“One should not be afraid. History proves that most new developments also create new opportunities.” Ben Huitema. In-house lawyer, Moooi. 

Design rights started in the United Kingdom in 1787 with the Designing and Printing of Linen Act. Last year the UK government announced changes in the law that would extend copyright protection of 'artistic' manufactured goods from the current 25 years, to the life of the creator plus 70 years. Giving design the same term of protection as literature and art. But copyright protection for manufactured designs is not automatic in every country (or as generous) and on the cusp of the next industrial revolution – 3D printing, widely spruiked to place manufacturing in the hands of everyone – what does this mean for the designer? Up until now the domain of high-end furniture manufacture has been held firmly in the hands of big multi-million dollar factories owned by leading furniture companies like Vitra, B&B Italia, Kartell, Zanotta and Moooi. To make it as a designer on the international stage requires a much-coveted contract, and with it often comes access to innovation beyond your wildest dreams. These are the companies who invest in the original and often difficult to make ideas, and to do that you must invest in the newest technologies or invent it yourself. That’s how a company like B&B Italia, for example, produced the groundbreaking 1969 UP chair from air sensitive expandable foam, and the 2012 Husk chair by Patricia Urquiola that uses both recyclable and recycled materials with interchangeable parts, materials, colours and configurations.

Then you have the darker side of the industry, the fakes and copies widely known as ‘replica’ furniture. The knock off industry is fast gaining momentum in countries like Australia where the laws are not as widely protective, and products are (usually) cheaper, available online and delivered in days. They are also cunningly marketed to feel legitimate and connected to the real thing and when you are looking at an image online, quality is difficult to distinguish. So the general public, and the media too, are often blissfully unaware of what they have been sold. And we are not only talking about mid-century fakes here, these are copies of designs by living, breathing designers who have not given the okay, earn no royalties and rely on the income from work that might have taken 10 years to develop. So for designers it’s imperative to protect their work through IP registration under the Designs Act, and this protection legally protects them from all copiers, whether it is a factory in China or a 3D printer in someone’s lounge room.

Based in Melbourne, IP lawyer James Samargis is well versed in the plight of the designer. “It takes so long to find your creative voice and having found it and expressed it, it is the first thing that is copied. The freedom of 3D printing using open-source software does not mean that a person with a 3D printer has carte blanche to copy! This new technology has made copying easy but it doesn't make it correct to do so. You cannot copy something that is subject to copyright protection and indeed you cannot copy something with registered design protection without a permission or a license to do so.”

So, is 3D printing actually an opportunity and not a threat, not a technology that will replace the industry as we know it but an innovation that will help designers and manufacturers to ‘out design’ the copiers? Certainly the potential of customisation has exciting possibilities, and certainly skilling up in tune with the latest software and technology is key to staying in front. Just look at the work of Swedish designers Front who produced their first 3D-experiment called 'Sketch' in Tokyo in 2007 (pictured) that has informed the way they work ever since.

At Moooi in Holland, in-house lawyer Ben Huitema is looking at the impact these new developments might have and his view is a positive one. “Although the impact that open source design software may have on our activities is still unclear, this may be an interesting development and – who knows – may even have positive effects on companies like Moooi. One should not be afraid. History proves that most new developments also create new opportunities.”

Heidi Dokulil