Can I Copyright My Furniture Design?

Furniture Design

Many designers wonder if they can really copyright their furniture designs or if they should instead try to get a trademark on them. Both of these laws can be a bit complicated.

To copyright, your furniture designs a product must be in tangible form. A tangible design has copyright protection but if you want to bring a case to court you must have a registered copyrighted design. The 2010 case of Universal Furniture Vs. Collezione Europa USA gives us a legal precedent.

I have a Master’s degree, focusing on Chinese Law (MMLCBL). I studied both copyright and trademark law, but I am not and nor have I ever been a practicing lawyer.

If you are looking for some legal advice, the best thing to do would be to hire an attorney specializing in trademark and copyright issues. Copyright and Trademark law can be highly complex.

Copyrighting Law Basics

To know if you should copyright or trademark your designs, you need to ask yourself if your designs are unique enough and something you know you can sell for many years that will make it worth the cost, and that is a time to get a copyright or trademark registered. Copyright or trademark registration can be an expensive process.

Each country has different rules and regulations. If you want to have your design copyrighted in the U.S, you should talk to U.S copyright lawyers. Same with Australia, China, or any other place you want to be sure you have protection.

Before we can answer the question about furniture being copyrighted, we first need to understand a few basics about copyright law.

Copyright is a name that implies it is the legal right of the property owner to be able to copy or reproduce the product. Copyright is the right to copy or reproduce the product; exclusivity is given to the copyright owner to re-create and reproduce the work or product.

The copyright registration helps to protect the creators of original work from unauthorized duplication or use. But for the original work to be protected under copyright law, it must be tangible or a product.

Under copyright law, project work or a product is only considered original if the author created it from entirely independent thinking and did not duplicate any part of it. That is known as the Original Work of Authorship (OWA).

In the United States, copyright law protects anyone whose work is considered an original work of authorship. The copyright can also be legally registered if the original owner wants to stop anyone else from copying the design.

Here is where it can be confusing as not all works of art can be copyrighted. Here is a list of things that the copyright law does not protect:

  • project ideas
  • discoveries
  • concepts
  • theories
  • brand names
  • logos
  • slogans
  • domain names
  • titles
  • speech
  • musical scores
  • designs considered functional or useful articles

For copyright, it must be in a tangible form. For an idea to be copyrighted, it must be written down. That is because a copyrighted item must be tangible. In the case of music, the music would need to be published or produced into a record.

In the U.S, original owners are protected by the copyright law all their lives and until 70 years after their death for individuals; the protection for corporations is shorter. Even though copyright protection starts when you put a tangible design on paper, you can not bring a lawsuit or legal action against anyone unless your copyright has been legally registered.

Copyrighting Furniture

When copyrighting furniture, the law can get a bit interesting and not as clear-cut as the law may seem.

Here are something to remember about copyright law:

Functional Designs

Copyright law has a term called “useful articles.” Useful articles function include items beyond just their style and appearance, such as clothes, appliances, and furniture.

That means under copyright law for a “useful article”, the ornamental design can be protected but not the object itself. You can have copyright protection on an ornamental design you put on a chair, but not on the chair itself. The chair is considered a functional design or useful article under copyright law.

If you invented a new kind of chair, that protection would probably go under a patent and not copyright protection.

Fixed Medium

As soon as the design is put in a tangible form, the copyright protection is brought into action. For there to be a copyrighted design, it should be put on paper or into a digital drawing program.

In other words, the design can not just be an idea that is in your head. It must have some tangible form.

Exclusive Rights

Copyright protection is there to help ensure that creative people, such as designers, can make a living from their original works of art. The copyright Is valid for the lifetime of the designer or creator plus 70 years for most works of art created after 1978.

As the creator holds the exclusive rights to their design, they can also sell the right to another person. The copyright owner has the right to reproduce the work, create work based on their original work, distribute their work, display their work, and, if necessary, perform their work.

Universal Furniture Vs. Collezione Europa USA Precedent (2010)

In August 2010 the U.S., Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a judgment of more than 11 million USD in favor of Universal Furniture against Collezione Europa USA for a copyright infringement involving Universal’s Grand Inheritance Collection and English Manor Collection. The Universal case is an interesting case to study as it gives us some insights into furniture and copyright law.

In this case, the court focussed on the originality of Universal’s designs to see whether or not there was a breach of copyright by Collezione Europa USA. Universal had hired Steven Russell of Norman Heckler Design firm to consult and design these historical interpretations of this furniture collection.

Russell could show the court that he had collected, sorted, and made significant artistic changes to the designs. He was able to show the court that his designs, though based on some antique designs, did constitute an original work of art. Russell had done much more than copy designs already in the public domain, he had created new designs.

One of the significant keys to Universal’s success was how Universal described their “copyrighted work” in the copyright application. Universal did not focus on the furniture itself but the decorative sculptural elements of the furniture design – those elements which can be copyrighted.

In this case, the court found that Universal had proved there was sufficient originality in the aesthetics and ornamental design of the furniture pieces. Hence, they ruled in favor of Universal.

A few takeaways from this case for copyrighting furniture is:

  • Designs Process – Universal and Russell was able to show the court sufficient evidence that Russell had designed what was deemed an “original work of art.” Russel had documented his design process and could clearly show to the courts that this was his original design. A simple way a designer can do this is to date all their designs and keep track of the design process to show the design is an original work of art.
  • Ornamental Focus – Universal did not focus on the furniture as furniture is a “useful object” instead they focused on the ornamental features. The court in their ruling said the ornamental features were like a belt buckle design; the design on the buckle is not necessary for the function of the belt but as it is an ornament it can be copyrighted.

This landmark case reminds all designers, companies, and anyone who wants to know if their furniture can be copyrighted. They must first understand the copyright law and then focus on those design aspects that can be copyrighted.

If you are interested in seeing how Mondoro can help you with your furniture needs – we would love to talk to you to see how we can help you.

At Mondoro, we create, develop and manufacture home decor and home furnishing products.

Find out more about how Mondoro can help you create, develop, and manufacture excellent home decor and home furniture products – don’t hesitate to contact me, Anita. Check out my email by clicking here or become a part of our community and join our newsletter by clicking here.

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References

To find out more about the Universal Vs. Collezione Europa USA Case, we recommend you read Courts Clarify Copyright And Trademark Rights In Furniture Cases by clicking here. In this article, Lawerence R Robins gives some great detail about this landmark case.

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Anita Hummel

Hi, I am Anita Hummel. I am the President of Mondoro. I am passionate about helping you CREATE, DEVELOP, and MANUFACTURE home decor and home furnishing products. I am also an avid blogger with a love of travel and riding my motorcycle around the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam.

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