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The Shift in Intellectual Property Law for Furniture Design

The late husband and wife designer team, Charles and Ray Eames, are currently having their work showcased at The Barbican in London.

The artistic couple worked together on film and photography, but where they truly made their mark was with their mid-century modern furniture designs, which are now iconic.

Designs such as the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman and ‘DSW’ dining chairs defined the minimalist furniture movement of the 50s and 60s and remain popular today.

So popular, in fact, that demand for ‘reproduction’ versions of the famous designs has rocketed over the past decade, leading to a glut of furniture companies making replicas of designs by Eames alongside other cult designers such as Miles Van der Rohe and Arne Jacobsen.

These replica versions are sold at a snip of the price of the ‘official’ versions of the furniture, produced with high quality materials as the designer intended by companies such as Vitra and Fritz Hansen.

These popular replicas have become possible because of section 52 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988, which states:

‘After the end of the period of 25 years from the end of the calendar year in which such articles are first marketed, the work may be copied by making articles of any description, or doing anything for the purpose of making articles of any description, and anything may be done in relation to articles so made, without infringing copyright in the work.’

However, in 2014, the House of Lords decided to omit section 52 starting in April 2020, which will make mass-produced copies of famous furniture designs illegal. The decision will also give furniture designs the same copyright allowances as works of literature and musical compositions.

Repealing section 52 will extend the copyright of the design 70 years beyond the death of the designer, a considerably longer time than the current 25 years.

While representatives of British design have rejoiced, it has left the furniture industry reeling, with approximately 6,000 furniture companies in the UK affected by the law change.

There will also be an impact in the world of museums, publishing and academia, as books and exhibitions on furniture design will have to seek permission to use images of the designs.