Imitation could be Illegal


Many iconic designs are legally protected; research before you copy.
By Jon Shackelford
Pages: 76-79

From the November 2008 issue #172
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It has often been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Perhaps nowhere is imitation more commonplace than in furniture making. Attractive pieces from antiquity as well as the avant-garde are studied, scaled and reproduced by industrious woodworkers everywhere. But not all furniture creators and designers consider imitation a compliment – especially when it leads to lost income or damaged reputation.

In increasing numbers, furniture creators and designers are turning to intellectual property law as a means of preventing unauthorized replication of their work. Take for example the famous Eames lounge chair and ottoman, pictured above. Herman Miller, who acquired exclusive rights from Charles and Ray Eames nearly 60 years ago, has sought to stop others from reproducing the “EAMES” trademark and also the lounge’s distinctive shape (its “trade dress”), and has registered these traits with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.

United States commerce laws encourage competition in the marketplace, and toward this end favor a competitive landscape in which many sellers can offer the same popular products. This aim, however, is in tension with two other societal objectives: 1) encouraging innovation, and 2) preventing consumer confusion at the point of purchase.

How does a government like the United States, dedicated to free-market principles, balance equally compelling desires to foster creativity and protect consumers from fraud or mistake in their purchases? The answer, at least in part, is to limit the commercial copying of products (such as furniture) with a few carefully crafted “intellectual property” laws.

Under what circumstances is it illegal for a woodworker to reproduce someone else’s furniture design? As a practical matter, there is a difference between building furniture for sale and building for personal use. Although personal-use builders may be equally guilty of infringing someone’s intellectual property, they are far less likely than those who sell to be noticed or pursued.


From the November 2008 issue #172
Buy this issue now