The sanctity of original design work and its right to protection from copyists is covered by a 1968 amendment to the Copyright Act of 1956 an extension of this Act to embrace industrial design and three-dimensional objects. Recently the furniture industry's first fully fought case under this amendment was concluded in favour of the plaintiffs, Antocks Lairn, who sued I Bloohn Ltd for infringement of their copyright in drawings for four chairs, the AL 121, 122, 145 and 146, designed by Alan Tilbury. The case raises several important principles in the administration of this Act which extend much further than its application to furniture.
A point made early in Mr Justice Graham's judgement was that it is not enough to show that a copyist has made something which looks like the subject of a copyright, since the design may have been arrived at quite independently. It is sufficient, however, if the plaintiff proves that a substantial part of the copyright has been reproduced and it is the quality rather than the quantity of the matter reproduced that is important. This point of interpretation has far reaching consequences. It means that an action could well be brought on the grounds that an alleged copy infringed copyright if it were such a substantial part that the overriding impression of the product was that it was a copy On these grounds Mr Justice Graham set aside mathematical differences between the Antocks Lairn chair and those of the defendant.
The case also raises what is to some extent a side issue, that of the ownership of copyright drawings. Although it did not affect this case's outcome the judge held through precedent that Antocks Lairn's managing director was not a servant of the company and since his own drawings of the chairs had not been formally assigned to the company they were inadmissible evidence. Adequate machinery for documentation of drawings and photographs is provided under the Design Registration Act and if plagiarism is to be stamped out it must be here that action begins. It is vital to the success of a case of this kind that sketches and working drawings be fully recorded and dated as soon as they are prepared.
Companies are spending increasing amounts of money developing products and designs from which they should have every right to profit exclusively. In demonstrating for the first time that the law is capable of dealing with plagiarists, Antocks Lairn have been of great service to the furniture industry in particular and designers as a whole.