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An Open Discussion on Copyright

This week Droog Hotel held an open discussion on the difficult issue of copyright.  Their plan is to host monthly events with a discussion following an informal dinner.  Speakers will be invited to share ideas on everything from hot issues to grand irritations surrounding the big bad world of design. 

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 22-08-2013

The problem with any discussion on copyright is that too often great visions are placed on the table, but the more immediate and vexing question of how a current commercial designer will make a living is skirted.

The talk becomes one of extremes.  One group sees copying as a creative and intellectual game – more a matter of looking for inspiration than attempting to steal.  These guys like to take the shapes and concepts of others – mash them, develop them, alter them to create entirely new versions of the original. The new object transcends its original often for ironic aim.

They will find very few in disagreement.

The other extreme is dominated by designers who currently rely on royalties to buy their bread.  They design-for-production for a living.  Big companies like Vitra pay millions to refine, develop and produce objects, and they are put in a difficult position when a rip-off is produced and sold for a fraction of the cost.

Projects like Droog’s own The New Original, which was presented in China earlier this year, shows how copying can turn into a clever pursuit.  For that show a typical Chinese restaurant with a big aquarium is recreated as a tiny restaurant sitting in the bottom of an aquarium.  A series of Chinese vases is distilled down to colours and presented as gradients.

Li Degeng, the exhibition’s curator, was present in last night’s discussion and said The New Original helped to present copying in a more positive light.

Richard Hutten was also there and participated in The New Original.  He admits to fighting hard against copying – and for good reason.  Commercial designers working today need to ensure their survival.  It is not very helpful to tell designers that their industry will change and that its practitioners will adapt accordingly. … that still does not answer the immediate question of now.  

“Copying for economic benefit is a problem,” Hutten says, going on to say that he has also experimented with some copy projects, but ones that are about taking ideas and adding value or an intellectual edge.  “There has to be a point to it,” he says.  

“But I don’t just design,” Hutten continues.  “The second part of my job entails collaborating with companies like Droog.  It takes an enormous amount of money and time to get an idea into production and on a shelf.  When it is finally done, it is hard to see someone take the idea and just copy it without having gone through the process.  I don’t get my royalties, and the Droog product development team are out of a job.”

Hutten also points out that the only thing a company that rips-off directly can compete on is price.  So they make it cheaper.

When Bob Copray designed the Mal 1956 lounger, a blue plastic mould of the classic Eames chair, Vitra was not negative, but were worried that if they didn’t act, mainstream copying would get out of hand.   His copy project was not a homage, but one he undertook just for the fun of it.  “It is such an iconic piece,” he says.  “I wanted to put it in another context so people would look at it differently, not just a luxurious chair.”

Diederick Schneemann admits that companies are not sure what to do about copyright infringements now.  It is true that it seems more and more like fighting a losing battle.   “It is like what happened to the music industry when everyone started downloading and sharing mp3s,” he says.

To contribute more to the copyright discussion Schneemann made Mash Up, a collection of objects composed of parts of established icons. His point is that with design databases freely available on the Internet, people can have things digitally reproduced skipping the producer altogether.

Dries Verbruggen from Unfold is more concerned about the copying of ideas.  “We are seeing a blurring of that line between an original and a copy,” he admits.

Verbruggen thinks designers should be busier with the idea that production will be digitalized.  “Design will be sold as blueprints,” he says.  “But we [as designers] are not busy enough with the near-future scenario.”  Kids growing up with Youtube are way more comfortable with copying to produce something else. That generation will come to see design as a form of media.  So I think as designers we need to rethink the way we design produce and manufacture.”

Taco Dibbits, director of collections at the Rijksmuseum had some interesting input from the perspective of art.  At the Rijkstudio the public can download art works for whatever purpose they want.  For Droog Studio they even turned a famous 17th century flower painting – “Still life with flowers and glass vase” by Jan Davidszn. de Heem - into a tattoo.  

“Obviously I have a different point of departure because money is not the issue,” Dibbits says.  “Most of the artists I work with are dead.”

One of the basic principles of art is that it always escapes.  “You can be the guardian of great art, but you can never own it,” Dibbits says.  “I don’t think one need be scared of copying.  You shouldn’t be afraid, it just gets interesting when you don’t know what is going to be done with it.”

Renny Ramakers, co-founder of Droog, and the evening’s host, challenged Dibbits to admit whether or not this was his final message to designers.

Dibbits hesitated and admitted that if he were director of a modern art museum his board of trustees would never allow him to pursue a project like the Rijkstudio for fear of being sued.

Hutten chose this moment to add that there is a whole world of difference between the online and real world when it comes to copying. “Online you have open-source design and people are encouraged to share and alter,” he says. He also doubts that in his lifetime big objects like furniture will be digitally printed at the corner store like contemporary mythology suggests.  

Many in the audience shook their head in disagreement at this last comment.

But surprisingly Verbruggen agreed:  “People were so worried about the digital photo printer,” he said, “but actually nobody used it. Digital technology has been used to share photos in a completely new way.  I also do not think digital production will replace the traditional way of designing and producing … it will have its own purpose.”

Images on left hand side:
Mal 1956 by Bob Copray
Mash up by Diederik Schneemann
‘Stil life with flowers and glass vase’ by Jan Davidszn. de Heem (17th Century)
Tattoo by Droog

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