Don't Egg them on
With Joseph Joseph's recent victory against a Chinese knock-off manufacturer, good progress had been made in the fight against design piracy. In Scandinavia, however, a more complicated issue is unfolding.
A Swedish company called Designers Revolt, a self-described distributor of "modern classic designer furniture," has a very "99%"-esque pitch: "We believe that the designers behind all the wonderful pieces of furniture [we distribute] would turn in their graves at the exclusivity their designs have achieved due to the artificially inflated prices charged by licensed manufacturers," says their mission statement. Expanding on that, they write:
Who would not want to own an Arne Jacobsen designed Egg Chair? Or better still a set... However, few could ever consider this when the price is comparable to the cost of a new car. The suggested price from Fritz Hansen for a leather Egg Chair is at least 9,000 Euros, meaning a group of four would set you back over 36,000 Euros!
So, why is the price so high? The reason is simply a lack of competition and this is not only the case with the iconic Egg chair, it's the same with most classical designer furniture. In much of Europe furniture designs are classed as works of art, which means they have copyright protection for 75 years after the artist's death.
Furniture producers holding copyrights for these designs therefore have a monopoly and can control prices, keeping them inflated and only within reach of the wealthy few. People who love designer furniture are forced to buy from producers protected by these far-reaching copyright laws and have to pay an inflated price, the 'high street price'.
That last paragraph dashes any hope that Designers Revolt is a licensed manufacturer that is going to legally offer the furniture at a lower price. Turns out, they distributes knock-offs. So how do they get away with it? As a Finnish business newspaper explains, they capitalize on a copyright loophole having to do with different laws in the UK and the EU:
In Britain the intellectual property protection expires after 25 years, whereas, for example in Finland the protection lasts for another 70 years after the originator's death. Hence in Britain furniture designs for example by Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen, and Eero Aarnio are no longer copyright protected.
According to the vendors' interpretation, an item that has been legally imported into Britain can then be moved to another country inside the EU, even if the direct importing of copied furniture—for example from China to Finland—would be illegal. The companies themselves do not have operations in Finland. Technically the purchaser of a product—the end-customer—is also its importer.
The legality of this is obviously being called into question, and the same newspaper article linked to above says that Finland's design sector "is striking back" against Designers Revolt; however, they're vague on the specific legal action being pursued. We'll keep you abreast of developments.