When I design and build a piece of furniture, it does not belong to me any more than the birdsong of the warblers outside my shop door.
Since the start of my furniture career in the 1990s, I have never claimed ownership to a single design. The world is free to copy, adapt, interpret, sell and (I hope) improve my best efforts. And the world has occasionally taken me up on my offer. I’ve seen my published designs show up in furniture catalogs and galleries all over the United States.
And I’m fine with it.
I suspect my attitude comes from growing up and living in the areas of the United States that are steeped in traditional mountain music. The first half of my life was spent in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, and the second half has been spent living in the hills of Kentucky. In these places (and other mountain communities), traditional string-band music – guitar, mandolin, fiddle and banjo – is something you can still hear regularly at neighborhood bars, church picnics, school fund-raisers, weddings and funerals.
By tradition, this music does not have a strict sense of ownership, other than the fact that it belongs to everyone who can play it or sing it. When I visit the Comet bar on a Sunday night, the band might play songs that were first recorded in the mid-1920s in Bristol, Tennessee. But these songs came from Scotland, Ireland, Africa or France hundreds of years before. Tonight they sound new, like they never have before. And next Sunday, they will sound a little different. Verses will be added or removed. A second singer might add a counter-melody.
The furniture from these mountainous places is treated in the same manner. Farmers in the Ozarks and Appalachia have long made ladderback chairs during the cold months (this is a quickly dying trade). These chairs might look identical to the untrained eye, but if you open your eyes, you will find immense variation. The arrangement of the sticks, the curve of the backsplats and the shape of the finials at the top of the back posts are as good as a notarized signature for identifying the maker. And if you look at enough of these chairs, you can see traits handed down through generations and via geography.
Copying the work of others and adapting it has long been the predominant way that furniture and vernacular musical forms have been kept alive and fresh for hundreds of years. Bob Dylan’s song “Maggie’s Farm” is a rewriting of his song “Hard Times in the Country,” which is a rewrite of the song “Down on Penny’s Farm” by the Bentley Boys from the 1920s. And who knows where they got it.
Is “Maggie’s Farm” less fantastic because Dylan swiped a traditional song? Or (I would argue) is it more fantastic because it transformed a song about sharecropping into an electrifying statement against the Vietnam war?
Is Jennie Alexander’s iconic chair from the book “Make a Chair from a Tree” – the most comfortable and lightweight chair I’ve ever sat in – less amazing because it sprung from the mule-ear ladderbacks on thousands of porches in Eastern Kentucky?
This tradition of observing, copying and creating anew is the fertilizer for people to make new music and new pieces of furniture. If you take that tradition away, you risk handing over our music and furniture forms to the people with the most money or the best lawyers.
Plagiarism lawsuits are nothing new in music or furniture. The Music Copyright Infringement Resource (an effort by the law schools at George Washington University and Columbia) traces plagiarism claims in popular music back to 1844. Furniture plagiarism has been litigated in this country (the United States) for as long as our Patent Office has existed.
What has changed is that these lawsuits, especially in music, have increased dramatically in the last 30 years.
As a furniture maker, I sometimes lie awake at night worrying that I have unconsciously ripped off another furniture maker’s design, and that I’m going to be sued. And so when I write about a new piece, I acknowledge every influence I can think of. In fact, I’ll even acknowledge influences I haven’t seen.
I know that sounds weird and wrong. So here’s an example: Several months after I designed and built my Staked Worktable for the book “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” I found an antique Swedish table built on the same principles that had the same feel to it. Though I’d never (knowingly) seen the antique table before designing my version, I decided to include a drawing of it in my book and acknowledge it as a likely ancestor of my design.
Why? Because it probably is.
My table’s design emerged after looking at hundreds and hundreds of pieces of medieval furniture – lots of square worktables with tapered legs, thin tops and battens below. In my mind, I simply reversed the tapers on the legs, dressed up the battens to be sliding dovetails and changed the overall proportions of the top from 1:1 to 2:4.
The maker of the Swedish antique probably saw similar medieval tables – they’re everywhere in books and museums – and made the same small leaps that I did.
And so I can’t possibly claim credit for my design or any of the other designs that flow from my pencil and onto the workbench. And so I don’t. I give them away.
But wait, what about the books I write? Aren’t those copyrighted? Indeed they are. Sometimes by the publisher and sometimes by me. But I’ll be honest, I’ve concluded it’s all a farce. People steal my work all the time. Every one of my books is available for a free download on bit torrent sites run by hackers. I don’t have the money, time or people to stop them. And so – for books written by me, at least – I don’t.
Recently, I’ve come to grips with this reality, and that’s one reason why my latest book, “The Anarchist’s Workbench,” is covered by a Creative Commons license that allows people to reuse and adapt my work. I hope to move all my other books into a Creative Commons license in the future as well.
I am sure that some of you are thinking my ideas about giving away designs are unrealistic. What about the big furniture company that outright steals a design from some impoverished individual maker? Surely that poor woodworker is entitled to sue the big corporation for redress.
I do not propose to change our laws or system of jurisprudence. Egregious cases of theft probably should end up in the courts, and it’s likely the party with the most money will win in the end. Or at least get their way for a small fee.
Instead I am merely arguing that to maintain and grow our rich furniture heritage, we need our traditional system of borrowing and loaning designs (and melodies). And one way to do that is to allow your own designs to be freely copied and interpreted.
Consider the following questions:
- Do you want to spend your time threatening to sue people, or do you want to spend that time making and building furniture?
- Are you so bereft of ideas that you cannot come up with new designs or iterations?
- How likely is it that you will prevail in the world of copyrights, trademarks and design patents?
- How much money do you really need?
- Can you say from the heart that your design is truly original and did not spring from the work of the millions of woodworkers who came before you?
Oh and one more question. Aren’t there enough songs about “John Henry?” Henry was the fabled Black steel-driving railroad worker who beat a steam-powered drill in a tunnel-drilling contest, only to die from the exertion.
I contend there can never be too many songs about John Henry. Or too many ladderback chairs, trestle tables, chests, stick chairs or milking stools.
And the only way to guarantee that is to give yourself in to tradition.
— Christopher Schwarz