008, CIPO reported that Chinese companies had secured over GBP6 billion in IPRs-backed loans since the programme launched. The Chinese government having way more direct control and input into commercial bank lending policy and capital adequacy requirements, it can vigorously and potently implement its strategic goal of increasing IPRs-backed lending.
It is high time Europe follows suit, at least by putting in place some loan guarantees that would increase lender’s confidence in making investments by sharing the risks related to the investment. A guarantor assumes a debt obligation if the borrower defaults. Most loan guarantee schemes are established to correct perceived market failures by which small borrowers, regardless of creditworthiness, lack access to the credit resources available to large borrowers. Loan guarantee schemes level the playing field.
The proposed risk sharing loan guarantee scheme set up by the European Commission or by a national government fund (in particular inthe UK, who is brexiting) would be specifically targeted at commercial banks in order to stimulate intangibles-secured lending to innovative SMEs. The guarantor would fully guarantee the intangibles-secured loan and share the risk of lending to SMEs (which have suitable IPRs and intangibles) with the commercial bank.
The professional valuer serves an important purpose, in this future loan guarantee scheme, since he or she will fill the knowledge gap relating to the IPRs and intangibles, as well as their value, in the bank’s loan procedure. If required, the expert intangibles’ valuer provides intangibles’ valuation expertise and technology transfer to the bank, until such bank has built the relevant capacity to perform intangible assets’ valuations. Such valuations would be performed, either by valuers and/or banks, according to agreed, consistent, homogenised and accepted methods/standards and a standardised intangible asset’s valuation methodology.
To conclude, in this era of ultra-competitiveness and hyper-globalisation, France and the UK, and Europe in general, must immediately jump on the saddle of progress, by reforming outdated and obsolete accounting and reporting standards, as well as by implementing all the above-mentioned new measures and strategies, to realistically and consistently value, report and leverage intangible assets in the 21st century economy.
Founding and managing partner of Crefovi
(1) “Lingard’s bank security documents”, Timothy N. Parsons, 4th edition, LexisNexis, page 450 and seq.
(2) “Taking security – law and practice”, Richard Calnan, Jordans, page 74 and seq.
On 30 March 2019, the UK will crash out of the EU without a withdrawal deal in place, and without a request for an extension of the 2 years’ notification period of its decision to withdraw. No second referendum will be organised by the current UK government. Therefore, what’s in the cards, for the creative industries, in order to do fruitful business with, and from, the UK in the near future? [hr]
My previous article on the road less travelled & Brexit legal implications, published just after the Brexit vote, on Saturday 25 June 2016, delivered the main message that it was worth monitoring the negotiation process that would ensue the notification made by the United Kingdom (UK) to the European Union (EU) of its intention to withdraw from the EU within 2 years.
We have therefore been monitoring those negotiations for you, in the last couple of years, and came to the following predictions, which will empower your creative business to brace itself for, and make the most of the imminent changes triggered by, the crashing of the UK out of the EU, on 30 March 2019.
1. End of freedom of movement of UK and EU citizens coming in and out of the UK
On 30 March 2019, UK citizens will lose their EU citizenship, i.e. the citizenship, subsidiary to UK citizenship, that provide rights such as the right to vote in European elections, the right to free movement, settlement and employment across the EU, and the right to consular protection by other EU states’ embassies when a person’s country of citizenship does not maintain an embassy or consulate in the country in which they require protection.
Since no withdrawal agreement will be signed by 29 March 2019, between the EU and the UK, UK nationals living in one of the 27 EU member-states will be on their own, as no reciprocal arrangements will have been put in place, in particular in relation to reciprocal healthcare and social security coordination, work permits, right to stand and vote in local elections.
UK nationals living in one of the states which are members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), i.e. Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, will also have no safety net, as the UK will also crash out of the EU bilateral agreements with EFTA members, such as the EEA Agreement which ties Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and the EU together, on 29 March 2019. Meanwhile, “the UK is seeking citizens’ rights agreement with the EFTA states to protect the rights of citizens“, as set out on thepolicy paper published by the UK Department for exiting the EU.
It therefore makes sense for UK nationals living in a EU member-state, or in one of the EFTA states, to reach out to the equivalent of the UK Home Office in such country, and inquire how they can secure either a visa or national citizenship in this country. Since negotiating some new bilateral agreements with EU member-states and EFTA states will take years, for the UK to finalise such negotiations, UK nationals cannot rely on these protracted talks to get any leverage and obtain permanent right to remain in a EU member-state or an EFTA state.
For example,France is ready to pass a decreeafter 30 March 2019, to organise the requirement to present a visa to enter French territory, and to obtain aresidency permit (“carte de séjour”)to justify staying here, for UK citizens already living, or planning to live for more than three months, in France. Therefore, soon after 30 March 2019, British nationals and their families who do not have residency permits may have an “irregular status” in France.
While applying for a “carte de séjour” is free in France, and applying for French citizenship triggers only a 55 euros stamp duty to pay, EU nationals living in the UK, or planning to live in the UK, won’t be so lucky.
Indeed, it will set EU nationals backGBP1,330 per person, from 6 April 2018, to obtain UK citizenship, including the citizenship ceremony fee. However, there may be no fee to enrol into theEU Settlement Scheme, which will open fully by 30 March 2019, in particular if a EU citizen already has a valid “UK permanent residence document or indefinite leave to remain in or enter the UK”. The deadline for applying in the EU Settlement Scheme will be 31 December 2020, when the UK leaves the EU without a withdrawal deal on 30 March 2019.
Business owners and creative companies working in and from the UK will be impacted too, if they have some employees and staff. It will be their responsibility to ensure and be able to prove that their staff who are EU citizens, have all obtained a settled status: in a display of largesse, the UK government has therefore published anemployer toolkit, to “support EU citizens and their families to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme“.
For short term stays of less than three months per entry, the UK government currently promises that “arrangements for tourists and business visitors will not look any different“. “EU citizens coming for short visits will be able to enter the UK as they can now, and stay for up to three months from each entry“.
To conclude, leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement is going to create a lot of red tape, and be a massive time and energy hassle for EU citizens living in the UK, their UK employers who need to ensure that their staff are all enrolled into the EU Settlement Scheme, and for UK citizens living in one of the remaining 27 EU member-states. There will be no certainty of obtaining settled status from the UK Home Office, until EU citizens have actually obtained it further to enrolling into the EU Settlement Scheme. This is going to be a very anxiety-inducing process for EU citizens living in the UK, and for their UK employers who rely on these members of their staff to get the job done.
Contingency plans should therefore be put in place by UK employers who have EU citizens on their payroll, in particular by setting up offices and subsidiaries in one of the remaining 27 EU member-states, so that EU citizens whose settled status was refused by the UK Home Office may keep on working for their UK employers by relocating to this EU member-state where they will have freedom of movement thanks to their EU citizenships. Besides the Home Office and immigration lawyers’ fees, UK employers need to take into account the legal, accounting, IT and real estate costs of setting up additional offices and subsidiaries in a EU member-state, after 30 March 2019.
2. Removal of free movement of goods, services and capital
The EU internal market, or single market, is a single market that seeks to guarantee the free movement of goods, capital, services and people – the “four freedoms” – between the EU 28 member-states.
After 30 March 2019, the single market will no longer count the UK, as it will cease to be a EU member-state.
While it was an option for the internal market to remain in place, between the UK and the EU, as such market has been extended to EFTA states Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the agreement on the European Economic Area (EEA), and to EFTA state Switzerland through bilateral treaties, this alternative was not pursued by the UK government. Indeed, the EEA Agreement and EU-Swiss bilateral agreements are both viewed by most as very asymmetric (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are essentially obliged to accept the internal single market rules without having much if any say in what they are, while Switzerland does not have full or automatic access but still has free movement of workers). The UK, as well as EFTA members who were less than keen to have the UK join their EFTA club, ruled out such option, not seeing the point of still contributing to the EU budget while not having a seat at the table to take any decisions in relation to how the single market is governed and managed.
2.1. Removal of free movement of goods and new custom duties and tariffs
As far as the removal of the free movement of goods is concerned, it will be a – hopefully temporary – hassle, since the UK does not have any bilateral customs and trade agreements in place with the EU (because no withdrawal agreement will be entered into between the EU and the UK by 30 March 2019) and with non-EU countries (because the 53 trade agreements with non-EU countries were secured by the EU directly, on behalf of its then 28 member-states, including with Canada, Singapore, South Korea).
On 30 March 2019, the UK will regain its right to conclude binding trade agreements with non-EU countries, and with the EU of course.
While the UK government laboriously launches itself into the negotiation of at least 54 trade agreements, including with the EU, customs duties will be reinstated between the UK and all other European countries, including the UK. This is going to lead to a very disadvantageous situation for UK businesses, as the cost of trading goods and products with foreign countries will substantially increase, both for imports and exports.
Creative companies headquartered in the UK, which export and import goods and products, such as fashion, design and tech companies, are going to be especially at risk, here, with the cost of imported raw material increasing, and the rise or appearance of custom duties on exports of their products to the EU and non-EU countries. Fashion and luxury businesses, in particular, are at risk, since they export more than seventy percent of their production overseas.
Since the UK has most of its trade (57% of exports and 66% of imports in 2016) done with countries bound by EU trade agreements, both UK companies and UK consumers must brace themselves for a shock, when they will start trading after 30 March 2019. The cost of life is going to become more expensive in the UK (since most products and goods are imported, in particular from EU member-states), and operating costs are also going to increase for UK businesses.
While some Brexiters claim that the UK will be fine, by reverting to trading with the “rest of the world” under therules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), it is important to note that right now, only 24 countries are trading with the UK on WTO rules (like any one of the 28 member-states of the EU because no EU trade deal was concluded with these non-EU countries). After 30 March 2019, the UK will trade with the rest of the world under WTO rules, as long as the other state is also a member of the WTO (for example, Algeria, Serbia and North Korea are not WTO members). Moreover, some tariffs will apply to all UK exports, under those WTO rules.
It definitely does not look like a panacea to trade under WTO rules, so the UK government and its Bank of England will weaken the pound sterling as much as possible, to set off the financial burden represented by these custom duties and taxes.
Creative companies headquartered in the UK, which export goods and products, such as fashion and design companies, should now relocate their manufacturing operations to the EU or low wages and low tax territories, such as South East Asia, as soon as possible, to avoid the new customs duties and taxation of goods and products which will inevitably arise, after 30 March 2019.
While a cynical example, since James Dyson was a fervent Brexiter who called on the UK government to walk away from the EU without a withdrawal deal, UK creative businesses manufacturing goods and products must emulatevacuum cleaner and hair dryer technology company Dyson, that will be moving its headquarters from Wiltshire to Singapore this year.
Moreover, the UK will face non-tariff barriers, in the same way that China and the US trade with the EU. Non-tariff barriers are any measure, other than a customs tariff, that acts as a barrier to international trade, such as regulations, rules of origin or quotas. In particular, regulatory divergence from the EU will make it harder to trade goods, introducing non-tariff barriers: when the UK will leave the EU customs union, on 30 March 2019, any goods crossing the border will have to meet rules of origin requirements, to prove that they did indeed come from the UK – introducing paperwork and non-tariff barriers.
2.2. Removal of free movement of services and VAT changes
On 30 March 2019, UK services – accounting for eighty percent of the UK economy – will lose their preferential access to the EU single market, which will constitute another non-tariff barrier.
The free movement of services and of establishment allows self-employed persons to move between member-states in order to provide services on a temporary or permanent basis. While services account for between sixty and seventy percent of GDP, on average, in all 28 EU member-states, most legislation in this area is not as developed as in other areas.
There are no customs duties and taxation on services, therefore UK creative industries which mainly provide services (such as the tech and internet sector, marketing, PR and communication services, etc) are less at risk of being detrimentally impacted by the exit of the UK from the EU without a withdrawal agreement.
However, since the UK will become a non-EU country from 30 March 2019 onwards, EU businesses and UK business alike will no longer be able to apply the EU rules relating to VAT, and in particular to intra-community VAT, when they trade with UK and EU businesses respectively. This therefore means that, from 30 March 2019 onwards, a EU business will no longer charge VAT to a UK company, but will keep on charging VAT to its UK client who is a natural person. Also, a UK business will no longer charge VAT to a EU company, but will keep on charging VAT to its EU client who is a natural person.
Positive changes on VAT are also in the works, because the UK will no longer have to comply with EU VAT law (on rates of VAT, scope of exemptions, zero-rating, etc.): the UK will have more flexibility in those areas.
However, there will no doubt be disputes between taxpayers and HMRC over the VAT treatment of transactions that predate 30 March 2019, where EU law may still be in point. Because the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) will cease completely in relation to UK matters on 30 March 2019, any such questions of EU law will be dealt with entirely by the UK courts. Indeed, UK courts have stopped referring new cases to the CJEU in any event, since last year.
2.3. Removal of free movement of capital and loss of passporting rights for the UK financial services industry
Since the UK will leave the EU without a withdrawal agreement, free movement of capital, which is intended to permit movement of investments such as property purchases and buying of shares between EU member-states, will cease to apply between the EU and the UK on 30 March 2019.
Capital within the EU may be transferred in any amount from one country to another (except that Greece currently has capital controls restricting outflows) and all intra-EU transfers in euro are considered as domestic payments and bear the corresponding domestic transfer costs. This EU central payments infrastructure is based around TARGET2 and the Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA). This includes all member-states of the EU, even those outside the eurozone, provided the transactions are carried out in euros. Credit/debit card charging and ATM withdrawals within the Eurozone are also charged as domestic.
Since the UK has always kept the pound sterling during its 43 years’ stint in the EU, absolutely refusing to ditch it for the euro, transfer costs on capital movements – from euros to pound sterling and vice versa – have always been fairly high in the UK anyway.
However, as the UK will crash out of the EU without a deal on 30 March 2019, such transfer costs, as well as new controls on capital movements, will be put in place and impact creative businesses and professionals when they want to transfer money from the UK to EU member-states and vice-versa. While the UK government is looking to align payments legislation to maximise the likelihood of remaining a member of SEPA as a third country, the fact that it has decided not to sign the withdrawal agreement with the EU will not help such alignment process.
The cost of card payments between the UK and EU will increase, and these cross-border payments will no longer be covered by the surcharging ban (which prevents businesses from being able to charge consumers for using a specific payment method).
It is therefore advisable for UK creative companies to open business bank accounts, in euros, either in EU countries which are strategic to them, or online through financial services providers such as Transferwise’s borderless account. UK businesses and professionals will hence avoid being narrowly limited to their UK pound sterling denominated bank accounts and being tributary to the whims of politicians and bureaucrats attempting to negotiate new trade agreements on freedom of capital movements between the UK and the EU, and other non-EU countries.
Also, forging ties with banking, insurance and other financial services providers in one of the remaining 27 member-states of the EU may be really useful to UK creative industries, after 30 March 2019, because theUK will no longer be able to carry out any banking, insurance and other financial services activities through the EU passporting process. Indeed, financial services is a highly regulated sector, and the EU internal market for financial services is highly integrated, underpinned by common rules and standards, and extensive supervisory cooperation between regulatory authorities at an EU and member-state level. Firms, financial market infrastructures, and funds authorised in any EU member-state can carry out many activities in any other EU member-state, through a process known as “passporting”, as a direct result of their EU authorisation. This means that if these entities are authorised in one member-state, they can provide services to customers in all other EU member-states, without requiring authorisation or supervision from the local regulator.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 will transfer EU law, including that relating to financial services, into UK statutes on 30 March 2019. It will also give the UK government powers to amend UK law, to ensure that there is a fully functioning financial services regulatory framework on 30 March 2019.
However, on 30 March 2019, UK financial services firms’ position in relation to the EU will be determined by any applicable EU rules that apply to non-EU countries at that time. Therefore, UK financial services firms and funds will lose their passporting rights into the EU: this means that their UK customers will no longer be able to use the EU services of UK firms that used to passport into the EU, but also that their EU customers will no longer be able to use the UK services of such UK firms.
For example, the UK is a major centre for investment banking in Europe, with UK investment banks providing investment services and funding through capital markets to business clients across the EU. On 30 March 2019, EU clients may no longer be able to use the services of UK-based investment banks, and UK-based investment banks may be unable to service existing cross-border contracts.
3. Legal implications of Brexit in the UK
On 30 March 2019, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (the “Act“) will take effect, repeal the European Communities Act 1972 (the “ECA“) and retain in effect almost all UK laws which have been derived from the EU membership of the UK since 1 January 1973. The Act will therefore continue enforce all EU-derived domestic legislation, which is principally delegated legislation passed under the ECA to implement directives, and convert all direct EU legislation, i.e. EU regulations and decisions, into UK domestic law.
Consequently, the content of EU law as it stands on 30 March 2019 is going to be a critical piece of legal history for the purpose of UK law for decades to come.
Some of the legal practices which are going to be strongly impacted by the UK crashing out of the EU are intellectual property law, dispute resolution, financial services law, franchising, employment law, product compliance and liability, as well as tax.
In particular, there isno clarity from the UK government, at this stage, on how EU trademarks, registered with the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) are going to apply in the UK, if at all, after 30 March 2019. The same goes for Registered Community Designs (RCD), which are also issued by the EUIPO.
At least, some clarity exists in relation to European patents: the UK exit from the EU should not affect the current European patent system, which is governed by the (non-EU) European Patent Convention. Therefore, UK businesses will be able to apply to the European Patent Office (EPO) for patent protection which will include the UK. Existing European patents covering the UK will also be unaffected. European patent attorneys based in the UK will continue to be able to represent applicants before the EPO.
Similarly, and since the UK is a member of a number of international treaties and agreements protecting copyright, the majority of UK copyright works (such as music, films, books and photographs) are protected around the world. This will continue to be the case, following the UK exit from the EU. However, certain cross-border copyright mechanisms, especially those relating tocollecting societies and rights management societies, and those relating to theEU digital single market, are going to cease applying in the UK.
Enforcement of IP rights, as well as commercial and civil rights, is also going to be uncertain for some time: the UK will cease to be part of the EU Observatory, and of bodies such as Europol and the EU customs’ databases to register intellectual property rights against counterfeiting, on 30 March 2019.
To conclude, the UK government seems comfortable with the fact that mayhem is going to happen, from 30 March 2019 onwards, in the UK, in a very large number of industrial sectors, legal practices, and cross-border administrative systems such as immigration and customs, for the mere reason than no agreed and negotiated planning was put in place, on a wide scale, by the UK and the EU upon exit of the UK from the EU. This approach makes no economic, social and financial sense but this is besides the point. Right now, what creative businesses and professionals need to focus on is to prepare contingency plans, as explained above, and to keep on monitoring new harmonisation processes that will undoubtedly be put in place, in a few years, by the UK and its trading partners outside and inside the EU, once they manage to find common ground and enter into bilateral agreements organising this new business era for the UK.
What are business owners obligations, in terms of registering beneficial ownership of their companies? How do these obligations differ, in France and the United Kingdom, even though such obligations stem from the same European legislation, i.e. the European Directive 2015/849 dated 20 May 2015 on money laundering? [hr]
1. What is this all about?
On 20 May 2015, the Directive (EU) 2015/849 of the European Parliament and of the Council on the prevention of the use of the financial system for the purposes of money laundering or terrorist financing, amending Regulation (EU) No 648/2012 of the European Parliament and of the Council, and repealing Directive 2005/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council, was published (the “Directive“).
As set out in the recitals of the Directive, and in order to better fight against money laundering, terrorism financing and organised crime, “there is a need to identify any natural person who exercises ownership or control over a legal entity (…). Identification and verification of beneficial owners should, where relevant, extend to legal entities that own other legal entities, and obliged entities should look for the natural person(s) who ultimately exercises control through ownership or through other means of the legal entity that is the customer“.
In addition, “the need for accurate and up-to-date information on the beneficial owner is a key factor in tracing criminals who might otherwise hide their identity behind the corporate structure“.
Chapter III (Beneficial ownership information) of the Directive relates to such topic.
In particular, article 30 of the Directive provides that “member states shall ensure that the information (on beneficial ownership) is held in a central register in each member state, for example a commercial register, companies register or a public register (…). Member states shall ensure that the information on the beneficial ownership is adequate, accurate and current” and accessible “to competent authorities, without any restriction; (…) and to any person or organisation that can demonstrate a legitimate interest“.
These persons or organisations shall access at least the name, the month and year of birth, the nationality and the country of residence of the beneficial owner as well as the nature and extent of the beneficial interest held.
2. Registration of beneficial ownership in French companies
The Ordinance and Decree, which have now been incorporated in the French monetary and financial code, compel all companies operating in France to register their beneficial owners with the Registry of Commerce and Companies of the competent Commercial court (the “Registry“).
2.1. Beneficial ownership and filing with the Registry
The notion of beneficial ownership is not defined in the Decree, although is it defined in the Directive as including each natural person who either ultimately owns, directly or indirectly, more than 25% of the share capital or voting rights of the company, or exercises, by any other means, a supervisory power on the managing, administrative or executive bodies of the company or on the shareholders general assembly.
The information that must be filed is essentially identical to that required by financial institutions and other entities such as law firms, in order for them to carry out their mandatory Know-Your-Client (KYC) procedures.
2.2. The initial filings
The declaration of beneficial ownership must be filed at the Registry when a company is first registered with the Registry or, at the latest, within 15 days as of the date of issuance of the receipt of registration (article R. 561-55 of the French monetary and financial code) i.e. when it is created or opens a branch in France.
2.3. Corrective filings
For companies already registered, the deadline for the declaration is 1 April 2018. If subsequent updates are required, new filing must be made within 30 days as of the fact or the act giving rise to a required update (article R. 561-55 of the French monetary and financial code).
2.4. On the beneficial owner
The declaration must set out the owner’s name and particulars, as well as the means of control exercised by the beneficial owner and the date on which s/he became a beneficial owner (article R. 561-56, 2. of the French monetary and financial code).
2.5. Persons having access to the register of beneficial owners
Access to the register of beneficial owners is limited to magistrates of the civil courts and the Ministry of Justice; investigators working for the Autorité des Marchés Financiers (French financial markets regulator); agents of the Direction Générale des Finances Publiques (Directorate-General for Public Finances); qualifying credit institutions, insurance and mutual insurance companies and investment services providers; and any person authorised by a court decision to this effect.
2.6. Penalties for non-compliance
The new provisions of the French monetary and financial code provide remedial penalties with the possibility for any person having a legitimate interest to bring an action in order to force the defaulting company to fulfil its obligation to declare its beneficial owners (article R. 561-48 of the French monetary and financial code).
Punitive provisions have also been introduced: failure to declare the beneficial owners to the Registry or filing a declaration involving incomplete or inaccurate information is punishable by 6 months of imprisonment and a fine of Euros 7,500 (article 561-49 of the French monetary and financial code).
3. Registration of beneficial ownership in British companies
The Companies Act and Enterprise Act, compel all companies operating in the United Kingdom to keep a register of Persons with Significant Control (“PSC register“) and to file this PSC information via their confirmation statements, upon the due filing date of their respective confirmation statements with Companies House, i.e. the British equivalent to the French Registry of Commerce and Companies of the competent Commercial court (“Companies House“).
3.1. Beneficial ownership and filing with Companies House
The notion of beneficial ownership, or significant influence or control, as set out in the Companies Act, is defined in the Companies Act as including each natural person who either ultimately owns, directly or indirectly, more than 25% of the share capital or voting rights of the company, or exercises, by any other means, a supervisory power on the managing, administrative or executive bodies of the company or on the shareholders general assembly.
UK companies, Societates Europae (SEs), Limited liability partnerships (LLPs) and eligible Scottish partnerships (ESPs), will be required to identify and record the people with significant control.
3.2. The initial filings
The PSC information must be filed with the central public register at Companies House when a company is first registered with Companies House, i.e. when it is created or opens a branch in the UK.
In addition, new companies, SEs, LLPs need to draft and keep a PSC register in relation to them, in addition to existing registers such as the register of directors and the register of members (shareholders).
3.3. Corrective filings
For companies already registered, on 6 April 2016, the Companies Act required all companies to keep a PSC register and, from 30 June 2016, companies started to file this PSC information via their confirmation statements.
As each company has a different filing date, based on the anniversary of their respective incorporation, it took up to 12 months (i.e. 30 June 2017) to develop a full picture of all UK companies’ PSCs.
3.4. On the beneficial owner
Before a PSC can be entered on the PSC register, you must confirm all the details with them.
The details you require are:
date of birth;
country, state or part of the UK where the PSC usually lives;
usual residential address (this must not be disclosed when making your register available for inspection of providing copies of the PSC register);
the date s/he became a PSC in relation to the company (for existing companies, the 6 April 2016 was used);
which conditions for being a PSC are met;
this must include the level of shares and/or voting rights, within the following categories:
over 25% up to (and including) 50%;
more than 50% and less than 75%;
75% or more;
the company is only required to identify whether a PSC meets the condition relating to the control and significant influence, if they do not exercise control through the shareholding and voting rights conditions;
whether an application has been made for the individual’s information to be protected from public disclosure.
3.5. Persons having access to the register of beneficial owners
A company’s PSC register should contain the information listed in paragraph 3.4 above, for each PSC of the company. However, that may not always be possible. Where, for some reason, the PSC information cannot be provided, other statements will need to be made instead, explaining why the PSC information is not available. The PSC register can never be blank and such information must be provided to Companies House.
As the PSC register is one of the company’s statutory registers, each UK company must keep it at its registered office (or alternative inspection location). Anyone with a proper purpose may have access to the PSC register without charge or have a copy of it for which companies may charge GBP12.
If compared with the French situation, it is therefore much easier to obtain the PSC register for a UK company, than for a French company.
3.6. Penalties for non-compliance
Company officers who fail to take all reasonable steps to disclose their PSCs are liable to be fined or imprisoned (by way of a prison sentence of up to two years) or both. If an investigated person fails to respond to the company’s request for information, the company is allowed to “freeze” the relevant shares by stopping proposed transfers and dividends in relation to those shares.
Annabelle Gauberti is the founding partner of Crefovi, our London and Paris law firm specialised in advising the creative industries in general, in particular on their corporate and business law requirements. She is a solicitor of England & Wales, as well as an “avocat” with the Paris bar.
Annabelle is also the president of the International association of lawyers for the creative industries (ialci).