Papering up the profits?

Wilf StevensonWilf Stevenson on a proposed change to copyright legislation of more than passing interest to the Chancellor

On Monday, in Committee on the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (ERR)Bill, the government will propose deleting section 52 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Yet, behind this dry notice lies an everyday story of windfall profits.

Because what this deletion does is to change the copyright protection system for industrial designs which are mass produced, from 25 years after registration to 70 years after the death of the designer. And it will also bring back into copyright industrial design products that are currently out of copyright – a move affecting many thousands of consumers of such products and designs, as well as greatly increasing the potential earnings of rights’ holders.

There is of course a very good case for giving industrial designers the same rights as are afforded to other categories of the creative industries. But it is a major change.

A good example of the practical effect of the move will be to make replica versions of classic designs, such as Jacobsen’s “Egg” Chair, unaffordable to many consumers. The industrial design protection of this has lapsed because it is out of its term protection. So, according to the government’s impact assessment for the Bill, an ‘original’ chair would cost about £2,800 while a replica would cost around £500. One can guess how valuable this resumption of copyright will be for the owners of the rights – and it is likely that the profits will flow on for many years to come.

During the debate on Monday I will ask the new BIS Minister in the Lords, Viscount Younger of Leckie, to comment on another design area that will be affected: wallpaper.

Wallpaper is within the current scope of the registered industrial design system, and gets 25 years protection; so the proposed change may well benefit companies holding popular designs. As most people know, the firm Osborne & Little is primarily a wallpaper maker – founded in 1968. Designs first produced and sold by the company between 1968 and 1987 will, if this clause goes forward in the ERR Bill, come back into copyright for the life of the designer plus 70 years beyond that.

I hope therefore that the Minister will be in a position during Monday’s Committee to inform us whether or not George Osborne has been alerted to this change. As Chancellor of Exchequer, it may have more than just a passing interest to him.

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is a Shadow Business, Innovation & Skills Minister in the Lords

Published 25th January 2013


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