| MILAN, July 3
MILAN, July 3 Italy's fashion designers have
long been plagued by cheap copies of their bags and clothing but
there is also a flourishing market for reproductions of high-end
furniture for those that covet "Made in Italy" architectural
style at low prices.
The market has grown so big that Italian luxury furniture
makers such as Poltrona Frau, Molteni and Flos have banded
together to fight the copiers, many of which are small local
firms. Some have taken legal action, but now a new law
introduced this year in Italy may help their cause.
The country's design industry, which includes makers of high
quality tables, chairs, lamps and sofas, makes up about 2.6
percent of Italy's gross domestic product. Highly
export-oriented, it contributes to Italy's international
reputation for innovative style.
But making copies of famous designer chairs or lamps, has
also become big business. Altagamma, an association of Italian
designers, estimates some 1.7 billion euros ($2.32 billion) of
such copies were sold last year in Italy, up sharply from 1.2
billion in 2010.
There are no official European-wide numbers for sales of
designer furniture copies, according to the European Commission.
But European officials said police have documented a rise in
unauthorised copies of furniture and other home accessory
designs across the region.
Indicam, or Istituto di Centromarca, an association of
high-end producers has tried to take on the copiers. Members
include maker of designer gadgets Alessi and kitchen designer
Boffi as well as lamp-maker Flos and luxury sofa maker Poltrona
Claudio Bergonzi, Indicam secretary general, said small
manufacturers in the Tuscany and Veneto regions were churning
out copies, with the proliferation of sales via the Internet
making them easier to market.
Italy could have cracked down years ago on the copiers via a
2001 European Union law that gives the design, prototypes and
patents for furniture and home accessories the same copyright
protection as other artistic works.
But the government delayed introducing the legislation
because industry lobbies from furniture makers in Tuscany, for
example, put pressure on it to postpone the EU law, Armando
Branchini from Altagamma said.
The firms which make the reproductions say good design
should be available to everyone.
Sandra Rossi is chief executive at Matrix, a company based
in Poggibonsi, near Siena, which makes versions of branded
furniture, such as tables based on designs of Swiss-French
architect and designer Le Corbusier or architect Ludwig Mies van
Matrix is part of Consorzio Origini, a consortium of 500
furniture companies that make products similar to those sold by
more famous designer brands.
Rossi says 60 percent of her revenue comes from furniture
that she calls "re-editions," of more famous branded furniture.
She is worried that her business might be targeted as a result
of the new law, but she says her products are not exact copies.
"We don't copy, we make new editions," Rossi said. She wants
Italy to focus instead on ensuring the quality of products.
Some of the Italian design industry associations -
FederlegnoArredo, ADI and Indicam - took legal action against
the Italian state for its 13-year postponement of the EU
legislation. As a result, the Commission began its own
investigation into the situation last October. Italy then
adopted the law in April.
Several high-end furniture companies also tried over the
years to take legal action against what they claimed were copies
of their goods.
In January, a Milan judge convicted a well-known Milan store
High Tech for selling reproductions of Le Corbusier chairs as
well as Cassina brand sofas made by Poltrona Frau.
High Tech's lawyer Marco Mergati said in response to
Reuters' request for comment on the case that the store was
selling copies in the spirit of Le Corbusier's philosophy of
"making products that are beautiful and functional available to
consumers at reasonable prices."
With the introduction of the EU law in Italy, it will be
illegal to copy the design of any branded piece of furniture for
70 years after the death of the designer.
"The idea is that a certain work can be considered desirable
because of its form and not only because of its function," said
Giovanni Casucci, an intellectual property lawyer and a member
of the design unit of the government's new anti-counterfeit
agency, called Consiglio Nazionale Anticontraffazione, or Cnac.
Casucci said in the past many argued that furniture, or
mass-produced pieces, could not be considered unique and worthy
of copyright protection. But he said under the new law a piece
of designer furniture will be subject to copyright in the same
way as a work of art even if it is not a one-off.
Luisa Bocchietto, president of the Industrial Design
Association, a lobby of designers and researchers, said the law
would finally protect an important high-end niche where Italy is
flourishing, even though the country's wider economy is weak.
"Copying hurts those producing the originals and investing
and spending money in experimenting to get to the right
product," she said.
($1 = 0.7331 Euros)
(Editing by Jane Merriman)