The Product. Stealing, imitating and copying. What are the wider implications?

In 1948 Charles and Ray Eames designed the classic Eames moulded plastic chair with Eiffel legs (http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/can-you-steal-design/). The design is iconic and recognised around the world but not because Eames was able to sell thousands of chairs. It is because the design was imitated by other firms who sold the chairs more cheaply.

This problem is commonplace in the creative industries. The most important part of a product is the idea or the intellectual property behind the physical product. Once this is obtained it is often easy to create replicas at low prices. This has a detrimental effect on the furniture industry because large businesses such as Ikea often replicate popular products such as the Eames chair.

While the problem is very obvious the solution is less so. Some craft makers believe that the key is to protect ideas with copyrights, trademarks, patents and so on. Firstly this is costly and it is not a straightforward legal process proving a product is new a unique. In addition certain sectors such as fashion cannot be copyrighted (Hendrick 2008).

Secondly there is another reason not to use legal measures to protect intellectual property. Arts and craft in particular have benefitted from working in collaborative environments. Take the Devon Guild of Craftsmen as an example. Workspace is often shared and it is only natural that ideas will be ‘bounced around’ for want of a better word. If you create an environment that is cold, legal and isolated it would have a detrimental effect on the synergies that exist between different makers.

As much as it is a terrible shame that valuable ideas can be taken and replicated the alternative seems no better. Despite the gloominess there is reason to be optimistic. The growth of sites such as Etsy may help to level the playing field and deter copying. In the past creative makers lost a large portion of their margin because they had to sell through some retail operator such as a department store. Etsy allows makers to interact directly with customers. In theory this direct interaction should allow makers to be more flexible on price, which in turn means it is less attractive for other firms to imitate their designs. Although this will by no means end the problems associated with imitation it is a promising move in the right direction for makers such as the Eames’s.

References:

Hendrick, L. (2008). Tearring Fashion Design Protetion Apart at the Seams. Washington and Lee Law Review (65: 217-222)

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