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A Question for the Professionals from WoodCentral
This discussion began with a woodworker who wandered into a craft show -- and ended up touching on what constitutes a "high-end" quality of woodworking, and the issue of copying other woodworkers' designs. First, we had the question of the quality of items exhibited at juried shows. - Editor
"I blundered into a craft show. It was the most high-end show I have ever attended. There were two furniture makers attending. Their stuff was well designed. The wood selection was excellent...the finishes were similarly excellent.... However, in each case doors were mounted with those hinges that don't require mortises, yielding a gappy door and a cheap-looking plated hinge. What's the story here?" - Bill T.
The response to this came from a participant familiar with craft shows, who talked of this one specifically -- and others in general. - Editor
"[This] show is juried, but if your work is of sufficient quality, produced mainly by the craftsperson, not knockoffs or obviously mass-produced, and if you follow the guidelines, it's not as difficult to get accepted as you might imagine. The hefty exhibitor fee weeds out the worst of the riffraff and the buyers are usually savvy and tasteful enough to make few acquisition mistakes on the higher-priced offerings....When you ask five figures at a craft show and the smiling customer pulls out his or her checkbook without batting an eye, that's
high end." - David B.
This next response is the one that took the entire discussion in a different direction. - Editor
"I love art fairs ... I have seen plenty of craftsmanship 'inconsistencies' over the years...Some customers are more discriminating than others...The only thing I see at art fairs that bothers me are woodworkers who blatantly steal other designers' unique designs. But that's another issue!" - Thomas S.
It was, however, the issue that focused the rest of the very long discussion summarized here. The following was the first salvo. - Editor
"Smaller work suffers the most: boxes, turned items, and so on. The only salvation is to constantly keep changing designs, materials, and features to minimize the knockoff damage to one's business. The notion of copying as the 'highest compliment' no longer means anything beyond dishonesty and theft to the individual craftsperson trying to make a decent or even break-even living. - David B.
That was not, however, the only perspective on the issue. - Editor
"Shaker furniture looks similar. Most of what comes out of the College of the Redwoods looks similar. Federal furniture looks similar. Windsor chairs look similar. Queen Anne furniture looks similar. In fact, period furniture is classified by how similar it looks to other furniture of that period. Given this historical precedent, one could reasonably expect that any new design that is generally attractive is going to be adapted by other woodworkers. The best that one can hope for is that the new style will be known by the name of its original designer -- a Krenov cabinet, a Maloof chair, etc.
"The more I think about this topic, the less clear it is where the moral line is located. I am not sufficiently talented to design my own unique style of furniture and might not like to live with it if I was. So everything I have ever made is a more or less copy of something someone else made, which may have been in turn a copy of something else...Do we have to wait for a designer to die before we can more or less copy the designs, or wait 100 years -- or what? Should there only be the Krenov cabinets and Maloof chairs in the world that these designers made themselves -- forever?" - Bill T.
The previous poster came back into the discussion. - Editor
"That is the question, and there's not always an easy answer... One obvious way (but not the only way) to draw the line is legality. If someone owns a design, whether or not they possess a design patent, and another reproduces that design and sells it as his or her own, that can be legally challenged....The moral issues aren't so terribly complex, in my opinion. If you make items for your own use, from design books, published and copyrighted drawings ,and don't make a habit of selling them, you're fine. If someone owns a design and you make and sell it without consent, especially if you make a business of it, that's not fine. If you see someone's original work in a craft show and it's of their design and a distinctly novel design and you think 'you know, I could make those and sell them, too,' and you give in to the temptation and do it, you may not burn for it, but I'd say it's immoral." - David B.
Here is one of the responses. - Editor
"The question of right and wrong tends to be rather subjective -- hence the need for courts and, of course, friendly discussions One question to consider: why is it deemed right to copy designs of those who are long dead and presumably anonymous, yet wrong to copy anything else? If it were really a question of morals rather than peer pressure, it would be equally wrong to copy an anonymous and long-dead designer...In furniture, buyers are often ... conservative -- a lot of the market wants something that looks familiar, at least a little familiar. Pretty hard to truly be completely original and still be able to make a living." - John
And another woodworker entered the discussion. - Editor
"...You cannot make a copy of a protected design for your own, the same as you cannot make a computer program for you own use, or make a recording of a movie at the theater for your own use. Any derivative work must make significant changes for it to be considered new.... Nobody thinks it is right for someone who wants a new car but can't build one on their own to steal one, so why is it OK for anyone to steal the design for a piece of furniture because they can't design one on their own?
"...It is very common for woodworkers to spend a small fortune on tools and equipment and even on classes and workshops to acquire the skills to use those tools, along with classes in veneer or inlay or how to make a 'X' style chair. What I seldom hear is any reference to woodworkers taking the time to acquire any design skills." - Robin C.
Again, a previous poster in the discussion presented his view in a different manner -- this time suggesting (in not so many words) that imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery. - Editor
"How many people would have heard of Krenov if others didn't copy and adapt his style of furniture? Has anyone ever seen a Krenov original vs. something made in this style? Was your appreciation of his style increased by seeing something made in this style by someone else? Was Krenov diminished (or enhanced) in any way by someone else making something in his design style? ... I have come to the conclusion that if you want to be a famous designer/maker of furniture that the only route to this fame is to get many others to adapt/copy your style." - Bill T.
This, of course, prompted a rebuttal ... - Editor
"Let me ask you, do you think Mozart really had to be copied before he became famous? Beethoven? Stravinsky? Mondrian? Miro? Picasso? Escher? Balzac? Proust? One can find numerous artists, writers, composers who won't be copied for many years because they can't be copied. It may take years to deconstruct their art to imitate its individual and idioscyncratic essence. Try to compose an Elliott Carter piece, any piece. Not even his style is that easily deconstructed, and believe me, there are few musicologists who can even approach understanding him at the level required to imitate him. Nope. Not gonna buy it. Not so." - David B.
... and a rebuttal to the rebuttal. - Editor
"Mozart is famous only because his scores have been copied thousands of times. Elliott Carter(?) isn't because they haven't." - Bill T.
There was much more to this discussion on the original site (follow the link in the subhead), but for now, our question to you, eZine readers, is this: what do you think? Send us an email at email@example.com to share your thoughts in next issue's Feedback section.
Editor's Note: Tangentially approached in this discussion is the issue of making woodworking items to sell from others' plans. Plans from Woodworker's Journal - - including those distributed as free plans in the eZine -- are copyrighted material. Readers are welcome to make the projects featured in these plans, and to sell the completed projects. The plans themselves, however, are subject to copyright protection; any distribution of them beyond your own personal use -- whether you are charging a fee for this or not -- is a violation of Woodworker's Journal copyright and is prosecutable under the law.