The website of Voga, Britain’s foremost replica furniture importer, boasts that the firm “was created to make great design accessible to all”, before adding: “The greatest mid-century furniture designs are back where they belong: in your homes.”
Except they’re not. They are in fact in a warehouse in County Kildare where, unless the UK customers who ordered them travel to Ireland to collect them, or pay a third-party delivery firm to do so, they will be resold or destroyed.
Among them is a £441 chair ordered by Orla McGrath back in March, made in the style of Danish designer Finn Juhl. The confirmation email stated it would take up to 12 weeks to arrive at her Manchester home, and the full sum, including delivery, was debited from her account. Those 12 weeks came and went, then out of the blue in August she was contacted by a Dublin shipping company demanding £70 to deliver the chair from Ireland.
McGrath called Voga, only for the firm to disclose that it had moved to Ireland since she placed her order. It offered to deduct £68 from the price of the chair to cover the extra shipping costs.
Voga, it transpires, reinvented itself as an Irish company in May to escape new UK copyright laws that would have rendered much of its merchandise illegal. There’s no mention of the relocation on its website, which also does not give an address, and the FAQs on delivery and extra charges are silent on the issue. Only deep down in the terms and conditions is it mentioned that customers must arrange their own delivery from Ireland.
McGrath is an early casualty of a change in British legislation which has made it a criminal offence to sell replicas of design icons without a pricey licence. The amendment to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, which came in to force in July, retrospectively extends the design rights to unregistered classic works created after 1957 from 25 years after their launch to 70 years after the designer’s death. This sounds the death knell for affordable replicas of 20th-century bestsellers such as the Arco floor lamp and Arne Jacobsen’s Egg chair and threatens to put scores of companies that supply them out of business.
A further proposed rule change will slap copyright on iconic pre-1957 designs which never qualified for copyright protection in the first place, making it a criminal offence to incorporate any element of them into a new work. This means that anyone without a licence from the copyright holder who is selling , for example, the Finn Juhl-inspired chair bought by McGrath could face a £50,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison. Householders who want to get the look will now have to fork out thousands rather than hundreds for a piece of furniture, and magazines will be penalised if they show photos of items protected by the copyright without buying a licence.
Voga, which sells copies of classic designs for up to seven times less than the full price, says it was forced to decamp to Ireland where the 25-year design right still applies. It can legally sell replicas to UK customers so long as it doesn’t deliver themto the UK. there. Third-party shippers who deliver them under a separate contract are not breaking the law, and Voga says it will deduct the extra cost from the bills of affected customers.
“It’s unfortunate that due to the law change and the influx of orders some customers were impacted, and that moving systems to Ireland affected our ability to communicate with them effectively,” a Voga spokesperson says. “We thought we’d have until the end of the year to fulfil existing orders,but unfortunately the government deadline was brought forward at the last-minute.”
McGrath’s experience illustrates the shambles into which the new laws have plunged the design industry. Legislation to revolutionise long-standing design right laws was rushed out with a speed that experts say could cripple the British replica furniture, jewellery and decorative arts market. Almost overnight, companies that had been trading legitimately for decades found that they would be committing a criminal offence if they continued to sell their stock. Meanwhile, consumers will have to wait up to 40 years for bestselling designs to emerge from the new copyright.
It was the lobbying might of the Swiss design giant Vitra that forced the law change. It campaigned for UK copyright laws to be aligned with the 1998 European design directive which sought to give mass-produced furniture the same protection as books, music and photography across the EU. In the UK, unregistered industrially produced furniture was protected by a design right of only 25 years after its first year of manufacture, and the European parliament had agreed it could preserve this rule when it issued the directive. But Vitra, which holds distribution rights for original Herman Miller creations, including the Eames lounge chair, claimed this had spawned a cheap replica market in the UK which cost it €250m a year in lost profits.
In February 2015 the Intellectual Property Office said the law would come into force in 2020 to give companies time to get rid of compromised stock and invest in new designs. It would be applied retrospectively so that furniture with long-lapsed design rights would receive a new copyright lasting 70 years after the designer’s death. Vitra, along with three other big distributors, had wanted the law change within six months, so threatened legal action – and in November 2015 the IPO announced that replica sales of works of “artistic craftsmanship” would become illegal in 2016. But it is the proposal to close a loophole that exempts pre-1957 designs that never qualified for copyright from the new rules that threatens to destroy British suppliers, since most of the 15 best selling creations predate that watershed. Some have already gone bust after investing in new stock and designs following the government’s promised five-year transition period.
Their predicament is compounded by the fact that no one can define which works are deemed to have “artistic craftsmanship”. The Law Society has asked in vain for guidance; the government admits it doesn’t know. Instead it declares that the courts must decide on a case by case basis.
“We had a deluge of orders before the law changed, and we don’t know which ones to stop since there is no list of which designs qualify for copyright,” says Scott Appleton of Scott Howard Iconic Designs. He has written six times to Vitra and its fellow lobbyists asking which designs cannot be replicated, but has heard nothing. “We used to bring in four containers of Eames lounge chairs a week; now its a trickle because we don’t know if and when they will be outlawed.”
Legal experts are appalled by the rushed legislation. Professor Lionel Bently, director of the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Law, says it was not required by EU law, and his concerns were ignored by politicians. “The odd thing about the pre-1957 artistic works that the government is now going to protect by copyright, is that no copyright ever subsisted in these works under British law,” he says. “The latest consultation proposes to bring these works into copyright without any transitional provisions, which will simply make illegal the sale of copies that have been lawfully made or imported before the change in the law. It is completely extraordinary.”
The IPO, meanwhile, says the legislation was necessary to protect designers, even though the creators of most of the bestselling works are long dead.
Vitra hails the new law as a victory for the design industry. “We welcome the decision of the British government which mandates that artistic designs will soon fall under the same copyright protection in the UK as they do in other European countries,” says a spokesperson who declines to answer which of the works it distributes qualify as artistic.
However, far from benefiting designers, the amendment will in fact hobble them, according to Ivan Macquisten, from the Expired Copyright Homeware Organisation, a campaign group set up to oppose the changes. “Any designer setting out to create a new product is faced with the minefield of ensuring that it does not incorporate any element from an earlier design that could be deemed to have an artistic quality to it,” he says.
Among the casualties is the ordinary British consumer who can’t afford to pay thousands for classic designs, while those living outside the EU can legally buy and sell cheap replicas once the 25-year design right has expired. For now, companies like Voga can get round the rules by relocating to Ireland. Not for long, though: Vitra has set its sights on forcing the Republic to harmonise its rules with the European design directive.
Ironically, those most troubled by the new laws might have been the Eames chair’s designers, Charles and Ray Eames, who thought that great design should be available to the masses. Now those masses will have to pay around £4,000 for that swivelling leather look.
■ You have 14 days to cancel an online, mail or telephone order under the consumer contract regulations, provided you’ve had no face-to-face contact with the trader. If you’re shown an item then go home and confirm the order over the phone you lose the right to cancel.
■ If an item is customised you don’t have a cooling-off period and can only get a refund if it’s faulty or not as described.
■ When you place an order the retailer must send you written confirmation along with terms and conditions, details of the cooling-off period and how you can cancel. It should also advise of any charges for returning the item.
■ If a company asks for extra payment due to relocation after an order is confirmed, it may be in breach of contract and you should be entitled to cancel.
■ If the furniture doesn’t fit in your house, that is your problem and the retailer has no obligation to refund you – unless the the dimensions were wrongly advertised.Always ensure that you measure the room, hall and doorways etc before ordering to make sure the item can actually be delivered into your home.
■ If you legitimately bought a replica of a classic post-1957 design you can still legally own it and sell it on to a private individual or company. However, if it’s bought by a dealer they are committing an offence under the new rules.
• This article was amended on 21 November 2017. The headline was changed to reflect the fact that although the law change brings the UK into line with a European directive, it was not enforced by the EU.