Furniture designers expose ‘out of touch’ copyright system in UK fight

Copyright law has caused confusion and controversy since the internet became ubiquitous. © Ina Fassbender
The UK government is under pressure from foreign companies to expand the time window on a copyright law that covers content like photographs of designer furniture.

This latest battle over intellectual property rights (IPR) is keeping a lot of attorneys busy - and highlights how “copyright [is] completely out of touch with how people actually use digital technology“, according to ARS Technica.

UK law currently protects a furniture designer’s copyright for 25 years after their death, giving free money to the designer’s heirs or the corporate owner of the item’s IPR.

That law is expected to be updated to reflect the 70-year time window in most EU countries, which means the copyright for a chair could be in place more than 100 years after it was created.

The UK opened a consultation period to set the date for changing the rule, but a judicial review brought by three furniture manufacturers, US-based Knoll, Italy’s Cassina, and Vitra from Switzerland, pushed for an earlier adoption.

Tony Ash, managing director for Vitra, told De Zeen magazine the changes in law were in response to their designs being reproduced in China by unauthorized manufacturers, distributed to London retailers, and sold for a quarter of Vitra’s price - in contrast to Vitra’s system of making the products in their own Chinese factories, distributing them to UK stores, and selling them for full price.

One of Vitra’s chairs cost almost £5,000 on a UK online retailer’s website, which could feed an average UK family for more than a year.

Critics of this new extension include small publishers and photographers who are already struggling from the contraction of their sectors caused by the internet and copyright violations. They face added licensing costs for the extended copyrights.

The copyright issue has become more controversial in recent years with the growth of the internet's ubiquity. Elected officials from the Pirate Party sought to reform copyright laws in the EU with limited success.

Creative Commons activist Lawrence Lessig flagged this growing conflict between copyright laws and the ‘YouTube Generation’ during his 2007 Ted talk: “One side builds new technologies that will enable them to automatically take down from sites like YouTube any content that has any copyrighted content in it, whether or not there's a judgment of fair use that might be applied to the use of that content. And on the other side, among our kids, there's a growing copyright abolitionism, a generation that rejects the very notion of what copyright is supposed to do, rejects copyright and believes that the law is nothing more than an ass to be ignored and to be fought at every opportunity possible.”

In 2008 a US man was brought to court after taking a photograph for stock use that partially showed a public art piece "Dance Steps on Broadway".

The piece was funded by public money, but copyrighted to the artist Jack Mackie, who sued for statutory damages of $60,000. The case was settled out of court.

The US Postal Service was also brought to court for a similar incident, when they used an image of the Korean War Memorial sculpture on a stamp. The sculptor was awarded a $685,000 settlement.

Last week, Disney was criticized for its overzealous takedown notice for a posted photo of a new Star Wars toy.

READ MORE: Disney threatens, then rescinds, legal action over Star Wars photo