Culture / 31.07.2017

Thought: Knock-Off Nation

On replica, forgery, and fakes—and the big problem of design copyright in Australia.

Art forgery has a long, colourful history. From Elmyr de Hory, part inspiration for Orson Welles’ 1973 documentary F is for Fake, to the more recent tale of the wild financial success of German forger Wolfgang Beltracchi – even the hyped (or faked) controversy surrounding work by Thierry Guetta. Art imitation makes for an intriguing tale, but is largely understood as a crime against artistic genius, diminishing our better understanding of individual innovation, and a broader body of work.

In Australia, the recently exposed Whiteley scandal, in which the national art icon’s work was faked and sold for millions to unsuspecting enthusiasts, was brought to court, tendered a guilty verdict at trial and deemed by prosecutors to be the country’s biggest forgery upheaval to date. The case necessarily forms part of a growing conversation surrounding Australia’s relatively laid back intellectual property protection – but also begs the question why other facets of creativity are not afforded the same mystery, scandal, shame, and battering of reputations as the fine art market.

Why, for example, in Australia is copycat design so significantly less taboo?

Industrial designer Ross Gardam understands that many people, both locally and the rest of the world, “don’t value design to the same extent as I do.” The Melbourne based designer studied at Monash University, and worked within the industry for about seven years before starting his own studio and small business in 2007. “Since then it has been pretty constant and a lot of hard work, and late nights, but I really love what I do, which makes it all a lot easier.”

Gardam is widely admired within the design world for his exploration of sustainable design principles, but also for his unique, contemporary aesthetic. Not entirely unlike the compiled brushstrokes of a painting, Gardam’s Polar desk lamp is the result of creative conception, and meticulous development. Inspired by natural and seasonal phases of light, and the eclipsing day to night, the piece is comprised of a handcrafted ceramic base, a circular shaped shade, and unique magnetically attached arm. While the lamp may never be sold as a mere one off, and art and design bare simple commercial distinctions, for Gardam the creative energy is the same as any veritable work of art.

“We are a small business, however we have had our products copied in Australia and international markets,” Gardam explains. “Most recently in Singapore a company made a copy of our Silhouette Desk Lamp. It’s always terrible to see a product you spent so long developing, manufactured so poorly.” This Gardam lamp involves a series of interlocking components, which took some 12 months of testing to develop. “The replica did not have this element, and I’d imagine would fail after the first year of use.”

Sydney based, Adelaide born emerging designer Liam Mugavin has already experienced the same unflattering plagiarism. “It’s quite a common occurrence even for young emerging designers to see their designs copied. Many of my peers’ work has been ripped-off, including by Australian companies. I’ve seen my work reproduced by someone Russia. There’s not a lot I can practically do about it.”

As for what recourse the Australian designers have against forgeries of their work, the present position in Australia is especially unique – and remarkably lax compared with penalties in place abroad. Here original designs may be registered for five years, and then re registered for only another five. For small players, even if the design is protected under copyright in its first 10 years of life, the cost of litigation is as ever, largely prohibitive.

In Australia selling imitation furniture, from iconic Eames lounge and ottomans, and Arne Jacobsen Egg Chairs, is completely legal, so long as the label ‘replica’ is pasted to each piece. At a fraction of the price, maybe this is ‘design for the masses’ just as the Eames duo dreamt – but is a clumsy rendering mass-produced maybe missing the artistic point?

“The notion that replica is the ‘Robin Hood ‘of design is crazy,” adds Gardam. “My products use quality timbers, certified electrical components, and are made in Australia by an ethical workforce.” While price stands as the principle barrier to investing in original design, what’s missing in each imitation piece is design integrity – a level of precision from conception through to manufacture – and a generally misunderstood, veiled component of good design.

For Mugavin, there’s also invariably a greater emotional connection to original design. A certain sentiment in opposition to throwaway culture expedited by poorly made, short lifespan products, and an ideal easily akin to any personal artistic investment. “The objects we own and value are in many ways extensions of our self. So what we own is incredibly important, after all our objects will outlast us – if they are well made.”

Director of the Authentic Design Alliance (ADA), Anne Maree Sargeant believes the recent and drastic overhaul of intellectual property protection in the UK is a model primed for Australia to adopt. “The future of our creative industries is what we’re really interested in protecting, that’s the bigger issue. Not just the icons,” she says. Originally initiated by a set of Australian high-end design showrooms, the ADA has relaunched as an initiative to rally against replica, and shift attitudes undervaluing creative capital within the realm of design.

Effective as of April this year, sale of counterfeit furniture in Britain bares penalties of up to £50,000 and 10 years’ jail, and designer’s rights are protected for 70 years after their death. “The UK had deemed copies and replica so damaging to their own creative industries that they had to swiftly make a big decision,” says Sargeant. While the Australian Government has requested that the Productivity Commission undertake a 12-month public inquiry into the country’s intellectual property system, and specific submissions on replica design were included, at the time of writing the results of that inquiry were yet to be officially released.

“I find the fact that you can buy a Tom Dixon replica as easily as a Big Mac in Australia so deeply embarrassing,” adds Gardam. “The bigger issue for me as a creative is the viability of design and creative culture [here]. I hope that our government will soon fall inline with the rest of the world and protect creativity and innovation in Australia.”

This article was written by Sammy Preston and appeared first in VAULT Magazine Issue 16. 

Want more?
Stay in touch and subscribe to our monthly newsletter here.