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Is Copying Furniture Legal?

comments (8) October 6th, 2010 in blogs

CustomMade CustomMade Staff, contributor
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Fine Woodworking reader Marc LaGuardia crafted this reproduction of a Maloof rocker.
Intellectual property counsel to CustomMade, Michelle Rosenberg.
Fine Woodworking reader Marc LaGuardia crafted this reproduction of a Maloof rocker. - CLICK TO ENLARGE

Fine Woodworking reader Marc LaGuardia crafted this reproduction of a Maloof rocker.

Photo: Marc LaGuardia

How do intellectual property protections apply to furniture designs and other custom made items?

CustomMade Ventures (which owns has created a cyber-marketplace that connects customers seeking (you guessed it) custom made furniture and other custom items to the artisans who make these creations.  Their target audience is a growing population of people who have discovered that custom built furniture, cabinetry, home décor, and other custom items are often less expensive and as good as – if not better than – the more mass-produced items.  (The Wall Street Journal recently published an online article entitled, “Business Plans that Rest on Imitation”.)  Because CustomMade enables consumers to adapt mass-market furniture and other items to their own tastes, the small furniture maker and the artisan more generally might be making a comeback.

The obvious implication is that artisans might be asked to create adaptations of – or, more likely, imitations of – some major manufacturers’ designs.  The question becomes whether artisans can fill these requests without violating another manufacturer’s intellectual property rights.  A second question is whether the artisans on retain any such rights in their own works that would prevent others from making copies.

As intellectual property counsel to CustomMade, Michelle Rosenberg of Patent GC LLC advises on these issues.  The short response is to say that, with some exceptions, artisans and customers may play in the marketplace without fear of legal liabilities.  Intellectual property law simply does not give furniture designers much of a leg to stand on.

Ironically, copyrights, which protect most manifestations of artistic design and expression, are available to protect sketches of furniture designs, and photographs contained in a furniture catalog, but do not provide much, if, any intellectual property protection to the physical furniture built based on the designs in those photographs.  [Habersham Plantation Corporation v.  Country Concepts et al, 209 U.S.P.Q.  711 (Ga.  1980)] Thus, an artisan is prohibited under copyright law from making a copy of a manufacturer’s own photo, but is not necessarily prohibited from recreating the piece of furniture shown in the photo, unless that furniture design incorporates some kind of sculpture work or graphic print embellishment that is in itself a design separate from the piece of furniture.  This is what the law calls “conceptual separability.”  Absent a plausible argument that the overall design of a piece of furniture can, in effect, exist by itself as a work of art apart from its functionality as a piece of furniture, copyright law is unavailable to guard against wholesale copying of the article.  For example, an artisan cannot obtain copyright protection for a fabric-covered chair per se, but may copyright the design of the fabric that covers that chair or the elaborate sculpture work that adorns the back or leg of the chair.

[Stevens Linens Association v.  Mastercraft Corp., 208 U.S.P.Q.  669, aff’d 628 F.2d 1346 (1980); Collezione Europa U.S.A., Inc.  v.  Hillsdale House, Ltd., 243 F.Supp.2d 444 (M.D.N.C., 2003)]

All that being said, copyright protection for furniture is relatively easy to perfect if the legal standards are satisfied.  Of all the different types of intellectual property protection, copyright is the easiest to claim – all the furniture artisan need do is build the piece of furniture.  Federal registration of copyright – which confers upon the copyright holder the right to bring an infringement action – is also very easy and inexpensive.  Online registration of a basic claim is only $35 and does not generally require an attorney’s assistance.

Utility Patents, Design Patents

Patents can protect what copyrights cannot – the functional aspects of furniture, or else the ornamental design of furniture, so long as both are new and nonobvious.  Nonetheless, the furniture industry has historically been reluctant to pursue patent protection, in part because of the cost and time investment that patents require.  Utility patents – which protect functional inventions – can cost many thousands of dollars in attorney fees plus additional fees to the U.S.  Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).  In addition, a typical utility patent takes several years from the initial application date to grant.  The time investment, which might be shortened if certain petitions are filed with the USPTO, is most relevant as compared to the life cycle of a particular piece of furniture or furniture design.  (Although, the functional aspects of designs are less prone to be overwhelmed by trends than are the ornamental aspects).  In general, utility patents remain enforceable for 20 years from the date an application is filed.

Design patents cover (you guessed it again) the ornamental design of a piece of furniture.  The scope of protection is based on drawings of whatever piece of furniture the artisan seeks to protect and extends to any piece of furniture that adopts the image of the protected drawing – whereas copyright protection would generally extend not to the article but only to the drawings themselves.  However, design patents present a much narrower scope of protection than utility patents.  In general, the test for design patent infringement is whether an ordinary observer, familiar with the prior art, would be deceived into thinking that the accused design was the same as the patented design.  Thus, a potential infringer may avoid infringing the patent by making by making small variations to the design.

Design patents also cost less than utility patents.  Attorney fees run around $1500, plus about another $700 in fees to the USPTO.  However, due to the limited scope of protection, furniture makers may have to file many design patents in order to prevent imitations.  Furniture makers also have to decide which pieces in their lines to protect.  While an individual design application costs much less than a utility patent, the fees start to add up quickly if a furniture maker has many different pieces in a line and multiple lines to protect.  The period of enforcement for a design patent is 14 years from the date of issue.

Trade Dress/Trademark

A third form of IP protection potentially applicable to  furniture is trade dress.  Trade dress is an overall look that functions like a traditional trademark – once the overall visual impression of something becomes so powerful and distinctive as to create an association between that image and the manufacturer it becomes protectable.  (See section 43(a) of the Lanham Act 15 U.S.C. §§1051-1127).  (A trademark, on the other hand, is a word, name, symbol, color, sound, smell, device, or a combination of them that indicates the source of goods or services and helps to distinguish the products or services of one business from those of others in the same field.)  Any plaintiff attempting to prove that another artisan has misappropriated its protected trade dress must prove that its product’s design is so inherently distinctive as to identify the plaintiff-artisan, and that consumers are likely to confuse the alleged infringer’s products for those of the plaintiff.

Few furniture designs are so distinctive as to actually identify the manufacturer.  Generally, those seeking to buy a certain sort of furniture cannot determine the manufacturer of a piece or set of furniture simply by looking at it.  For example, many manufactures produce Victorian or Shaker-style pieces.  Most furniture manufacturers do not carve or emboss their names or trademarks on the exterior of their furniture; instead they rely on tags and emblems inside drawers to identify their goods.  Often, retailers do not identify the manufacturer or the name of the design to the consumer; advertisements to the consumer might include pictures furniture they offer in flyers, but again these advertisements may not include any reference to the manufacturer.  This is all to say that trade dress is not easily cultivated in the furniture context.

However, it does happen.  For example, in Imagineering, Inc.  v.  Van Klassens, Inc.  53 F.3d 1260 (Fed.  Cir.  1995), the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that Imagineering’s Weatherend outdoor furniture was inherently distinctive, as required for trade dress protection, after witnesses testified that the furniture possessed coherent “total image,” comprising wide slats, scooped seatboards and arms, rounded edges, notched and curved legs, and angled backrests.  Design magazines and trade journals had published editorials which commented on the line’s “novel” features, and witnesses testified that line was unlike any other furniture yet produced.  Furthermore, the record showed that design magazines and trade journals had published many editorials commenting on the Weatherend line, using photographs of the Weatherend furniture and hailing that furniture as “novel,” “exclusive,” and “outdoor classics.” Finally, the Weatherend line was recognized in an interior design competition and was featured in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

That’s distinctive design.  But even so, the section of the Lanham Act creating the cause of action for trade dress infringement doesn’t prohibit copying the distinctive furniture design per se; rather, the statute only prohibits a copy that will be passed off as the product of the originator.  (Ashley Furniture Industries, Inc.  v.  SanGiacomo N.A.  Ltd., 187 F.3d 363 (4th Cir.  1999))


In summary, while an initial reaction may be that furniture designs must be well protected from imitation by intellectual property, in fact, the scope of protection is quite limited, and may not be available at all for many designs.

© 2010 Michelle Rosenberg, Patent GC LLC and Siri Nilsson, Candidate for Juris Doctor 2011, Boston College Law School

posted in: blogs, Trademarks, legal, patents

Comments (8)

EricMSaperstein EricMSaperstein writes: The reality of this is assessed by the value of survival as artists and craftsman. In order to make a living most woodworkers will reproduce furniture per commission while working towards establishing their own style or design form. Now what is really the established value … is it the name of the artist or the style itself?

I’d gamble the vast majority of woodworkers have made a “Nagashima” style table which is ultimately a slab of wood with legs. Did we pirate a style or did we do what has been done for hundreds of years take a slice of a tree and use it to provide a functional means to avoid eating on the floor? I’ve been commissioned to produce some highly priced furniture, but two identical tables in this style with one signed as an original Nagashima and one I sign have a unique values based on the dominance of a name.

The same holds true to Maloof’s chairs, although admitting I’m not an efficient chairmaker, as I choose to avoid them, given some time to practice I could replicate any design. My “Maloof” still won’t boast to have his name, and thus just won’t draw the same value. Going along these lines can I reproduce Duncan Phyfe, Heppilwhite … Sheridan? What do we consider Queen Anne or Biedermeier these are eras of style not any one person.

Since none of us can dominate the market by owning the utilitarian function of a table in the form of copyright, patent, trademark, etc. … the value is not in the design but in the establishment of value as an artist – it’s in the name. This holds true in all forms of artwork, a thousand artists can paint in Rembrandt’s style but none shall be the value of the signed original.

Value in a name is actually something that sets us apart. Nobody really cares who’s “name” is on a drug, so brand name pharma can develop and patent a drug and then a generic company can reverse engineer the function and enter the market. Intel may develop the next generation processor but cannot own the function of computing, so AMD can task virgin engineers with designing a device that performs all the same functions as the original Intel chip. As long as they have no working knowledge of how Intel did this, then their processor doesn’t infringe on Intel.

Yes I know it’s more complex than just that to engineer a computer, but the concept fits. Go figure though – we all study how furniture was made before us and then with all the knowledge of past and present competition we can gather and then we’re off to our shops; a pile of sawdust later we produce a piece and all that knowledge doesn’t harm us a bit.
I’ve copied and I’ve been copied, this if a fact of life in a business as described in this article; we are based on imitation. When commissioned to make a table, we make just that a table in a form of some sort. That form; someone somewhere at some time has likely made that form before.

So what’s my conclusion – build your value in your name as an artist and don’t anchor yourself in ethical pondering. As long as you are not signing someone else's name and producing a fake, you're not doing any harm.

If you choose to be an absolute original great, if you choose to reproduce go for it, and it’s also your option to take the contracts and pay your mortgage or starve for total creative freedom. Very few are so lucky as to be free range artists who make a good living.

"Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal" – Steve Jobs in 1996, I think it was originally Picasso … what I see right now in this market and economy – just do what you have to do to survive!

Posted: 5:14 am on December 2nd

FineWoodworkingEditors FineWoodworkingEditors writes: Don, Thanks for weighing in with your opinion and helping to to further the discussion. I'm sure that many would agree with you. -Gina
Posted: 11:10 am on October 11th

dboetb dboetb writes: Geide,

I was not surprised to read the response to my request to address the ethical side of the blog subject since I felt that the act of infringement was being condoned by the author.

I believe the act of copying another's furniture design for profit and the condoning of this act are both unethical.

Don B.
Posted: 10:55 am on October 11th

Ed_Pirnik Ed_Pirnik writes: There was also Asa Christiana's post regarding the ethical quandry posed by selling furniture based on FWW articles:

It's an excellent topic to be sure. Reproducing the work of a craftsman like Maloof - who has a style that's instantly recognizable by those operating in the "wood world" is fine for personal use. That said, selling an item like that would pose a major ethical problem. But that's a slippery slope. How does one define whose style is "known enough" so as to make it untouchable? Where do you draw the line?


Posted: 4:02 pm on October 8th

GEide GEide writes: Don, maybe you could tell us how you feel about the ethical side. For reference, several years back, there was a good debate on the topic in Knots:

Here are links to a couple similar discussions:
Posted: 2:06 pm on October 8th

dboetb dboetb writes: Your response has answered my questions.

Thank you
Don B.
Posted: 11:36 am on October 8th

CustomMade CustomMade writes: Hi Don - though I'm sure it would be a rousing discussion, we have no authority to comment on ethics; that's up to the individual to decide. We do know that this is a dilemma that people face with their customers, so we can simply provide information on the legal aspects. I'd love to hear what people do when faced with this question from customers, though.
Posted: 9:49 am on October 8th

dboetb dboetb writes: Now, could you please address the ethical side?

Don B.
Posted: 8:46 am on October 8th

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