I need some help, dear readers. As I'm outlining projects I want to build in future semesters of The Hand Tool School, as well as future projects on my Renaissance Woodworker site, I have come across a design conundrum:
Technically everything I do both on my free RW site and my premium Hand Tool School site is, in some way, for profit. The RW site is really a marketing engine for the pay site, and through it I also receive income (albeit small) from affiliates and Google. So if I build a project based on a modern design where the originator is still alive, or at least a company maintains the design, is this unethical?
For example, I have been wanting to do some more contemporary stuff in The Hand Tool School. I would love to build a Conoid chair by George Nakashima or a Maloof style chair. I've also had readers write in and ask how I'd go about constructing the Yaffe Mays Sligo chair. Is this profiting from someone else's design if I build it and document it on my website? What if I build it as part of a paid semester at The Hand Tool School?
Using words like "inspired by" or "in the style of" gets into some hot water too as no matter what changes I make, the source will still be obvious. And in many cases, the original design is just right and why would I want to alter anything?
If I were just any old woodworker documenting one of his builds, I don't think this would be an issue. However, the Renaissance Woodworker persona and everything related to it has become its own business (and a full time job) so do I now cross a line by building a modern piece? I may be building a piece for my own use and enjoyment and not even trying to "teach" someone how to build the piece, but the fact that I broadcast it on one of my properties could be seen as profiting from the design. Of course legality is a major concern, but there is also the gray area of perception. While I may be legally safe, would I become a pariah in the woodworking community for being perceived as stealing someone else's work?
I want to do the right thing, but you can see how this gets a little hazy. What do you think? And where do you draw the line between a direct copy and a piece "inspired by" someone else's work? Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.
________________________________________________This "Hand Tool School" series is provided courtesy of Shannon Rogers, a/k/a The Renaissance Woodworker. Rogers is founder of The Hand Tool School, which provides members with an online apprenticeship that teaches them how to use hand tools and to build furniture with traditional methods.
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If you're having these thoughts before even starting the project then it's likely you already know the answer. Luckily for you all three of the designs you noted are from companies that still exist and can be contacted if you wanted to ask them for permission to do a class on building one of their pieces. Of course the answer may be no. And yes, it's obviously wrong to profit from someones work without getting their permission first.
Two Points to think about:
I am an industrial designer working for a medium sized national furniture company in Australia. I have been asked by clients to copy other people's pieces and what I always say is "why do you like this piece? What is it about the chair/table that appeals to you?" After determining this, we can design something inspired by, say the angular rectilinear forms of the Yaffe Mays Sligo. The new design could capture some of the
essence of the original while keeping your conscience clean and giving the students something that won't be criticized as a rip off in their portfolio.
I am the designer and maker of the Sligo chair, one of the chairs discussed above. I myself am a teacher (at The Krenov School in northern California) and I very much understand the usefulness of learning through imitation, even through downright copying. Many of my students copy existing work as a means to learning. However, two points: 1) I urge the students in this situation to make every effort to at least ask the designer or manufacturer for permission, pointing out that they are making the copy for the purposes of education; and 2) that they don't profit in a material sense from the copy. The exercise was to learn, not to sell. If Renaissance Woodworker wishes to use the Sligo chair for teaching purposes, it would be polite, to say the least, to ask me. If they ask, I would say yes and be flattered. If they don't ask, I would be angry and consider it unethical.
I was not previously familiar with the original Irish chair type called the Sligo, but after googling images of the original, and looking at the Yaffe Mays Co. version, I was really impressed. Yaffe Mays does an absolutely beautiful interpretation of the chair type, reinventing it in a modern language. Let there be no doubt: copying it and publishing a "how to" for making it is not the sincerest form of flattery - it's really shady, and would reflect very poorly on you. You can contact Yaffe Mays and see if they would give you permission to do it, OR, you could look at the original Sligo chair and do your own unique reinterpretation, purposely striving to differentiate from the Yaffe Mays version. I'm not talking about simply copying it without "measuring" it as someone suggested, I'm talking about using different lines, proportions, support methods, etc. That would be the best was to foster conversation, advance the woodworking profession, and take the high road while shedding light on a beautiful piece you found, without copying it.
While there may be some gray area, the right to use portions of copyrighted materials without permission for purposes of education, commentary, or parody is normally considered "fair use".
I would still reach out to the owners of the designs as a courtesy. Who knows, they could be enthusiastic about the marketing opportunity.
Maybe the safer bet would be to say "in <X> style" in the same way you would make a Missionary chest of drawers, Shaker coat rack, or an Arts and Crafts writing desk. No copyright infringement there, and people will draw whatever conclusions about your inspirations they want.
If your site is to help people learn... Learning how to create a new design "in the style of" could be a great lesson to teach. If you don't feel comfortable giving advice on this to your subscribers, maybe partner with another designer who can give meaningful tips or do s case study on the topic. Could be really interesting for you as well.
Did you ask Yaffe Mays for permission to use their picture of the chair? If no then you violated the copy rights - if you/core77 and Yaffe Mays is in the same country or share the same law agreed between the different countries.
gray area indeed... very similar to music artists.
if you design a building, and i decide to take a picture, or paint a picture of it, and sell those pictures, are you entitled to some of the profit?
in my mind, in the subset of hand workings, it is hard to 'copy' even when you are 'copying'. meaning, each piece could be considered a unique piece of art, different woodgrain/color, etc. I think you have to look at it from a 'is it different enough' in design/quality, that the purchaser would be buying it on those different traits, versus a same for same argument?
I don't think it's so bad Shannon. I don't know whether or not any of this would be a bad move legally speaking, but as far as perception goes it doesn't seem all that wrong.