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MILAN, July 3 (Reuters) - 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 Frau.
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 der Rohe.
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)