Woodworking and Intellectual Property Rights

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Forum topic by CharlieM1958 posted 05-22-2010 04:32 PM 2633 views 2 times favorited 52 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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16275 posts in 4244 days

05-22-2010 04:32 PM

I was reading a comment in another forum topic where a fellow LJ lamented the fact that a photo of one of his posted projects ended up on a commercial website. Now, I think he has every right to make them take it down, but it got me to thinking about the whole issue of intellectual property as it pertains to woodworking.

One question that comes to mind… when does a design become so unique that you can rightfully call it your own? How many Maloof-inspired rockers have been made and sold by other woodworkers? Does Sam’s estate deserve a cut of every one of them? If I make a stool that’s taller than a milking stool but shorter than a bar stool, and I call it a midi-stool, do I have a right to cry foul if someone is making them and selling them next month?

The woodworker who complained about having his photo posted elsewhere (and I don’t mean to sound like I’m picking on him at all) also said that he would not post his unique designs here for fear of having them stolen. But it seems like sort of a Catch-22… If his objective is to sell his work, then the more work he sells, the more it will be in the public eye. And the more it is in the public eye, the more it will be copied by other woodworkers.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I can understand intellectual property rights as they apply to , for example, recorded music. Every pirated CD is taking money out of the artist’s pocket. It’s his actual work, being sold or enjoyed without compensation. But do we really have the right to be upset if our design inspires others to do something similar? The phrase “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” keeps coming to mind. Every hand-made piece of woodwork is unique in its own right. I just don’t see any good way to determine what makes something “unique enough” to give someone exclusive rights to it.

I’m sure this will draw a lot of counterpoints, and I really want to see this though some other sets of eyes.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

52 replies so far

View a1Jim's profile


117120 posts in 3603 days

#1 posted 05-22-2010 04:37 PM

I’ll repeat what I said on that post Charlie in that if your design is so exclusive and your worried about copies being made don’t post them on Ljs or anywhere else on line.

-- wood crafting & woodworking classes

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954 posts in 3119 days

#2 posted 05-22-2010 04:39 PM

That is a good question. The phrase “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Yes I would be flattered but if their work looked better than mine I would be annoyed….with my self LOL

-- When you know better you do better.

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Dave T

196 posts in 3646 days

#3 posted 05-22-2010 05:01 PM

I agree. If you are worried about copies (whether it’s just a design element or the entire project) then the piece cannot be displayed anywhere for the public to see. Whether it’s online or in a gallery. How many woodworkers haven’t seen pieces on display and set out to build a replica? How many Stickley, Krenov and Maloof pieces haven’t been imitated in whole or in part. I recently read an article in one of the magazines, where the author specifically set out to visit the Grove Park Inn to gain photos and measurements of one of the pieces on display there so he could build his own and do a write up for the magazine.

If we can’t share design ideas and inspiration in fear of intellectual property rights, where will that take the future of the craft? Every age of furniture design has borrowed from the age before it in one form or another and has continued to build upon that.

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Dick, & Barb Cain

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#4 posted 05-22-2010 05:01 PM

Almost everything that you see today, has been copied by someone over the years.

Some patents designs can be modified, so they aren’t infringing on a patent,

The same goes for woodworking. A piece of wood is made by nature, & you can’t duplicate it..

-- -** You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream ****************** Dick, & Barb Cain, Hibbing, MN.

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#5 posted 05-22-2010 05:04 PM

If you build it and post it here, someone else going to build a verison of it.

View Woodwrecker's profile


4154 posts in 3602 days

#6 posted 05-22-2010 05:12 PM

My only concern with anybody trying to copy my stuff is that they probably need glasses! LOL
“Did he actually mean to cut it that way?”.....

Stickley, Maoolf & Krenov have nothing to worry about from me…..

(Good post Charlie. And some interesting responses.)

-- Eric, central Florida / Utor praemia operibus duris

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Dennis Fletcher

467 posts in 3081 days

#7 posted 05-22-2010 05:25 PM

I have run into this even when designing a house. I have seen such close versions of the custom house I just designed that I wonder if they didn’t just take my design and change the name on it.

I am not always flattered, but I don’t see the need to stop someone from using it, I wouldn’t have gotten that job any way, they did.

As far as projects posted, I have copied a couple, just not exactly. I made a cross-cut sled for my table saw and began to work on a table idea based on one I saw here.

Of course, nothing is exact as they didn’t post their design ideas or specs, so it is my version of what I saw and liked.

--, Making design and application one. †

View Roger Clark aka Rex's profile

Roger Clark aka Rex

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#8 posted 05-22-2010 05:35 PM

This is a tricky subject, Charlie you seem to find the most perplexing subjects.
“Way back when” I was involved in mechanical design R&D and I seem to remember that a patent was not infringed if 22%? was different from the original patented design. You can easily make a 22% change and make “new” product that you can patent yourself.
Mechanisms and circuits are the hardest to crack, but I imagine wood products would be easy: use a different wood, change the color, use different router profiles, change dimensions etc.
For me, I see many posted projects on LJs that are awesome and way, way out of my league, but I also see some little feature within a posted design that I take note of – just because that method might help me later to incorporate in my own design maybe later, and the method noted may not even be used on the same type of product showcased.
Just wish I had patented the wheel instead of the Edsel. :-)

-- Roger-R, Republic of Texas. "Always look on the Bright Side of Life" - An eyeball to eyeball confrontation with a blind person is as complete waste of Time.

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199 posts in 2981 days

#9 posted 05-22-2010 05:37 PM

Charlie, there are a couple of recent threads ( and covering some of the basics of intellectual property law.

Now, enforcing your intellectual property rights is a whole other story. The first hurdle that you’ve got is simply being aware that you have IP rights, and knowing the proper places to register the IP so you can actually get compensation should you ever have to go after somebody for copying your stuff. The second obstacle that you’ve got is actually finding somebody copying your designs. I don’t know if this is easier or harder in the internet world. And, of course, the third hurdle that you’ve got is successfully litigating to get fair compensation for the other guy stealing your ideas.

It seems to me that many if not most woodworkers prefer to just stick their head in the sand and ignore the whole issue. Personally, I argue that if you sell your work, you need to be aware of the issues simply so you don’t violate somebody else’s IP rights and open yourself up to an expensive lawsuit.

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Tim Lawson

17 posts in 2977 days

#10 posted 05-22-2010 05:52 PM


Good thoughts. I liked your analogy with pirated CDs but I think that sampling may be a better one for designs. I think that if there is blatant attempt to resell a copy of your pieces using your original maker’s images – then that is theft in my mind.

If there are design elements you could reasonably claim as original – that then gets iffy. There is such a thing as convergent evolution or, if you’re a Rupert Sheldrake fan, as morphic resonance. The interplay of the subconscious and the conscious in the design (or creative) process can generate things you can genuinely believe to be original. Even though the design or design elements are an unconscious utilization of things you’ve seen elsewhere.

The good thing about furniture is that it has to be made and (as somebody said above) the wood and the craftsmanship strongly impact the finished piece. Marketing and selling your work adds a whole level of complexity and you have to share your designs and ability to design to succeed.

I’m going to misquote Bill Bruford (the drummer) when asked about his tunes or themes being reused “I can come up with better tunes and better riffs the next day.”

The design process should never be static. If you design a good piece somebody is going to copy it – be flattered.


-- Tim Lawson

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Mark Whitsitt

86 posts in 3005 days

#11 posted 05-22-2010 06:12 PM

There are actually several questions of intellectual property (IP) here.

The first is the IP associated with the object you’ve built… there are many questions that must be answered around patent-ability of your “invention” and these are very well understood in the area of patent law.

For me, I cannot claim any IP of anything I’ve built… None of what I’ve done so far constitutes an “invention”; it’s all pretty much based on items that have already been released to the public domain via LJ, or any other form of publication (blog, podcast, television show, books, etc.) These “inventions” are not really protectable under patent law because they are “obvious to anyone skilled in the art”. This is one of the primary questions that must be satisfied when applying for a patent; it’s a very difficult requirement to meet.

For instance, Norm’s “Mobile Assembly Table” probably could not be patented because, in my opinon, it’s construction is obvious to those skilled in the art of woodworking. However, if Norm could make a case that the “retractable” casters on this project were his invention and met the utility and obviousness criteria, among others, he could patent that invention and protect it from being used by others without permission.

The second issue is around IP associated with the documentation & photos you’ve taken, which are not questions of patent law, but copyright law.

For example, when Norm sells his plans at New Yankee, what is protected are the written plans; they represent real IP arising from the creativity of the artist/craftsman, and are very easily protected by a copyright.

Similarly, the photos on New Yankee are protected by copyrights such that others may not use them without permission. New Yankee has the legal right to make a take down request to such users, and can also bring suit against the perpetrator if desired.

This is the area I commented on in a blog post a couple of weeks ago. My use of the Creative Commons license for the photos I post allows anyone to use them for whatever purpose they wish, and to modify them (the pictures, or sketchup files) however they wish with two caveats: 1. If you make changes, those changes must be made available to others with the same license, and 2. You cannot use my IP for commercial purposes (i.e. you can’t use my picture for advertising anything without my express permission).

Finally, there is another form of intellectual property protection called “trade secrets” which I can’t really comment on since I’m just now learning about the concept. This kind of protection is for processes and tools that wouldn’t meet the criteria for patent-ability, but are somehow unique and allow construction or production of something in a non-obvious way. My guess is that many jigs and construction methods in woodworking would fall under this sort of protection.

My $0.50…


-- -- "there are many good reasons to use old hand tools, but moral superiority is NOT one of them..."

View CharlieM1958's profile


16275 posts in 4244 days

#12 posted 05-22-2010 06:16 PM

Good points, Tim.

I’ve been writing music for nearly 40 years. There are only 12 notes… it’s pretty much impossible to put them together without being influenced by something you’ve heard before.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View Gregn's profile


1642 posts in 3009 days

#13 posted 05-22-2010 07:22 PM

I’m a hobbyist so I may copy something, but inevitably I put my own twist into a project. Whether I copy something already done or a set of plans. Since I rarely ever sell any of my work, its either for personal or for a gift. So I don’t feel that I have infringed upon anyone’s income in something I’ve made. Your post does put me in mind of a Little House on the Prairie episode called the Legacy. Where Charles builds a table goes into production, then a competitor comes along buys one of the tables and takes it back to his shop. He then breaks it down and builds it cheaper not having the quality of the original table. Charles gets mad confronts the competitor, who responds with sue me, by the time it goes through the courts I will have already made my profit even if you win. So no matter what you do, someone somewhere sometime will copy it regardless of what you do.

-- I don't make mistakes, I have great learning lessons, Greg

View uffitze's profile


199 posts in 2981 days

#14 posted 05-22-2010 08:13 PM

Well Greg, if you as a hobbyist copy something, you are still (possibly) violating somebody’s IP rights. Just like making a copy of a CD or DVD is illegal even for your own personal use. Of course, if you put your own personal twist on it, you may be changing the piece enough to get away from the IP, but you have to be careful that you don’t copy any unique artistic elements of the piece.

Of course, as a practicality, it will be tough for the IP owner to find your copy and come after you for the royalties that he/she is probably entitled to. But, then again, if you post a photo on a site like this of a copied piece of furniture, you open up that possibility.

View cliffton's profile


117 posts in 3107 days

#15 posted 05-22-2010 09:13 PM

the amount of failure to understand IP in this thread is epic. go ahead try to patent a furniture design, you would definitely get laughed at. Now you could easily apply for a TRADEMARK and get it and sell your furniture as “John Smiths designed furniture” but getting a patent on something requires that there not be prior art. Even Sam Maloof can’t patent his furniture. But he can copyright the design drawing and then sell it, but if you wanted to buy one of his chairs, copy it and sell it as your own, but not call it “Sam Maloof”, there is nothing he can do. But if you use “Sam Maloof” anywhere in reference to the item that you made he can sue you because of trademark infringement.

in reference to the comment about pirating CD’s, what drives the price of the CD actually isn’t the paying of the artist for their work. In fact the artist receives very little of the price of each CD. usually it is around 20 to 30 cents. the rest is corporate fees. The music industry (not artists) do not want to suppress pirating, they want to suppress the technology to be able to distribute (theoretically) infinite copies of a song/album for a (theoretical) zero cost. The capability to reach (nearly) everyone in the world with your music without them as the gatekeepers scares the crap out of them, because it makes them obsolete. This has already been proven with Jamiroquai, Oasis and Radiohead’s, free downloads, they (the artists) made millions off of donations, only 1 in 3 people that downloaded Radiohead’s album actually donated money and they still netted 750,000 US dollars for that single album. The point is that the cat is out of the bag and the record companies want to put it back any way that they can.

To the person that posted a photo of his work online and then got pissed that it wound up on a commercial site. Your work when you took the picture is copyrighted. though you can register with the Library of Congress it is not required under copyright protection.

A. Although a copyright is created automatically when a work is created, there is a procedure for registering a copyright with the Library of Congress. Remember, registration is not required for copyright protection.

There are three benefits to registering a copyright. First, registration creates a public record of a copyright. Second, registration of a copyright is required in order to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Third, if a copyright is registered before there is an infringement or within three months after the first publication of a work, the owner of the copyright can claim certain alternate damages plus attorneyís fees. These alternate damages are called statutory damages and they can be awarded in a sum of up to $100,000 for willful infringements. The registration process itself, does not alter the fact that the owner of a copyright is always entitled to his or her actual damages plus any profits earned by the infringner. However, the suggestion that statutory damages and attorneyís fees are available can act as a catalyst for the quick settlement of a copyright infringement claim.

so since the photo showed up on a commercial site, register it and sue their ass.

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