Inspiration or copying: Are designers being ripped off?

16 August 2016

Written by: Nathan Oakley

Australian creatives are having their original works replicated and sold for less, Nathan Oakley writes.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” the famous saying goes. However for numerous Australian creatives, the idea of their designs being mimicked and then sold for profit is not a comforting one.

This year Australian clothing brand Gorman has seen backlash over the originality of their designs. Most recently, Sydney designer Eloise Rapp has found similarities between her works and that of the womenswear giant.

Gorman founder Lisa Gorman denied any form of copying, citing the world of design as one where “new concepts feed off old ones”.

Angelique Woodburn from Howi Clothing has felt the affects of this firsthand, with her popular “boss” childrens t-shirt replicated by overseas websites and being sold for the fraction of the original price.

It is infuriating that my own personal designs are being copied,” she tells upstart.

“If customers or others in the industry are questioning whether or not a product belongs to a certain label, then that is too much inspiration and not acceptable.”

For many consumers, the links between similar designs are up for debate. Perhaps inspiration was taken, or perhaps blatant copying did occur. This does however beg the question, what is acceptable?

“It’s up to the artist and how intact he or she wants to keep their artistic integrity,” Melbourne artist Brent Rosenberg says.

“There’s a thin line between inspiration and copying styles of existing work.”

Rosenberg makes a conscious effort during his artistic process to ensure inspiration does not evolve into something derivative of other works. 

“I would never want my artwork to look like someone else’s,” he says.

In the worst instances, artists stand to lose financially from their works being copied. The value of items such as Angelique’s “boss” t-shirt or designer furniture items such as the eames eiffel dining chair is dependent on them maintaining an element of exclusivity. The original eames chair retails for over $800, while $39 “replica” versions can be purchased from various retailers across Australia.

Whether sales of the original have suffered is hard to assess, but there’s no question that the design of a piece is cheapened when a “replica” can be purchased from the local Kmart. 

The popularity of these and other “replica” items is incredible, and also concerning. While Charles and Ray Eames’ design is over 60 years old and half a world away, the normality of fake designer items could set a precedent going forward, making Australia a destination for these “replicas.”

Many believe legislative action should be taken to stop copies of designer work. The EU has done just that in February, extending design copyright from 25 to 70 years after the death of a designer, essentially dismantling the replica furniture market in the process.

Miss SoHo artwork by Brent Rosenberg

Miss SoHo artwork by Brent Rosenberg

The effects of changed legislation could vary, with the ability for items to be copied and manufactured in China for a lesser cost remaining.

In Brent Rosenberg’s case, his artwork is being copied and sold in Bali markets.

“Initially it was a bit of a shock,” says Rosenberg.

“As long as it isn’t directly being sold to your market … there’s not much you can do but laugh.”

Rosenberg finds this all the more reason to stay ahead of the curve with his collections.

Unfortunately for Angelique, the reality is much closer to home, “I am disgusted that there are so many Australian online stores importing them and selling them at a much lower cost,” she says.

The central concern for creatives who have had their work copied is sustainability. How likely are they to sell their works when replicas are being manufactured at a substantially lower price?

The answer may come through multiple avenues. Legislation for protecting local designers can be improved, discouraging carbon copies hitting the market.

The next change is the mentality of consumers. How conscious and knowledgeable are they of the original design are they, and will this affect their decision to buy?

The creative industry is fuelled on fresh new designs, and their ability to trigger the creative process in others. If our innovative designers are continually discouraged, how sustainable is the industry?

Nathan Oakley is a third year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter at: @oakley_nathan