Aug 8, 2016 | By Benedict

On July 28, the UK government changed the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 by extending the copyright for a deceased furniture designer’s work from 25 years to 70 years. Rick Falkvinge, founder of the first Pirate Party, has condemned the move as an attack on the 3D printing industry.

3D printed furniture by Philippe Starck

In a world of online shopping, international trade, and 3D printing technology, the market for unofficial replicas of design classics has never been bigger. Many manufacturers make a great deal of money by offering low-cost, unofficial replicas of iconic furniture designs, usually taking advantage of expired copyrights. That industry has, however, been dealt a blow by the UK government, which has changed the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 by extending the copyright for a deceased designer’s work from 25 years to 75 years. The changes, first posited by former business secretary Vince Cable, were devised to offer protection to British designers and to put furniture copyright laws on a similar footing to those governing literature and music.

Reactions to the change in law, which could explicitly affect the 3D printing industry, have been mixed. The Guardian’s Rebecca Smithers covered the story at the end of July and was largely sympathetic to the changes, referring to common furniture replicas as “low-cost knock-offs.” Others, however, have been more critical of the change in law and the knock-on effects it could have. Rick Falkvinge, Head of Privacy at Private Internet Access and founder of the first Pirate Party, published his own article yesterday which criticized the changes for offering an unnecessarily long protection period to designers while presenting large obstacles for the “maker-oriented future” of manufacturing.

Rick Falkvinge

Parties on both sides of the debate are treating the legal changes as significant, but who and what will be affected? The new 70-year copyright period will apply to “works of artistic craftsmanship,” i.e. chairs, tables, and clocks which have distinctive design elements beyond their mere functionality. In her article for The Guardian, Smithers highlighted certain mid-century iconic designs such as Charles Eames chairs, Eileen Gray tables, and Arco lamps—items whose 25-year copyright period had expired, but which will become re-protected when the changes take effect at the end of January. Copies of such items, usually made in Chinese factories, currently sell online for a fraction of the cost of an authentic version, but these items will become prohibited.

Most people agree that there are valid arguments for and against copyright laws such as those imposed by the UK, but Falkvinge has flat-out condemned the changes, considering them a breach of manufacturing freedom. So who is right? Did the UK have good reason to extend its copyright period for furniture designs, or has it unfairly jeopardized a large section of the industry by doing so? Falkvinge, writing for Private Internet Access, takes two main lines of attack, one concerning questioning the intention of the changes; the other criticizing its technical implications.

“The obvious first argument is that the very existence of exclusive rights are justified by allegedly incentivizing the design process,” Falkvinge writes. “‘You come up with something good, you get a monopoly on exploiting it commercially for 25 years.’ Therefore, extending the monopoly term retroactively makes no sense at all—somebody is not going to change their minds 25 years ago because of changes to law today.”

Falkvinge’s argument seems solid until you consider the (non-existent) subject of its attack. The “first obvious argument” he attempts to criticize was not, in actual fact, ever offered by the UK as a reason for the changes in law—the new 70-year copyright period is intended to protect designers, past, present, and future, and has not been explicitly implemented to offer any kind of incentive or financial safety net to budding British furniture designers.

The other area of concern for Falkvinge concerns the nature of the copyright law, which the writer sees as a “direct assault on the 3D printing revolution.” This is because it would, theoretically, prevent a person from building their own replica items of  furniture, with a 3D printer or other tools, even for personal use. “Moving furniture design from a design patent to copyright law means that people can and will indeed be prosecuted for manufacturing their own furniture using their own tools,” Falkvinge warns.

Furniture by Charles and Ray Eames / Image: Observer

While the changes to copyright law would indeed prevent such unauthorized copying, is this really as much of a restriction on our freedoms as Falkvinge suggests? 3D printers have, of course, enabled many independent manufacturers to create 3D printed copies of iconic designs, furniture or otherwise, and expired copyrights enable those makers to make profits by selling their copied items. In one sense, it is easy to root for the independent makers over the “monopolizing” retailers who own the copyrights to the deceased designers’ works and who sell “authentic” versions for much higher prices. On the other hand, however, should we not be encouraging the maker community to create new and exciting designs, given the limitless possibilities afforded by CAD software and 3D printing technology?

Experts anticipate that the new legislation could have a big effect on online retailers selling copies of furniture designs, with the changes due to kick in at the end of January 2017. It is not yet certain whether the laws will affect the 3D printing industry as negatively as Falkvinge anticipates, but one would hope that the maker community could overcome such a setback by continuing to innovate rather than replicate.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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