Copying my work

In 1985, I designed a signature chair. I had resisted the temptation to emulate designs that others had created and came up with a totally unique design that was based on a totally unique construction method.

This was my chair. The editor of a magazine I was doing a lot of work for at that time saw the chair and asked me to do a write up on it. I realized that this would be a how to and would, in essence, grant my blessing to anyone who wanted to make one. But I did not really have a problem with this since the readers were not likely to claim authorship of the design. The chair subsequently appeared on the cover of the magazine and was featured in a two-page color spread on the inside, something that was pretty unusual, at least in this particular publication, for a woodworking project.

Some years later the exact same chair appeared on the website of another well known furniture maker. It was presented as his design and there was no mention of any previous incarnation of the design. The chair is still featured on the maker’s web site. A.J.’s point that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” may be true but this was one instance in which I would have much preferred to not be flattered.

I recently experienced a similar event in which a piece was displayed on an Internet forum that was obviously in imitation of several pieces I had posted pictures of. Again, this is a “signature” design or style that I had developed. Sure, there are elements that could be found in the work of any number of other woodworkers. But I had put a lot of thought and effort into coming up with my own distinctive style and people were starting to recognize these pieces as being made by me. What really bothered me was that there was absolutely no acknowledgment of the fact that this was an obvious imitation of my work.

There have been many times when I have borrowed from other makers. It is not at all uncommon for creative types to spin off the work of others. But it is imperative that we acknowledge the work of others. Whenever I have been inspired by something I have seen that gives me an idea, I have always tried to at least give a nod to the one who offered the inspiration. Not doing so, in my mind, is simply unethical. And if the copycat is profiting from the work of others in this manner, it could even be illegal.



  • BillyJ says:

    I am rather ambivalent about copyright and intellectual property issues. On the one hand, it is understandable when someone steals (and I mean literally) a manufactured or prototype piece and produces it without consent that the person who was wronged. The victim is entitled to compensation in that case. If, on the other hand, an idea is put out in public, for all to see and/or read, how is it possible for others not to copy?

    Taking an idea and trying to make it better is usually the impetus for invention. Whether constructing furniture or building a house, techniques applied to obtain the end result probably reflect practices originating thousands of years ago. True, we use modern glue or perhaps a better machine to accomplish the same result, but the essence of creation remains the same. We are building (no pun intended) on past practices.

    Morality issues do, however, come into play, as it is only right and proper to give credit where credit is due. Nonetheless, if we do not want others to use our ideas, whether in words or product, we should keep our work to ourselves. Once words are spoken or the design is revealed, and the ideas are open for all to see and hear, process, develop, and change. The only choice we have is to keep ideas to ourselves and not build anything. And that would produce a very boring world.

  • dakota says:

    Although I feel for this man who feels his idea was stolen–I am reminded that-athough I do not know (or more the point: remeber)the name of the man that ACTUALLY invented electricity–I just ‘remember’ and KNOW of Edison–case in point-Edison did NOT ‘discover’or ‘invent’ electricity–he just took the other guys idea, expanded on it and hence: THE LIGHTBULB—hennceforth: PATTEN/TRADEMARK RIGHTS were established to circumvent these types of incidents….

  • Kevin Mack says:

    A recent complaint was registered with another woodworking publication recently. There was a contest to “build your best box”. One of the entries was accused of “stealing” a maquetry design from another who proclaimed it was his original design that he posted some time earlier. The contestant was a novice, and did not recall where he got the idea, just that he liked it and wanted to build his own.
    It’s a story as old as furniture itself. If you are familiar with Gary Regowski, A furnituremaker,teacher from Oregon.Some years ago he designed and built a stool which was featured in a design book put out by a large woodworking publication. The design was later found in IKEA being massed produced by a Chinese manufacturer.No props were given to Gary nor was there any recourse.

    Sam Maloof created a line of furniture that is forever being replicated(or should I say basterdised) by others. Sam knew of this but brushed it off. Try as they might they never quite looked the same. Sam dedicated his life’s work to one general idea and refined it to near perfection. Though he himself began with Danish modern influences and made it his own.

    The whole LIVE EDGE design genre owes George Nakashima a nod of gratitude. I see people build these pieces without ever mentioning his name. Though if you begin to come too close to his exact designs, expect a call from his daughter Mira asking for you to cease and desist. This I found out first hand after trying to sell reprodutions of his Conoid chair on Ebay. I agreed without argument once I realiized the potential implications, and out of respect for a man who has been a great inspiration to me. I do continue to make a similar chair if asked, but I dont use his monikers nor do a copy his design to the letter.I also make sure the customer understands that I will not COPY the design.

    My advise would be to continue to evolve your design, Make your original design…more original. The next time someone wants you to give away the keys to kingdom, dont tell how the lock works. I have been trained to be able to scale furniture from photographs, so regardless of the time period in which it was designed I can replicate it. When I build my own designs I can hardly wait to show it off, in a way its the most enjoyable aspect of the process. I do not however give away my techniques to an original idea.
    Design is arbitrary, we think its an original design but is it.There is a thousand years of furniture making that proceeds us. Theirs only so many ways to make a table or a chair,its how we know it’s a table or chair. Have you ever made a chair and someone asked: What is it ?

    Your techniques and skills are another matter. As a graduate of North Bennet st. School, I was given a fast forward button to furniture construction, desing and technique. Without it I would still be making cutting boards. I paid for this information,and now get paid for it.

    If I had a photo of your chair I could build it, but without you telling me your “special” techniques it would be left up to me( and trial and error) to figure out how you did it. I am constantly on the lookout for new ideas for my own work, my favorite sources are the woodworking publications were speaking of. I myself have had work published and the thought of someone “duplicating” my work has crossed my mind, but I do it any way.If they want to know how I built it they will have to buy my plans.

    I would contact this person, if your convinced he is plagurizing your design. Tell him who you are, express your concerns. You may be suprised at his reaction. Just because he built 1 doesnt mean he is mass producing it.Also trust in your own skills, your selling yourself as much as you are the furniture. In my experience customers are as interested in the maker as in what he makes.Lastly, if you did it once you can do it again. My furniture is ever evolving, I never really make the same piece twice. Chalk it up to a lesson learned, youll sleep better.

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