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A little out of time perhaps, but I only just saw this today and have a couple of cents to throw in as I once researched this topic extensively some time ago. A lot of my information was derived anecdotally so I stand ready to be corrected if necessary.
Any kind of intellectual property - writing, software, plans, software, etc. - can be copyrighted by the simply means of affixing that little circular "c" symbol, the word copyright, and the year.
With regard to furniture then, my understanding is that whatever the law, it all boils down to the notion that the reproduction of "common use" items really can't be restricted, no matter what anybody claims. So whether it's a simple wooden spoon or the most elaborated piece of furniture, voila.
As for patents, that really doesn't apply here and is an entirely ball of wax. As for original works of art, it then boils down to "what's an original work of art?" I'm ignorant of the law in this area but I recall somebody saying once, turn the most beautiful bowl that's painted, decorated, pierced, inlaid, embellished, gilded, whatever, if you can fill it with soup, it's still just a bowl. Of course by that definition, which I believe is encompassed by "the law of utility," if you take the most simple bare bowl and punch a whole in it, then it's a work of art because it has no utility. As stretched as it is I hope I make the point.
The act of affixing a copyright to one's work protects the intellectual property itself, not its use. If a plan is published as copyright, you can't make copies of it and sell them, that's a given, but you can do whatever you want, even if you follow the plan to the letter. If you want to stretch this point to an extreme, even if you use the same species of wood, its grain, coloration, workability, etc. is going to be different so it's not a copy of anything.
The people who say your use is restricted to making an 'N' number of "copies" for personal use or else so to spoke, can say whatever they want, but it has no meaning whatsoever unless the purchaser agrees to follow the originator's restrictions as a condition of sale (This is one of the reasons that software is never sold, but licensed for a limited number of uses - the purchaser has to agree to such restrictions as a condition of sale..
Some ago I purchased a few Toys & Joys plans with the intention of selling them - the toys I made from them - not the plans, and inquired of the vendor what his position was. He said very simply, "I'm in the business of selling plans. The more of my toys that you make and sell, the better it is for my business, so please, make as many of my toys that you can, sell them for the highest price you can get, and accept my thanks in advance."
My understanding is that original designs can be registered. I'm in Canada so the laws may be different here. It is a relatively expensive process which can cost upwards of $10000, has standing in law, but really has no teeth that can be used effectively by the one-off or small scale designer/maker even if she were to choose to register the design. This issue is well-informed by the poster who talked about protecting a unique design element, and I believe this is where it applies.
However for arguments sake, say you register a design and it's copied and mass produced by a huge corporation that derives huge profits from it. You can sue, and presumably, all things being equal you ought to prevail, but that corporation will use a roster of high priced lawyers to stall the process until you're either bankrupt or dead, hence no practical teeth.
Of course, logic would dictate the questionability of doing so as any ethical corporation will likely arrange to license production from the designer and pay a negotiated royalty. Nonetheless, this is still a major issue being pursued by jurisdictions everywhere, witness all the cheap off-shore knock-offs and counterfeits flooding our markets.
On a final personal note, why would I want to copy somebody's work and sell the copy? If I did that, people who know my work, would likely say "you should get a life because you have far too much time on your hands." Conversely, if somebody copied and sold my work, not only would I be flattered, but I would start marketing my work with the cachet "you should buy my stuff because it's so fantastic, people all over North America are copying it, but if you buy from me, you will be the only person in the entire universe who has a true original."
But if somebody "stole" my design and made thousands of copies and millions of dollars in profits then.............. I'm quickly comforted however with the notion that even if they sold only one of the thousands of copies they manufactured, then I would seriously have to question the good sense of the purchaser.
To sum up then, for me it all boils down to a very simple point that seems to be the one most repeated in this thread. It's only fair to advise the originator of work you're building on of your intentions and as also pointed out here, the answer is usually an unreserved "of course you can - thanks for asking." It's not only ethical and courteous, but for me, a huge compliment as well.
Some time ago I stripped and oiled a customer's cedar door. Running late and being in a rush to get home, I stuffed all the oily waste into a plastic bag which I just tossed onto the passenger seat of my truck.
Arriving at home just fifteen or so minutes later, I grabbed hold of the bag without thinking, to dispose of it properly, and burnt my hand badly, so intense was the heat.
I can only imagine that only a few moments delay could have easily resulted in a moving vehicle fire.
I learned a good lesson that day and was pretty lucky to have avoided a severe penalty for my lapse.
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