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When is it inspiration vs. theft of design?

The recent sofa chronicles on this blog are fascinating. It has stirred up all kinds of middle class striver anxiety about "authenticity".

The debate seems to be that a guy here in Seattle will make a sofa from any photo you bring him. Custom work. A few commenters think he's just a rip off artist. Maybe he is, but is that bad? And how much ripping-off can one really do of Restoration Hardware when their own designs aren't that original?

On the rip-off artist charge, does this mean if I tear out a Stephen Gambrel room as inspiration while decorating that I need to send him a royalty check? Are the same people who are pissed at the Seattle couch guy mad as hell at Madeline Weinrib for boosting the prints of Uzbekistan for her own personal gain? Let the riots begin. (Someone lock down ABC Carpet and Home, stat.)

A commenter asked:

Do you think it's all right for Restoration Hardware to rip off this Edouard Bouquet lamp:

And sell its own virtually identical version as the "Counterpoise Single-Arm Task Table Lamp":

Is there a line? And where won't you cross it? Or are there no original ideas left in lamps, sofas, pillows, etc. Discuss.


Anonymous said...

When a copyright is in breach. Call it custom made and forget about it. Designers steal ideas from other designers. Look at all the ideas mother nature gives us, do we owe her for designing the earth and creating the inspirational item.

Tara Dillard said...

Landscape Design Rules:
1. Simplicity
2. Repetition
3. Copy

In use for more than 50 centuries.

Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

Anonymous said...

I agree with anon 10:12 -- when legality becomes an issue (i.e. copyright), that's a problem. But I really don't have a problem with the Seattle dude making custom furniture unless he's trying to pass off his wooden chairs as Eames and attempting to make a profit from it (by calling it something it's not).

I really can't see telling a local craftsman that he can't make and privately sell something because, heaven forbid, someone else has already done something like it. I'd much rather see people going to someplace local than Restoration Hardware.

Anonymous said...

Modernica is now selling Eames armshell chairs but not using "Eames" in the name. They call them "Fiberglass Shell Chairs." Clearly not authorized. Why isn't Alex railing against Modernica?

And all the "Barcelona" chairs you see in the lobbies and waiting rooms of office bldgs.? 99 percent are not the authorized $5,000 Knoll versions.

Go on eBay. Search under "Marshmallow sofa" (a George Nelson design) or "Coconut chair" (ditto) or "Kjaerholm chair" (Paul Kjaerholm). Most of what comes up are knockoffs.

ALEX: Where's your outrage? The AUTHORIZED makers of all these designs (Herman Miller, etc.) are still in business, still losing money to the unauthorized makers. Isn't the sheer scale of all these knockoff operations far more upsetting to you than what one lone guy in Seattle is doing?

Anonymous said...

Something tells me Restoration Hardware keeps their legal team busy...

style-for-style said...

I'm never going to buy the super expensive couch anyways, so who cares if I find a knock off.
The original designer is not going to be loosing any money on my broke ass, ha.

HOBAC said...

Of course there is a line. But, the crossing of that line is now being dictated by consumers that is only interested in the bottom line and companies with little or no integrity.

This would be an entirely different discourse if those involved actually produced goods and had an understanding of the process and cost of getting an item to the production stage.

Ivy Lane said...

Why can't we all just get along?!!!


Amy said...

I have to add 2 cents here. I am in the shoe business and let me tell you - the same you've all been saying about sofas could be said about shoe styles.

I may want the $700 Loeffler Randall boot, but the Steve Madden boot is so similar and only $150 dollars.

This is common practice. Expensive brands are knocked off by mid-tier and discount-tier brands. Even lower cost European shoes are brought into this country, and adjustments are made to be sold to American consumers. In most cases, these are shoes that would not be available for Americans to buy anyway because of a lack of distribution. But I guarantee most people reading this blog own at least a few shoes that are knock-offs made in China.

The same goes for handbags, clothes, other accessories. I guess what I'm saying is that this is not only limited to sofas or furniture. I'm sure it extends well beyond fashion and home decor too.

I'd also like to go way out on a limb and say that maybe the chic pair of shoes by some unknown designer in the small boutique down x street could also be a knock-off of a knock -off of some vintage shoe someone found in their grandmother's basement. It's hard to say where some ideas originate.

I'd like it if someone else chimed in with their thoughts.

The Glamorous Housewife said...

I heard a quote once that I will paraphrase:

The greatest designers just hide their inspiration better then average ones.

Of course the real quote was much better, but I cant remember it exactly. But I think it is true: everyone gets inspiration from somewhere, and the great designers take that inspiration and create something new and better. The others just copy.

Thanks doll,
The Glamorous Housewife

Anonymous said...

Talent borrows. Genius steals.

Or something like that....

Anonymous said...

There is value in copyrighted works but it is also up to the author of those works to protect their rights. In the furniture industry, as in the landscape industry (per Tara Dillard), it seems this isn't being done. Unlike the handbag industry (who battles piracy like no others), perhaps its because the designers have more of an "open source" approach to things--their creativity is for the public domain. For the betterment of the community and the world.

And, quite frankly, as the authors of the copyright, that's absolutely their choice.

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes: copyright infringement is not ok. Otherwise, puhleeze. This is the same argument re: fashion, right? Most of us wouldn't buy a fake Louis, but we'll certainly wear a dress from H&M that is clearly a Marc Jacobs copy.
I'm writing this, btw, from my Eames-copy chair. $139 from IKEA. Would I prefer the Eames? Good grief, yes. But I'm awfully grateful for what I can afford.

Anonymous said...

"This would be an entirely different discourse if those involved actually produced goods and had an understanding of the process and cost of getting an item to the production stage.

I don't get this. Companies that manufacture knockoffs also "produce goods" and "have an understanding of the process and cost of getting an item to the production stage." Reverse-engineering an item to figure out how it's designed and constructed may not be inventive, but it's still work.

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time, your segment of the market didn't know about product pricing/design models in other segments.

I think public knowledge of these shenanigans is new.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me Alex has chosen a difficult position to defend. Couch Seattle is providing custom work - from his blog accounts it is clear he will make whatever the customer wants. I don't feel at all bad for Restoration Hardward - they've always been in the business of knocking off higher-end brands. Just go look at Urban Archaeology's website - all of Resto Hardware's bathroom designs are knock-offs of Urban Archaeology's stuff. And frankly, Resto Hardware doesn't seem like such a fab place - didn't they lay off Petunia Face? She's awesome and I can't imagine why they would ever get rid of her! It'd be interesting to hear Petunia Face's perspective - wasn't she a brand manager or something?

Anonymous said...

Dear Decorno,
The differences between the two lamps in the post are miles apart. One is a clunky "inspired" design, the other a graceful original. You would never mistake the copy for the original. I personally would only want to own the original because it is beautiful. If I could only afford the copy I would rather have nothing. But clearly that is a personal decision. You can't force people to invest in design if they don't want to. So people compromise. But the "inspired" design isn't fooling anyone. Now, if a manufacturer used the exact same materials, specs, faked the patina and said it was an original Edouard Bouquet circa 1924 lamp, that is an entirely different situation. Denise

John Strauss said...

I get it that people may not want to pay for the original design, or the $6000 couch and they would never be able to afford it, so why not buy the knock off? To me as a creator and furniture designer, that is not the right question. Should we reward designers of original pieces for their creative work? If we don't do that as a society, what is my incentive to put an original product out in the market? Do we want to just give up here? BTW - Restoration Hardware clearly credited the original on their website and presumably checked out whether the original copyright was in force.

DianaObando said...

Good for the upholstery-copy guy!!!... a lot of us can't afford 10,000 dollars couches, and neither can our clients! so... os a good solution! :)

slag said...

Ummm...even US copyright laws can't always draw clear lines on this issue. But even when they do, their value is highly questionable. If Shakespeare had to face our copyright restrictions, he probably would have forsaken playwriting for the apothecary biz.

I haven't found a generalizable rule on this question. Most often though, I appreciate "rip-offs" when they actually improve on the original. And what does "improve" mean? Well, if the rip-off fits my aesthetic or material considerations better than the original, I consider it an improvement.

Petunia Face said...

Anon @ 4:47pm:

Thanks for the mention :) And yes, I was laid off from RH in 2008. God, it seems like it was longer ago than that! A lifetime...

Unfortunately I don't think I can make my opinions known, something about the non-disclosure I had to sign for my severance package. But I am keenly interested to see where this thread goes, as well as the comments on the post below. Verrry interested! :@

For the record, I have no idea what that emoticon means, but it kinda reflects what my facial expression looks like right now.


Anonymous said...

I think it's just GREAT that this guy at Couch has been called to attention. He is ripping off other companies designs. HE IS. And worse, he brags about it on his stupid website! Lawsuit anyone? God.

And because Resto and others do it, somehow it's perfectly fine for Couch to do it? No standards at all anymore, for anyone? Really? I guess if the people want affordable stolen design furniture then there is certainly a guy for you in Seattle!

Anonymous said...

'Inspired By' is not the same thing as 'Direct Copy'

Those lamps are completely different! If you can't see that, you are blind.

Restoration is smart enough to know they will get sued if they copy it directly. It's so easy, every company borrows from the one above it on the food chain - but to copy directly is THEFT. Be inspired, yes. Copy directly, no.

HOBAC said...

"Reverse-engineering an item to figure out how it's designed and constructed may not be inventive, but it's still work."

Yes, that is true. But they are profiting from work someone else has already done. It probably took, at the very least, a couple of prototypes to arrive at the end product. To disassemble something is so much easier than to create something.

Penelope Bianchi said...

I am way past my curfew.....I knew I would be in trouble if I read your post.
so I have read not one of the is mine.

I have been a decorator for 40 years. It is true. I have shown my very talented upholsteres pictures of sofas......and upholstered chairs that I found in old magazines and old entire career.

this is a totally nonsensical agrument....a "tempest in a teapot" if ever I heard one!

It is quite insane. There is no sofa that has a patent. etc, etc, etc.

WE have all been copying furniture we like for thousands of years.....I have copied Nancy Lancaster's curtains in varying places for my whole life! (anyone want to volunteer to "pink" the edges of the ruffles?)

There is no such thing as theft of design.

Perhaps I am railing against this because I did it!

I was a thief of design! David Easton's "big hall"

I built a house in Montecito...California...(.I had seen David Easton's house outside of Tuxedo Park for years......made great sense to me.)

.I wrote him a letter thanking him......(I think he never received.)

My house has been published.........(not to brag) four times in National complaints from David.......I have given him credit in my comments crediting him have not been published.
Oh well.......this is just all my opinion!


ps.....good point from anonymous......trees.....copy trees? Who gets the patent payment.? Mother nature. What is her address? where do we send the checks?

Anyway.........deisgn is o business to prohibit copying.

Global city condo said...

The lamp design looks classic and sophisticated.

Anonymous said...

"Restoration is smart enough to know they will get sued if they copy it directly."

The lamp design dates from 1924, so it's no longer copyrighted. RH can't be sued.

Anon 10:03 PM-- I doubt RH could sue anyone for knocking off their sofas. It would be too easy to show that "their" sofas aren't original either. Just go on 1stDibs and eBay--you'll see RH's "inspirations" all over.

It cracks me up that you object to couchseattle's small-scale business, when Restoration Hardware's knockoff operation is huge in comparison.

Lolo said...

Copyright/trademark is a line that I won't cross. Make something truly innovative and defend it against infringement.

RH, C&B, R&B, DWR are all mass producers of sometimes original, usually "inspired by" products and I have no quibble with them.

I do wonder if the line is that between a "forgery" and a "knock off" and whether those are the same thing.

liza said...

There a few original designers left in the world. It's all started to melt together.

Anonymous said...

Heaven knows its all up for grabs! Was it Shakespeare who said "existence is plagiarism?"

Anyhoo, questions like this is why I love this blog: Two parts design, one part sociology.


Decorina said...

Every single city has an upholstery shop that will make whatever you want. Anything at all. Designers use them for custom sized pieces when space constraints dictate. Not to mention price considerations. There is very little in design that isn't inspired by something previously produced.

Get over yourselves you righteous self important arbiters of design. There is very little that is completely original in the world of upholstery - and the pieces that are truly original command high prices that not everyone can pay.

Anonymous said...

Upholsterers do this all the time, ie a handmade copy or adaptation of an existing design, whether modern or historic. I don't have a problem with what Couch is doing. As for Buquet's 1924 lamp, the English Anglepoise lamp of 1934 is not dissimiliar and still made today by the Anglepoise company. And in Restoration Hardware's favor, the company does state clearly that it is their adaptation of the Buquet original. Which gives loads of leeway. That doesn't make copying right, though the honesty does make it more palatable.

Quatorze said...

Those of us who work in any aspect of design know that there is nothing new under the sun. In the antique shop I worked in, I was struck by a Napoleonic bronze sconce with the face of a lion, which was virtually identical to one I saw carved in stone in the Assyrian Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. That same lion face may also be seen at the Trocadero in Paris and on many Art Deco buildings in NYC. Is it a rip-off, a subconscious homage, who can say? Always remember that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. As for legality, our firm copied antiques for reproduction in order to make them available to the public, the originals for which now reside in museums or palaces, as well as items that others recently reproduced in the same manner but we could not get for one reason or another. As long as you tweek the design evr so slightly - different material, different dimensions, color change, etc. - the law usually says you are not actually copying.

Sometimes there is a new idea, and others do cross the line in copying it slavishly, but it is hard to prosecute. One hopes that buyers desire the original in such cases and certainly, the copying makes more people aware of the original designer, giving additional cache to him/her and the design. Think of the knock-off kings of Seventh Avenue, making haute couture available to the masses. Those buyers with the cash will still want the cache of owning the original runway design; that's how reputations are built across the spectrum of the populace.

Anonymous said...

Diane von Furstenberg sued H&M a few years back over this issue. Let's face it: the wrap dress is copied everywhere. She doesn't have a problem with that. But where she said H&M drew the line was that they commissioned exact copies of her printed fabrics, and that the final wrap dresses were carbon copies of hers. (Again, not the plain black ones, but her wild prints.)

It makes for an interesting debate.

Anonymous Hardware Guy said...

As marketing director for a hardware company for 7 years, all of our new launches were protected by "design patents". Our patent attorneys used to tell us, all they need to do is add 1 small detail or eliminate one of your design details. Voila! You Danced with the Stars around the patent protection.
There is little that is completely new or completely original under the sun.
That does not remove the resonance of a piece, or its inherent beauty of design. Copies simply help broaden access to design and make our homes, offices, and shops more creative and aesthetically pleasing.

Anonymous said...

The problem is with the people who are making the furniture, not the people buying it. Many people who want a minimal sofa with clean lines may not even know who Eames is. Aside from Ikea, West Elm or any of the other mega chains, you can’t go into a regular furniture store and buy a well designed simple sofa. They’re all giant overstuffed leather monstrosities. Why don’t the people who design furniture realize there is a huge group that wants simple and modern, but original? Anyone who would even care about what a Barcelona chair is would much rather have a real one and wouldn’t try to pass off a copy as an original. It’s just that these copies are all we’re given! Where is the MODERN modern furniture?!

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:40 AM:

Thanks for the DVF example. I think it applies here.

I don't believe couchseattle could be accused of copying, because his fabrics are no doubt different from the fabrics used in sofas from Room & Board, RH, Crate & Barrel, etc. I bet all those stores' fabrics are proprietary.

billyhacker said...

Lots of lines are getting muddled here: most of the accessory violations are trademark violations, not "copyright." Given the ubiquity of LV knockoffs brandishing the trademark I would venture that it is the brand itself that many find compelling, not necessarily the design. The same with the couch or other furniture: calling yourself Room and Board is a no no, while looking like Room and Board is fine.

Generally, unlike patent and trademark violations copyright violations require proof that someone copied your specific design. That is, many people can have legal copyright on each copy of an identical thing if they created it without duplicating another copyrighted thing. That's a very high threshold to prove.

The total absence of patents for 99% of furniture proves to me that all this creative veneration is nonsense. Most furniture designs don't pass the patent test: new, inventive and useful (in the legal sense, which is strict) and even if they do, patent expires (usually after 20 years) and every subsequent derivative work is unpatentable.

I doubt there is a single couch anywhere which is new, inventive, and useful that is less than 20 years old. However, the foam is patented, the fabrics might be patented, and even the wood frame materials could be patented (genetically modified wood is patentable).

If you want to protect your furniture stick a huge trademark in the middle of the backrest. Yeah, I wouldn't buy it either.

Anonymous said...

"And in Restoration Hardware's favor, the company does state clearly that it is their adaptation of the...original."

As does couchseattle.

Kasey at Thrifty Little Blog said...

I think that it is theft when you sell something that *would be purchased in place of the original (if you're actually taking away business). I'm never going to buy that $4,000 chair, so when something similar is sold for $250 it isn't really wrong, but smart business.

Anonymous said...

I have worked on the branding aspect for many home furnishings and dec acc companies, including Resto. All the "designers" do is shop and then put a room together with al the originals then send them to a third world country to be knocked off. They get clunkier so they can be shipped more easily and manufactured more crappily. The biggest issue for me is that the whole notion of what 'designers' do has changed - really its just about shopping and taste. They don't add value to our universe, they don't create newness, they don't solve problems. And the people who do take the time to do these things can't stay in business anymore because the trend cycle is so fast they can't make any money cause its ripped off so quickly. "Inspired by" is not the same as copying, if its an inspiration then you bring something of yourself to it. Resto did not do that with the lamp, nor do they do it with much of anything. And as someone who has created products I can tell you it is VERY HARD to get something copyrighted. All someone has to do is change one detail and their copy is ok. So that is not really much a protection as other posters are citing.

Anonymous said...

I think in design it is accepted that as long as there is no copyright people are allowed to take pieces as inspiration and customize items to make them their own. Since most design based on, or inspired by, another design (as others have said), very few things are original.

For example, in carpet many companies will take a carpet they like and customize it as long as you change greater than 10% of the design. It could be the colors, pattern modifications, scale, materials. Others may just knock off the same pattern and everything and have no problem at all about it. I recently attended a design seminar by one of the largest carpet companies talking about how another of the large companies had taken one of their designs and copied it (I'm not sure how closely). The person from the company said at first he was offended but then he was flattered that they had liked it enough to copy it.

It happens in all types of design too. The DVF example someone else gave is a good one about clothing. Also Forever 21 is a huge producer of knockoff items. Below is another one of their copyright issues.

When I have worked at a job (interior design) where we take images of sofas to upholsterers to have them make one cheaper I have always felt a bit guilty but I guess I'd rather have it constructed well by someone locally who is skilled than purchase something made in China, marked up 1000% and passed off as high quality here. Or even marked up 1000% at the Design Center just because they can.

I'm not sure that copying is okay and I, myself, am not sure where to draw the line but I know I have designed what I thought was a pretty original interior only to find something similar in a design magazine a few months later. How can you ever say that anything is truly original.

Maria said...

Personally, I believe that everything design-related is recycled from another idea. It's all about how that idea is recycled and executed that makes it "original". When I was researching a brand new couch for our place, I did come across the Seattle couch guy, but still couldn't bring myself to pay even his prices. When it comes to furnishings, until I have the money to freely afford any type of furniture I desire, I'll buy it where I can afford it and purchase whatever pleases my eye as long as it fits under $1000 respectively.

Anonymous said...

"All the 'designers' do is shop and then put a room together with all the originals then send them to a third world country to be knocked off. They get clunkier..."

Check out exactly that phenomenon here, whereby RH took a perfectly great chair, Arne Jacobsen's Swan chair, and made this clunkier "Devon" chair knockoff:

Real Arne Jacobsen Swan chair:

RH's knockoff, the "Devon" chair:

Richie Designs said...

I need good design that doesn't cost 5k for a couch. If that means it's a rip off, then I'll be guilty.

ER said...

it's an endless CYCLE for all arts: namely furniture, home decor, clothing/accessories.... everything is an "inspiration of"...

basically, i wish there was a couch new york who would be able to customize sofas. it's a great service. and he's not infringing on any copyrights, so i see it as he's simply filling a need.

THE KEY IS NO COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT. otherwise, the world is your oyster... unfortunately and fortunately.

Anonymous said...

I also think it's important to remember that companies like Restoration Hardware don't just steal/"get inspired by" antiques or established designers, they also knock off small designers. They walk gift shows, trade shows, shop boutiques to "get inspired," resulting in a mass market mall store offering someone else's design. Sure, this makes the design more accessible to people, but at what price? Small companies and designers are constantly being ripped off. Legal? Yes, in the slippery way of %'s. Fair? No, not even by a fraction.

Anonymous said...

Gotta add my two cents to this . . .

I used to work for a small home decor/home fragrance company (whom shall remain nameless, so i know the difficulties of bringing a good product, good design, well packaged, at a competitive price point to a chain retailer (target, bedbathbeyond, potty barn and etc). Sure you can TRY to make the most amazing quality item with materials sourced domestically, but your cost is going to be SERIOUSLY expensive and no buyer in the WORLD will purchase your goods.

Little known fact people, half the shit in most of the catalogs is being sourced by small companies and sold to the larger companies who then mark it up. Now of course these larger companies have their own sourcing/product development/design departments, but many of the pillows, lamps, candles, plates and etc are sourced and then sold to the potty barn/resto hardware buyer.

And as I said...those buyers have profit margins they have to maintain so you can't bring them anything TOOOOOOOO expensive, cost wise, cause they won't even think about buying it. Anyone ever heard of a company called Li&Fung...they do sourcing/product development for home dec items/and etc for HUNDREDS of major companies. You won't see Li&fung's name on ANY of the products in the catalog or the store, but trust me it is their stuff.

Remember the big coral decorating craze a few years back...seriously think about you really see some deep sea divers bringing up large amounts of coral to be made into lamps and candle holders...all made in america...ummm no way...that crap was sourced at the HungZhou Fair in China and then sold to high-strung housewives in the mid-west via catalogs like anthropologie or pottery barn.

So really how "original" is anything...and whom EXACTLY are we crediting...the chinese factory who made it, the big importer who sourced it, the small company who designed it and then sold it to restoration hardware, the buyer, the design team??? WHO EXACTLY...

Now before Sara P/Alex rip me a knew asshole I am NOT saying it is ok to knock things off...the h&m/dvf example is a prime example of when inspiration can cross over into theft. Wrap dresses are universal, patterns and fabrics are specific design choices. . .

So brown leather square armed sofa is universal, thinning out the arms, reshaping the back, adding new legs. . .well that is a specific design choice.

Which brings me to Couch Guy.

You are my upholstery hero. Don't listen to these Debbie Downer assholes who keep saying your a rip off artist. Can you open a store in DC/MD/VA area?? We need you desperately out here...all these condos and only west elm/zgallery/ikea/chainstores as options to fit them and their sofas are to big for the space or not the right color for the design drives me INSANE. I would LOVE for someone to just give me an option for something custom, in a price range I can realistically stomach, and with a sense of knowledge and passion for design I can trust. Everyone keeps saying they go to their upholstery guy and show him something and he whips it up...dude WHERE are these guys?? I used to know them in LA/San Diego but I can't seem to find them in DC....not any that I can trust at least. Just strangers off of craigslist whom I am leary of giving my paypal info to...sigh...come on Couch Seattle open an satellite store in our nations capitol. We are cheaper then NYC and you can get all the east coast folks who don't want to ship your stuff from Seattle. Who's With Me!!!

The Blendess

P.S. I would post this with my name...but for some reason my iphone keeps blocking out my ability to post on this site with my log in. So I am NOT anonymous! I stand by what I say.

Anonymous said...

I think it really boils down to if you copy a distintive design and sell it as the original that is blatant fraud. If you sell a close version of an original - it is a pity you cannot come up with something yourself but that is how trends are created.

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