The furniture industry is facing an insurmountable war against copycat manufacturers. The influx of cheaper – albeit lower quality – products is having a detrimental effect on the original world-renowned artists.
The implementation of Intellectual Property laws for furniture design appears to be a somewhat vague and confusing concept. Furniture is regarded as a functional item, and in legal terms, it is difficult to separate this from the creative design elements – i.e., artistic licence – of the item. Current copyright laws tend to not be clearly defined when regarding the furniture industry. Design patents similarly only protect new and ornamental designs where the ornamental aspect is not primarily dictated by function.
Copycat manufacturers therefore have the freedom to scour the pre-launch exhibitions and handpick any items that take their fancy. Their core focus is mass-production of plagiarised items, while not adhering to the same levels of quality or aesthetic perfection. These ‘knockoffs’ are then released at exactly the same time as the authentic items but for a quarter of the price! This is having an extremely negative impact on furniture companies. It is affecting their royalties, their bottom line and their reputation.
In an interesting article titled Should Furniture Become Fashion Forward?, the question was raised as to whether the same legislation that currently protects fashion designers’ Intellectual Property should be implemented within the furniture industry. But again, the grey area between form and function leaves a confusion that places furniture designers in a space of threat.
This lack of legislation allows copycats to freely infiltrate the global furniture industry without any possibility of reprehension. Some designers have been successful in litigation suits, but these are typically only the larger companies who have the resources to take the battle to court.
In Europe, the EU Intellectual Property law has been implemented in all countries except for England, Romania and Estonia. And yet these policies are still not enforced to a great enough level to curb all copycat enthusiasts. Similarly, the United States legislation has been questioned on several occasions. There just doesn’t appear to be enough intervention in place to sufficiently protect designers’ originality.
Tony Ash, Managing Director of the Switzerland design brand Vitra says that the copycats are having a detrimental impact on the industry.
“I simply cannot get to grips with the fact that people are able to copy the products of designers such as Ray and Charles Eames, Ron Arad, George Nelson, Barber Osgerby, Verner Panton, Norman Foster, the Bouroullecs and Isamu Noguchi, manufactured by Vitra, without paying a penny to the designer, their heirs or the charitable foundations that have become the guardians of their work. It makes no sense”. (Source: De Zeen)
Ash also explains that the EU Intellectual Property law protects a furniture design for 70 years plus the life of the author. But in countries that do not adhere to this legislation, designs are only protected for 25 years. “Thus the 1956 Eames Lounge Chair ran out of IP protection in 1981” he explains.
London-based design company, Raft faced a very unscrupulous situation when they discovered that a copycat company was supplying a major retailer with their designs, and even using the trademarked Raft name. The copycat went as far as to completely mimic Raft’s logo and unique design style.
“Customers who believe that they are buying a Raft product know it is reclaimed, that the supplier is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, that it has been ethically sourced and they are not contributing to global deforestation. Instead, they could find they’re buying furniture made from newly- felled trees” said Mick Quinn, Raft CEO.
He added a very pertinent point that “Microsoft wouldn’t do a white range of computers and call them the Apple range. It’s only because I’m so small. Large corporations on the high street are disrespecting the intellectual property of smaller companies.” (Source: The Telegraph)
At this stage, we’re not yet convinced that the industry is any closer to solving this dilemma. Designers need to be recognised, remembered and rewarded for their timeless contributions. Furniture is art and the Iconic Designers of our times have created some unforgettable masterpieces. Let’s pay tribute to them by always buying authentic pieces.