Firebowls, Copyright And Crowdfunding (Oh My)

A bunch of people have been sending in John T. Unger’s story, claiming that someone who copied his artwork is now suing him in federal court over copyrights. The general sentiment from the submitters, it seems, is to support Unger’s position. I avoided writing about this for a while, because the story is actually a lot more complex, and since I think Unger is going too far, I thought it might upset some folks. Plus, the story is pretty complex. Thankfully, the good folks over at Consumerist actually really did an excellent job laying out a pretty balanced look at the issues that doesn’t automatically side with Unger.

Here’s the summary of the situation:

  • Unger makes “firebowls” — decorative metal bowls that you light a fire in (I had no idea such things existed).
  • He copyrighted the design of his firebowls.
  • He then discovered that Rick Wittrig was making firebowls that look remarkably similar, but are a bit cheaper.
  • Unger got angry and sent a cease-and-desist
  • Wittrig filed a lawsuit to claim that Unger’s registered copyrights are not legitimate, as there shouldn’t be any copyright on utilitarian objects.
  • Unger writes up his side of the story (small artist being ripped off!) and asks people to fund his legal defense using popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter

As Consumerist notes, it’s easy to quickly side with Unger without understanding the full story, saying that he’s an artist who got “ripped off,” but that’s not at all clear. Yes, it does seem pretty likely that Wittrig copied Unger’s designs (they match quite closely and at no point does Wittrig deny copying the designs). But it is a pretty big question as to whether or not Unger’s work really is covered by copyright (or should be). Now this whole story is the type of thing that people often bring up when I write about why copyright isn’t needed. This — they say — is a perfect example where copyright is necessary. Unger is mad because this other guy is “ripping him off” and passing off Unger’s designs as his own. Except, again, that’s not clear at all. Copyright was designed as an incentive to create — not a system to block all competition. In the fashion world, as we’ve noted repeatedly, knockoffs are quite common, and have helped the industry thrive. It actually helps make the brand name originators of the design worth more, because people want the “real” original kind.

So, without copyright, what can Unger do? Well, he’s actually already doing it. He put up a site that points out that Wittrig copies him, get lots of attention for it, and a lot more people now know about these kinds of decorative firebowls. My guess is that Unger is suddenly selling a lot more than he was before — and that’ll be true whether or not Wittrig gets the copyrights tossed out. And, in the meantime, having Wittrig around as competition should be good for Unger, pushing him to continue innovating and coming up with new designs.

Separately, I have to admit to some fascination over the use of Kickstarter’s crowdfunding platform to fund a “legal defense” rather than just as a way to sell products. Even if I don’t think Unger should have much of a legal argument, I think it’s a cool use of the platform, which also drives more interest and attention to his own bowls.

So, in the end, I think Wittrig should be free to make these firebowls and to sell them in the marketplace and compete with Unger. At the same time, though, I think Unger should be free to draw lots of attention to his own firebowls combined with the sympathy-inducing story of how he originated the designs that Wittrig copied. In the end, then, they’d both be better off, as it ends up getting both of them a lot more attention for the bowls, and those who feel sympathy for Unger, or who just want to support the “original” artist, will pay up for his versions of the bowls, whereas those who would rather save some money will pay Wittrig. In the end, both of them end up being better off, and no copyright battle needs to happen. Unfortunately, in an age where so many content creators have been taught to use copyright as a crutch, that’s not what we get.

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