"No photographs!"

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illustration: Christine Berrie illustration: Christine Berry
words Marcus Fairs

"No photographs!" The young designer rushed over waving her arms angrily when she saw our camera. She clearly thought we were spies from China planning to rip off her lamps and flood the market with cheap imitations.

This was at designersblock in September, but the same thing happened at 100% Design and at the New Designers show in the summer: people fresh out of college were displaying huge signs next to their work, warning us that photography was BANNED and that they would SUE anyone who copied their ideas.

Design shows are notorious hunting grounds for unscrupulous copycat manufacturers, but aren't designers a bit paranoid? And, if a big company really does steal their idea, is a young sole practitioner with no money in a position to take them to court and win? Many in the industry think not.

"Worrying about copyright will just make you paranoid about someone nicking your ideas," says Piers Roberts, co-founder of the designersblock shows. "Copyright laws won't protect you anyway - most designers can't afford to go through the courts."

"It's getting a bit silly," agrees Margaret Briffa of copyright lawyer Briffa & Co. "People are getting too uptight about it; there have been lots of cases of people getting up in arms unnecessarily about perceived infringements. People do copy at shows, that's the trouble, but when they're copied, young designers need practical advice proportionate to where they are in life. There have been cases where young designers have taken big retailers to court and ended up bankrupt. You have to be realistic."

Briffa says that this wave of angst is being fuelled by a rapidly growing organisation called Acid - Anti Copying In Design. Acid was formed in 1999 and now has a membership of 1,300, many of which are young designers and students. With its startling yellow and black logo and hard-hitting language, it encourages its members to assert their rights and, through its lawyers, helps them challenge the copiers. "Acid has really made designers nervous about being copied," says Briffa. "They're giving it undue prominence. Copying is a problem, but it's only one issue among many business issues that designers face."

But Dids Macdonald, Acid's CEO, defends her organisation. "The key issue is to raise awareness and deter people from copying," she says. "If you've got whacking great notices up saying you're not going to tolerate copying, people will go on to the next person." Macdonald cites a recent trade fair where Acid officers confronted a far-eastern visitor who had been taking digital photos of stands and forced him to erase his snaps.

She adds that Acid has helped 127 designers reach legal settlements with copyists since 1999. Macdonald cites the case of ceramicist Keith Munro, whose original design for a vase was copied by Next. She says Acid helped him get £70,000 from the retailer plus a royalty agreement. But Macdonald adds: "These big wodges of cash are unusual." Each action costs the designer around £2,000 - although in 80 per cent of cases, designers recoup their legal fees.

Macdonald had the idea for Acid eight years ago when, as a designer, she found herself fighting copyright infringers and could not find anyone to advise her. "I was spending more of my time being a barrack-room lawyer than a designer, so I decided to do something about it," she says. "I see a lot of graduates coming to market with very little knowledge about protecting their ideas, of presenting themselves at shows. Designers could do more to learn about their rights."

But designer Isabel Stanley is unconvinced by Acid's approach. "Acid is another commercial organisation preying on designers' paranoia," she says. Stanley has plenty of experience of being copied: she started the recent trend for stripey lampshades. Rather than consult her solicitor, Stanley saw it as an accolade. "It's confirmation you're on the right track; you should take it as a compliment," she says. "My reaction was: OK, I've been copied. The quality wasn't as good. I put my label on everything I do, so people knew they weren't mine. I use good manufacturers who promise not to produce similar designs. You can be miserable about it or you can be positive, and see it as a challenge to do something else that will be unique and successful. It spurs you on." She adds that she's had support from publications such as the Guardian, who have written articles pointing out that if readers want the original and best stripey lampshade, they should seek out Stanley's work.

"The best way of protecting your ideas is to get them in magazines," agrees designersblock's Roberts. "Reputable companies won't copy you - everyone will know what they've done." In the fashion industry, copying is rife as high-street chains take ideas from the catwalk shows and produce affordable copies in a matter of days. Designers seem resigned to it. "It's really, really common," says fashion designer Jessica Ogden. "The big companies think, 'oh it doesn't matter, she's too small to do anything about it.' At my last show a friend told me that by the next morning my ideas had been downloaded from the internet and were up on the ideas board at a major chain. I'm known for using antique fabrics - and the chain just reprinted them. I felt angry and violated. But what I've been left with is not the anger but a sense that I'll try to turn that around to my advantage. In some ways, it's flattery; you're seen as having started a trend." However, Ogden concedes that she doesn't know as much as she should about copyright law, and adds: "I do have moments when I wish I had made more of a stand."

Designers can resort to copyright laws if someone else produces something that is "exactly or substantially" the same as their work, says Briffa. Something that is merely similar is probably not in breach of the law. Copyright is automatic - you don't have to apply for it. The major problem is proving you had the idea first: signing and dating all drawings is the most basic way of doing this. Briffa advises that, due to the cost and bureaucracy of registering designs, designers should only do this if their products become successful. You can file for a European registered design up to a year after you first marketed the product.

As the Acid bandwagon gathers pace, other creative businesses are questioning whether copyright is really desirable at all. Some argue that it is, in fact, anti-creative. "I feel caught in the middle about it," says Ella Doran, who pioneered the trend for printing photographic images on to tablewares about six years ago and has been much imitated since. "I support the idea of innovation and I support sharing ideas. At which point does it become ripping off? Acid is creating a movement and it will be interesting to see what happens. Maybe everything will stagnate; maybe creativity will die."

"I like to do what I do," adds Ogden. "It's about sharing ideas, putting things out, and not turning it into a copyright war."

"Copyright inhibits creativity," agrees Martin Raymond of trendspotting consultancy The Future Laboratory, who argues that creative economies depend on networks of people sharing ideas and collaborating on projects. "If one person owns an idea, nobody else can improve it."

Raymond says that the future is with "open-source" projects - whereby everyone is given free access to ideas and information. The internet, which facilitates exchange of information, is driving the open-source trend. The hugely successful Linux operating system is an example of this: instead of keeping the computer code secret, it's inventor, Linus Benedict Torvalds, made it public, meaning that thousands of people have since helped refine and develop the product.

The internet has allowed musicians to adopt a similarly anti-corporate approach: files are freely shared and sampled, much to the chagrin of the big music companies and their lawyers.

In the USA, a new organisation called Creative Commons is pioneering ways to allow creative businesses to "skip the intermediaries" - ie the lawyers - and permit a degree of copying without surrendering all legal rights. "Too often the debate over creative control tends to the extremes," says the Creative Commons website. "At one pole is a vision of total control - a world in which every last use of a work is regulated and in which 'all rights reserved' (and then some) is the norm. At the other end is a vision of anarchy - a world in which creators enjoy a wide range of freedom but are left vulnerable to exploitation. Balance, compromise and moderation - once the driving forces of a copyright system that valued innovation and protection equally - have become endangered species."

Creative Commons has produced a range of licences that set out the conditions under which work can be copied, distributed and displayed by others. "Like the free software and open-source movements, our ends are cooperative and community-minded, but our means are voluntary and libertarian," says its site.

Creative Commons mainly helps musicians, graphic designers and photographers but the open-source approach, and a similar concept called "copyleft" whereby everyone involved in a project has an equal stake in it, is now being used in other areas - such as TV programme making and architecture - using online information exchanges. Even just a few years ago, these professionals would have jealously guarded their own knowledge. "Architects and engineers need to share their ideas with lots of people so they can overcome potential problems," says Raymond. "To do that, you have to reinvent the whole system of copyright, patent and intellectual property. You've got this idea taking hold in every area of cultural activity - except design. Designers are terrified of it. Partly it's ego, and partly they feel it undermines their work."

Raymond says there is another reason to celebrate copying: "It reminds you how good the original was." He cites the current poster campaign for the Dyson cleaner: it features dozens of derivative cleaners and compares their performance with the original. "Dyson is saying that even if you copy me, the real issue is about innovation and performance. So as long as you keep innovating, you will stay ahead of the copy-cats."


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