We live in times of transition. Powers are shifting. The financial system is collapsing. Resources are scarce. It is obvious that there is a need to reevaluate our existing systems, to develop alternative models, and to find new focus and new inputs. In our globally networked society, everything is connected in a largely unregulated space, creating a structure in which the rules of yesterday are no longer valid.

Take for instance, the notion of copying. In science, it is common practice to build upon the work of others. The scientist will carefully quote the work of his or her predecessors. In the music industry artists have been experimenting with new models for dealing with this issue for a long time. They are sampling each other’s work in such a way that the original is getting rewarded. In the design world the open design movement is marching on. We are starting to see designers beginning to invite the public to copy their work.

The heart of copy culture

Copying happens everywhere but if you want to copy without legal problems, you better be in China. There you can find shops full of high-end design surrounded by misleading information, including pictures of the original designers. It is as realistic as it can be. But as soon as you realize that everything is offered for a third of the regular price, you know this must be immaculate copying. In China you can even find replicas of IKEA and Apple stores. And if you go to the city of Shenzhen, you have to visit Dafen oil painting village where painters are copying whatever image you give them.

China is the heart of copy culture. Copying forms the backbone of a substantial portion of Chinese industry. Copying and collective authorship is considered an important part of its culture. The practice of “Shanzhai,” which stands for slight modifications of the original, in some instances should rightfully be dismissed as consumer deception, but in other instances it might offer something positive by adding something extra to the original. I think this practice could give us another view on copy culture. We could just see copying as a way of making variations.

Saturated by variations

It is not only online phenomena that should change our view on copying, it is also the growing amount of products on the market. In pre-industrial days, copying used to be a positive act. It was seen as a skill. Artists were looked upon as handworkers. Copying became a negative notion with the cult of the individual artist and the arrival of mass production, which made replication extremely cheap and easy. Copyright and intellectual property laws were created to protect the original. In those days, the amount of new products reaching the market was relatively small. Currently there are so many new products entering the market every day, that it is almost impossible for designers to be completely original all the time. When you look in the magazines or visit the fairs you notice that original designs are rare. The majority are variations of existing designs, and the boundary between an original and a variation is becoming increasingly unclear.

Redesigning dead stock

The issue of redesigning exiting products was also raised by UP, our recent project that proposes a new economic model based on the redesign of leftovers—brand new products that are likely to be thrown away. Triggered by the scarcity of our resources and the saturation of the market, UP aims to bring dead stock back into circulation, and at the same time, it opens up new possibilities for design. But redesigning existing designs is in principle a forbidden act, even if it is dead stock. The networked economy and the open design movement, coupled with issues such as resource scarcity and market saturation lead us in new directions, urging a reevaluation of intellectual property rights.

A new model

Starting with the idea that copying as shared creativity can be innovative, in partnership with Today Art Museum, Beijing and OCT Art and Design Gallery, Shenzhen, we organized a workshop with Dutch and Chinese designers in the city of Shenzhen, where we have been encountering and discussing the issue of copying and copyrights. With a few public debates we continued the discussion with press, critics, designers and students. We learned that copying is a complex subject. It is difficult to define the difference between copying and fashion and to draw the line between whether one design has been influenced by another or if it is in fact a counterfeit. Another issue is how to honour the original. But what became clear was that we really need to reevaluate our attitudes towards copying and intellectual property. In our workshop in Shenzhen we formulated the first ideas for a model that could encourage and reward legal copying culture. In close collaboration with the Dutch and Chinese participants we are now fine tuning this model and working to make it happen.