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
51 thoughts on “Give it Away. Now & Forever”
I could also see the possibility of a company like Ikea making one of your designs and it selling well. Then when people discover the “original” from you, your prices can go up because of supply-demand. In the end, you would benefit also.
Your anarchy is showing again, only your anarchy is about being ethical, about sharing, about treating people right (without litigation!)
It just makes too much sense spending time creating, doing something you like, rather than fighting and bickering. Just to interject some politics here, making furniture is a healthy alternative to being influenced by the television, which spews forth corporate and large business views, hardly the stuff of our anarchy!
I’ve been touchy about ‘people’ copying/taking credit for what I’ve built ever since I was a boy. I still remember the time (I was in grade school) when I coerced my dad into paying for a copyrighting of a design I drew for a plastic model kit. Dad put in the money, and soon after submission we were asked for money to protect the design. It was too much. Dad hot pissed, refused, and I was left feeling like crap. Some years later that exact same design appeared on a kit box I saw advertised in a model supply catalog. Yeah, it was mine alright. Could this be the one event in my life to set the course or jealousy over my work? Maybe. Or maybe it has always been the way I grew up. Dad made me look like I had no issues whatsoever, and his attitude created friction with the family to the day he passed away.
To bring this to a close: I’ve been an Open Source software advocate for many years. When it comes to what I make with my hands, hands off, it’s mine alone. But you’re right. Nothing I have made or built was exclusively mine. Not even the knowledge. We, as a species, cannot progress or grow into the best we can become without sharing what is known. Every other species on this planet long ago figured this out.
I agree with you on owning designs or ideas. I do sculptures and have been a furniture maker for many years. My love of the piece is in the design and building. Once a client or whoever it was made for, has it it is there’s . I don;t think about it once it’s gone. I prefer to think that I made it for them not for myself.
I feel the same with a couple of black and white photographs I have sold or gave the image to a rightful owner. The joy on their face paid the max dividends to me.
As a writer/publisher, this brilliant article on protection and access will interest you, and it is also free to read with no restrictions: https://www.currentaffairs.org/2020/08/the-truth-is-paywalled-but-the-lies-are-free/
That was a very interesting read and something for the world to strive for. Just imagine the progress that could be made with true freedom of information. Thank you.
Creativity is fuelled by inspiration from others. Patents serve economic needs. An overzealous focus on these needs is the enemy of creativity.
Sharing this with my staff who work in an office similar to your previous life. I hope they get the message
Thanks for the enjoyable morning read. Sharing music, food, furniture, and just being a better human. Simple.
According to what I know and have read about in the history of man kind there are only two original thinkers. Eisenstein and Newton. even they relied on ideas of people who came before them. A university musician friend of mine. 50 yrs ago. Told me his prof said that within the next 50 yrs all musical arrangement would be written and used and that was prior to the digital age. We all work with the same pieces of the puzzle. Some of us just join them together to produce a new picture. You’re a writer. In fiction there are no new plots under the sun. Even Shakespeare can be said to have used Biblical and/or Mythological themes. The design is the same. The choice of pallet used is to individual tastes. All that said I do believe in acknowledging those who come up with new pallets that I use and pay for the privilege when necessary.
Darwin: Complex organization may arise without the effort of an intelligent designer. The most revolutionary idea of all time.
Interesting, I’ll have to think on this. Should probably add Plato and Jesus.
FWIW, Shakespeare stole just about all his stories, direct from other plays of the time, even. He just wrote them better (usually). https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/of-course-shakespeare-stole-from-others-week-in-books-column-a6852976.html
My mother said more than once, “You’ve just gotta let it go and get on with it.”
I do take advantage of your generosity and I thank you.
Love this article and the philosophy behind it! Here’s something Chris really has to see! A co-worker sent me this video link of a Chinese man making a table from one solid piece of wood without power tools and without ever detaching any piece from the original block of wood. Awesome! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VK9oyvhRpA8
Amu is my new hero. I love the work holding methods on his low bench.
You are so right about John Henry – here’s one you probably haven’t heard: https://www.bluewaterhighwayband.com/listen
I’m not in the band, just a fan.
Early in my life I was a mechanical designer, and I developed a product that was patented by the company I worked for at the time. My name was on the patent. So to keep my job, the company required me to sign a legal document assigning them all rights to the patent for the consideration of one dollar. And of course, they never even gave me the dollar. Any “intellectual property right” is only as good as the next court decision you can afford to pay to get until everybody else gives up. And predatory, end-state, capitalists will always happily take the last dollar from you any way they can.
Yup. Money always wins.
The dollar per patent thing is very, very old. This is from Evan Schwartz’s “The Last Lone Inventor”:
“One RCA engineer by the name of Bill Eddy thought the one-dollar checks were
an absurdity. To him, the honor of receiving the check was worth far more than
the dollar itself. Each time he was issued a check, he would paste it on the wall
of his working space. Like many RCA engineers, he was quite prolific in filing
patent applications. Pretty soon, he proudly covered an entire wall with these
Meanwhile, the comptroller in the RCA accounting department was wondering
why he couldn’t balance the books. After asking around, Sarnoff’s finance chief
found out about Eddy’s wall. A team of accountants descended on Eddy’s
cubicle, but they couldn’t pry the checks off the wall without ripping them. They
tried wetting them down, but the paper still wouldn’t come off the wall. Finally,
they called some maintenance workers to hack down the whole section of
plasterboard. They carried the wall away from the premises, dissolved the plaster
in a special solution, removed the checks, waited for them to dry, took Eddy to
the bank, got him to endorse the checks, gave him his small pile of bills, and
balanced the books of RCA.”
Fine, but let’s get down to brass tacks Schwarz! What is your favorite song about John Henry and why is it “The Day John Henry Died” by the Jason Isbell-era Drive-By Truckers?
“Spike Driver Blues” played by Mississippi John Hurt. Love the DBT song, too.
John Hurt had one of the warmest human voices I’ve ever heard. Sounds like whiskey and honey and cigarettes have all had a hand.
I’m just glad that you have found a financial model that puts your books in print at a price within my means while bringing in enough to feed your families.
It doesn’t take much if you don’t want much.
It takes a lot to realise and accept (and embrace) it.
Depends on your business model. It your sole specialty is design, others stealing your designs is a big deal.
Design is part of Chris’s business, however it’s only 1 minor piece of it(that’s not an insult either), people comission builders like Chris because of the quality, not just the design. Ikea could clone his furniture and sell it for a fraction of the price, but that’s not likely to rob him of business because his customers aren’t likely to be buying cheap mass produced furniture either way. He’s selling something that can’t be mass produced in a factory even if you steal his designs.
The book pirating bothers me, but stopping black markets like BitTorrent isn’t going to happen, it’s just the way of the world. however I’d argue lost art presses real value is the printed books, not the digital copies anyway.
Yeah, the quality of the books is really great! If I were to download the book and then print and bind it, it would not be of that physical quality. A well made product is a joy to hold / use. And the price for the TAW book is… insane? (in the sense that it is really on the low side!) I’ll pass, though, and rather get one of the other books (limited funds… should focus).
Thanks, Chris (and LAP).
Uncommonly good sense these days
I love when you talk folk music to me.
Maggie’s Farm was covered by the Grateful Dead, who famously allowed fans to tape their concerts. Jerry Garcia said “Once we’re done with it you can have it.”
Twenty five years after his death and there are still many people who appreciate the thousands of available recordings.
Many years ago I met a seasoned sales manager from a large enterprise. He said, patents are no good, because if people are busy copying our ideas (from two years ago), they don’t have the resources to innovate on their own. So we are always ahead of them … A wise man, I think.
Bravo and thankyou!
I had a discussion along these lines with a guide at one of the Shaker villages in New England. As I remember, the gist of it was that the Shakers invented or improved a lot of things and some were eventually convinced to patent them so that someone from The World could not come along, copy and patent their ideas, and then restrict the Shakers from using their own methods. It was suggested as a form of self defense, which admittedly would not be necessary in a patentless society.
Many companies today create patents as self defence. https://www.openinventionnetwork.com was created to pool these patents against predatory lawsuits.
Ideas are cheap. There are very few really new, innovative ideas. How many variations of dovetails are original?
I see the lathe traveled into the bench room. You have a keen and accurate sense of the real world value of intellectual property rights and the practical efficacy of the legal process. I need to build your staked table to go with the Welsh stick chair, and work out on the porch.
Well, I wake up in the morning
Fold my hands and pray for rain
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane
Back in the 80s or 90s, Dylan was accused of ripping off a melody from some new group I’d never heard of. When asked he said it was ridiculous. He only rips off artists older than him.
Heh. Nothing is new. There are piles of (what we would call) reverse-tapered legs. In Finland. Chairs, tables, benches…
Classical music has borrowed and stolen music for centuries. It’s really only the last century or so hat any thought has been given to copyright. The bulk of the great symphonies by all the A-list composers used folk melodies for the primary material. Stravinsky said, “good composers borrow. Great composers steal.”
First I had Dylan stuck in my head. Then, thanks to your post, I’ve had this one going round and round.
I’ve got this thing in my heart
I must give you today
It only lives when you
Give it away
There’s a similar line of commentary that can be made about craftspeople that consider their methods proprietry and then bemoan the decline of their trade – of course it’s declining, you won’t show anyone how it’s done!
Well said. This is my very motivation for trying to dream up video tutorial projects to run in my machine shop. I’m a tool-and-die maker, by the way (among other things), so my trade is probably even closer to dying out than traditional furniture making. Then again, I rarely get an opportunity to make tools, so that’s part of the problem.
I have read other posts you have written giving your designs away. And openly encouraging others to build upon your work. And yet i still felt the need to send you an email asking permission to do just that, along with my intentions for the piece. I have done the same with other makers as well. Be it for sale or personal use. To me it is about respect. I want to have the the original makers permission before i openly borrow or build upon their work. To let them know my intentions from me and not find it posted elsewhere.
Thank you, sir, for saying this. And thank you for setting the example by making the Anarchist’s Workbench book downloadable. I’m really enjoying it.
If you haven’t come across him before, you might look up Lewis Hyde (The Gift, Common as Air). Irresistible and perspective-altering essays on art, creativity and ownership:
Of course, I’m pretty sure he gets paid for his books. Which is good.
Like a lot of people I partly grew up on Robert Johnson’s one and only album (it’s there on the cover of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, along with the Persian cat and fallout shelter sign, a mighty talisman of influence that was itself only a couple years old in 1965 despite being recorded a decades earlier). There might not be a more influential record in the 20th century, but I’m not sure how much Mr Johnson ever got paid. Anyway he died in 1938, a couple years after the original sessions, having altered the course of music and recording (as far as we know) not another sound.
I’m POSITIVE Mr Dylan got paid, and continues to jealously guard his prerogatives. Good for him.
It’s all a little complicated and very interesting, and I for one am immensely glad to see Chris Schwarz writing about it, and getting paid. A lot I hope.
Chris, a blog post idea for you (although you seem to have no shortage of content ideas)
In a Sept. 2019 post you mentioned stake dining tables. “Staked Dining Table: Beyond the trestle tables shown in the original edition, I have sketched up some full-size dining tables that are similar to the worktable.”
I would love to see a post of your ideas and sketches on this idea. I’m wrestling with what table design would be co-pathetic to the various forms of staked chairs.
It’s basically the worktable design but sized up. Thicker top (1.5″). Heavy under-bevel. If I come across my sketch I’ll be sure to post it.
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