Heart Home meets… Michelle Ogundehin
Here at Heart Home we firmly believe in designers’ rights, are vehemently against plagiarism, and wholeheartedly support ELLE Decoration UK’s Equal Rights for Design campaign.
Editor-in-Chief Michelle Ogundehin took some time out to pen her thoughts on this debate…
Why is ELLE Decoration UK campaigning for Equal Rights for Design?
There are estimated to be 250,000 designers in the UK, so even if you’re not one, you’ll probably know someone who is. Our campaign is 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.
What is the Equal Rights for Design e-petition?
The ELLE Decoration UK Equal Rights for Design petition is to prompt the government to look into the disparity between the protection afforded to intellectual property concerning design, and that of other creative disciplines.
What is 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.
So, what is the current problem for design in the UK?
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!
Isn’t that hypocritical?
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, i.e. inventors would sit back and not bother innovating if they continued to get paid for something they’d already done.
Why should people be able to make money off something they created ages ago?
What we’re asking is why protect some creative disciplines, and not others? Additionally, we’re flagging 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. So why is ‘design’ deemed less worthy of protection? Are designers felt to invest less ‘labour, skill or judgment’ in their work (the criteria governing copyright eligibility) than authors, musicians or artists?
At least designers get some protection. Can’t they take someone who copies their work to court?
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 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 as cases go through court! So in theory, legal protection is there, but in practice it’s worthless. And it’s also why young designers who’ve exhibited their wares at exhibitions and shows in the hope of getting a commission or job, subsequently see their work appear on the high street before they’ve even managed to get a prototype made. Again, often, even if they have clear proof and funds, they don’t cause a fuss because they don’t want to jeopardise future possible business. A catch 22 weighted towards the predators.
What about old designs? Why should the UK care about them and designers long gone? That’s just manufacturers profiting off a back catalogue isn’t it?
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 designers, whether that legacy comes in the form of foundations, dedicated museums, private houses or a body of work.
Manufacturers also pay royalties to the designer’s descendents where relevant. And let’s not forget, in many cases they 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 the 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? After all, we’re not asking for protection ad infinitum, just for parity of protection with music or literature.
What about those companies that bought a licence later? If they weren’t involved with the original designer, why should they profit?
It’s really still as above. They also inherit the responsibility attached to that designer’s legacy, and the permission to only create the designs as the author originally intended. And there’s never a guarantee of continued success, which is why good manufacturers constantly reinvest their money into research and development, which hopefully enables a new generation of designers to create the classics of the future. The rip-off merchants circumvent all of this. They care only about quick profit for themselves.
Most classics made today aren’t ‘original’, they’re all modified, what with industrial progress, 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 our 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 the ‘Barcelona’ chair, first designed for the German Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona Expo, as an example; 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’ i.e. 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 owns 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.
Some classic items are 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 either. We should 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.
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, i.e. 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 etc.
If the design piece looks the same, 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 recently and you’ll immediately be able to tell the difference. But more crucially, comfort and longevity will have been compromised. If the foam used is low quality then the cushioning will be very stiff. 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.
What if I only want the product for a short while, to fit a current trend?
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, i.e. forget about safe working conditions and fair pay for staff, assuming it’s not child labour; 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.
If you believe strongly in this issue, you can sign the ELLE Decoration UK Equal Rights for Design e-petition to change the UK copyright laws here.
Kate Baxter is a columnist for Heart Home and authors the blog Fabric of my Life. A PR girl by day and interiors stylist in every remaining hour God sends, Kate founded Fabric of my Life as a little corner of cyberspace where she could collect all her design ideas, passions, thoughts and musings into one big magpie's nest. You can follow her on Twitter @fabricofmylife. Read more posts by Kate Baxter.
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