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Just knock it off, would ya?

June 17, 2004|David A. Keeps | Special to The Times

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but when it comes to design, it can also be the most insulting form of commerce.

Take the classic Ball Clock created by George Nelson, a master of midcentury industrial design. A simple configuration of metal rods and painted wood, the 1948 timepiece, then priced less than $25, was an icon of peacetime that transformed the structure of an atom into a whimsical decoration. On Sunday, Los Angeles Modern Auctions sold a vintage Ball Clock for $1,300. As the hammer fell on the final bid, Ben Storck of Modern One asked: "Don't people ever tire of that clock?"

Apparently not. The Ball Clock is one of the most recognizable -- and most copied -- products of the fabulous '50s. A few years ago, it was part of a large collection of Nelson designs brought back to the market by Vitra, an Italian firm that licenses and reissues classic 20th century furniture and accessories and now maintains a retail location in Santa Monica. At $250, the Vitra edition, also sold through catalogs and websites such as Design Within Reach, is built to the same specifications as the original.

Now, however, anyone with 36 bucks and directions to the nearest Urban Outfitters can pick up an almost identical version in fluorescent colored plastics by Momo Design that comes in a retro-styled package citing Nelson as an inspiration. Momo owner Garret Glaser grew up with a Nelson Starburst clock in the family kitchen. He also adapted that timepiece as a "tribute to the lasting impact of midcentury design." Both Momo clocks have been out-of-the-box successes; in less than a year on the market, combined sales have reached nearly 100,000 pieces.

Though this is good news for cash-strapped Modernism fans, it may not be the best news for the Nelson estate, which receives recognition but no royalties from Momo. It also reveals much about the landscape of today's copycat culture. Today, it is possible to buy home decor items that look like some of the greatest designs of the 20th century, ranging from cheap counterfeits to quality merchandise said to be "inspired by the original" but altered enough to avoid charges of design theft.

According to Mark McMenamin, senior editor of the trade publication InFurniture, the floodgates opened in 1995, when home decor pulled out of its recession and became a hot product category. "Neophytes who knew nothing about furniture built businesses based on other people's research and development, picked up catalogs and sent pages to factories in China."

As furniture sales soar, more midcentury designs are likely to be copied because they are proven. "We're looking with affection to the comfort and innocence of the '50s and '60s," adds McMenamin. "For those who didn't live through those eras, these designs are new, and it's much easier and more cost-effective than actually hiring a designer to do truly original work."

Unlike creations of the fashion industry, which does not recognize design as a protected work of art (except, of course, in France), furniture and home decor products are afforded a level of protection through a complicated web of sometimes overlapping design and utility patents, trademarks and copyrights. Although these are deterrents, there is a huge gray area in which the manufacturers of designer impostors operate. Consequently, copying is rampant within the industry.

"As a society, we don't encourage brazen copying, whether it's trademark infringement or your children cheating on a test," says attorney Susan E. Farley, an intellectual property specialist from Heslin, Rothenberg, Farley & Mesiti in Albany, N.Y. Proving that a design has been used illegally, however, is a laborious, often expensive pursuit. Though many manufacturers register designs before beginning production, many copycats knock off preproduction samples based on photos or trade show displays. Digital photography, e-mail and offshore manufacturing combine to make copying a design so easy that it is not uncommon for originals and imitations to hit retail simultaneously.

When lawsuits do occur, infringement claims can become impossibly complex. "If the motivation is trying to benefit unfairly from someone else's design, effort and goodwill, it clearly is wrong," says Farley.

It also hurts designers, who may be unwilling to invest in the lengthy and expensive process of making prototypes. Farley contends that such reluctance will eventually limit consumer choice. "We want to have nice-looking things," she says. "But we're all going to be sitting on gray bean bag chairs one day if we don't reward the risks incurred in creating original design."

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