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Monday, May 2, 2011

Who "owns" antiques?


This is Ray Azoulay, owner of the Venice, California antiques shop Obsolete.  In March of last year, a buyer for Restoration Hardware purchased a vintage light fixture from the shop, similar to the one shown above.  The fixture was shipped to RH's corporate headquarters and "interpreted" as the newly introduced "1950s Factory Scissor Pendant," below.
 

After receiving this spring's RH Source Book and seeing the knock-off of his light fixture, Azoulay filed suit claiming an intellectual sourcing copyright of sorts.  Azoulay claims he makes his store policy of not selling to retailers known to all customers.  The RH buyer did not disclose who her employer was when making the purchase.  Azoulay considers RH a competitor and the purchase and subsequent copy a theft of the "unique" Obsolete point of view.

"If an independent merchant stakes his reputation to his ability to find rare and compelling pieces of design around the world, and he invests significant time and money to do, is it fair for a larger company to cherry-pick the best discoveries, manufacture lookalike reproductions and undercut the little guy on price? Is that an ethical line breached or merely savvy business practice?"

What are your thoughts?

Obsolete [official site]
1950s Factory Scissors Pendant [Restoration Hardware]
Venice-based Obsolete spars with Restoration Hardware [Los Angeles Times]

43 comments:

KEEHNAN said...

We've been having vintage demijohns made into table lamps for maybe the last five years: http://cafieroselect.com/shop/488/vintage-green-glass-demijohn-lamp/

Lo, over the last couple and several shop visits from various prop stylists later:

- http://www.westelm.com/products/glass-jug-table-lamp-w598/?pkey=ctable-lamps
- http://www.potterybarn.com/products/eva-colored-glass-table-lamp/?pkey=ctable-bedside-lamps

Unfortunate, but a hazard of being open for retail. You roll with it and trust that your clients are intelligent enough value real from repro.

Cathy Wall said...

That is a tough one and I agree with Keehnan. There are so many knock offs out there these days you can find knock off of the knock offs. In a way I am OK with it in that it allows the average person to enjoy a champagne look on a beer budget (those in the know can tell the difference, but that too is OK). On the upside, it makes the designers, style mavens and dealers stay ahead of the curve and continue to be resourceful and creative.
Cathy

houseenvy said...

Don't think he has a leg to stand on here, myself. He's not in the business of creating reproductions himself, so his right to do so has not really been infringed. Unless he has a huge source of these from somewhere (unlikely, as it's a 'rare' piece alledgedly), RH is not really stealing business from him, is it? RH could have just as easily seen the light hanging in someone's home and copied it from that - would that also be a 'theft'?

As Keehnan says, people who would buy from such a supplier would appreciate the difference between original and knock-off. I don't believe you can own Intellectual Property of any kind on a product you have purchased. I would say Keehnan's case with the demijohns is stronger as s/he has altered them substantively so added creative input into the final product.

Interesting one to watch though!

Lisa said...

I bet he does not have a legal case, but I am as irritated as he is about the situation. Why can't these big companies use their big staffs to come up with their own big ideas! I think it is one thing to see a piece somewhere, take artistic license, and create your version of it. It is an entirely different thing to purchase a piece, copy it directly and then put it out in your homogenized catalog that you mail out to everyone under the sun. I don't like it, it seems slimy to me.

Jimmy The Undercover Designer said...

As infuriating as this whole thing is, as I feel sorry for obsolete in a way, I do not think he has a right to claim any intellectual property in this instance. He sourced the light in the first place, he did not design it. Only designers can make such a claim, and these days not even.
I once met someone that made sofas for a very very famous name and he marketed himself as such, that was his claim to fame, he blatantly offered people knock offs that are slightly different from the original at a huge discount. The famous designer knew it and he could not do anything about it !!! And even kept making his sofas with that company because of their quality, better have his stuff copied by someone that is good rather than a silly copy I think was the rational.

Karena said...

It is just going to happen regardless...I cannot affored a luxurious antique rug, however can choose from the assortment at Pottery Barn, or one of many sources.

I can see the frustration from the antique dealers perspective.

Fine works of art are copied all the time as well!

xoxo
Karena
Art by Karena

court. said...

everyone rips off everyone. if you're not the designer, you have no leg to stand on. the peanut gallery agrees :)

Nita {ModVintageLife} said...

As painful as it is for Obsolete...I don't think he has a legal right. The final design is different enough...it's not an exact copy and he was not the original designer. It is just a risk of doing business. Pretty much any good idea eventually gets copied. I've created things only to have big companies copy them and make tons of money off of my idea. It is just the way business works unfortunately.

Obsolete offers its customers authentic true antiques and not cheap knock offs. He is going to have to just realize that is his niche and there is nothing he can do about the big company rip offs. I do feel for him...but don't think legally he is going to win.

Interior Design Musings said...

First, I feel like I am back in law school, and it's giving me sweating palms. Secondly, just the facts, he does not have a case. He sold the thing for what he considered was a fair value (RH bought it and I might add at least they bought it and didn't just take a picture and knock it off) and now he's mad they copied it and will certainly make a ton off of it (it's fab, btw). It would certainly be a different story if he were the artisan and created it from scratch. He would then have a great case.

Recognizing this sounds harsh, I do not feel bad for him. He found something great and was able to sell it for a profit (that's what antique dealers do). If he wanted to make tons off of it, he should have invested the funds to go viral with the thing himself.

My Interior Life said...

I'm in agreement with most of the other comments. It wasn't his design - he just found it. I understand his frustration, but it's not a legal matter. He just needs to try and appeal to the snob factor of those who want and will ONLY buy an original anything, and forget about the rest.

Jen said...

He is not an Artist and the object in question is not an Artwork so I don't see how the 'postmodern' copying of the piece can damage his Intellectual Rights, litigation wise. Perhaps that's going to emerge over the horizon though, collectors and dealers 'authoring' their collections and as such, designating their wares as theirs. Nothing would surprise me in this hedonistic world anymore...
BTW, Obsolete has the greatest links section. AWESOME!

The Zhush said...

I see Obsolete's point entirely, but that is really all it is, no legal leg to stand on. Unfortunately, the name of his business is somewhat ironic here, no? Or is that my geeky English major/law degree coming out? This happens in the fashion world all the time as well. On the one hand, this really democratizes fashion and decor...on the other, we now live in a sea of knock offs...hmmm, compelling post!

Julie @ Chapman Interiors said...

Ohhhhh Raina, this is a good topic!! I'd be upset if a big box retailer copied my own design, but since it's not his original, he's just going to have to deal.

Alcira Molina-Ali said...

My thoughts are that this gentleman has no claim on that fixture.
It's a mixed blessing for sure in this material world that we have such easy accessibility to doppelganger goods at varied price points.
That said, as long as the "interpretation" -- ie, knock off -- isn't claiming the original designer's name, I think it's perfectly legal.
One thing's for damn sure, as soon as I can dream up a new holiday or a good excuse to drop 4-hundy on the faux Mouille floor lamp, you'd better believe I'm going to do so with no reservations or tug to the conscience.
Cheers, Alcira

nerochronicles.com

Shelley Trbuhovich said...

oh yes, this is a bug-bear but part of the retail experience. good luck to the little guy for taking it to the big guy, but their businesses are entirely different. so i'd say 'little guy' concentrate on what you do, do it better than anyone else. from personal experience, we have people rip off images from our website, other dealers claiming to have what we have to boost their website and others reprinting them and offering repros as 'vintage posters'not much cheaper than we offer the real deal. the people who do their homework know the difference. and those that don't mind, then that's their market. end of story. concentrate on your people, your product, your business - there's enough for everyone. x

lemondropdreams said...

Maybe RH should sue their staff for not being able to come up with a one of a kind design!

ChrisToronto said...

The "unique" Obselete point of view? Are you frickin kidding me? So anything he sells should be hands off for the rest of us? Oy vey!

ktgirl said...

everyone else has made the most important points, but to them I would add: Intellectual property, it ain't. I'm a musician and a writer of letters, and it seems to me that my efforts create something far more "of the mind" than a light fixture that was designed by someone else in the first place. No pretension meant, just that the fixture would need to be within a CONTEXT in which someone's ideas were at stake. Does that not seem to be the case here.

Thanks for bringing this up. Very interesting.

Anonymous said...

“Don't worry about someone stealing your idea. Because if it's truly original you'll have to cram it down their throats” – Howard Aiken.

brismod said...

Mr Obsolete just sounds like he's litigious to me. I'd sympathise if he was the designer, however he's in the antique selling business. Two very different things.

How can you own the copyright of an antique light fitting design that was probably bought for peanuts at an estate sale or flea market?

Raina Cox said...

KEEHNAN and Lisa - Hello and welcome to you both!

David said...

Yeah its irritating, but I don't really believe that Resto is poaching his customers. They're not really his competition. The people that shop at Obsolete want the real thing, as long as he continues to find the good stuff they'll continue to buy it. Those people by and large aren't buying RH's "vintage-inspired" anything.

I had an old industrial table in my space at the antique mall. Another dealer bought it, put it in their space and marked it up. It bugged the hell out of me until I realized it spent 2 days in my space, 2 months in theirs, and I made twice what they did after it finally resold. You can irritate me all you want as long as I'm getting paid.

phillip said...

Raina,
Unfortunately, Mr. Azoulay doesn't have a leg to stand on, but it does bring up a very sore subject in the design profession. And one that unfortunately points to how unethical the profession can be. It is too bad that the catalog companies choose to rip off good design by designers who are fortunate to have their work publish. Not to blow my own horn, but Pottery Barn, in 2002, literally copied and built an entire bunk room I designed for the Rosemary Beach showhouse for Southern Accents in 2001. Since I generally don't look at retail catalogs I was unaware of it until a client showed it to me. I actually consulted legal counsel and was told that the way the laws are written that theft of design ideas and product is not protected and a law suit would not "hold water" in court. I have since seen a piece of furniture i designed copied and sold by Worlds Away. I've often heard that copying one's work is the highest form of flattery. I say that is b------t. When the money goes in my pocket and not theirs then I'll be flattered.

littlebadwolf said...

m. azoulay should probably be thankful that rh didn't then return the original fixture-or one of its copies-for a refund.

Flo said...

Chewy. There are several issues, but this is the one I'd go with if I were defending Mr. A and Obsolete:

"Azoulay has a policy of not selling to other retailers, and he makes this policy known to prospective buyers, according to his suit. His claim said that Restoration's buyer did not identify her employer, and court documents show that she used a Gmail email address as contact information."

I've saved Obsolete's bit on 1stDibs, it's really cool, for your viewing pleasure:

http://www.1stdibs.com/articles/shoptalk/obsolete/index.php

The Down East Dilettante said...

Oh dear God, this guy can't be serious. I'm a dealer, and I can't even imagine thinking I had rights to something I had sourced and SOLD. If it's that unique, one doesn't sell the piece, one hangs on to it, and sells the design concept to the manufacturer himself.

Perfectly ridiculous. This is carrying the idea of intellectual property rights to an illogical level.

And let's not forget that the real person or company being ripped off is the one who manufactured the damned fixture originally.

The Down East Dilettante said...

This still has my brain spinning.

Many, many antique dealers (not this one, sadly) have made themselves rich by finding, keeping, and copying, unique pieces (cf John Rosselli, Frederick Victoria). But never have I heard of one who merely sells the piece and then thinks he's entitled to a piece of the action if the buyer reproduces and markets it. And for pity's sake, the dealer bought it from someone also. Does that someone then also sue for his share? And so on, back to the original designer....

Mrs BC said...

He may not be entitled to any legal or even ethical recourse, but he sure has gotten his marketing stretch from the sale.

I think it is entirely unethical for businesses to undercut designers & artists, but I'm sure they think it is good business.

Intellectual property is such a murky legal area, which is why laywers charge so much to venture there. I guess someone has to win from the situation, right?

Ragland Hill Social by Gwen Driscoll said...

It's savvy business but it makes me so sad. I feel like these practices have diluted creativity for the entire industry. The mass produced latest trend is maddening to me knowing it's based on something that wasn't dreamed up but copied. Has been going on for years! Bravo to Obsolete. Love that shop!

Livin Westside said...

I worked in high end retail for years and serviced clients that worked for manufacturers who sent them to hunt beautiful merchandise to knock off and sell at a lower price point. I even had a client who worked for a very famous wedding dress designer come in and buy a pair of YSL satin shoes among others and knock them off. We sold the high end knock offs on our floor!

It's a shame that some manufacturers would rather copy or some would say steal a design but it part of the retail beast.

Btw, I used to be a neighbor of Ray's in Venice. He renovated a cottage and I swear it was one of the coolest places I had seen. He sold the place a few years ago. He has mad style!

eileen said...

I'm not a fan of Restoration Hardware or of Obsolete, for that matter. I went their once and they could not have been ruder. I am, however, an ardent believer in intellectual property rights.

That said, there is absolutely no rights infringement here. He sourced it, he sold it. Resto sourced it, Resto was inspired by it and reinterpreted it. Maybe. It's not like this type of lamp has never been seen anywhere else. Maybe they have a whole collection of vintage ones they were inspired by. It's not unreasonable to think so since vintage industrial anything is well within their design aesthtic and they've certainly researched and sourced the hell out it. I'm sure Resto's design department has seen similar things elsewhere.

It's not intellectual property--it's just property and he doesn't get to control what happens to it after he divests himself of it.

And what's with the creepy doll head? Is he going to claim intellectual property rights to that and start suing every seven year old that ever decapitated a Barbie?

Ginger@cottageonrosewood said...

All legalities aside, where is the talent and ability of RH? Can't they come up with anything unique? Their catalog seems to be full of a tweaked version of someone else's design. I get that people want an less expensive version of the original. But, where is the originality and creativity?

Julia said...

I'm with David. I think Obsolete is confused about his market. By and large people who value antiques value provenance--that's part of the appeal. And they value uniqueness and rarity. These are not the people who are going to go running off to RH and buy the same mass-produced lamp that everyone and their brother has.

And while I find it disappointing that the designers at RH couldn't, you know, DESIGN something, that's not really fair to RH either. I mean, they're in the business of making new stuff that looks like old stuff--that's THEIR market--so they're not really about "new."

Raina Cox said...

Livin Westside and Ginger@cottageonrosewood - Hello to you both and welcome!

Mr. Goodwill Hunting said...

I am late, but I will chime in anyway.
To me there is nothing new under the sun.
Every design is a copy of direct imitation of something we see or have seen.
I think people get bent out of shape and go to the extreme when they try to run down a retailer for reproducing their idea.
As with everyone it is the nature of the beast.
Most times the beast cannot be tamed.

If he were smart he would have used this as a marketing tool to say he is the originator of the piece. Some people would prefer the "original" design.

All in all as many have said, his design isnt the first to be copied and it sure as heck wont be the last.




Rashon aka Mr. Goodwill Hunting

Hollywood forever, Kevin said...

I am not a lawyer, I am designer and a dealer. I have sold to Ray many times. Ray was the first to introduce many, many, things and many looks that RH has used and copied. Is that illegal I don't know? He is a tastemaker. I am a tastemaker. To forsee the future in style and taste, it seems, there is no protection.

Jono said...

I don't think Azoulay has a legal leg to stand on. It is not his design, he does not own the copyright to the design so it is not his intellectual property. He resells old stuff, he isn't making it.

Charlotta Ward said...

I think that is totally fine. It is no different than the large clothing chains copying fashion looks for each new season after having seen the couture shows.. It's the cycle of life - originals inspire trends and these in turn drive production and sales.

Sad in some ways but totally ok.

x Charlotta

Naomi@DesignManifest said...

So interesting to read everyone's views! I feel bad for the guy, but in the end the two lights seem very different to me. One is vintage and one is new. Some people just want the look and don't care if it's new. But for those who love the thrill of a good antique find... RH's version will never fit the bill.

I don't like either version, so I'm not stressing over it :)

redbrickbuilding said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking reading, as always. I think the Obsolete guy doesn't have a leg to stand on, I can't imagine that he would have a legal case nor do I think he'd win his point purely on common sense grounds. I actually don't see how RH making something similar to a product he sold them cuts into his profits. Presumably he doesn't have many identical light fixtures of the kind he sold their buyer, so it's not like people are buying it from RH rather than buying it from him. I don't understand what he thinks they're depriving him of: he made his sale.

kristina said...

cry me a river, rayray. target sells starck's louis ghost chair knock-offs. slightly more affordable design for the masses, whether phillippe cares or not.

http://www.target.com/Pc-Gamma-Arm-Chairs-Clear/dp/B003GCVYJ0/ref=sc_qi_detaillink

Angie said...

Well, I'm a lawyer. This guy didn't design the piece, nor did he own any rights to license the design. If it's really that much of a relic, any legal protection for its design (to the extent there ever was any) probably expired a long time ago anyway. So, he has no legal case.

Moreover, it's not like he sold the piece to an unwitting customer, who now feels ripped off because they didn't get a one-of-a-kind. The RH "scout" bought the piece, so there isn't anyone to complain. Considering that RH could have sent someone in to measure and take pictures, etc., and copied it without even paying the dealer for it, I think this Obsolete guy got a totally fair deal.

I know there is a lot of moral indignation about knock-offs of original designs. I think that argument is better focused on contemporary designs, not on vintage and antique pieces. Because a lot of those "original" contemporary designs are heavily influenced by older pieces themselves.

Raina Cox said...

Angie - Welcome and thanks so much for weighing in. My personal opinion is this lawsuit was filed to garner publicity for Mr. Azoulay's store.