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Fakes in the spotlight

Santa & Cole alleges that its Latina streetlights have been counterfeited in Doha, Qatar

‘The biggest case of counterfeiting in the history of design’ is how Spanish manufacturer Santa & Cole describes the alleged copying of its Latina streetlight by a Qatari company for a scheme in Doha. So vehement are the company’s feelings − and its support for the lawsuit brought against the state of Qatar by the lamp’s designer, Catalan architect Beth Galí − that it has set up a Facebook page, Qatar Fakes, that has attracted more than 350 supporters since the case was brought in June.

Galí’s case centres on claims that Qatari state-owned company Ashghal copied streetlights she originally created in 1996 for Barcelona. She says that more than 900 lights installed along Doha’s Al Waab Street in 2006 lack the quality of the originals and, as they project only small circles of light rather than continuous lighting, could present a hazard to drivers.

Santa & Cole’s claim that this is the biggest counterfeiting case to date has some foundation. It concerns a sovereign state, which sets it apart from most copyright enfringement cases − generally brought by designers against commercial manufacturers or retailers − and Galí has won top-level support within the Spanish creative community through the Barcelona Design Centre and the Design for All Foundation.

But more interesting is the way the case highlights differing attitudes to intellectual property within Western and developing nations. Campaigning organisations − notably Anti Copying In Design − have made huge headway in changing attitudes in the UK, for example, by schooling design students in their rights, enlisting support from manufacturers and retailers and successfully prosecuting offenders, however high their profile. But it is very different in other parts of the world, where cheap rip-offs are more likely to mean big business and effective policing isn’t yet in place.

Take China, the theme of this AR special issue. The country subscribes to the ancient Berne Convention and the international Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, but it is reportedly lax in enforcing copyright protection. Like other Far Eastern countries, it offers massive cost savings in manufacturing to Western concerns − an offer even Apple has found hard to refuse − but when it comes to copying, both classic and contemporary designs appear to be fair game. This was evident from the influx of Chinese manufacturers to trade shows such as the Cologne furniture fair a few years ago, where Chinese manufacturers touting for business used copies of classics to demonstrate their skills.

Unless they can be persuaded to respect designers’ rights, countries like China and Qatar will continue to pose a threat to Western architects and designers. But that threat is likely to diminish in importance over time. The bigger challenge will come when, for example, China’s burgeoning design community achieves critical mass and takes on the West at its own game.

Consider the number of Far Eastern designers graduating from British universities and the proliferation of design schools in countries such as China. They suggest that those countries are set to become major design hubs in their own right − and lucrative opportunities for Western designers will shrink. Chinese manufacturing could follow the South Korean car industry, which has long been fuelled by local designers graduating from London’s Royal College of Art, with a profound impact on Western talent.

But Western architects and designers can’t allow themselves to feel threatened by their counterparts in developing nations.  Designers of all nationalities must constantly innovate to keep the copyists at bay and avoid spending years pursuing rights cases. As for the real challenge from the Far East, that is surely best met through collaboration, sharing knowledge and understanding to bring East and West together rather than drive them apart.

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