Professional Jeweler Archive: Whose Design Is It? A Copyright Case Study

June 2002

Managing/Legal Issues


Whose Design Is It? A Copyright Case Study

In-store designers should be careful how they handle their customers' ideas


Acme Jewelers is a well-respected store that’s been in business 25 years. It has a repeat clientele and provides various custom-jewelry services. This week, two customers visited with projects Mr. Acme didn’t know how best to handle:

  • Customer 1 asked Mr. Acme to duplicate two rings so he could give one to each of his daughters. One was quite stylized – it reminded Mr. Acme of a currently popular designer. The other had a copyright: a C within a circle.
  • Customer 2 had sketched her idea, but left it at home. She described a ring engraved with an eternity symbol and two diamonds. Mr. Acme sketched her idea and thought it might make a good stock piece.

Background

Both issues relate to copyright, which essentially is a U.S. government protection for original designs. It covers a piece of jewelry and a drawing of a piece of jewelry, but not a mere idea or concept.

Interestingly, your design is automatically copyrighted when the drawing or piece is made – that’s right, you don’t have to do anything to have a copyright! But you must register your copyright if you ever enter the legal system to protect it. You may copyright at any time, but your rights are greater if you do it at an early stage.

Dealing With The Customers

Customer 1 is probably offering Mr. Acme a big headache. Obviously, the piece with the copyright mark on it is copyrighted. The other one is probably by a designer, so copying it could result in legal action.

Mr. Acme could explain to the customer about copyrights and instead show him stock items that could be ordered in multiples. Or he may be able to order an additional copy of either ring or even take the elements his customer likes about the rings and make new ones that look substantially different from the originals.

What happens if Mr. Acme copies the pieces anyway? Perhaps no one will ever notice. However, it also could result in a costly court case, of which more and more are happening. It’s not usually worth the risk.

Customer 2 would probably own the copyright to the new ring. The design essentially came out of her head, though the jeweler translated it. What if the customer has only a fuzzy idea of what she wants? If Mr. Acme takes her very basic parameters and translates them into a workable design, he would probably own the copyright.

Many designers who deal with customers with very general parameters ask them to sign a release form so they (the designers) own the copyright when the design is finished. A lawyer can help with an effective form.

Summary

Copyright is a huge subject and should be taken seriously. The Jewelers Vigilance Committee can provide basic information and refer you to someone who can help, but it doesn’t handle copyright cases. Why? Because JVC can’t sue for damages, which is what a copyright owner usually goes to court to achieve. Questions? Comments? Call JVC at (212) 997-2002 or Stephen Feldman at (212) 532-8585.

– by Caroline Stanley and Stephen Feldman

Caroline Stanley is director marketing and development for Jewelers Vigilance Committee. Stephen Feldman of Stephen E. Feldman, P.C., is a copyright specialist.

Copyright © 2002 by Bond Communications