Commercial Interior Design (CID) magazine and designMENA brought together members of the Middle East’s design sector supply chain, along with an intellectual property expert, to discuss the ways in which designers can protect themselves from copyright infringement and industrial design theft.
Dubai’s maturing design-and-build market kick-started the discussion at the designMENA Summit advisory panel, which took place at RMJM’s office in Dubai Design District, bringing together members of the local design-and-build industry.
David Daniels, principal architect at SSH, commented that Dubai’s design market had begun showing signs of maturing in the past few years. And let’s be honest – many of us have witnessed some egregious examples of copyright infringement and industrial design theft in the region.
CID’s survey of design professionals suggests both an awareness of the problem, and a lack of knowledge about the potential protection mechanisms. But is the Middle East worse than anywhere else in the world when it comes to the abuse of intellectual property (IP), and what can designers do to protect their works from those who might seek to replicate them without payment or recognition?
To add a quantitative element to the findings of our survey, CID brought together a roundtable of professionals from across the design supply chain to discuss matters of copyright, and their experiences and suggested solutions.
Hilda Impey, associate design director, FF&E at Wilson Associates, kicked off the debate by suggesting that there was a cultural aspect to the issue. “The problem is really the design ethos in the region. Do we educate our designers not to copy? Do we mentor and empower them to design independently? We need to promote an ethical design culture.”
Tarek Ardakani, director of operations at fit-out contractor Emkay Interiors, said that he used to sit on the advisory board for the American University of Dubai’s design department. “We talked to the students about plagiarism. And you can easily tell the difference between the ones who simply copy designs without understanding them, and the students who are developing something of their own.
“When you do research as a design student, you look at magazines and projects to gain ideas. But you don’t end up copying a project,” he insisted.
The panel agreed that the Middle East had something of a ‘Wild West’ reputation when it came to some business behaviours. They also recognised that one of the problems in the Middle East was that copying someone was sometimes taken as a form of flattery, rather than theft. But those attitudes are changing, and the design community is quickly becoming more professional.
Nevertheless, Indu Varanasi, design director at IR Design, warned: “In this age of Instagram and Pinterest, there is the idea of free design. People are happy to pay for construction, because that is tangible, but they think design is ‘just a piece of paper’.”
She also suggested that the fact that interior designers were not ‘registered’ in the same way as architects meant their works were less respected in terms of copyright.
Giada Martellato, business development manager UAE for Moroso, represented designer furniture manufacturers. She said: “In Europe, you don’t see so much copying of designs. But here we have the feeling that it just doesn’t work,” adding that she had seen copies of her company’s designs in showrooms in the Middle East.
“Once, at a trade fair here, I saw our designs presented by a Chinese firm. We told them that they were our designs, but they said the products were all over the internet, so they were available for everybody!
“I feel like there is no law that can defend our designs. The interior designers are the only ones with the sensibility to say to clients that they need to buy original designs because if you get copies you spoil the whole project.”
At this point, Victor Siriani, managing partner at AVID IP, a company that protects intellectual property in the Middle East, broke into the debate to debunk some myths: “The impression that the law here does not protect designers is, to a great degree, incorrect. The laws here are pretty much the same as in the US, Europe, and Canada. They are very strong. The law is the law, and the courts have to implement the law. The problem is that people don’t realise that, so they don’t protect their rights.”
Siriani explained the difference between industrial design protection and copyright: “If you are not registering your industrial designs in the UAE, then you cannot be protected. But with copyrights, you don’t need to register to protect yourself. The second you create something, you gain copyright automatically in 198 countries. If someone in Australia copies it, you can sue them.”
He added that some countries, including the UAE, recommended registration of copyrights if only to simplify the process in case of infringement, and to act as a deterrent. “Depending on the size of the project and how valuable it is to you, then you might want to record it with the Ministry.
“You have to stand up for your rights,” said Siriani. “The police don’t go around making sure that people aren’t copying your work. You have to be vigilant and, when you find something, the first step is to speak to the people who copied you. No one wants to go to court. But if they don’t want to admit it, or compensate you, then you have the courts, [which can] resolve matters and award damages.
“But it’s up to you to take the first step.”
Prevention is always better than cure, and one roundtable participant shared a disclaimer that her company uses with clients, which states that the firm “will not be able to review shop drawings, nor approve any items which are taken from original designs and infringe on copyright laws”.
Siriani said that, as well as registering designs, non-disclosure agreements were another good way for designers to protect themselves. “But some people won’t sign them. So you can use statements in your emails that the content in the attachments is copyright protected, and that by opening them [the receiver] agrees to abide by the laws of the UAE and not reproduce them, and so on.
“It’s not going to stop someone from stealing your design, but if you do go to court, these are all items you can use to improve your case.”
TO SUE OR NOT TO SUE
Martellato echoed the thoughts of many survey participants by saying that she would be concerned about suing someone, both in terms of the potential cost, and the risk of upsetting influential potential clients. “I don’t want to sue the client, because they might be my client on another project – you can never know the future opportunities.”
“It’s a business decision,” conceded Siriani “Whether you decide to sue or not is a matter that only you can assess.”
He also warned, however, that companies that developed a reputation for not suing “leave themselves wide open”.
On the other side of the same coin, there were some clients that CID’s survey respondents and panellists said they would not work with because of their reputation for infringing copyright. Varanasi said: “If the client has the time to assess whether I’m good for the job, then I have the right to assess whether the client is good for me. Protecting and safeguarding my designs is a big part of that.”
Impey added that developing a reputation as a company that doesn’t tolerate bad practice could be beneficial in terms of winning work, trust, and collaboration. “When some firms ask for a CAD file, a lot of companies will not give it to them, but they give it to us. Why? Because I think we are very open and honest.
“You surround yourself with people and contractors that work in the same way you work. When we select a contractor, we choose one that we believe we can work with. If we are made aware that they are known to copy, we would prefer not to work with them.”
The discussion concluded with the idea that if all parties to design projects – designers, contractors, and suppliers – started implementing clear disclaimers in their contracts and properly protecting their rights, then clients would become more aware of their own responsibilities, and less likely to authorise or condone copyright infringement.
“If everyone is applying the same model, and taking this seriously, things will change,” they agreed.
READ MORE: Middle East design scene: are we there yet?