08 September 2010

Replicas vs the 'real thing'

Anita from Fun & VJs has started a dicsussion over at her blog about replica furniture versus licensed designs. Without repeating everything that Anita has said (as I want you to visit her blog to read the full discussion!), apparently there has been a little bit of vigilante action taking place within the community against replicas.

Real Living also recently featured the Authentic Design website on their Twitter, so I've been thinking about this issue quite a bit. As someone who works in the arts (and in the area of artists' copyright, for that matter), am I a hypocrite for having some replicas in my home? As it turns out, the answer is no, and for the following reasons which I explained in the Fun & VJs discussion:

I have a number of replica pieces in my home, a well as original pieces. I buy the replicas because I can't afford the real thing in most cases! I also actually work in the area of copyright (predominantly art work copyright), so can see the other side of the coin as well.

It differs from country to country, and I must admit I am not 100 per cent familiar with the laws for different kinds of copyright, but as I understand it design patents (including for furniture) expire after 20 years or so. This means that after 20 years of the original patent being submitted for a furniture design, it is legally up for grabs for reproduction (regardless of whether an artist is living or dead). On the other hand, copyright in things such as art works and literary works does not expire until the creator has been dead for 70 years. Even so, for both copyrighted material or patented material, I believe that the moral rights of the creator must still be upheld.

I think in many cases the areas of patents and copyright is becoming confused/blurred, which is why there is this 'backlash' occurring. But, at the end of the day, so long as the furniture patent has expired replicas are perfectly legitimate.

One particular design vigilante page I saw recently (I can't remember the exact site off the top of my head) lumped furniture replicas in with graphic design and other art work ripoffs - this is quite misleading, as both are covered by different parts of the law.
Further to my above 'essay', I just did a little more digging to try and explain the difference between copyright and patents in terms of what they protect. Copyright protects non-functional items (such as art works, text, music etc.), whilst patents protect physical, functional items (such as furniture, medications etc.). It's the same arrangement that is used in the health sector - we're often offered 'generic' medications, which are made available once the 20-year patent on the original medication has expired.

Therefore, the intellectual property of a poster design, for example, can not be compared to a piece of furniture, as they are not considered by intellectual property law worldwide as the same thing. So, unless a replica is made of a piece of furniture where the artist still holds an existing patent because it was created less than 20 years ago, it is considered to be perfectly ethical, at least in a legal sense.

Of course, the above does not mean that I condone copyright infringement in any way, shape or form. I don't even download music without paying for it - that's how much of a purist I am. But the fact is that furniture replicas, provided that the 20-year patent has expired, are perfectly legitimate. There is no 'theft' taking place because there is no intellectual property to steal. You'll notice that most retailers of replica furniture acknowledge the original designer of a product, thus ensuring that their moral rights have been upheld.

When we bought the replica pieces in our home, my husband and I were simply looking for a dining set that looked retro. We really didn't know much about furniture designers, we just knew what kind of thing we liked to look at and sit on. Consequently, we ended up with a replica Saarinen Tulip table and Panton chairs.

Since then, I've learnt an awful lot about furniture design from other bloggers and interior decorators, and now have a much higher appreciation and understanding than I had before. Like it or not, but this was a direct result of my purchase of replica furniture. (For the record, we also have a replica Barcelona chair in the bedroom - a design originating in the 1930s for which the patent has well and truly expired.) I've also now acquired some small 'licensed' designs for our home as well, so I most certainly would not only ever purchase replicas. It's all a matter of what individuals can afford for their own spaces, and their own personal preferences.

I (and Anita) would love to hear what you think - but please be nice and constructive! 


  1. Hi Kylie! Can I just say that I really enjoyed reading your post! This is a topic that's of interest to myself and my husband (who works in a creative industry).

    We too own original designer pieces and some replicas. I must admit I would feel incredibly uncomfortable buying a replica of a designer who was establishing their career or probably even still living so our replicas have been Eames products (which one day, when we have more money and the replicas have seen better days we intend on replacing with the 'real deal').

    One thing can be said for the originals though - they are much more likely to be higher quality than the replicas and manufacturers are much MUCH more obliging with honouring warranties etc (we have experienced this first hand!)

    I find it a little unusual though that Real Living (which has SO many advertisements for replica furniture companies) tweeted about Authentic Design!

    I'm so glad you linked to Fun and VJs too - I love local renovation blogs!!! Thanks!!!

  2. Hi Kylie,

    I think this is well worth some discussion, I wrote a similar post last year titled "the real issue" (but not as well informed as yours!) so I will send you over there for a little peek if you like:


    Probably the only replica I'm really tempted by is a fibreglass Eames chair as under licence they are only produced in polypropylene and I really love the look of the fibreglass.

    I think it is good that we are conscious of our choices and discuss the options regardless of the decision we end up making.

    Cute pics on Thea and Sami today :)

  3. Hi Kylie, I'm so glad you are continuing the discussion. I think it is good that consumers have more knowledge to help make an informed decision whether they buy an "original" or "knock-off". xx Anita

  4. I actually purchased a replica Eames rocker because it was made of fibrelgass like the originals (unlike the modern ones produced under licence!)

  5. I think the key word with this issue is "acknowledge". As long as the real is acknowledged, I don't see a problem with replicas at all.

  6. Thanks everyone for participating in the discussion (especially Julie for providing the link - I do remember that post from last year now!).

    Catherine, I think from memory Real Living post the link as an interesting 'discussion point' - I would hope that they weren't agreeing with it given that they feature replicas so heavily as you say! And it's interesting that the licensed Eames rockers aren't fibreglass - amazing in fact!

    Of course, as Thea pointed out over at Fun & VJs, this is something close to her as she's a practising designer. However, Thea's screenprinted designed would be covered by copyright law - so she can't legally be copied until she's been gone for a long 70 years!

    Another thing to consider I guess is that where you draw the line - who decides what is exceptional design and therefore too precious to be copied? It seems a little unfair to all those regular industrial designers making a living working for big companies rather than individual 'names' that these 'vigilantes' are so fixated on what they perceive to be as 'designer'.

  7. Great post Kylie, interesting too.

    Further to the point about expiry of patents. Having worked in the Business world, the health industry area of patents may not be the 20 years (not sure now after reading your post). Case in point, when the Panadol patent expired, we saw an influx of other brands, similar to the generic prescription drugs we now see. And it happened very quickly after expiry. I talk about this in some courses. I better check up on the timeframe after expiry now.

    Anyway, this is going away from the 'real thing v replica'argument. For my 2 cents worth, I'm with you. Happy to purchase replicas due to cost of originals, but being ethical in the purchase also, in making sure the true designer does not 'lose out'. I refer to your comment 'I believe that the moral rights of the creator must still be upheld'.

    I'm heading over to take a look at the discussion. Thanks for the heads up about it.


  8. Thanks for that Terese! To be honest, I was not 100 per cent certain about the patent duration for medications, so you are probably right in that it's different to furniture. Either way, it's still a good example to use to demonstrate how people can benefit from the expiration of patents in some cases.

  9. Well, if you were in the US I would be interested. I can imagine shipping stateside would put it out of my price range. That being said, I think if you picked it up reasonably, it would be an easy sell.