An EnLightening Legal Debate - Modernica & the George Nelson Foundation

During our celebration with Thrive Furniture on Thursday I had a conversation with a furniture designer come friend of mine who recently found out that the producer of her creations was not only listing the goods on his website as his own but also selling them without her knowledge. 

It's an all too common problem in the interior design industry, especially as artisans and designers have to rely on outside sources to produce their wares instead of having the benefit of in house "construction" facilities.  It's a sad state that so many not only think they can get away with this blatant plagiarism of an artist's intellectual property but that they DO. 

Even worse is that the current patent and trademark applications and regulations do not make it any easier for a designer to put a "legal" stamp on their products, allowing them to fight The Big Fight and win.

it's the biggest reason that when I practiced as an interior designer I would literally tell clients that if they "wanted a Saarinen Table, they were getting a Saarinen table" and not a knock off.  It was either vintage or authorized reproductions only.  Absolutely no knock offs of any kind. Period.

I think (or hope) that many other designers are on the same page.

This weekend I was alerted to a wrench in the virtual cogs of design trademarks and my applicable rules regarding knock offs.  For a number of years I've been a supporter of Los Angeles based Modernica, known not only for their production of the Charles & Ray Eames designed fiberglass chair but also their very popular Nelson series of pendants.  In fact, they're the ONLY producer of the iconic 1952 design.  The story goes that after Howard Miller Clock Co. (the original producer of George Nelson's design) sold their lighting to Gossamer Designs in Lighting which, several years later held a fire sale of their properties after going out of business. Modernica picked up the the original equipment and subsequently filled (and were granted by the United States government) trademarks for the collection.


The current collection sells nearly 25,000 units yearly.

Enter Herman Miller and the George Nelson Foundation who've decided some 14 years later that the collection infringes on its rights to the Nelson designs.  And, as such, have sued claiming that Modernica is selling unauthorized copies.  The LA Times reports that George Nelson's 93 year old widow had assigned all Nelson trademarks to the foundation (even though they also report that an article published in 1952 credits William Renwick, a Nelson associate as the actual designer of the lighting line).

My question, of course, relates to the sale of Herman Miller's lighting line to Gossamer and whether or not the original trademarks and patents for the Nelson lamps were a) maintained over the course of the years (design patents have an expiration period of 14 years unless properly maintained) and b) whether or not trademarks/patents changed hands with the sale.  I'm certain these are aspects of the case that will be addressed at some point. 

If the Foundation failed to maintain their asserted ownership of the designs in question, do they still have a legal right to make waves of what could be epic proportions? 

My two cents are this - designers have a responsibility to their designs.  They're the byproduct of their creative insanity.  They're their children.  You wouldn't abandon your children would you?  Why would you abandon your designs?

I certainly don't fault Modernica in this particular battle because it appears that they've covered their legal bases in ensuring they were following proper protocol. At least that is what we're seeing from the initial suit.  Herman Miller and the Nelson Foundation, it seems, are doing nothing more than trying to cash in on a cow they not only sold at market long ago but also just happens to be something of a golden goose (I'm mixing metaphors).

What do you think?  Is Herman Miller and the Nelson Foundation being a big bully or is Modernica in the wrong?  I'd love to hear your opinion.

Original LA Times Article [HERE].

Image courtesy Modernica.