The right protection

Hannah Booth meets Anti Copying in Design’s Dids Macdonald to talk about why young designers and large retailers should be more aware of copyright issues

Piracy, counterfeiting, plagiarism: emotive words to describe an emotive subject for designers. By contrast, the term ‘intellectual property’ has been known to elicit blank stares from creatives, according to Dids Macdonald.

‘Getting the terminology right is vital, particularly when talking to young designers. They’re not lawyers, so unless you use understandable terms, they’ll switch off,’ she says.

As chief executive of Anti Copying in Design, one of the few bodies in the design industry seriously addressing the subject of copyright, Macdonald’s role is to clarify much of the legal jargon surrounding the topic.

It was as founder of interior design and manufacture group Holbein that Macdonald experienced her first taste of counterfeiting. The company’s curtain poles and lamp bases were being copied ‘left, right and centre’ and undercut on price, so she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Not above a bit of direct action, Macdonald bought shares in the company ‘alleged’ to have copied her company’s work (she corrects herself immediately to stress the word ‘alleged’ with a faintly perceptible smile). This allowed her to attend its annual general meeting, she says, where she approached the marketing director and ‘made a nuisance’ of herself. The company paid a small settlement, ‘which was a big sum to us’, and promised not to do it again.

Macdonald now fights on behalf of others. Acid’s latest challenge is to urge major retailers to sign up to its voluntary code of conduct, a morally driven protocol that aims to explain copyright issues to buyers. Once these major players sign up, the thinking goes, and others will follow.

John Lewis Partnership was the first to sign up and Selfridges has just done the same (DW 19 December 2002). But the other eight – Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Debenhams, Next, Monsoon, Woolworth, Oasis and Great Universal Stores – have remained silent. Not for much longer, Macdonald hopes.

Acid’s 1001 members – it’s probably more now, but Acid made a splash recently of its 1001st signing, Lava Lamp inventor Mathmos – are entitled to free legal advice on all matters concerning copyright and design registration from one of Acid’s five associate lawyers, including Theodore Goddard, as well as commercial help. ‘We give people the tools to help themselves as much as possible,’ Macdonald says.

It publishes a quarterly newsletter and has a strong presence at trade fairs and exhibitions. Over a third of its members are young consultancies up to two years old.

Of the 112 settlements against fraudsters Acid has won, 90 per cent were caused by designers not registering their rights. Two cases have reached the courts, and both have been won, but this is not an ideal solution, Macdonald suggests. ‘[In these cases], both companies agreed to settle immediately. But court cases usually take a lot of time, up to four years, and expense,’ she says.

Part of the problem with the creative industry is that protecting designs, ‘being so business-like’, can be deemed uncool, Macdonald believes. ‘Designers must be commercial about their creativity. Often, it’s a hangover from the creative image that designers inevitably cultivate,’ she says.

When designers have a talent which they hone through hard work and ‘sweat equity’, they must be prepared to work just as hard protecting their designs, she argues.

Catching designers while they’re young is key to helping to avoid copyright cases later on. ‘It’s vital to educate students so the next generation of designers is better prepared,’ Macdonald says. And, of course, signing them up early to Acid can’t be a bad thing.

Acid has proposed an initiative, Educate to Protect, aimed at students and young designers and is currently looking for sponsors. Its goal is for all colleges to be equipped with Acid CD-Roms and information.

Talking to students is just one aspect of Acid’s, and Macdonald’s, work. She writes to retailers, attends exhibitions, takes part in round table discussions, takes calls from new designers, answers correspondence and lobbies the Government.

She was recently granted a seven-minute audience with Michael Portillo, Member of Parliment for Kensington and Chelsea. Some of his constituents had written to her, as designers, and she was putting forward their case. Another politico, Liberal Democrat peer Lord McNally is a supporter through the Parliamentary Retailers Group.

I suggest Acid is a substitute union for designers, but Macdonald says it’s more of a trade association. ‘We’re like a contemporary action group, a “today” organisation,’ she says. ‘We’re not committee-based, so we can be immediately reactive.’

Dids Macdonald’s CV

1983 Partner at Soft Options Interior Design

1989 Creates Holbein, a hand-painted decorative accessories company

1996 Creates round table Acid action group within the design industry

1999 Appointed chief executive of Acid

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