My nephew’s middle school is cracking down on plagiarism and teaching lessons on the importance of originality early. Too bad today’s furniture retail buyers have not learned their lessons yet and not only allow knock-offs but encourage them when they direct source. Maybe it is time for us designers to educate them with similar lessons on what constitutes design plagiarism, why integrity is important, and show them some new tools that open up greater legal liability.

Design PlagiarismSchools across the country, like my nephew’s, are deploying plagiarism detection software packages to run all written papers through. It does a web crawl for lifted passages, compares to all other essays turned in, and screens through all relevant works. There are many schools at all levels, including B-schools like Penn State, UCLA and Rutgers, using software packages like Turnitin or Plagtracker and turning away applicants as well as suspending students. This is not just a case of forgetting a footnote or proper attribution of credit – these tools screen for when significant portions match entries by other authors, blatantly plagiarizing or knocking-off others.

Definition of Knock-Off Evidently, the issue is worse with international students due to differing cultural norms. Bloomberg Businessweek reported that in “a 2010 report by Zinch China, an online service that helps U.S. universities recruit Chinese students, found that about 70% of essays submitted with applications were cribbed.” However, based on the amount of knock-offs we have personally seen in factory lines in China the number for furniture design plagiarism is closer to 90%. Given that their culture values those that make a perfect reproduction, this is not surprising. But, the real problem lies in the fact that the copies lack the original’s design integrity and consumer appeal because of minor changes made to attempt to avoid the legal issues of exact copies.

Crackdown on Design Plagiarism

Retailer Buy Plan ExcerptThe issue of direct design plagiarism has become very personal recently when a major retailer put out a Buy Plan referring to one of our successful office chairs. The translation to the factory – “we want this chair cheaper, but don’t have permission to bid it out and copy it exactly.” Ironically, they didn’t even ask for permission from us when we had recently offered them our new Direct Source Design Rights Model. With that, we actually could have granted our permission to use that design for as little as attributable credit – our company name on the hang tag and market materials. Without our endorsement through proper attribution, because of earlier press articles referencing this exact design originating from us (and its unique reasons for success), the retailer loses integrity with consumers and the industry in general.

For all involved, especially the retailer whose brand is behind the product, even requesting this type of copying demonstrates a lack of product line originality and respect for design integrity. This has a cascading effect throughout their business. Factory suppliers don’t worry about selling essentially the same design to another retailer. The consumer can’t tell the difference between the two. And now the retailer has allowed direct competition to occur. This cycles down into a pricing push and a bid out for the next season. The factory now runs the risk of losing that retailer’s business. If that happens, then they sell that exact same design to another and even more competitive copies flood the market.

In this case, the factory that reportedly was awarded this business did something even less reputable than design plagiarism. They presented our final design sample signed off by us during an original test run we ran with them. We did not place orders with this factory for the full production run due to their lack of ability to match that sample in the test run’s production quality, as well as because of their disreputable dealings on a separate contract for research. Now the retailer runs the risk of selling a substandard copy of the original design produced by a questionable factory.

New Tech Tools to Deter Knock-Offs

So what tools are we using to crack down on this – many, many new stealth origination methods that will catch retailers and factories off guard and strengthen legal proof of origination and ownership. We have been exploring the use of some or all of the following depending on the design, its unique features and the client or intended retailer:

  • Microdot embeds in our design images with ownership tags that show up whether you screenshot, photograph, rename the image file or even attempt to edit and modify it
  • Posting the designs on a cloud-based back-end database that tracks all downloads
  • Copyrighting the design in whole or in part
  • Patenting the design, feature(s) or function(s)
  • Sending design images or information to clients/retailers/factories with GPS-style tracking that shows every time its viewed or forwarded, what IP address accessed it and from where in the world it was accessed
  • Using web image matching tools (similar to facial recognition software) to find design plagiarized versions of our designs and design details across products for sale worldwide

In our 22+ years of experience designing across markets and industries, those companies that rely on knocking off designs cannot stand on their own and ultimately fail to be profitable. The more competition they face, the more price pressure, the more desperate they become for original design to differentiate their business. But now, they no longer have any integrity and standing in the industry to obtain that original design from successful sources. Hopefully that tide is turning as the situation we describe here becomes unsustainable. As more retailers direct source, they need to move to a Direct Source Design model where they are the owners of the designs with proprietary and full legal rights to bid out to their factory of choice and stop competitive design plagiarism themselves. On the flip side, factories (and third party importers) can use original designs to keep the retailers from being able to undercut and bid out those designs in future buy plans. Most importantly, this is a win for all involved because the designs are tailored by U.S. designers for U.S. consumers (especially women) and are more likely to be successful than a bad copy of a bad copy of an original.