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When is it OK to copy design?

By May 18, 2014Blog

I’ve been pondering this question a lot lately. Our social media fans have been sending us a lot copycat pictures lately, some they did, some others have done. I’ve found numerous companies on the web using our photos claiming to make our product. I go to Starbucks and other restaurants and find obvious copies, or pieces heavily influenced by our design. My neighbor just bought a cheap Ellis copy from Pier One or someplace like that. So it’s on my mind.

My first introduction to this started when our backyard business got too big for me to handle. So I hired a fabricator to help. I remember my wife Sim saying she had a feeling he wasn’t trustworthy. That month, he opened up a small store selling the product I was asking him to make. It was a few months before I figured that out. I thought this was illegal, and I had some sort of recourse, but it’s not. More like highly unethical, at least from my standards. And we’re learning that we have higher standards than many others out there in this business. Long story short, that guy went out of business pretty quick, something that made me feel all warm and fuzzy at the time.

So when I was starting out in this business, I was just wanting to make something I liked. I spent so much time looking at design in America, but mostly Europe. That’s when I discovered the French had a knack for it. My attention turned to French industrial design. I felt connected with various antique designs, and copied them, with some changes to make it my own. My thought was nobody was making it and I was doing the world a favor by bringing it to the light. I loved some of the designs. But really the key was to take elements from various designs, and make them into one piece. The A Frame, our most copied piece, was influenced by classic A frame structures, aircraft lightening holes, and the old machine bases I loved, but couldn’t find. So out popped a completely unique design from various elements. Now this is copying that I endorse.

As a designer, which I am told I am, we first think we don’t copy, that we are original. But everything is a copy. The shirt you are wearing is copied in many fashions from the type of  knit, to the cut, the color, to the machines it was made on. Somebody came up with that idea, and others copied it, sometimes to a tee, sometimes just elements. So we become disillusioned at first, then realize this is what happens with Good design. The company that made your car did not invent the wheel, airbag, or robotic assembly process. They borrowed that. Some will patent, trademark, or copyright design, but that is a discussion for another day.

Here’s my list:

When is it OK to copy?

  1. When the designer is dead or company gone and it’s not copy protected.
  2. With permission from one of the above.
  3. When it’s for personal use, but I recommend #4 added to this.
  4. When enough elements are changed to unequivocally make it your own.
  5. When you take design elements from multiple places to make something new.

Somethings to ponder when you are designing/copying:

  1. Would you be OK with others copying your design in this fashion?
  2. Are you selling this design?
  3. Is the original designer OK with this?
  4. Are you drawing inspiration from, or outright copying? It’s always lies somewhere in between, and I believe it’s better to be more towards the inspiration side.
  5. Did you credit where you got the inspiration from?

The rational process of copying:

  1. My client can’t afford that company’s product, so I’ll undercut the original price and make the same thing.
  2. They overcharge for product and deserve it.
  3. If I make that product, I can charge a lot for it too and get rich!
  4. They are successful and won’t care.
  5. It won’t affect them.

Reasons you got copied:

  1. You made something worth copying.
  2. You showed it to people.
  3. It’s your karma.
  4. All of the above is true, in my humble opinion.

How to not get copied:

  1. Don’t show it to anybody.
  2. Make something not worth copying.
  3. Trademark, copyright, or patent the design. Just kidding, this won’t matter if it’s worth copying, they will do it anyways.

One real Hure and 3 copies

Walnut Hure Table fake Hure 2 Starbucks HUre Hure Copy

One of the copies is sitting at Starbucks. We’ve done business with them before too.

The other copy claimed this was their trademark design they are famous for.

One real A Frame and two copies

A Frame Bar Table A Frame Copy A Frame copy2

Almost forgot, one copied our bench, the other our Zen chair.

I feel better after putting this into words. And I feel honored to have inspired others. Comments Please!

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