Knockoffs, fakes, and counterfeits are the bane of modern industrial design. They are unauthorized copies of designers’ intellectual property. They are the stolen profits of manufacturers. They are the products of piracy: a phenomenon wrecking an industry’s will to innovate and create “original” and “authentic” design. But to consumers, piracy offers affordable goods, diversity of options, and sometimes, even better design. Piracy isn’t black-and-white like a pirate flag, but a nebulous concept whose edges ebb and flow like the waves of the sea. What’s a copy to some is homage to another, what is original today is tomorrow’s evolution, what is piracy to the industry is competition to society.
How will we recognize piracy and intellectual property in industrial design with the rise of digital fabrication technologies like 3D printing? By democratizing access to the means of production, it will become easier for users to copy, remix, and self-repair objects in ways that traditionally infringe upon a designer’s intellectual property. This calls for a need to redefine what piracy means. In response to the digital revolution, some designers and manufacturers have strengthened protection over their designs via the law and technology, while others are opening up access to them, believing that design is a collaborative process that benefits from a community working on it together. Will the rise of open design see an end to piracy?
This thesis examines more closely the relationships between piracy, intellectual property, and industrial design by studying a variety of case studies and interviews with practitioners. Beyond just a legal and economic issue, piracy is a reflection of society’s assumptions about the design process, who a designer is, and what design is for. Piracy is a ghost that will always haunt the world of design.
A Thesis Submitted to the School of Visual Arts in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts in Design Criticism.
To find out more, visit the Design Piracy Institute.