Will the UK’s New Design Copyright Law Kill Innovation?

A replica Eames chair (Image via mastersofa59.com.au)
A replica Eames chair (Image via mastersofa59.com.au)

Patrick Cariou’s lawsuit against artist Richard Prince for wrongfully appropriating his photographs of Rastafarians into new artworks provided a benchmark for the role of copyright in contemporary art, though the case is still being debated in appeals. But how do those same issues impact the world of design, where knockoffs of iconic designs are omnipresent and it’s even more difficult to tell when inspiration becomes appropriation, and appropriation becomes infringement? Later this year, the British government plans on extending the copyright term for design, stretching the protected period from 25 years from when the creation was first marketed to 70 years after the death of the object’s creator. Could that policy impact the creative dynamism of design in the UK?

The new legislation is included in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. Writing in Dezeen, columnist Sam Jacobs points out that the new law would effectively destroy the market for replicas of iconic furniture designs like the Le Corbusier lounger or Eames chair, copies which, since the original has passed out of copyright, are presently perfectly legal (larger furniture companies like Knoll, Vitra, and Herman Miller currently produce official replicas of the pieces). Jacobs points out that if design firms have a monopoly on their signature products for 70 years rather than 25, they will have little reason to innovate, instead endlessly capitalizing on the cultural worth of the big names they represent established by museums and scholars.

Vintage '60s Eames chair (Image via deco-arts.be)
Vintage ’60s Eames chair (Image via deco-arts.be)

“Copyright’s expiration period creates dynamism in creative activity,” Jacobs writes. The 25 year period is enough for the company to earn back the costs incurred with the original design development, but not so long that any firm can rest on its laurels without worrying about others innovating on or pirating their design rights. The policy “suddenly pushes the whole of modernism back into private ownership,” according to Jacobs, making it harder for designers to creatively reuse the material.

True Eames LWC chair from Herman Miller (Image via apartmenttherapy.com)
True Eames LWC chair from Herman Miller (Image via apartmenttherapy.com)

The United States’s Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 extended the copyright term limits well past even the UK’s new policy. Often called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, since it kept the cartoon animal fully under the ownership of Disney rather than in the public domain, the 1998 ruling pushed copyright terms to 70 years after the author’s death and 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication for corporate authorship (applicable to Disney). The copyright extension did not apply to copyrights that had already expired.

The law clearly hasn’t killed design innovation in the United States entirely, but it may be a damper to younger entrants into the market. The policy in the US and the UK also has consequences for those who are neither designers nor consumers: In the Guardian, Oliver Wainwright reports that the law would mean “any book published that illustrates a work of 20th-century design will likely have to be edited and reprinted.” Lionel Bently, a professor of intellectual property at the University of Cambridge, gives an example: “If the BBC commissions a short film about the work of the Design Council, including images of designs made in the 1950s and 1960s, permissions will be required to broadcast the images.” It’s not just the furniture that would be impossible to copy; it would also be harder for ideas to circulate.

With the advent of open source and Creative Commons providing alternative systems for copyright management, it’s difficult to see why extending copyright terms further would do much to stop the eventual spread of piracy. 3D printing, with its ability to turn digital files into real objects, will give anyone the ability to replicate a physical design in their own homes completely outside of copyright. The copyright term for patents on new inventions in the UK and the US is just 20 years, a policy that encourages rapid innovation as firms compete to produce the best product or iteration of an idea. Though it would doubtless cause piracy problems, it is tempting to think that it would be nice if our aesthetic world were as constantly dynamic as the commercial sphere.

  • Related: Check out this cool guide on how to identify a true vintage Eames chair.
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