Copyright, credit, Woolworths and the hummingbird

Delphine Pedeboy and GroundUp Editor
Woolworths hummingbird. Photo used without permission, because we believe it is fair to do so, from toucheefeelee.net.
Delphine Pedeboy and GroundUp Editor

A Twitter storm erupted on 18 October after South African artist Euodia Roets published a blog post titled ‘How Woolworths Really Operates!’. Roets believes her design of a hummingbird on a cushion was used by Woolworths without the company acknowledging it as her work.

Read Roets’s blog here.

The saga with Woolworths started early 2013, when Roets was approached by the retail chain’s buying team. Woolworths expressed interest in creating cushions with a hummingbird design similar to ones Roets had produced. At their request, Roets says she provided the buyers with samples of her paintings and six cushion cover examples, four of which Woolworths kept.

After much negotiation, Roets and Woolworths did not come to any agreement. But weeks later, Roets picked up a cushion cover (see picture) at the Cavendish Square store, much to her surprise. She claims Woolworths has used her design without her permission. This design included the same dimensions of the cushion the same hummingbird design and the same fabric. She also says the Wikipedia text in the background of the cushion had been used without permission.

Roets also makes several complaints about the strong-arm and delaying tactics Woolworths used when negotiating with her. Roets says, “It’s my belief that my designs were sent to a another manufacturer and adapted. This is common in all areas of retail. What I didn’t realise was that it’s also now apparently common practice to treat independent designers in this way.”

In a telephone interview, a Woolworth spokesperson said that the hummingbird design was finalised well before the team met with Roets in South Africa.

“Our hummingbird design was finalised with a Durban supplier mid-November 2012, while Euodia Roets met with our Artisan representative in early 2013”, Woolworths also claimed in a statement on its website, the same afternoon Roets’s blog post went viral.

Furthermore, Woolworths says the inspiration for the design comes in fact from a 2010 Alexander McQueen show in London. The hummingbird design is popular enough, the store argues, that it could have been drawn from a variety of sources other than Roets.

Online responses to the story mainly supported Roets’ argument. However, a few posts reveal other complications in the story. The site Memburn ran an article broadly supportive of Roets. But reader comment on the article points out that Roets herself copied a photo by bird photographer Greg Scott. Roets does however credit Scott on her website.

This is not the first time Woolworths has been embroiled in this kind of scandal. Last year the company was accused of copying a range of artisan soft drinks.

Editorial Comment

The blog post by Euodia Roets and its aftermath raises complex ethical questions. There are two issues here: copyright and credit. Roets has accused Woolworths of both breaching copyright and failing to give credit, either to her or Wikipedia. If Woolworths has indeed used text from Wikipedia on their cushions without crediting the online encyclopedia, this is not merely breach of copyright, it’s plagiarism.

It is a globally held ethic that when you use someone’s work, you should credit them. The Woolworths claim that the hummingbird design is popular is true. But the company does have to answer if it has used Wikipedia’s text without acknowledging the encyclopedia. It probably wouldn’t look very chic if designer cushions had a credit to Wikipedia on them, but that is Woolworths’s problem, not Wikipedia’s. Moreover, Roets’s argument that the cushions were the same dimensions and made from the same fabric as her design strengthens her claim that Woolworths used her work without credit.

Then there is copyright, the legal framework for preventing others from using your work without your permission. There is a widespread argument that copyright protection has gone too far, that the law makes it far too difficult, whether in design, journalism or software, to copy the works of others. At GroundUp we are to a large extent sympathetic with that view. Sometimes, including in this article, we breach copyright if we believe it is fair to do so. We haven’t sought permission to reproduce the image used in this article, nor do we feel morally compelled to do so. But we never, not intentionally anyway, copy material without crediting those we’ve copied from.

Copyright often slows and hinders the production and distribution of news, opinion, ideas and technological progress. There is a global movement to reduce the exclusivity that comes with copyright and increase the free flow of information. Creative Commons licenses and their numerous counterparts in software, such as the GNU Public Licenses, are widely used by people and companies that want their work to flow freely and be available to as many others as possible.

Most GroundUp content is published under a Creative Commons license. At present it is in our interests for people to copy our material, but we get very angry if those who copy our work do not credit us (which happens sometimes). Woolworths can use Wikipedia text under a similar license.

These less restrictive licenses don’t work for everybody though. Euodia Roets and other fledgling designers battle to earn money for their work. They depend on exclusive copyright to make a living. Woolworths is a large company and it is hard to find any compelling argument that they should not pay small designers for their work. On balance it appears Woolworths does have a case to answer. Their press statement does not address all the issues raised by Roets. If this is indeed the way the company treats small designers, it is shameful.

What then of the claim that Roets herself copied Greg Scott’s work without permission? First, we don’t know if this is in fact the case. We are not aware of Scott’s view of what has happened. But assuming she did use Scott’s work without permission, it is not, as some people have suggested, an act of hypocrisy equivalent to what she is accusing Woolworths of doing. First, she credited Scott, so this is only a question of copyright. Whether the way she has used Scott’s work is sufficiently original to not have sought his permission is a complex question. We are not sure of the answer. But perhaps an argument can be made that a small fledgling designer should not be under the same obligations to observe copyright as a large retailer who is likely to profit substantially from the work of others.

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TOPICS:  Human Rights Society