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The creator and the commissioner

Recently, we had one of our major clients refuse us rights to publish our work online on our website. As a standard procedure, post completing a project, we would put up images of the work designed and a brief explanation about the process that went behind it. Our client had specific reasons why they did not want the work shown this time, and yet, as we had completed several cutting-edge designs across several sites for them over that past year, it was a defeating and distressing experience. As a studio that strives hard to maintain standards, keep our customers satisfied and maintain good relationships, we wanted to see if there was a way to showcase our work while maintaining client confidentiality. Our efforts failed and so almost a year’s-worth of work is now a best-kept secret.

It was not an obstruction we had visualised. Yet, while coming to terms with what we sign in a contract, we also questioned the paradox of the situation we are in. As a creative firm, our rewards, of course, come from the love of working on a project, the challenges we rise to in each project and the mutual satisfaction of designers and clients on its healthy completion. Our joy comes from being able to share what we have done. This is important for us not just as a matter of pride but also an important link to our business. Frankly, people want to see what we have done. And it is crucial that we show it.

And so, when we are denied the right to show our work, as its ownership rests with the client and so their choice whether we can display our creativity or not, we started asking ourselves – to whom does a design really belong?

Ownership of creative product

In recent times, well-known designers and artists who are commissioned to design objects, furniture, architecture and art can put their stamp on the object. Clients endorse the product by celebrating its creator. However, wherever there is a controversial issue that arises, the client, a group or individual in power would have rights to withdraw the object or destroy it. It is said even of a book, to which a writer can clearly get credit, that once it goes out into the world, begins a journey independent of its writer. Unknown to the writer, others can plagiarise its contents and for all other purposes, the idea behind the book is now open to the world.

Hence the idea behind a creative product, now protected as Intellectual Property, by distinguishing all of its characteristics to be an entity different from all others, goes towards crediting the creator for an original thought. As a firm, every time we create something unique, we would like the liberty to showcase our work, even if the work now belongs to the firm that  commissioned it. Going the legal route would be to insert a clause in the contract, binding on the client, that we be allowed to show our work in the public realm for promoting our firm and establishing rights to the design creation.

Commissioning in modern times

The difference between design and art, is that in the artist’s case, most of the time, when they put up their work in a public space, their work is celebrated for its worth as also the creator’s. Not so in design. As design ventures into the realm of useful creative products and outcomes, the outcome is celebrated more than the designer. In fact, even while furniture firms may raise the price on a novelty product – its designer tag which is a silent toast to the designer is as much about branding. If we go back to the history of commissioning, there is an underlying intent to show power, wealth and status. Yet, artists from Leonardo da Vinci to Anish Kapoor have become brands in their own right. While successful designers have also become household names, the designer often gets a back seat. How many times would you walk into a dazzling store at a mall and think – who designed this? People love Harrods in London and we are charmed by IKEA’s Poang chair. But how many of us know the designer of the much-loved Poang is Japanese designer Noboru Nakamura, who made it in 1972? Luckily, IKEA does put up the information on their website for those who are interested, celebrating the designer’s contribution.

Swiping credit

One of our clients has had a logo designed by us replicated exactly by a firm overseas, merely changing the name of the brand. We have also had other incidents where individuals/clients have gone on record claiming to have created work that was produced within our studio. This, after the work has been published on our site and all correspondence would make it clear that we are the originators of the idea and its manifestation. Creative thinking is not just a gift. We work hard to nurture, challenge and come up with concepts that work. We do intensive research, vast numbers of iterations, go to and fro to tedious extremes till we reach a peerless final pearl of an idea that works.

A few rights we can ensure

Legally, we could include in the contract the right to display what we are doing for the client as part of our portfolio in forms of print and digital. While the commissioner has rights to the completed work in most contracts, the design firm can ask for the rights to be acknowledged for design, wherever possible. We can affirm in writing that the design and all peripherals created cannot be passed off as anyone else’s.

For centuries in this land, going by tradition, the craftsman, the architect, the sculptor and the painter worked in anonymity. In 21st century India, we do not want to go back to being unsung heroes. Anthony Lopez, Principal Lopez Design has the last word on this. “As a designer, I have the right to promote my work as it is not only the hard labour, sharp intellect and IP that has been produced but it is the only means to promote.  The same client would not know about the quality and variety of our services if this tool was not available to me.”

 


 

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by Sujatha Shankar Kumar
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