Should Designer Knockoffs Be Illegal?

I remember the day clearly: I'd just moved to New York and I was on the hunt for a bargain knockoff in Chinatown. Somehow, I'd gotten ushered into a secret back room. And that's when I saw it -- the bag of all bags, the Hermès Birkin.
It was real enough to fool me, so good enough for the world, I thought. But as I reached out to grab it, I heard the price: "$500." It stopped me like an alarm. I think my mouth must have hung open for a few seconds -- $500 for a bag isn't unheard of, but for a knockoff!? I stormed off.
Knockoff pieces are seductive, but they also tap into a twisted logic. A true Hermès bag starts at about $5,000. Even though the "artisans" in Chinatown had worked hard to perfect the knockoff, I didn't deem it worth more than the cost of a purse sold at Target. It got me thinking about designer knockoffs in general: At the end of the day, isn't a copy still just a copy? And if you're not acquiring an authentic piece, aren't you flushing money down the drain? In other words, how important is authenticity?
Transfer the question to furniture and the landscape becomes infinitely more complicated. Michael Manes, founder of M2L furniture showroom and industry watchdog website Genuine Design, has been involved in gathering support for authenticity in home design for more than 20 years. "Furniture is a funny industry because intellectual property isn't protected like it is in other industries," he says. "It's always a battle."
Indeed, the United States Patent and Trademark Office issues utility patents, design patents and trademarks, each with its own set of rules and expiration dates. For example, a design patent (the sort normally used for furniture that doesn't involve a technological invention), protects a designer or manufacturer from being copied. But there's a loophole: It expires in 14 years. Once it expires, the design becomes part of the public domain, opening the door to other companies making copies.
Even more confusing is the difficult-to-decipher terminology that many companies, both authentic and not, employ. There are licensed reproductions and reissues; some are authorized while others aren't. In some cases, the licensed, legit manufacturer may own the trademark to the name. It explains why you might see a copycat chair called the "Mies" chair, rather than the chair's original name -- the "Barcelona" chair, which refers to Mies van der Rohe's 1929 design (and to which furniture company Knoll owns the rights). The designs may be so close that an uneducated consumer may think they're buying an original but end up with a piece that's "in the style of."
Herman Miller, the company that produces mid-century classics like the Eames chaise and Noguchi coffee table, among other designs, has long been involved in continuous battles with companies that manufacture knockoffs. Even after attaining a trademark for some of their designs (virtually the highest form of protection), the company "still must vigorously defend it," says Mark Schurman, a spokesperson for the company. "It [the trademark] doesn't serve as a magic screen. And it is only enforceable in the U.S., though it does allow us to combat imports of any knockoffs."
What's the fuss, you ask. If you can't afford the iconic piece, why not spend much less on a knockoff?
To Schurman, the issue is more nuanced. "A great, great majority of times, the trade-off in terms of material and quality is evident if you look at the two pieces side-by-side," he says. "Second, the buyer should ask what the warranty is. What is the willingness of the seller to stand behind the piece? The third piece is the moral argument. Should the designer and original manufacturer be compensated for the original design? In our [Herman Miller's] case, we continue to pay royalties to the foundations of the name. In addition to the moral argument, as a consumer, if you're interested in continuing to see new design, Herman Miller takes our sales dollars and continues to invest them in new design."
Still, to someone wanting to own a Herman Miller chair, without the jaw-dropping price tag, some say go for it. Nick Olsen, an assistant to the decorator Miles Redd, champions chic and affordable design in his blog. "I have some clients that revere antiques and some clients that revere modern," he says. "If you want to be a purist, only get the best of the best. But if I just want the style and want it instantly... If you've got an apartment to fill or clients to please and you want the look, just go for it."
Photo Credit: Getty Images

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