"Extending copyright for design condemns
us to mid-century modernism"

| 13 comments

Sam Jacob opinion on changing copyright laws

Opinion: in his latest Opinion column, Sam Jacob argues that the UK government's plans to extend the copyright term for design "protect existing interests instead of promoting innovation".


Later this year the UK government plans to change copyright law for design, extending the period of protection for designs deemed “artistic” until 70 years after the death of the creator. In essence, that means the entire oeuvre of canonical twentieth century design. Wrapped up in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill is legislation that will have a profound effect on design culture.

Currently, design for artistic works, which may well include prototype models of design icons, has copyright protection in the UK from “the end of the period of 25 years from the end of the calendar year in which such articles are first marketed”. That means that a designer of an artistic work has a 25-year monopoly to exploit the design before it passes into the public domain.

That means there is nothing legally wrong with you or I knocking up our own version of a Le Corbusier lounger or an Eames chair and there are, of course, many replicas on the market now - though you should get them while you can before the ERRB becomes law. There’s nothing wrong (legally) with a company producing exact replicas and selling them far cheaper than Knoll, Vitra or Herman Miller’s “authentic” replicas.

Thinking about the issue of copyright in other industries is illuminating. For example, the big pharmaceutical companies rely on the protection of intellectual property to give them a period of monopoly in which they can recoup (and obviously exceed, sometimes many times over) the vast sums they invest in research and testing.

Here, intellectual property acts as a motivator for development, offering a reward for the risk and experimentation that the companies take on up-front. Even then, the period of protection is short – 20 years from the date of application for the patent. Most of those 20 years will be lost on proving to regulators that it is safe and it works.

But in design, do the big companies invest in research to anything like the same extent? Do the likes of Knoll, Vitra and Herman Miller really support innovation? Or do they mainly exploit the back-catalogue of their intellectual property portfolio by churning out more and more products by Mies van der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames, and George Nelson? It’s certainly easier: no expensive designers to pay, no re-tooling of production lines, no real risk. It is an enviable situation - a market that they essentially control with consumers caught in an endless love affair with mid-century furniture.

I’d argue that they don’t even have to create this demand: the desirable, canonical status of the named designers is not bestowed by the marketing initiatives of the design companies themselves. It’s a function of academic scholarship, art history, museums and other institutions, whose commitment (and, often, whose funding) is public - serving culture and knowledge rather than private interest.

Extending copyright for design to 70 years from the author’s death suddenly pushes the whole of modernism back into private ownership. It means, one can estimate, protection of around 100 years for the design of, say, a chair. It essentially fixes the field of design for the foreseeable future and condemns us to mid-century modernism until the middle of the next century.

Copyright’s expiration period creates dynamism in creative activity. Twenty-five years seems long enough for a company to recoup the costs of design development and it also means that they have to develop new designs of equal merit to replenish their stock of design rights. The extension will mean there is less incentive to invest, to experiment and to develop new designs.

There are shades of the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” at work here, the phrase used to describe the 1998 extension of US copyright terms that was heavily lobbied by Disney. Equally, it echoes the UK’s "Cliff's law", named after singer Cliff Richard, which extended the copyright term of music recordings from 50 years to 70 years.

Both are pieces of legislation that protect existing interests instead of promoting innovation. It’s interesting to note that there has been significant lobbying with regard to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill on behalf of “well known furniture designers and manufacturers.” It has also been welcomed by the Design Council.

At heart this is more than a legal matter, more than an argument over knock-off Barcelona chairs. Wrapped up in this proposed legislation is a disciplinary definition of what design actually is.

Is design, to quote Mies van der Rohe himself, “the will of an epoch transformed into space”? This, of course, is the spirit of innovation and radical experiment that brought these design classics into existence in the first place. Or is design, as the ERRB seems to propose, the will of a previous epoch transformed into private interest?

I’d argue for the former, for ramping up design research and development, and for greater investment in design by those private interests to create the design classics of the future.


Sam Jacob is a director of architecture practice FAT, professor of architecture at University of Illinois Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, as well as editing www.strangeharvest.com.

Top image of Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair courtesy of Shuttershock

  • http://www.fabsie.com James

    This law doesn't relate to designers at all, it relates to those who own the work of designers. One thing I love about the new landscape to get work out there through platforms is that designers are remaining in control of the work they produce. The alternative system is of course that manufacturers own that work. If the trend continues to affect everything it touches as it currently is, why do I care about ownership after I'm dead?

    • Damian

      How does this not relate to designers?

    • tin

      This law relates to designers. The designer owns the right on his work and is licensing (!) it to the manufacturer. You can, of course, argue: Why you should care about ownership after you’re dead? But maybe you change your mind once you have children? But it is a difficult topic!

      The price of “design classics” like the Eames Side Chair is high, but buying a cheaper Chinese copy cannot be a solution! If you buy the product from Vitra or Herman Miller you are buying so much more than a chair. You are supporting a company who takes care of their workers, who is a driver for innovative products, who makes sure that their products have a high quality (some products have life-long warranty), who thinks about its environmental impact, who cares about society and who makes a great cultural contribution (e.g. the Vitra Design Museum, plenty of publications about design related topics). If you buy the other chair you will support a mysterious company in China that is producing (most probably less quality) chairs with the help of child labour while it is actually benifiting from the cultural work that a company like Vitra does.

      I am sure that you, as a single designer (or should I say “maker”), can contribute something to the world, but do not undervalue the power of a true collaboration between a designer and a company. The most innovative products have always evolved from this kind of dialogue. What if someone would copy you?

  • http://www.dave-morris.net Dave Morris

    It’s also worth highlighting the issue of whether or not any changes should be retroactive. I’d argue that they MUST NOT be.

    If an argument is made to say designers of the future deserve longer terms of protection, well, that’s fine (I’d argue against that too, but it’s a reasonable argument to make). When setting out to work on a new project you’ll know what protections exist for your designs and that will either encourage or discourage you to bring the design to life. That’s how it’s always worked: copyright terms act as an incentive to encourage creativity.

    But retroactively extending terms of protection does nothing to increase that incentive. Giving Le Corbusier longer terms of protection over the furniture he designed decades ago will do nothing to encourage him to design more. We already know exactly what he created with the incentives and restrictions of his time, and to change those terms is to break the deal he made with the world. He knew those designs would enter the public domain at a particular date, and it didn’t stop him creating them. They must be allowed to enter the public domain as he expected.

    I’d also like to see a lot more research and evidence-based study into what REALLY motivates designers. I suspect that the terms of IP protection are very low on the list, and that as this article suggests, extending them might actually reduce our motivation. Perhaps the writers of Freakonomics need to get involved.

  • SebH

    Personally I very much welcome a strict copyright law.

    I’m far off from being able to afford, for example, a set of brand new Knoll Barcelona chairs, but that’s MY OWN PROBLEM – not Knoll’s, not Mies’ or even the government’s. Knoll purchased the production rights from Mies (unfortunately that didn’t include Lilly Reich) and they had to try hard in order to get it right.

    Knoll keeps the quality very high, the design is iconic and the history of this piece is well-documented. Trying to bypass all this by buying a cheap or high-quality unlicensed reproduction is something that doesn’t appeal to me. I’d rather wait and try to make a second-hand bargain.

    Also, if you like Mies then you appreciate quality, so what’s the point in buying cheap?

  • JoshuaV

    Hear hear! Copyright laws have severely hindered innovation in so many fields.

  • Mary anne Enriquez

    I do not think innovation is thwarted by holding on to extended copyrights. Why not design something completely different and thus, acquire YOUR own copyrights?

    Certainly there is more to design then mid-century modernism! Let those who want to keep on producing those same old designs have it. It should not thwart the industry as far as new manufacturing technologies and 21st century design innovations.

    As for cheap copies, the world if filled with copy cat designs. It’s exceedingly difficult to enforce copyrights around the globe when it comes to knock offs. Having an extended copyright will not stop cheap reproductions in the marketplace.

  • NWMDesigns

    I am so happy to see that the copyrights will be extended. I am tired of seeing “designers” such as Jonathan Adler (for example) taking the designs of original designers, mostly mid-century designers, and calling the designs his own. For the general public who may or may not know who is the original designer was, they then think someone like Jonathan Adler is some great designer, who is instead just a copycat. It sickens me that the original designer does not get the credit.

  • William Hathaway

    Such a law would prevent the majority of the British population believing Ikea was at the forefront of bent wooden furniture design. Aalto was doing it 3/4 of a century ago and has received little credit, particularly from Ikea that would have ripped off many of his designs. Interestingly, the Kornhone family still make Aalto’s furniture using the original techinques they developed with him in their Finnish workshop.

    This leads on to my last point; if the design is protected the process should also be locked into this protection, safeguarding the consumer from the value-engineering of original details so often seen with many of these modern classics.

  • Wyn Davies

    Oddly enough the Eames’ work would have been impossible had they not pioneered techniques in bending plywood, however, no royalty was ever paid to the inventor of plywood, and none sought. Similarly did Henry Ford attempt to corner the market by preventing anyone else from producing four-wheeled economical vehicles? One would have thought that bringing excellent design to a mass market was the prime directive of Eames, Jacobsen, the Bauhaus etc. I don’t see it published anywhere that it was to sell a chair costing two months salary for ordinary folks for 100 years! Or expanding the empires of Vitra, Knoll, etc. One would have thought that their attitude to copyright would be rather more akin to Bucky Fuller’s of giving it all away. When can we as architects expect to start charging a royalty each time a clients building is photographed, used in an advert or even percentage on sales? I’d like to think that they’d all agree, publish and be damned.

  • Caesar Tjalbo

    The term of this designer’s right: Copyright is a right given by law, the question is if it has to be long and even extend to the children of a designer.

    It’s a right which grands exclusivity, a very strong right. It is in effect a monopoly. We may have on occasion very good grounds to grant such a strong right to individuals or corporations but it’s an exception by definition and we should be very careful with it.

    We’re not just governing about the offspring of the designer, we’re making decisions for all future people.

    You have to offset your feeling of “this isn’t right” against the impact codifying a government sanctioned market disruption has. Not in the least because when you offer improved rights, you have to make sure they can be enforced too and in that case you should free resources for it. Most likely at the expense of other things. Ask yourself, are you willing to pay more tax for this? Law courts don’t work for free, you know.

    This whole process was started when Samantha Cameron bought a “fake” designer lamp. Perhaps she did because she liked that particular lamp. Well yes, perhaps she didn’t know it was just a “knockoff” and perhaps she didn’t have money for an “original” but the point is that improved protection for designers will come at the expense of choice for consumers and freedom for future designers.

  • http://www.zazous.co.uk Kate Austin

    I think its a terrible idea. 25 years should be plenty of time. It’s a whole lot more than pharmaceutical companies get and their R&D costs are phenomenal compared to the design of a chair. Most of the designers that are being copied originally intended their designs to be mass produced and available to ordinary people. How do the likes of Vitra promote this ethos? As everything else moves towards an open-source, egalitarian philosophy why should designers take a step backwards and make good modern design something that is only available to a privileged few?

  • Donny

    This article seems to focus, solely, on the ‘big’ names. I can tell you that as a small, relatively unknown, producer of original designs, copying is destroying us!! Small companies are forced to use only simple (easily replicated) technologies.

    We have no choice as we do not have the resources of the bigger players. This opens us up to rampant copying as soon as we have a successful product on the market. Complain as much as you want about large brand over-pricing, but new, smaller, companies stand absolutely no chance unless copying is outlawed!