We fought the fakes and won!

In 2012 ELLE Decoration launched an ‘Equal Rights for Design’ petition to highlight a copyright protection loophole that made Britain the designer knock-off capital of Europe. Backed by the likes of Sir Terence Conran and Sir James Dyson, we took our campaign to the government and ultimately succeeded in changing the law to bring copyright protection for design into line with other disciplines such as art, music and literature. Victory tasted a little sour though as it wasn’t due to be enforced until 2020, enabling an extremely lengthy transition period for the faux furniture folk to phase out their dodgy stock. But, after continued pressure, the government capitulated and the fakers now have just until the end of January 2017 to get shot of their shoddy goods. Some popular newspapers are already bleating that this means the end of cut-price modern classics for the masses. Think that’s true? Read on to discover why there’s a lot more to it than that…

I’m not a designer, so what’s this got to do with me? There are estimated to be 250,000 designers in this country, so even if you’re not one, you’ll probably know somebody who is. These are the people who make your life easier, more efficient, comfortable and beautiful so that you can get on with whatever it is you choose to do. Don’t they deserve
a little respect? Plus, the creative industries are a significant part of the UK’s economy, contributing 5.14 per cent of its employment total, 10.6 per cent of exports and 2.9 per cent of Gross Value Added. If designers continue to receive such pathetic protection, why would anyone ever bother to become one? And that’s a lot of jobs and money to lose from the economy. Granted, most creatives work for love and passion, but fair recognition should also be part of the deal.

I suppose so, but at the end of the day, aren’t ideas just ‘out there’? Good design and great ideas benefit us all, for sure, but how would you feel if you devoted your life to inventing something that changed the world, or even just made things a little prettier, but no-one gave you any credit for it, let alone paid you? Would you think that’s fair? Isn’t it better all round to acknowledge who thought of what first, who collaborated with who, and credit them accordingly? The tricky bit is that sometimes ‘ideas’ are rather intangible, unlike bricks and mortar. Nevertheless, musical tunes, literature, even words, phrases and symbols are already commonly recognised as intellectual property, and routinely protected via extensive copyrights, trademarks, patents, industrial design rights and even trade secrets in some cases. Plus, in response to the ‘but I could have done that’ knee-jerk retort… the only answer is, ‘Maybe, but you didn’t, did you?’. From Picasso’s Guernica to Lee Broom’s ‘Decanter’ light (massively ripped off), they did it first, not you.

Okay, so what’s the gripe for design? In the UK, art, literature, film and music are all afforded automatic copyright protection for 70 years after the death of the originating author/s. Whereas for designers, registered designs are protected only from the date of issue and for just 25 years. And worse, if your work is unregistered (costs might prohibit every single permutation
of a design being registered), protection lasts for only three years!

That seems a bit inconsistent… Exactly! Originally, cover was low as it was only intended to protect things like car parts and industrial components. The rule setters thought that longer cover might impede industrial progress, believing that inventors would not bother to innovate if they continued to get paid for something they’d already done.

Well that seems reasonable, why should people be able to make money from something they created ages ago? By that rationale, why should the surviving Beatles continue to profit from their life’s work? Or JK Rowling get any more royalty cheques for the first few Harry Potter books? Or Picasso’s family have their heritage protected? It cuts both ways. Why protect some creative disciplines, and not others? Additionally, we flagged up that the law is out of step with what currently constitutes design. We see ‘design’ as an endeavour on
a creative par with art or writing. This isn’t about nuts and bolts anymore. Are designers felt to invest less ‘labour, skill or judgment’ in their work (the criteria governing copyright eligibility) than authors, musicians or artists?

But designers can always take someone who copies their work to court, can’t they? Well, yes, but design rights are currently only enforceable through the civil, rather than criminal courts, and because it’s usually a David (the designer) vs Goliath (copyists) situation, most Goliaths bank on the designers giving up through lack of funds, time or emotional energy. And even if they win, the offence isn’t seen as criminal, so going to court is no real deterrent in the minds of the bullies who continue to bank cash off the back of another’s originality. If we don’t protect our young designers, we won’t have a design industry in the future.

Alright, I can see how this non-protection malarky could be bad for young designers, but what about the old stuff,
I mean those designers are dead, so why should I care about them?
That’s just manufacturers profiting off a back catalogue isn’t it? Not really. The licence to produce the work of these seminal designers comes with the responsibility to protect those legacies for the benefit of historians, the design-interested, students and future generations, whether that legacy comes in the form of foundations (see box off below), dedicated museums, or a body of work. Manufacturers also pay royalties to the designers’ descendants where relevant. And let’s not forget, in many cases the manufacturers were fundamental in translating those designers’ dreams into realities. For a writer, substitute publisher; for a musician, imagine it as the producer/record label. It’s a partnership; one could not exist without the other. And there’s never a guarantee of continued success, which is why good manufacturers also constantly reinvest in research and development, to hopefully enable a new generation of talent to create the classics of the future. The rip-off merchants circumvent all of this. They care only about quick profit, today, for themselves.

But most classics made today aren’t ‘original’, they’re all modified aren’t they? Unless you’re lucky enough to find
a vintage one, we’re all buying reproductions!
Let’s not confuse two issues here: 1. Who owns the right to reproduce a design. 2. That even licensed models may differ from the very first versions. Authentic within the terms of this discussion means made by the company that legally owns the licence to reproduce the design. And yes, today’s versions of an ‘original’ design may well have the benefit of the progress of technology. For example, the ‘Barcelona’ chair, first designed for the German Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona Expo. Before the originating designer, Mies van der Rohe, sold the design rights to Knoll in 1953, it was quite probably manufactured by several different companies. The extremely rare ‘originals’ – the six debut models – are indeed structurally very different from today’s chair. The upholstery was pigskin, and the frame was put together like a complex jigsaw puzzle. But these details are moot. Bottom line is that Knoll alone owns the right to sell the chair, or modify it with agreement from the Mies Foundation, and as such each ‘authentic’ chair comes replete with a serial number, signature and logo. Anything ‘Barcelona’-esque without these is an unlicensed copycat.

But some of this classic stuff is really expensive, why should only the wealthy have access to these designs? This isn’t about wealth, it’s about desire, as certain pieces have become aspirational symbols of a luxury lifestyle. These pieces were never intended as democratic design, just as not everyone can own a Hermès handbag. We encourage people to spend only what they can afford, but also to have the confidence to be original in their choices. Yes the ‘Arco’ lamp, ‘Eames’ lounger et al are exquisite, but they’re not the only lights and chairs in the world! Just as the ‘Birkin’ isn’t the only handbag in existence. I can desire, but not necessarily have, and such is life. It sucks sometimes.

But if the copyists can make things cheaper, why can’t the licence-holders? Agreed, if an authentically created ‘Barcelona’ chair from Knoll retails for £4,000+, how can someone else sell the same thing for £400? But let’s think about this for a moment. To sell the chair for this little simply means a lot of corners will have been cut. It’ll be low-quality leather, probably not used on all sides of any cushions (fabric or pleather is commonly substituted where they think you won’t look), the cushion will be filled with cheap foam, the frame will be hollow, and the steel used less than the recommended 12 millimetre thickness.

But if it looks the same, what’s the problem? Maybe your conscience will be pricked by the possible human cost. Forget about safe working conditions and fair pay for staff, jettison ecologically aware environmental practice, waste management and so on, as these might well all contribute to getting the price down. But honestly, put an original next to a copy and you’ll immediately be able to tell the difference. And more crucially, comfort and longevity will have been compromised. A quality chair will have seats you sink into, not bounce off. Plus, an authentic classic will age gracefully, gaining patina and character before you hand it down to your children. And, it will hold its value! If you can afford it, it’s a functional heirloom.

But I can’t find what I want for the amount of money I have to spend. Then that’s where we at ELLE Decoration must do better. We hereby dedicate ourselves to finding those style-for-less items that you’ll love just as much (see our monthly wish list pages), as well as talent spotting the future classics (see p141 of the October issue for our 2016 ELLE Decoration British Design Award winners). There’s loads of great stuff out there, so no-one ever has to resort to fakes. They aren’t worth it, and you deserve more.


First published in the October 2016 issue of ELLE Decoration