Copycat trap

There is often a fine line between aligning your product with major consumer trends and blatant plagiarism of somebody else’s work, so how can you make sure you avoid infringement? Sarah Woods investigates

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – so they say. But nothing could be further from the truth if, as a designer, your ideas are ripped off and a lengthy and expensive litigation process looms.

As purse strings are tightened, some clients may look for ways to cut costs, with design budgets often among the first to suffer. During a recession an unscrupulous designer may feel forced to take the cheapest and easiest way out by copying somebody else’s idea. Coupled with an advance in technology and a rise in social networking sites, which make information and ideas more accessible, this makes a fertile breeding ground for copycat material.

Studio Conran managing director Sebastian Conran is currently lobbying Parliament for stronger intellectual property rights and reduced legal costs within the industry. He makes the point that due to the Internet there is a demand for product differentiation. ‘If I go into a department store and see a product I like I can check my iPhone and Google it to see where I can get it cheaper. This undermines the retailer,’ he says. ‘Products are going to look a bit like other people’s products because form follows fashion and things do start to look the same. But if everything is designed in the same way then people’s ideas become worthless.

If you have an inspiring invention and create a successful product, then somebody wants to copy it and it is very hard to defend your patent.’

This has a particular resonance for independent inventor Mandy Haberman, who developed the Anywayup cup, a non-spill drinking vessel operated by the sole use of suction, with the latest range being designed by Conran. The concept has been infringed several times and Haberman has been fighting her case around the world.
‘Sadly, the way that most patent systems currently operate, litigation forms a major part of the small inventor’s life, sapping resources and creative energy that should be put to better use. Until the system is improved, home trade and industry will continue to suffer,’ she writes on her website.

Haberman says, ‘When money is tight budgets are diverted from innovation and design. Instead of planning for the long term, businesses focus on short-term gain. Copying is, unfortunately, often perceived as the quickest, cheapest way to go. There will be a significant rise in imitation for this reason.’

Where barefaced plagiarism is evident, improvements in the litigation process need to be made to help designers take action. Anti Copying in Design was set up to help protect designers’ rights, with its own design bank holding 300 000 registered designs. Dids Macdonald, the organisation’s chief executive, is appealing to the Government to offer further legal help to the industry.

‘Creating damages to compensate designers will encourage them to start litigation. Designers need to get IP savvy and there must be a value set on originality, thought and creativity,’ she says. ‘I have never found it flattering to have work copied. It is like stealing your wallet. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be inspired by other people’s work, but if somebody is relying on creative talent and skill and their idea is slavishly copied and taken all the way to market, this needs to be stamped out. We need to put belt and braces around design and at the moment it is cost-prohibitive for designers to take action.’

At the same time, there is a fine line between coincidence or global trends and outright plagiarism. Trends and fashions must be copied to a certain extent for design to evolve, but if ideas and concepts are blatantly ripped off creativity will not develop in the right way.

Keshi Bouri, creative director at Dragon Rouge, explains that where a similar set of circumstances unfold at the same time around the world and becomes the norm, it is accepted as a global trend, as with products such as the iPod and its rival lookalike ranges. Further back in time, the same phenomenon occurred when people began to refer to a vacuum cleaner as a Hoover or a personal stereo as a Walkman.

‘People are looking around and seeing other products being successful and want to emulate that success,’ Bouri says. ‘Advances in technology could be one of the reasons we are seeing work adopted and adapted from concepts created by more traditional artists.

‘Although I’m not sure this is a new trend, we’re just much more aware of it. Copy and paste is a shortcut to a barren creative future, where bland and dull become the order of the day. It’s not what I signed up for.’

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