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As 3D printers break through, EU expands copyright to furniture and extends term by a century

The UK has just changed its copyright-and-patent monopoly law to extend copyright to furniture and to extend the term of that copyright on furniture with about a century. This follows a decision in the European Union, where member states are required to adhere to such an order. This change means that people will be prohibited from using 3D printing and other maker technologies to manufacture such objects, and that for a full century.

The Guardian celebrates “an end to cheap Chinese knock-offs” in an article that describes how classic furniture design that’s older than 25 years will be moved out of the public domain, where anybody can use the design for any purpose, and back under exclusive rights – the exclusive monopoly law we know as “copyright”.

Designs of furniture are normally protected by a special form of patent, known as a design patent, which can be awarded when the design goes clearly above and beyond the basic function of the object. (The patent we normally know as a “patent” is formally called a utility patent to distinguish it from a design patent.)

The designs won’t just be moved from being under design patent to being under copyright instead, but the exclusivity terms are also extended a lot – from having been 25 years after first marketing, to being 70 years after the death of the designer. Assuming this designer lives an average lifespan, and designs something at the height of their career in their mid-30s, that means the term of the exclusivity is extended by a full century.

This is strikingly odd, and hostile toward a maker-oriented future that’s already happening (and certainly can be expected to play out in that next century).

The obvious first argument is that the very existence of exclusive rights are justified by allegedly incentivizing the design process. “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. Designs that already exist won’t stop existing because of later legislative efforts. Therefore, moving designs out of the public domain is arguably stealing from that public domain, as it negates property rights of makers.

The second odd observation is that the UK law in question commingles patent law and copyright law, which are rather different beasts. Furniture is normally protected by something known as a design patent and not by copyright, and this has enormous ramifications for 3D printing: when something is under patent, you’re absolutely and one hundred percent free to make copies of it for your own use with your own tools and materials. When something is under copyright, you are not. Therefore, this move is a direct assault on the 3D printing revolution.

(I argued five years ago at a business leader meeting that people would be sued out of their homes for manufacturing their own slippers from a drawing they found, just as they had been for manufacturing their own copies of music albums. Business leaders at that meeting laughed at me at first, realizing how ridiculous our laws in this area have become: completely out of touch with reality.)

Therefore, 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. There’s an important difference here in EU law versus US patent law:

In most European countries, the exclusive exploitation rights granted by a patent are restricted to commercial exploitation. A private person who builds the patented invention in his own home for his own personal goals cannot infringe on a patent. […] United States law is more strict. It forbids anyone from making, using or selling the invention, even when the use is strictly personal.

So in the United States, a change from patent protection to copyright protection would not matter much when it comes to maker culture and 3D printing. In the European Union, which is where this is taking place, it matters a whole lot.

The Guardian, in its rant against “cheap Chinese copies” and “scam merchants”, doesn’t even try to hide that this is about European protectionism – preventing the Chinese from offering better value for money – and nothing morally justifiable at all:

Take, for example, the famous Eames walnut and leather armchair with matching ottoman. The officially licensed and copyrighted producer, Vitra, sells them for GBP6,814 in John Lewis. Yet copies made in Chinese factories sell over the internet and in some stores for as little as GBP399. It is these low-cost knock-offs that will now be banned.

An insightful comment under the Guardian article objects to this hypocrisy, and asks a very relevant question about where the real scam is:

The people selling these copies are not necessarily “scam merchants”. Everybody knows they’re copies and not Vitra or Herman Miller originals. […] But – is there really GBP6800+ worth of value in the Vitra product? Or are they just charging that because they can? Who’s the scam merchant?

A relevant question indeed. Where’s the real scam when something designed 50 years ago is suddenly off limits to 3D printing and home manufacturing, requiring people to buy it at a 2000% markup instead?

Last but not least, remember that the copyright monopoly is fundamentally, irreparably incompatible with privacy, which remains your own responsibility.

About the author

Rick Falkvinge


  • The fact is that artists can eat because they derive their income from another source, not their creativity, especially if that product can be reproduced digitally. Even so the premise of your argument is false because some people will always pay or donate if they so choose. All this fretting over people using technology to share information is pointless.

  • Exactly. Useless show pony laws that are only back by angry retarded commenters making piss poor excuses. Rage as they may they’ll never be able to do anything about it.

  • It’s just a show pony law to help these people go back into their little fantasy worlds. Not gonna make any difference at all. People been using the printers and xerox machines at Kinkos and other similar stores to reproduce photos and such. It’s a joke and an easy excuse to not have to actually deal with any real problems.

  • This was well said. I would add that reciprocally, the most moral thing to do for the public would be to compensate for work you did to create the intellectual good. We, as a society, are currently failing to do this. We should fund all digitizable creative work the same way we fund science; by allocating some public money for it.

    However, the fact that we, as a society, fail to do the moral thing and support our common digital culture does not give the right to creative workers to immorally limit the availability of their work. Two wrongs don’t make right.

  • The whole point of the article is 3D printing – where we can expect in some foreseeable future that many products can be perfectly multiplied by anyone. So if you say that just the name should make people rather buy the original, you’re basically saying they should just donate money.

    I would agree, in a perfect society people would just donate to what helps everyone (In fact donating would be a much better procedure than using trademarks, which can be gamed too). But that’s not how it works.

  • > Not just for having ideas, no.

    The obvious question is “why”. Why shouldn’t we incentivize people to have good ideas. Good designs for example don’t just randomly happen, it needs time and effort – possibly years of education. Society benefits… but then there should be no payment for it?

    >A good design for X certainly makes X more desirable, but the next step is persuading someone to buy it.

    Production and marketing are different fields. Why should our society value them so high, while valuing the idea not at all?

    > _Then_ “the artist” gets money, if he’s made a deal with the manufacturer / seller of X, etc.

    I don’t get why they should give the artist money, if they can just copy it for free. You put the artist at a big disadvantage (which they already have… they tend to earn badly compared to marketers/sellers/producers).

    > Or should all GPS receiver manufacturers be paying “royalties” to Albert
    Einstein’s descendants for the theory of general relativity?

    Nope – which I clearly wrote in my text.

  • Very true, until you’re a designer, like me. My company spends 500,000USD/yr to litigate against counterfeits. We pass that off to you, the consumers.

  • Even as a company I think the most long term strategy is to innovate faster than your competitors, not starting to defend old product lines.

    For an artist I don’t think this should be different. If people copy your paintings, make new ones.

  • So you’re against violations of property rights?

    What about when people are extorted to fund Pirate Party parliamentarians’ salaries?

  • > By your logic, artists or designers that come up with ideas shouldn’t be paid.

    Not just for having ideas, no.

    > They create nothing of value, because everyone can copy it and just manufacture it

    A good design for X certainly makes X more desirable, but the next step is persuading someone to buy it.

    _Then_ “the artist” gets money, if he’s made a deal with the manufacturer / seller of X, etc.

    Or should all GPS receiver manufacturers be paying “royalties” to Albert Einstein’s descendants for the theory of general relativity?

    Even you have to draw the line somewhere.

  • Copyright doesn’t just lock down your art. All the shit on Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, the internet- all copyrighted, all in the public domain. All of that work is ‘freely available’.

    Taking that work against the artists’ will (such as using it for your company logo, or printing on a bottle), without first agreeing a license with the artist is illegal.

    That’s all copyright enforces. Its not this huge evil cloud zapping poor iddle citizens. I honestly don’t think many of you have a practical understanding of copyright.

    If artists can’t eat, then they can’t make art. It’s the same reason they don’t do jobs for free- not even for ‘exposure’. Because you wouldn’t ask a builder to build you a house for ‘exposure’, or for ‘experience’. They do a job and they should be paid. It baffles me that so many people despise the fact that creators should be paid.

  • You don’t care how something is used, but the artist does. What if their work is used in war propaganda? Or to support efforts they don’t agree with? If their work gets misused, then it looks as if they support that action, and it can ruin their reputation and future business.

    And on your point where everything should be free; that’s a beautiful idea but who gets to eat in that world? Certainly not the creators, just the consumers.

  • The writer is spot on. Not all items will match my example. Say a new wheel is invented, and copyrighted. Other people in other towns, even countries, may have similar ideas, but can’t make a living from this new wheel due to copyright.

    Why should a person or a group have the right to limit or prevent someone from making a living. That’s the point right? The copy right holder becomes rich at the expense of everyone else. Is the idea really unique, over 8 billion people on the planet means lots of people may have similar ideas, but not the money to copyright.

    There is little in furniture that has not already been done, having manufactured sofas for the last 25 years. A sofa is made for a human so it already has the constrents that it needs to fit us.

    As a small business we certainly could not afford to patent or copyright our work, our own designs based on what came before..

    We made a living, but this is not good enough for some greedy people they want to become rich and prevent anyone else from making a living in fear of patent or copyright, the software market has shown you don’t have to be infringing copyright to lose a ton of money, you just have to be sued, win or lose, you still lose.

    Imagine a super computer knocking out thousands of designs and having copyright on each, a new form of copyright trolling, no ordinary person would be able to make anything.
    I know this is most unlikely at least I hope not.

    Patents and copyright are for the rich and should exist for less time not longer to give ordinary people a chance to make a living.

  • This position seems like a rewording of greed and it won’t work in our favor. Even though information flow is unimpeded, no designer or maker of any kind will be able sustain themselves financially with what they make. They’ll be unable to invest time to their craft and it will result in an extreme decline in the quality of every new creative work.

    We’ll be the ones who suffer as a result. Makers, and we as a society, deserve better than this. Designers need to be compensated and given credit for their work.

    Imagine if you weren’t for your work. Or if the same thing happened to the medical profession.

  • There is another thing called the trademark law. The designer can manufacture his design by himself, and brand it with his trademark which is protected, which will ensure that everyone recognizes that it’s the original thing. Why prevent others from making cheap knock offs?

  • Ruthless, but I more or less agree. When an artist sells a work, they’re participating in some society. Copyright exists (in principal) for the betterment of that society. That doesn’t necessarily mean the financial betterment of the creator – and especially when it comes to digital goods, the best way to reach this goal is to make the creation freely available.

    You can try to claim that a world in which inventors and artists can’t limit the distribution of their work (beyond choosing to keep it private altogether) will limit innovation, but I would disagree. The wheel was invented before copyrights or patents, as was the hammer, the spoon, and so forth. Linux has been incredibly successful, despite none of the creators directly profiting form it, as has much other open source software. A great deal of creation happens not because of monetary incentive, but because of passion or curiosity. Obviously not *all* creation, but enough to keep the world moving.

    In many cases, artificial restrictions like this *harm* artists and innovators. Relevant to the DIY 3d printing community, Stratasys owns some patents that have prevented DIY’ers from sharing designs and innovating in this area. Fan-made content (mainly those inspired by films) pretty regularly gets censored from video/image sharing platforms. This harms both these fan artists and their communities. And although Get_rolled_over claims copyright is irrelevant to “inspired works”, the grounds on which these videos/images are deemed illegal is by using the same characters as the original work, despite characters being ideas and not really copiable things.

  • It’s a cute effort. It will be about as successful as shutting down torrents. 3d printed things can be downloaded.

  • If someone comes up with a good idea, good innovation or other useful snippet of intellectual property then the most moral thing to do (if morality is part of your world view) would be to share it with everyone in the public domain. Trying to illicit some personal gain at the expense of everyone, especially when referring to information exchange in which the originator is no worse off for sharing, seems to be the most immoral way to progress the arts and science.

  • I’m not interested in the financial endeavors of any artist, designer or creative person. I have not one single concern about whether a design is used in a way that does not match the creator’s expectation. That is inconsequential.

    Artists and anyone pursuing a career in information mediation have to learn that copyright isn’t compatible with modern life. We use devices to share and take whatever information we want. For example, I have taken many hundreds of musicians and movie-makers work for free all the time for decades now.

    I have no interest in preserving outdated business models or artificial barriers to information flow. I couldn’t care less about someone’s desire to earn a living from a particular activity. I want to build a better world where everyone has instant free access to everything that has been published.

  • I agree with some structure to support designers (because we need their insight). But “lifetime plus 70 years” is an absurd time span. I think 25 years for example is way enough. If you can’t make money in that time, then your idea is just not good enough. And if you don’t feel 25 years of protection is enough incentive, then you’re doing the job for the wrong reasons.
    We have to weigh it with the downsides. 100 years of protection stifles innovation. There is a lot of research supporting this.

  • I really don’t like the argument Got_rolled_over makes, but your reply makes me want to defend it. By your logic, artists or designers that come up with ideas shouldn’t be paid. They create nothing of value, because everyone can copy it and just manufacture it. Somehow just the manufacturer is worth making a living.
    Essentially you’re just submitting to rules that the physical world puts on us. But who says those physical rules are good for society? Physics wasn’t created to support a great society. That’s why we come up with laws and social structures to fix these problems (e.g. that the strongest can’t just kill the weakest).

    Designers and their specialization add great value to our society, and we should try to come up with systems to support them.
    Having 70 years of copyright after they are dead is really off the rails though.

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