In 2012 ELLE Decoration launched the “Equal Rights for Design” campaign to highlight the disparity between copyright protection available in the UK for designed items versus the creation of art, music or literature. It was a loophole that made Britain the designer knock-off capital of Europe, with many a dubious dealer legally based here. Backed by the likes of Sir Terence Conran and Sir James Dyson, we took our campaign to the government and despite vociferous counter-campaigning from the fake merchants, we succeeded and the law was changed to bring copyright protection in line with other disciplines (protection for 70 years after the death of the designer) and EU law. Victory tasted a little sour though as it wasn’t due to be enforced until 2020 enabling an extremely lengthy transition period for retailers 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 it’s true? Read on to discover why there’s a lot more to it than that.
It’s all very well, but 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 someone who is. Our campaign was about people, not profit. These are the people who make your life easier, more efficient, comfortable and beautiful so 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 major part of the UK’s economy, contributing 5.14% of the UK’s employment total, 10.6% of exports and 2.9% of Gross Value Added. If designers continue to receive such pathetic protection, why would anyone 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, but at the end of the day, aren’t ideas just ‘out there’, I mean doesn’t everyone have a right to profit from them? 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? Plus, in response to the ‘but I could have done that’ knee-jerk response… 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.
I’m listening, so what was the petition all about then? The ELLE Decoration Equal Rights for Design petition was initiated to prompt the government to look into the disparity between the protection afforded to intellectual property concerning design, and that of other creative disciplines.
Whoa, going too fast already, what do you mean by intellectual property? Intellectual property simply means that the owners of ideas are granted certain exclusive rights to protect those ideas. The tricky bit is that such ‘ideas’ are often 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.
Ok, well that sounds pretty comprehensive, so what’s the gripe for design? In the UK, art, literature, film and music are afforded automatic copyright protection for 70 years after the death of the originating author/s. Whereas for design, registered designs are protected only from the date of issue and for just 25 years. And worse, if your work is unregistered (costs sometimes prohibit the registration of every permutation of a design, especially for young designers), protection lasts for only three years!
That seems a bit hypocritical… Exactly, now you’re getting it! Originally, the cover was low as it was only intended to protect things like car parts, and industrial components, and the rule setters believed that longer cover would impede industrial progress ie, inventors would sit back and not bother innovating if they continued to get paid for something they’d already done.
Well that seems reasonable, why should people be able to make money off something they created ages ago? By that rational, 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. And what we questioned was why protect some creative disciplines, and not others? Additionally, we flagged up that the law is out of step with what currently constitutes design, in other words we see ‘design’ as an endeavour on a creative par with art or writing. This isn’t about nuts and bolts anymore. This is about creative ability. Are designers felt to invest less ‘labour, skill or judgment’ in their work (the criteria governing copyright eligibility) than authors, musicians or artists?
But at least designers get some protection, I mean they 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 Goliath’s bank on the designers giving up through lack of funds, time or emotional energy. In fact there are too many recorded cases of young designers and small companies being driven out of business trying to protect themselves due to the crippling costs of litigation. 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, even sometimes as cases go through court! So in theory, legal protection is there, but in practice it’s worthless. A catch 22 weighted towards the predators. And if we don’t start protecting our young designers, we won’t have a design industry in the future. Surely we don’t want to let our British design heritage go the same way as British manufacturing?
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? No, not really. The licence to produce the work of these seminal designers also comes with the responsibility to protect and maintain 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 xxxbelowxxx), dedicated museums, private houses or a body of work. Manufacturers also pay royalties to the designer’s descendants where relevant. And let’s not forget, in many cases the manufacturers were fundamental in translating those designer’s dreams into realities. That’s why, let’s say in the case of furniture, the manufacturers also have the ‘right’ to be remunerated. For a writer, substitute publisher; for a musician, imagine it as the producer/record label etc. In other words the artist/designer or producer/publisher/manufacturer are working in partnership. One could not exist without the other. Don’t they deserve a little pay back for that? And there’s never a guarantee of continued success, which is why good manufacturers also constantly reinvest income into research and development, which hopefully enables 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, what with industrial progress and all that, so unless you’re lucky enough to find a vintage one, we’re all buying reproductions! How do you define authentic? Let’s not confuse two issues here. 1. Who owns the right to reproduce a design, and 2.The fact that even licensed models may differ from the very first versions.
Authentic within the terms of this copyright discussion means made by the manufacturer who legally owns the licence to reproduce the design. And I use the word reproduce deliberately, as yes, today’s versions of an ‘original’ design may well have the benefit of the progress of technology such as improved safety factors. Let’s take as an example the ‘Barcelona’ chair, first designed for the German Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona Expo; it was quite probably manufactured by several different companies before Mies van der Rohe, the originating designer, sold the design rights to Knoll in 1953. The extremely rare, ‘originals’ ie the six debut models, are indeed structurally very different from today’s chair. The upholstery was pigskin for starters, and the frame was put together like a complex jigsaw puzzle. But these details are moot. Bottom line is Knoll alone own the right to reproduce the chair, or modify it with agreement from the Mies Foundation, and as such each Knoll-produced chair comes replete with a stamp of authenticity, a serial number, signature and logo. Anything ‘Barcelona’-esque without these is an UNlicensed copycat.
Are there any designs which have never changed? Yes, the Thonet family has never sold the rights to their classic bentwood café chair. So it’s still made by the original manufacturer, in the same way as it has been for the last 150 years, and all revenue still goes directly to the Thonet family.
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 designer lifestyle, and lest we forget, they’re also luxury items. These pieces were never intended as democratic design, just as not everyone can own a Hermès handbag or Roland Mouret dress. We encourage people to spend what they can afford, certainly no more than they feel any item is worth, but also to have the confidence to be original in their choices. Yes the ‘Arco’ lamp, Eames lounger and ‘Barcelona’ chair are exquisite, but they’re not the only lights and chairs in the world! Just as a Birkin isn’t the only handbag in existence. I can desire, but not necessarily have, 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 £4k+, how can someone else possibly 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 in the chair’s manufacture. It’ll be low-quality leather, which probably won’t be used on all sides of the cushion (common practice is to substitute fabric or pleather where they think you won’t look), the frame will be hollow, rather than solid, and the steel used, lower grade than usually specified, ie less than the recommended 12mm thickness. The cushion will be filled with cheap foam, which makes the chair uncomfortable; cushion buttons won’t be sewn on properly, and so on, you get the picture.
But it looks the same, so what’s the problem? It may appear superficially to be the same when seen in isolation but you only have to put an original next to a copy (as we did in the windows of The Conran Shop when we launched this campaign, see our Equal Rights for Design Facebook page) and you’ll immediately be able to tell the difference. But more crucially, comfort and longevity will have been compromised. A quality chair will have seats you sink into, not bounce off. Plus how long do you think a chair should last? An authentic classic could be handed down to the next generation, ageing gracefully, and gaining patina and character as it goes. And, they’ll hold their value. Think of them as an heirloom or investment for life, just like a painting, but more useful! So per use, they’re actually pretty economical after the initial outlay. Whereas your cheap chairs will look rough in six months and be in the skip after a couple of years. You might as well save yourself the bother and just throw your money away.
But I only want it for a year or so, as I’m into that look right now? Then perhaps you’ll be bothered by the human cost of your flightiness. The only other way these knock-off cheats can cut costs is on labour, ie forget about safe working conditions and fair pay for staff; jettison ecologically aware environmental practice, waste management and so on, all of which, if ignored, might well contribute to getting that price down, but have a high long-term cost. Plus they’re not giving anything back. Not to the heirs, the foundations, or the designers of tomorrow who could really benefit from a little support. Not to mention, the threatened loss of legitimate jobs and businesses, whose outlets are forced to close due to unfair competition. And you, the consumer, are being conned if you think you’re investing in something worthy, only to find out it’s a fake.
Ok, so my conscience is pricked, 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 UK must do better. We hereby dedicate ourselves to finding those Style-for-Less items that you’ll love just as much (see our wishlist of High Street Hits on pages xxx- xxx), as well as talent spotting the future classics (see page xxx for our pick of this year’s British Design Award winners). There’s loads of great stuff out there, so no-one ever has to resort to phony fakes. They aren’t worth it, and you deserve more.
Fine, deal. I’m convinced, no more fakes for me then. Hurrah! And shop happy in the knowledge that you’re also protecting Brand UK. Because of the hypocrisy of our copyright laws, we have been the knock-off capital of Europe as promoting, or profiting from, this kind of duplicity is illegal in many other European countries, so they’re mostly based in the UK. Make you proud? But no demand, no supply, so if you buy original and British, you’ll do yourself a double favour.
The four most ripped-off classics
These include the ‘Eames’ lounger designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1956; the ‘Arco’ lamp designed by the Castiglioni Brothers in 1962; the aforementioned ‘Barcelona’ chair, and Arne Jacobsen’s 1958 ‘Egg’ chair. They are licensed to the manufacturers listed below, all of whom contribute to the upkeep and support of these designer’s legacies through the listed foundations, museums and archives. Have a browse, it’s fascinating stuff.
Barcelona chair, licence owned by Knoll. The Mies van der Rohe Foundation
Eames Lounger, licence owned by Herman Miller in the US, and Vitra in Europe. The Eames Foundation
The Arco lamp, licence owned by Flos. The Castiglioni Foundation
The Egg Chair, licence owned by Fritz Hansen. Jacobsen archive.
First published in the October 2016 issue of ELLE Decoration