Furniture copyrights, patents and authorized reproductions

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Furniture copyrights, patents and authorized reproductions

Postby KevinEP » Sat Sep 19, 2009 4:32 pm

So as not to hijack onestopmodern's previous post, does anyone know of a place online that summarizes copyright and such as it pertains to furniture, lighting, etc?

As an example, if a table received a patent 50 years ago, is now out of production and its original maker defunct, is there a copyright infringement if someone were to reproduce it exactly for sale?

Would it matter if the current maker gave it the same model number/name as the original?

Also, is there a real resale advantage with "authorized reproductions"? If it's not an original, wouldn't quality and accuracy be of most interest to a buyer? Or, are these authorized reproductions treated by the market as investments as well?

Thanks!

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Postby scowsa » Tue Sep 22, 2009 8:03 am

Do not know a web site but here is what I have learned over the years.

Firstly, you cannot patent a furniture design unless it has a unique characteristic, but that needs to be one beyond its "design style." So I believe the Noguchi table has a patent for its hinge but most of the classic designs in the MCM world have no patents. Just look at how Modernica can sell Eames-type furniture without referencing Eames and how they use "Case Study" in their branding.

Secondly, most designs are not covered by copyright law. This is a big deal in the fashion industry today because of instant knock-offs and there is a movement to have new designs included. Obviously a brand-type name may be trademarked and the owner of that trademark may sue someone who breaches it.

As regards there being any resale advantage with "authorized reproductions" there is anecdotal evidence of folks seeing an authorized reproduction as having better provenance and better workmanship than an unlicensed copy. So If I find a newer Eames chair on Craigslist I might pay a bit more for a Herman Miller Home edition. But I have no evidence of these being treated by the market as investments, but more of an ethical way for buyers to pay homage to the designer.
Last edited by scowsa on Thu Feb 09, 2012 5:19 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby sumu » Sun Oct 11, 2009 9:28 am

I've been an illustrator, designer (mostly print) and product developer for a toy company.

I'm not sure I agree w/ scowsa 100%. There are two types of patents: a design patent and a utility patent. The design patent is self explanatory - it covers the look or design of an object. The utility patent covers the use/function or utility of an item - therefore, it's a considerably more difficult patent to design/knock-off around.

Just to let you know, most people don't bother patenting a design because it's costly - thousands of dollars. It's hardly worth it, considering one can simply change the look of an item, and get around the patent.

Copyrights are assumed, whether you bother to officially register or not - if I execute an illustration, for example, whether I register it and pay my fee is moot - it's still my copyright - no one can reproduce it w/out my consent. However, enforcing my copyright is more difficult if I didn't bother to submit/register my art or book/architectural plans, but certainly not impossible.

Typically, unless you plan to reproduce thousands of pieces of furniture, it's not likely someone will sue you, unless you call your designs a Noguchi table. Places like ebay might choose to not allow you to sell your item as a Noguchi-like, or Noguchi-inspired design, just like they won't let you sell Channel-inspired or Channel-like purses. Of course, they may not care, either.

Typically fakes/reproductions get into trouble because they sell themselves as cheaper versions of real things - that's why the feds can step in and confiscate their inventory and destroy it - which they do w/ regularity w/ DVDs, purses, shoes, etc.

Chances are - and this would require homework on your part - Noguchi may own a utility patent on a hinge, and a design patent on the actual table. If he updated the utility patent by improving on the hinge, he/his company may still have a current patent on it.

I think it's safe to say there are a companies out there making knock off designer furniture - they simply alter the appearance somewhat, and voila, no problem. The only problem I can see is if you use the name of the designer to sell your product. That might get you a cease and desist.

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Thanks

Postby KevinEP » Sun Oct 11, 2009 8:30 pm

Thank you both for your thoughtful replies.

To get (a little) more specific, the piece I'm interested in reproducing was made for commercial use originally.

The aesthetic design was patented in the '40s by an industrial designer who was working for a company. The patent was good for 14 years. The original company that produced it is defunct, as is apparently the company that absorbed it 20-30 years ago.

I am interested in reproducing the piece exactly, but wouldn't use either the designer's or company's name in marketing it.

There are originals floating around, but they are more expensive than the repro will cost and there really aren't enough originals around for demand in their restoration niche and among general fans of midcentury furniture.

I realize this is pretty vague, but any additional thoughts?

Thanks,

Kevin

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Postby scowsa » Mon Oct 12, 2009 6:43 am

Given the patent has expired it sounds like you will be fine reproducing the piece and marketing it under a new name/brand.

Modernica, rightly or wrongly, have become experts at this. They call their Eames-type line "Case Study" and are even boasting about the fact that they are now using the original molds for their fiberglass chairs. The licensed Eames chairs from Herman Miller now use molded plastic.

They even say
"Modernica is the official manufacturer for all Case Study Furniture worldwide." implying it is licensed in some way. It's also interesting to note that they have apprently not tried to trademark Case Study, given there are no trademark symbols anywhere on their site.
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A related story

Postby KevinEP » Sat Apr 30, 2011 2:34 pm

http://www.latimes.com/features/home/la ... full.story

Venice-based Obsolete spars with Restoration Hardware
Restoration Hardware says local businessman's claims of misrepresentation, false advertising and unfair competition are meritless.

David A. Keeps

April 30, 2011
For the 13 years Ray Azoulay has owned the Venice antiques and curiosities business Obsolete, he has built a reputation for having an unconventional eye and a signature look, a neo-Victorian mix of early industrial artifacts, vintage laboratory equipment, steampunk style, taxidermy and other natural oddities.

Now the trendsetter is taking on another role: pot stirrer.

In a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court earlier this month, Obsolete accused Restoration Hardware of intentional misrepresentation, false advertising and unfair competition, among other legal claims, all stemming from what Azoulay said were the chain store's reproductions of vintage furnishings that he had collected and sold at Obsolete. His challenge in court has been complemented by the April 22 launch of http://www.restoration-reproduces.com. There, Azoulay shows photos of vintage Obsolete lighting — pieces that cost tens of thousands of dollars to procure in France and Italy, according to his lawsuit — alongside new Restoration Hardware reproductions. To connect the dots, Exhibits 1 and 2 of his lawsuit are store receipts for the Obsolete lights, purchased by a shopper who had the pieces shipped to a Corte Madera, Calif., address that, Azoulay's suit said, turned out to be the corporate offices for Restoration Hardware.

Restoration Hardware responded by filing a cross-complaint Monday in Los Angeles that included claims of defamation and trade libel. The company also issued a statement to The Times on Wednesday that said "the claims filed by Mr. Azoulay and Obsolete are entirely meritless, and we are pleased that as a result of the litigation response made by Restoration Hardware, he and his company have agreed that, regardless of how they feel about our business, they will not continue to make inflammatory and disparaging allegations about what we do."

But come Thursday, Azoulay's anti-Restoration site was still live, declaring on its main page: "This is NOT an issue of 'copying' or 'trademarking' designs. … This is an issue of Corporate Ethics by the Design staff of Restoration Hardware."

Azoulay continued to raise the questions: If an independent merchant stakes his reputation to his ability to find rare and compelling pieces of design around the world, and he invests significant time and money to do, is it fair for a larger company to cherry-pick the best discoveries, manufacture lookalike reproductions and undercut the little guy on price? Is that an ethical line breached or merely savvy business practice?

Document: Obsolete vs. Restoration Hardware
The back story

The key component of success for Obsolete, Azoulay said, is uniqueness.

"Obsolete is all about finding one-of-a-kind pieces," he said. It's more than a store. It's a place of inspiration, he said.

He had no idea how true that was until he received Restoration Hardware's Spring 2011 Source Book, a nearly inch-thick, 382-page catalog that lists not only the in-stock pieces consumers see in stores but also made-to-order pieces that interior designers or others in the trade can buy for clients. There, pictured in one of the opening spreads and detailed in the pages dedicated to lighting, Azoulay saw three fixtures that looked very familiar, he said.

A 1940s wall-mounted lamp from an architect's office in France and two expanding scissor-arm fixtures from Italy appeared to be replicas of vintage lamps that Azoulay had sold in March 2010, according to his lawsuit. In an interview, Azoulay said he followed the paper and Google trail and found out that the buyer worked in product development for Restoration Hardware. A Restoration Hardware spokesman confirmed for The Times that the buyer formerly worked as a contractor for the store, and store receipts filed with the lawsuit show that last spring she spent $19,625.75 at Obsolete for seven light fixtures and express shipping.

Azoulay has a policy of not selling to other retailers, and he makes this policy known to prospective buyers, according to his suit. His claim said that Restoration's buyer did not identify her employer, and court documents show that she used a Gmail email address as contact information.

Jump ahead one year. The "1940s architectural boom sconce," a newly manufactured reproduction of a vintage design, is listed for $450 on Page 332 of Restoration Hardware's Source Book. Azoulay's lawsuit says it looks nearly identical to the "wall mounted industrial light from an architect's office in France circa 1940" that court documents show had fetched $7,500 in Azoulay's store. The Restoration Hardware catalog page does not specify that the piece is a reproduction, but the description on the company's website says: "Our grandly-scaled sconce replicates an original that once illuminated a French architect's studio in the 1940s."

Azoulay was offended that a competitor was "buying things, copying them and claiming that they found them in Europe," he said to The Times in an interview. "There's a difference between Venice, California, and Venice, Italy."

He sent a letter dated March 22 to Gary Friedman, chairman and co-chief executive of Restoration Hardware, citing the Obsolete pieces from France and Italy. The letter said Azoulay had paid for "the exclusive rights in the United States to sell these styles from the Italian atelier," and he had "spent precious time and resources locating and bringing to the United States" the pieces in question.

Azoulay noted that the Restoration Hardware chairman's opening message in the catalog declares that the chain will "be authentic to our own unique point of view," so Azoulay closed his letter with the line: "I would hope that you will also direct your staff to 'be authentic to your own unique point of view,' not mine."

A response dated April 8 came back from Restoration's Chief Financial Officer Chris Newman. In the letter, which Azoulay provided to The Times, Newman pointed out that Azoulay did not design the lamps: "You simply bought antique pieces created by someone else, and sold them." Newman said his company had reviewed "relevant law in this area" and determined that "copyright does not extend to articles with utilitarian function." The letter closes: "I trust you will recognize that reproduction of antiques is nothing new and that there is nothing wrong with what Restoration Hardware has done."

The Times' requests for additional comment were answered with a spokesman's statement, which said Restoration Hardware has a deep respect for original design and constantly acknowledges the provenance of items it sells.

"Restoration Hardware searches the globe to bring consumers the very best design the world has to offer — finding talented artisans who we can collaborate with, compelling design ideas that we can put into a fresh context, and beautiful antiques that we can reproduce," the company said, adding: "We are passionately committed to sharing with our customers a level of design and quality previously available only to a select few."

The bigger picture

Knockoffs, copycats, lookalikes — whatever you call them — are nothing new. But unlike a furniture designer who may see his trendy new chair copied and mass-produced at a lower price, Azoulay's claim is rooted in vintage work. These are pieces that he did not design but invested heavily to obtain based on their rarity and originality. The question he raises: If he buys a set of rare lamps — unusual in design, no longer in production and very limited in number — is it ethical for someone else to buy one, mass-produce it and sell it for less, potentially making it harder for Azoulay to sell his originals?

In his letter to Restoration's chairman, Azoulay said the practice amounts to "hitchhiking" on his labor.

Clinton Howell, president of the Art and Antique Dealers League of America, the oldest organization of its kind in the country, said the industry has no universal standards of conduct or code of ethics. Dealers, he said, simply have to live with the hitchhikers.

"It's always disappointing when one of your antiques gets reproduced," Howell said from New York, where his group is staging the Spring Show NYC antiques sale. "If someone came into my store and bought a chest of drawers and wanted to reproduce it, they have every right."

Howell said he personally sees little problem because the reproduction never can be the antique. In aged material or in pure history, the antique always will be special, and no reproduction can take that away.

Azoulay said he recognizes the fact that there is no legal reason why a shopper can't replicate functional designs. He said he supports the democratization of design, a movement to provide better furnishings at lower costs — an equation that inevitably includes reproductions. He even said he has been a fan of Restoration Hardware.

"I don't think they are the enemy," he said. "In fact, when people ask me if I have bar stools, I send them to Restoration Hardware for their Toledo stools."

But his lawsuit spells out his ethical grievances, including the accusation that the company's employee "deliberately concealed her connection to the defendants," mass-produced items that are "virtually identical" in appearance and led customers to believe that Restoration Hardware had "acquired the original works themselves from overseas suppliers," when, in fact, Azoulay said, his store did the legwork.

In an era where the back story to a piece of furniture is as important to some shoppers as the way it looks, Azoulay is drawing support. An antiques dealer in New York came forward with a similar story, saying an item in the new Restoration catalog is a replica of something he had sold to a shopper in San Francisco.

"They should call it Replication Hardware," said Tod Donobedian, owner of TC Donobedian's Paris Flea, adding that Restoration Hardware employees are no longer welcome in his shop. "I think they are vampirish in a way. Antique dealers put forth a real personal vision of how they perceive the world — that is all they have." Maybe it's just business, he said, but "to have a point of view purchased or purloined is really offensive to hardworking small guys."

The website 1stdibs, popular among shoppers of antiques and high-end 20th century design, heard Azoulay's story and canceled a Restoration Hardware banner ad contract worth $200,000, founder Michael Bruno said. Azoulay said the harm isn't just to individual store owners whose livelihoods are rooted in an ability to offer unique pieces of design. He said Restoration Hardware's practices are unfair to his shoppers who purchase expensive pieces of rare, vintage or original design and later see replicas manufactured and sold for a fraction of the price. But there's a bigger philosophical point he is trying to make, he said: "I am sure there are young designers at Restoration Hardware with genius ideas, and I would hope that they get the chance to design things, not just copy them."

home@latimes.com

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

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Postby scowsa » Thu Oct 11, 2012 6:32 am

Reviving this thread with news from the NYT.

"On Oct. 1, lawyers for Emeco, a company based in Hanover, Pa., filed papers in district court in Northern California against Restoration Hardware and its former chief executive officer, Gary Friedman, for what they claimed was unauthorized reproduction of the Navy chair, which Emeco manufactures."

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/11/garden/copying-classic-designs-is-the-focus-of-a-lawsuit-against-restoration-hardware.html?ref=garden
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Postby scowsa » Mon Nov 26, 2012 8:21 am

Update on the Emeco Navy chair issue via this comprehensive article in Slate.

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2012/11/the_navy_chair_restoration_hardware_s_imitation_of_emeco_s_original_design.html

which includes this key paragraph

"But Emeco has a second claim. (The first being the product name.) It argues that it has a trademark on the chair’s design as well as its name. This claim is also a stretch. The Supreme Court has been very skeptical of such “trade dress” claims in which a firm asserts ownership over how a product looks. The court has said that firms can claim trademark rights on the design of products only if they have achieved what lawyers refer to as “secondary meaning”—that is, if the design is recognized by a substantial number of consumers as synonymous with the product itself. "
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