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Do We Need Stricter Design Protection Laws?

Are crappy knockoffs really something manufacturers should be scared of?

Do We Need Stricter Design Protection Laws?
[Illustrations: Daniel Salo]

Is there anything wrong with knocking-off a 50-year-old design? Tony Ash, managing director of Vitra, thinks so. Ash has written an opinion piece over at Dezeen, arguing for stricter design protection laws in his native Europe, and by extension elsewhere. But the argument extends pretty much everywhere. Ash writes:

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When I joined Vitra, back in 1999, my predecessor gave me some advice: “Get over the fakes”. Fifteen years later, 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, BarberOsgerby, 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.

The issue is more complicated. Many companies that sell original design, such as Vitra, start from the premise that designs should be licensed by their estates and protected by law, whether it’s a 50-year-old Panton chair or a 70-year-old Noguchi table. Here in the United States, patents expire between 14 years and 20 years after they are granted, and that’s for a reason: it’s to prevent any one innovator from having a monopoly on a major design breakthrough for too long. But there’s nothing illegal about copying a design wholesale and selling it without licensing fees once that patent period has expired, as long as you don’t market it under someone else’s name. (Incidentally, this is why so many knock-offs say they are “inspired” by the likes of Eames and Nelson: it’s a loophole.)

That’s just here in the States. In Europe, design protection laws are more generous. Depending where you are, furniture designs are protected for anywhere from 25 years (the United Kingdom) to 70 years plus the life of the author (France). But even in countries where design protection has run out, companies like Herman Miller and Vitra are still making a lot of money selling Eames lounge chairs, Noguchi tables, and other items. Vitra doesn’t disclose its profits, but Herman Miller—which, like Vitra, licenses the Eames name from the Eames Estate—made $1.7 billion in sales in the year ending June 1, 2013. Instead of having a monopoly on a design, what the company is now selling is authenticity: the nebulous, hard-to-pin-down notion that only Herman Miller is qualified to recreate the design with the same quality and intent with which it was originally made, because Herman Miller is licensed to use the designer’s name as a trademark.


How do you define authenticity, though? Modernica out of Los Angeles has been reproducing classic designs like the Eames molded chair or George Nelson’s bubble lamp for years using the original equipment: even though these chairs don’t bear the Eames name for trademark reasons, they are not inferior to the authentic versions being sold by Herman Miller in the U.S. and Vitra in Europe. Is that authentic? Not according to Vitra.

Ultimately, Ash’s job is to promote the authenticity of Vitra’s products, and that’s what he’s doing here. He’s right: you can’t buy a knockoff of an Eames lounge chair that is every bit as good as the real thing for a quarter of a price, because the care and attention to detail that makes an Eames lounge chair what it is costs money. That gulf in quality is ultimately what makes Vitra money selling the “real thing.”

My guess is that Ash isn’t pushing for stricter design protection laws in Europe because he’s worried about crappy knockoffs. It’s because he’s worried about good ones making the concept of design authenticity look even more nebulous than it already is.

Read Ash’s full article here.

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