New Copyright Rules Bring Busy Replica Furniture Industry in the U.K. To a Halt

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For years, Britons have been spoiled by online retailers offering low-cost reproductions of Eames Lounge Chairs and Noguchi tables. Soon, they'll have no alternative but to fork over for the real-deal. . (Photo: Peter Alfred Hess/flickr)

Perhaps it’s happened to you:

You’re visiting a friend or family member living in the U.K. and the first thing that you notice when steeping into their otherwise modest abode is that it’s stuffed with new designer furniture: an unmistakable coffee table-cum-sculpture by Isamu Noguchi; an Arco floor lamp complete with the requisite million-pound white marble base; matching LC2 sofa and armchairs by Le Corbusier. And while said friend or family member has always had impeccable taste, you’ve certainly never known them to be fabulously wealthy — that is, you've never known them to be capable of filling a one-bedroom flat with a museum-worthy collection of modernist furniture worth thousands of dollars.

Unless your acquaintance is indeed (secretly) fabulously wealthy, chances are their mid-century furnishings are faithful — and highly affordable — knockoffs purchased through the U.K.’s bustling online replica furniture trade; a trade made possible by the fact that copyright protection for furniture generally expires 25 years after the death of its designer. Elsewhere In Europe, furniture copyright laws extend to 70 years after the death of the designer.

The U.K.’s relaxed furniture copyright laws have allowed consumers to circumvent the prohibitively priced pieces manufactured by authorized license-holding furniture-makers such as Vitra and Knoll.

This is all soon coming to an end, however, as shoppers accustomed to furnishing their homes with iconic (but don’t look too close because it’s not the real thing) 20th century furniture brace themselves for new copyright rules closer aligned with the rest of Europe.

As noted by the Guardian, changes to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 that give furniture designers the same copyright protections afforded to visual artists, musicians and writers, were supposed to go into effect in 2020 but were pushed forward when “the government decided that the time period was excessive, and to bring it into line with European intellectual property law.”

Explains U.K. Intellectual Property Minister Lucy Neville-Rolfe:

Great design forms an integral part of our lives whether it be architecture, jewellery or home furnishings. Both cutting-edge designs and those that have stood the test of time continue to be in high demand and we need to ensure designers have an appropriate incentive to create. But currently these artistic designs lose copyright protection after 25 years if they have been mass produced. This is unfair in comparison to other artistic works, like literature and music, which are protected for the life of the creator and 70 years.

The new ruling, supported by British design luminaries such as fashion designer Stella McCartney and furniture designer/retailer Sir Terrence Conran, became law at the end of July although the numerous U.K.-based online retailers specializing in made-in-China replicas of modern design classics have a 6-month "amnesty period" to clear out their existing stock — that’s 6 months for Britons to snatch up ersatz Barcelona chairs and metal end tables that uncannily resemble the work of noted Irish furniture designer Eileen Gray.

Writes the Guardian:

It is these low-cost knock-offs that will now be banned. A change in law which came into force on 28 July 2016 means that retailers will no longer be able to sell cheap replicas of iconic furniture designs and shoppers will instead be forced to pay thousands for original designs – i.e. those made brand new under licence with the agreement of the late designers’ estates. The six-month transition period will run out at the end of January.
Companies can currently sell replica goods providing 25 years has passed from the date the designer died, but the EU ruling — speeded up by the British government — has extended that period to 70 years. Eames died in 1978, so the new protection extends the copyright of the many chairs, tables and clocks he designed until 2048. For items designed jointly with his wife, Ray, the copyright would extend for a further 10 years, as she died in 1988.

With news of the new ruling, Dezeen recently published an illuminating list identifying the 10 most copied mid-century furnishings — low-priced imitations that are now effectively outlawed.

Not at all surprisingly, Charles and Ray Eames’ semi-ubiquitous molded plastic Dowel-Leg Side Chair (DSW) tops the list. The chair was the center of controversy earlier this year when U.K. outposts of German-owned supermarket chain Aldi started selling a blatant (but perfectly legal) replica of the DSW as a “retro-style Eiffel chair.” Aldi’s faux DSW chairs cost £39.99 (roughly $52) for a pair versus £339 ($440) for a single chair manufactured by Swiss license-holder Vitra. Much of the controversy came from how shockingly cheap the Aldi DSW knockoff was but also from the fact that the Eamses themselves, outspoken proponents of affordable design, would have probably applauded the low price-point — not rolled over in their graves.

In the Eames’ native U.S., where an online market for mid-century replica furniture exists but is not nearly as popular as it is across the pond, authentic DSW chairs are produced by Michigan-based Herman Miller and sold by Design Within Reach for $439. A quick search yields an array of knockoff options including a pair of convincing-looking “Eames-style” DSW chairs sold as a set at Poly + Bark for $128 with free shipping.

Of course, there is the not-so-small issue of quality. The more expensive Herman Miller chairs are proudly American-made heirloom pieces that will increase in value as the years go by. While the replicas sold over at Poly + Bark have received glowing reviews from customers who are happy to be achieve the “DSW look” for a fraction of the price, the chairs’ value will only depreciate over time. It’s also safe to say that their lifespan is more limited than a Herman Miller piece.

Back in the U.K., the DSW chair will now be copyright protected until 2058 — 70 years after the passing of Ray Eames.

DSW Chairs
A gaggle of iconic DSW Chairs: the real, Herman Miller-produced deal or made-in-China knockoffs? Can you tell?. (Photo: byLorena/flickr)

Protecting a designer's legacy or impeding democratic design?

As listed by Dezeen, other heavily reproduced midcentury furnishings that will cease to exist as knockoffs include Danish designer Arne Jacobsen’s Egg Chair, which will only be available in its authentic, Fritz Hansen-produced form (£4,283) until the copyright expires in 2041. Fans of another enduring Danish classic, 1950’s Wishbone Chair, will have to wait it out quite the while before knockoff versions again become available in U.K. as the chair’s designer, Hans Wegner, died in 2007.

Admirers of pioneering German-American modern architect Mies van der Rohe are probably already well aware that the “less is more” master passed away in 1969. Furthermore 70 years from his death, 2039, is the year when his Barcelona Chair — first designed for the German Pavilion at the 1929 World's Fair, the leather and chrome beauty remains a staple in psychotherapy offices the world over — will once again become available in a more affordable form. Moving forward in the U.K., the Barcelona Chair will only be produced by license-holder Knoll and costs upwards of £4,000. In the U.S., the authentic Barcelona Chair is also produced by Knoll and sold at Design Within Reach for $5,592.

Even if this instance of freely replicated modernist furniture — some of it freely replicated for years — suddenly becoming not-so-freely-replicated at all is specific to the U.K., it does bring up a universal question: How long is too long after a furniture designer dies to prevent his or her work from being enjoyed by the masses (read: those who love good design but will put themselves in the poorhouse buying an Eames Lounge and Ottoman) via mass replication?

Many would argue 70 years is far too long, while some would say 25 years is too short although the mid-century reproduction market never really seemed to prevent deep-pocketed Brits from investing in fully licensed classics. People will always buy nice, authen tic things, even when there’s a cheaper option available. Some people will mix it up, furnishing their homes with a liberal number of knockoffs and one I’m-gonna-splurge-and-take-this-chair-with-me-to-the-grave piece.

Whatever the case, there will still always be an option to own the real-deal at a fraction of the price — and a fraction of the size.