Copyright reform and the bottom line

eames yellowIP Draughts has a comfortable office chair. It is a reproduction of a design by the famous, mid-twentieth-century designers, Charles and Ray Eames. The design is known as the lobby chair, because it was originally designed for the lobby of the Rockefeller Center in New York, in about 1960.

The chair was a bit of a luxury item, as it cost IP Draughts several hundred pounds. It was certainly more than his previous chair, which was also of good quality, but was bought in a clearance sale when Rio Tinto shut one of its offices in London. That one cost £10. The average price paid by IP Draughts for his office chairs is not too unreasonable.

eames redThere must be thousands of reproduction Eames lobby chairs in circulation across the World. They vary in quality and price, but many of them look very similar. You can spend nearly £5,000 on one at the Conran Shop in London, if that is your choice. Or you can get them much cheaper. This one costs AUS$499, while this one seems to cost only US$70-150 if you buy 20 of them, and pay the costs of importing them from China.

With such a disparity of prices, IP Draughts idly wonders whether it is possible to have a reproduction of a reproduction, or a rip-off of a rip-off, to put it less charitably. No doubt, readers who are copyright litigators will be able to answer that one.

IP Draughts is not an expert in US copyright and design laws, but assumes that the Eames design is no longer protected. He is on safer ground discussing the position under UK copyright law. UK copyright law in this area is about to change very significantly, and will make the sale of modern reproduction furniture more difficult (or more expensive).

Let us take the fictional example of a chair designed and first marketed in England in 1960, by the fictional English designers, Karl and Jay Eaves, who both died in 1976. The chair would probably have benefitted from UK copyright, as a type of artistic work known as a “work of artistic craftsmanship”. Usually the period of copyright protection for artistic works is the life of the author plus 70 years. However, section 52 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 limits the period of copyright protection for articles that are manufactured by an industrial process, to 25 years. A statutory instrument states that this provision applies if more than 50 articles are manufactured.

In the above example, assuming that the current law applies, copyright expires in 1985 rather than 2046. (As this is only a blog article, we will skip over the fact that the chair would have first been protected under the Copyright Act 1956 and the effect of the transitional provisions in the 1988 Act for works that existed before the 1988 Act came into effect. This subject is far too boring and complicated for IP Draughts’ brain.)

In principle, this shorter period of protection seems right to IP Draughts. There may be arguments for a long period of copyright protection for creative works such as books and paintings, to give a revenue stream to struggling individual creators and their descendants. But industrially-manufactured items seem to IP Draughts to be in a different category, and the duration of design right (much shorter than copyright) reflects this difference.

morrisThe precise meaning of a “work of artistic craftsmanship” has not been fully established. There has been very little case law on the subject. It probably covers a chair that was designed specially for a building in New York, by leading designers, but this is not certain. This category of works was originally introduced into UK copyright law in response to the UK’s Arts and Crafts Movement, led by William Morris, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. William Morris wallpaper designs are still selling today.

Part of the problem in deciding what is the right period of protection for works of artistic craftsmanship is that they straddle the line between purely creative works and industrial works. They have both art and craft.

Never mind the historical position, the UK Government is now proposing to repeal section 52, to align UK copyright law more closely with that in the rest of the EU. This will result in a much longer period of copyright protection for iconic furniture designs and other works of artistic craftsmanship. The Government’s detailed proposals, published last week, can be summarised as follows:

  1.  Section 52 will be repealed in the near future. The repeal will take effect from 6 April 2020. In other words, there will be a period of about 5 years in which makers and sellers of reproduction articles can adjust to the new legal regime, in which copyright will last for the life of the designer plus 70 years.
  2. Following the effective date of the repeal, traders will be allowed to sell off existing stocks, and trade in copies that already exist, but will not be allowed to make or import new unlicensed copies.
  3. The Government will issue non-statutory guidance about the types of product that are within the category of works of artistic craftsmanship.

The effect of this change on traders in reproduction furniture and other artistic products is likely to be dramatic. A large number of items will be brought back into copyright. It may be necessary to stop selling items or take licences. It will be interesting to see what happens to the trade in reproduction ‘designer’ chairs. Will the bottom drop out of the market?

3 Comments

Filed under Intellectual Property, Legal policy, Legal Updates

3 responses to “Copyright reform and the bottom line

  1. Thanks, Vance. The UK arts and crafts movement was very influential in the period around 1900. Amazingly, it still affects copyright law over a century later.

  2. vrkoven

    There seems to be no US copyright equivalent to the UK copyright for a work of artistic craftsmanship. Functional items, like chairs, lamps, etc., are uncopyrightable (George Washington’s favorite word–longest one he could find without repeating a letter) unless and only to the extent of non-functional artistic elements (i.e. decorations). We do, of course, have design patents.

    So rip off your rip-off to your heart’s content.

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