Today's Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Bay Area edition, includes a very interesting article on start up furniture companies whose business model includes reproducing popular furniture designs on a custom basis. The article describes two businesses: Sphere Design and Furniture Envy, both based in San Francisco. The companies custom build furniture based on designs from Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Room & Board, and others. Customers bring the designs to the companies who recreate the design or something similar.
While the companies claim to deliver product that is as good or better than the name-brand versions, the business practice raises the issue of whether such reproductions are an innovative way to boost domestic furniture production, provide U.S. jobs, and deliver quality product or possibly infringe upon the intellectual property rights of the companies whose furniture is being copied. Without concrete examples of an original and a reproduction, it is impossible to answer that question. In addition, such model arguably takes royalties away from the original independent designers who stand to profit from the sell of the branded furniture, even if there is no intellectual property protection of the furniture.
Furniture designs can be protected by design patents, copyright, and trade dress rights. An "oldie but goodie" primer on furniture law may be found here. These start ups would be well advised to study up on how furniture can be protected and conduct a reasonable investigation into pieces before recreating them. In addition, the customers who bring these designs to the companies could potentially be liable for inducing infringement. A similar scenario plays out when a customer brings copyright-protected blueprints and drawings to an architect or builder who slavishly reproduces them. This lands the architect or builder and the homeowner in legal hot water, i.e., a copyright infringement action. It will be interesting to see if the business model of these new custom furniture companies makes it and if they can avoid tangling with the companies whose designs they are recreating.