Copywrongs? Obsolete Takes on Restoration Hardware’s Corporate Ethics

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How do we decide what is “original” in home design? Venice-based art and antiques shop Obsolete is taking on Goliath, Restoration Hardware, in a lawsuit that alleges the home furnishing giant engaged in “intentional misrepresentation, false advertising and unfair competition.” Things are heating up between the two companies as Restoration Hardware fired back with its own cross-complaint, accusing Obsolete of defamation and trade libel. What brought about this legal squabble?

According to the LA Times, Restoration Hardware’s Spring 2011 Source Book had three light fixtures that look suspiciously similar to three lamps Obsolete had sold in March 2010. The three lamps were two expanding scissor-arm fixtures and a 1940s wall-mounted lamp from an architect’s office in France. According to Obsolete owner Ray Azoulay, the pieces were sold (unwittingly) to a buyer in product development for RH. The three lamps (costing over $19,000) were shipped to an address that Azoulay later discovered was Restoration Hardware’s corporate offices in Corte Madera.

In an interview with the LA Times, Azoulay was dismayed to find his competitor was “buying things, copying them and claiming that they found them in Europe. There’s a difference between Venice, California, and Venice, Italy.” Azoulay claims he has exclusive rights to sell these pieces in the U.S.  and has spent a great deal of time and money scouting these pieces.

While the article claims Azoulay has agreed to Restoration Hardware’s demand that he “will not continue to make inflammatory and disparaging allegations about what we do” his web site, Restoration Reproduces, is still live with comparative photos and claims of ethical misconduct.

Azoulay may have an uphill battle, legally. Copyright does not apply to utilitarian objects (though there is exemption for boat hulls, oddly enough). And he didn’t design the lamps, he merely sourced them and re-sells them in L.A. Knockoffs and lookalikes are not new to design – is it simply a reality Azoulay and others must live with? Or is he exposing a breach of ethics Restoration Hardware and other national chains should adhere to? What are your thoughts? Debate it in the comments.

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