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The Copy/Culture Symposium

A day-long symposium during DMY in Berlin brought to the fore the ideas, insecurities and questions that a new type of design environment raises.  Copying and open-source will mean big changes for accepted norms like copyright and patents.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 23-06-2011

Mimicry isn’t always bad

Two of the biggest enemies in Dutch design kissed and made up - so to speak - on stage in front of a live Berlin audience during the Copy Culture Symposium held during DMY.

Lucas Verweij is a designer and educator, and is married to Hella Jongerius.  He happily admits that for a long time he refused to speak to pathological copier Bas van Beek.

“But I was wrong about copying,” he says.  “Once I would have refused to stand on stage with him, but now I will introduce to you one of the world’s best copiers, Bas van Beek.”

Van Beek has been one of the first to take copying to a new level.  He took Hella Jongerius’ vase, for example, made it more functional and sold it for half the price.  He also made a controversial name for himself with the Royal Ripoffs collection and Cup and Paste – a series of pressed glass designs.  The saucer is reingineered from a plate designed by Berlage.  

For this he was effectively ex-communicated from the Dutch design establishment.

Copying, according to Van Beek, is not a sin but a way of “redefining and setting different parameters so that new designs can be generated more efficiently.”

The Museum Boijmans van Beuningen were so impressed that they bought some of his pieces.  “Which is when the shit hit the fan,” Van Beek said. “Probably because they never bought the originals.”

Once a taboo, outright copying, open sourcing and sampling are infiltrating the upper echelons of design thinking. More than just a matter of taste and morality, copying can have cultural, social and of course economic implications.

During the Copy/Culture Symposium speakers from across the globe and from all perspectives clashed and debated over where this nascent acceptability of what was once called fraud might lead to.

Using current economic models, intellectual property protection makes good business sense.  Designers need to make money.

But almost every speaker from Paul Gardien, head of Design Strategy & Design Innovation and Vice President at Philips Design to type designer Erik Spiekermann agreed that the world is changing and current business models will not last.

Scampering around to protect one’s intellectual property rights in an environment where digital distribution will one day be the norm, is not readying the industry for reality.  One just needs to look at what has happened to software and music to realize that new attitudes are needed.

“We believe society has become more open and the economy must follow,” said Roel Klaassen programme manager at Premsela, the Netherlands Institute for Design and Fashion.

Philosopher Henk Oosterling of Erasmus University, Rotterdam focused on Japan and China.  China, in particular, has little need to protect the copyright of others given the hundreds of millions of euros they make from copyright infringement manufacturing.

He explained how in a top-down society everyone is answerable to everyone else.  “There is no thinking outside the box,” he says.  “It breeds an approach where work contains the safest forms of expression, and the education system stresses repetition.”

Alternatively, individualism is the “jewel on the crown of the western world and copyright as well as individual rights lie at the heart of that,” he said, “but copyright culture makes no sense.”

In Japan, the concept of imitation is even idealized.  Students imitate their masters and spend years internalizing their voices.   It is seen as flattering. “There are no external thoughts or exploration,” he said.

One of the most poignant ideas raised throughout the day was Oosterlings’s comparison between copy culture and Nicolas Bourriaud’s research and writing on relational aesthetics.

“In Japan it is about the beauty of the relationship between the people, not the people themselves,” he said.  “In the same way, the final product is not the message.  The biggest message is the attainment of relational fields.  It is about creating networks and an environment … removing one’s ego from the work and understanding that once a product is released, it is no longer the designer’s.  Ownership becomes ambiguous.”

In the ultimate irony, the east may be the masters of copying, but the west might well benefit from trying to copy at least some of that mentality.  
Aram Sinnreich is an author and an assistant professor in Journalism  & Media Studies at Rutgers University in the USA.  He agreed with Oosterling in that everything defies the logic of copyright.

“Global networked communication has given rise to configurable culture,” he said. “These new grey areas of cultural forms produce new ethics and values, but our laws are still mired in old fashioned black and white copyright.  We need new laws and economic models to capitalize on new cultural forms rather than artificially strengthening old ones.”

Erik Spiekermann agreed with much what was being said with the honest caveat that at the end of the day he still has to make money.  He isn’t yet convinced that open-source can work.

“I fully agree with copyright because I have to make money,” he said.  “I design type faces.  If someone takes my data and sells it for gain, that is stealing.”

“Students can be inspired and copy, but someone who takes my work, spends a few hours fucking it up and then sells it for gain is not OK.”

Paul Gardien, vice president of Philips Design and head of Design Strategy and Design Innovation holds a similar position to Spiekermann.  His company puts 1.6 billion into R&D, which is 6% of the turnover.  At the same time it spends a lot of money on patents, design rights and copyrights.   “And our stakeholders want to see a return on that,” he said.

Companies like Philips have to change.  And they are. The focus is no longer on single artifacts, but the total brand experience and enabling customers to pursue their own ideas.  “For that you need networks and that can only come through collaboration and trust,” Gardien said, “which is something you can not easily copy.”

He calls it templated solutions.  “We provide the framework in which other people can get creative.”  So localization, individualization and creativity can be both established and  maintained.

Where the symposium held up is that speakers from the theoretical and academic worlds found at least some common ground with speakers from the commercial world.  Everyone agreed that change is inevitable but that downloadable Ikea design is still a long way off.

“And I still think licensing of high-end design has a future,” Gardien said.  He was talking about medical products but other agreed that full democratization of all design is not necessarily what people even want. “If photography turns into Flickr and Friendship turns in Facebook and product design turns into a version of those two things, that is horrific,” said British environmental designer Sam Jacob.

As the symposium came to a close, Aric Chen, Creative Director of Beijing Design Week 2011 challenged Gardien telling him if his product is copied in China, then it is effectively his own fault.

“I think that brands that fear copying have forgotten what a brand is about,” Chen said.  “Branding is about differentiating your product and implicit in that is an acceptance that you will be copied …  Companies that spend more and more money on legal teams filing suits are misguided.  In China what works is spending on marketing and educating consumers about brands. That is where I would say Philips is invisible in China.”

Gardien – always calm and composed – refused the bait.  “There is a big difference between copy and theft,” he concluded.




The Copy/Culture Symposium was presented by Premsela, the Netherlands Institute for Design and Fashion, and DMY Berlin.

Images: top main Bas van Beek and Lucas Verweij on stage during the Copy/Culture Symposium.  Small from top Van Beek's copy work that got him into trouble with the Dutch design establishment.

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