So, on 23 May 2012, Business Secretary Vince Cable proposed a bill to parliament that could implement exactly what our Equal Rights for Design campaign set out to achieve, equality of copyright protection for “artistic works produced through an industrial process” aka design, with works of art, literature or music, plus the proposal would bring the UK into line with the rest of the EU, meaning the UK could also relinquish its default title as the knock-capital of Europe! But the battle is far from over.
Being in the early stages of the legislative process, the bill will need to be debated within both houses before it can be implemented [the bill received Royal Assent on 25 April 2013]. And as Jane Randell, a solicitor at Farrer & Co Solicitors says, “There’s no fixed time frame for this to happen, but it’s usually a fairly slow process. This means that, for the present time at least, section 52 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (1988) is still of relevance.”
Nevertheless, you can track the bill’s progress, just like a parcel here. But while the MPs debate, the faux furniture folk continue to sell their wares, and even after it’s implemented, they will be granted a stay of execution to dispose of existing replica stock.
A press release issued by the IP Office put it like this, “The Government recognises that the proposal has implications for anyone who manufactures, distributes and sells those replicas which may become illegal as a result of the change. Like other types of copyright infringement, fines and even a custodial sentence may ensue. Therefore, provided Parliament approves the proposal, the Government intends to implement the change in a way which takes into account the adjustments that businesses will need to undertake in order to comply with the new provisions. The Government is considering when the new provisions should come into effect and transitional provisions to enable retailers to clear any relevant existing stock.”
Crucially, it must also be noted, that when the bill comes into force, to benefit, a designer would still have to seek copyright protection for their work, which is not automatic. Again, the IP office makes the following statement, “Products will still need to meet the relevant legal thresholds to qualify for copyright protection. So not all products will qualify for copyright, irrespective of whether they have design protection. Equally many protected designs may not enjoy copyright protection. In the future, however, those products which do meet the relevant copyright standards, even if manufactured on an industrial scale, will attract the life plus 70 year term once the new legislation is in force.”
So it’s looking good for the awareness and protection of iconic designs, but any infringements will still need to be enforced, and this potential reform does nothing to prevent the unauthorised copying of new designs, so it’s equally important now that continuing pressure is brought to bear for improvements in enforcement policy alongside copyright reform.
As it stands, design copyright infringement is enforceable only through the civil rather than criminal courts, which acts as little deterrent to those with deep legal pockets, and as 87% of the UK’s 240,000 UK designers have less than 10 employees and 67% have less than 4 employees, that counts most designers out, a fact routinely exploited by the copyists.
But shockingly, a recent example of possible “copying” that came to my attention was perpetrated not by shady replica artists operating from far afield, but seemingly by a bastion of the great British highstreet, Laura Ashley! On the right their “new” Hayworth light, and on the left, Lee Broom’s Decanter light, first released in 2010. Collectively inspired by vintage? Or blatent rip-off?