Artists Take Up Fight Against China Knockoffs
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
On Wednesdays, our business report focuses on the workplace, and today we'll hear about small-town artists in New England competing against knock-offs from China. The artists allege that a discount chain owned by Bed, Bath & Beyond sends buyers out to shop for arts and crafts in places like Cape Cod and then gets thousands of copies made in China. The company denies wrongdoing as NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:
As you drive along the main highway that curves its way toward the tip of Cape Cod, amidst the lobster shacks and beach toy stores, you pass dozens of small galleries and arts and crafts shops. John and Donna Knight run the Glass Eye Gallery in Eastham.
Mr. JOHN KNIGHT (Glass Eye Gallery): We have been in business for--this is 35 years.
ARNOLD: The shop sells stained glass windows, glass wind chimes, pottery and jewelry. In his studio underneath the shop, John Knight is flipping through large two-foot by four-foot sheets of brightly colored glass.
Mr. KNIGHT: They're a West German flashed glass(ph).
ARNOLD: Knight says one of his best-selling items had been a little $30 vase made out of pieces of cut glass joined by soldered metal. One day back in 2003, a customer of his told him that he saw the same vase on sale for $2 down the road at a discount chain store called the Christmas Tree Shops. Despite the name, the chain doesn't just sell holiday goods. It sells all kinds of lower-end housewares and knickknacks.
Mr. KNIGHT: I looked at them in disbelief. I said, `No, it must be something like it, but it can't be,' and they said, `No, I know it's your item.'
ARNOLD: Knight ran down to the chain store and says he immediately believed that his work had been pirated, because the cheaper Chinese-made vases looked so much like his. They even used the same type of purple and white marbled glass, so he bought one of them.
Mr. KNIGHT: This is their reproduction of our item.
(Soundbite of glass being moved)
ARNOLD: John and his wife Donna set the cheaper vase on the shop counter next to one of his original vases, the sales of which he says have fallen off sharply since these knock-offs came out.
Mr. KNIGHT: I cannot buy the material for what they are selling it for.
ARNOLD: Well--and to my eye, these are very similar pieces, right? I mean, they're the exact same size, the exact same shape.
Mrs. DONNA KNIGHT (Glass Eye Gallery): Right.
ARNOLD: Donna Knight.
Mrs. KNIGHT: There's no accident that this showed up, particularly when three of our artists all appeared at the same time at the Christmas Tree Shop.
(Soundbite of horn)
ARNOLD: Up the coast, lawyer Joel Joseph(ph) is sitting outside the federal courthouse on the edge of Boston Harbor. Joseph is representing John and Donna Knight, along with several other artists who say Christmas Tree Shops pirated their work, too.
Mr. JOEL JOSEPH (Lawyer): Yes, it is actually a pattern. They go into local craft shops in New England, and they went into John Knight's shop, and they buy some of these products, and then six months later, they reappear in slightly different form but virtually identical form made in China in the Christmas Tree Shops.
ARNOLD: Joseph has filed a lawsuit alleging copyright and what's called trade dress infringement. The suit also alleges that the chain store has violated the RICO statutes, which are normally used in cases involving organized crime and racketeering.
Mr. JOSEPH: We think it's theft and no different than organized crime that the statute was set out for.
ARNOLD: Christmas Tree Shops and its parent company, Bed, Bath & Beyond, declined an interview, but in a written statement, the company denied allegations that it illegally copied artists' works and said that it, quote, "respects the intellectual property rights of third parties." Wal-Mart, Kmart and other discount stores have also been accused of selling pirated products in recent years. A central issue at the heart of such cases is how similar is too similar? Peter Menell is a law professor at UC Berkeley.
Professor PETER MENELL (UC Berkeley): Wal-Mart is free to go into craft shops and look around and see the type of works that are there and then develop their own non-infringing works, using the ideas that they have seen in other stores.
ARNOLD: So long as they don't copy the originals too closely. In this case with Christmas Tree Shops, though, one of the artists, V.U. Niiler(ph), says the cheaper knock-offs were identical to her original artwork, a molded glass window hanging in the shape of a bunch of grapes.
Ms. V.U. NIILER (Artist): We basically could take the piece they had made and just slip it right into our mold. It was the exact copy.
ARNOLD: That might mean that Christmas Tree Shops could be in trouble in court, unless the defense can show that the plaintiff's work was derived from work by yet other artists or so lacking in originality as to fall outside of copyright protection. Also in this case, like many others, most of the artists involved did not have registered copyrights on their work. Peter Menell says that could significantly limit the amount of damages that the artists could recover.
Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.
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