Why the current review into design systems might be a start, but not the solution

Justin Trudeau x Macron Campfire table Tomek Archer

We were recently contacted by IP Australia, the department tasked with managing design registrations, trade marks, copyright and patents, to consult on the review into design systems.

After coordinating input from ADA stakeholders and affiliates, in June 24 team members joined a frank and broad reaching discussion about the issues the furnishing sector battles courtesy of inadequate Intellectual Property protection. This initial roundtable sprouted a series of follow-up meetings as the IP Australia team dug deeper identifying problems, noting at each turn - this was the beginning of a long process. To date their draft findings are yet to be posted. More on that soon.....

The current review into Australian design systems followed a 2-year enquiry into intellectual property by the Australian Productivity Commission (PCIP 2015-17).

When we first took on the task of arm wrestling decision-makers to tighten up the obvious holes in IP protection in our sector we knew it was a long game. And long game it is ......

Productivity Commission inquiry into Intellectual Property (PCIP 2015-17)

During 2016-17 the Federal Government held an independent inquiry by the Productivity Commission (PCIP) to explore Australian Intellectual Property and Copyright protection.

The PCIP draft report (April 2016) invited written submissions by early June, with an open call for appearances at public hearings in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, and Brisbane.

This coincided with AUTHENTIC DESIGN ALLIANCE founders passing the governance of the ADA to the current team. The counterfeit and replica furniture industry was booming, and combatting the problem required full-time focus.

For us, it was a baptism of fire. Totally thrown into the deep end untangling the complexities of lobbying, legislation and the mangled process required to get a topic onto the political agenda.

"The design industry should follow the music industry model, as well as the model of writing and authorship and other creative industries such as architecture, through free copyright protection" TOMEK ARCHER, Productivity Commission hearing Canberra

In what was a steep learning curve, the ADA invested 8 weeks collating 45 testimonials and case studies from a range of industry. Our aim was to show how design theft and replica furniture crushes the growth of local industry and hinders opportunities for importers.

Our survey included case studies by industrial designers, independent design studios, furniture designers and brands, importers and distributors, manufacturers and design journalists, supported by industry associations DIA Design Institute Australia and Good Design Australia.

"Citing a lack of 'empirical evidence' that the Australian furniture industry suffers financial loss to replicas and copies the commissioners made no recommendations to outlaw replicas"

After a three-month campaign we collated 45 statements, 24 submissions, compiled 2x 5000 word rebuttals and made more than 20 appearances at the pubic hearings - ultimately - for no tangible result.

The Commissioners cited that due to the lack of empirical or economic evidence that the furniture sector is damaged economically by the replica sector, no recommendations for change were made.

Adding insult to injury no mention of design in the final response from the Federal Government. So three months lost and no result. In short - if you can't demonstrate an economic problem via independently collated metrics, there's no problem to fix. Find more on our PCIP submissions and links to the government report here.

But the solution seems pretty simple right? Just adopt the UK blueprint.

Or follow New Zealand path of measuring the economic contribution of design to secure a berth on the political agenda. Surely the rise of globalisation and the dominance of the internet demands a right to a level playing field in the global market place. Not so in Australia it seems!

So what's the problem?

Like the UK, fake furniture began flooding the Australian market in the early 2000's and as the problem escalated a group of concerned furniture distributors founded the Authentic Design Alliance in 2010 aiming to take on IP laws to try to plug  loopholes and end the massive threat to the furniture sector from counterfeit design/

Soon it was not just imported products and iconic designs that were ripped off. Living designers began to find legions of copies their best-selling products.

Fueled by search engines, and social platforms like Pinterest and Instagram the power to locate a cheaper version of a same looking product was at the fingertips of industry and consumers alike.

Adam Goodrum states the blate.

Adam Goodrum states the blate. If we can't copy at school as that's cheating - why is copying sanctioned in commercial sectors?

In April 2012 the first public example of an Australian designer being copied by a local replica furniture chain announced itself on social media.

CAMPFIRE table designed by Tomek Archer in 2002 had been design registered. As a musician Tomek was acutely aware of the value of IP, knowing design registration was only option in Australia.

Not long after the 10 year registration expired a major replica chain announced online 'what do you think of our cool new table?' The ensuing social media takedown was a rare case that forced the retailer's hand. They capitulated stating they had no knowledge of the provenance for the design and agreed to not proceed with the table.

Unfortunately this is not the norm - and clearly an early example of the power of social media pressure.

All of this would've been avoided if design registrations extended for 25 years or more. Or if Australian furniture and lighting products were automatically protected by copyright - in line with other creative disciplines like writing, film, music, photography, art and even architecture. At this stage - Tomek had no further claim to legally enforcing his design IP in his table series.


Campfire table (2002) by Tomek Archer sitting centre stage in the offices of President Macron during G7 talks with Justin Trudeau, August 2019 //  Image : Instagram.

Why it's a marathon not a sprint

The UK campaign to up IP Protection for design was a long game. Steadily applying continued pressure so the law makers can see the problem. But seeing the problem is one thing. Getting all parties to the table to agree on the solution is an entirely different can of worms.

At that stage only 3 European territories had not IP Protection for design - the UK joined Estonia and Romania with no automatic copyright for furnishings, faced with a growing consumer thirst for cheap contemporary furnishings, which at that stage were mainly the design icons.

Let's unpack this. The UK Campaign lasted more than 12 years, with pressure most vocally applied by then Elle Decoration editor Michelle Ogundehin via her weekly column in a hugely circulating The Weekend Times.

In 2012 she took the bull by the horns and call fake on the replica industry thrusting the conversation into the mainstream. This resulted from the Elle Decor driven campaign EQUAL RIGHTS FOR DESIGN spotlighting copies and the ongoing damage they create across the furnishing sector at large.