Antique Shop Takes Ownership Culture To New Level, Sues Over Lamps It Doesn't Own
from the you-want-to-know-what's-obsolete? dept
When we talk about the differences between infringing on the copyright of content and concepts involving copying tangible goods, one of the examples we often use is the idea that if you bought a chair, and then decided you wanted a copy of that chair and went and made one yourself, that’s usually perfectly legal (barring certain limited trademark or potentially patent issues). Of course, in an era where we’ve taught people that they get to “own” concepts, people get upset about these kinds of things and will try to twist laws to make it “wrong.”
Reader Valerio points us to a truly bizarre lawsuit, filed by a small antiques shop, called Obsolete, in Los Angeles against the large retailer, Restoration Hardware. The complaint? That Restoration Hardware bought some lamps from Obsolete and then made similar lamps for sale in its own stores. Think about this for a second. These are not lamps that Obsolete made or owned any other rights to. It simply owned those particular lamps, which it then sold, meaning it no longer had any rights to those lamps.
There’s no justifiable intellectual property claim here (because that would be laughed out of court in seconds), so the antiques shop owner tries to come up with ways to twist other laws into making this action illegal. He claims that since the buyer did not admit that she worked for Restoration Hardware, and it’s Obsolete’s general policy not to sell to retailers or competitors, this was intentional misrepresentation, fraudulent concealment, negligent misrepresentation, false advertising and unfair competition. However, on the website that Obsolete has set up about the case, the owner is more direct, claiming that it’s about “ethics.”
Funny, but I don’t see anything whatsoever unethical about buying nice antique lamps and then making newer, cheaper versions for sale to people who want to buy them. I do however see plenty that’s unethical in suing a company and twisting the law because you don’t like what a company has done.
I can’t see how any of these claims can really stand up. The first three charges rely on California civil codes 1709 and 1710. Both laws are clearly intended for outright fraud that causes harm. I can’t see how either apply. This wasn’t a case of fraud. This is a case of someone purchasing a product legitimately. That Obsolete doesn’t want those products to end up at other retailers is not a legal issue. It’s not something Obsolete really has control over. The “false advertising” claim appears to be based on Obsolete saying that Restoration Hardware implied it found these objects itself. It did. It found them from him. Just like he found them from someone else. I don’t see how that’s false advertising at all. The “unfair competition” claim doesn’t seem to be clearly stated or explained at all. It’s basically — yet again — Obsolete claiming it doesn’t like this.
Furthermore, it’s hard to see how there’s any harm here. In fact, in the lawsuit itself, Obsolete admits that Restoration Hardware’s versions of the lamps don’t have “the quality, historical significance, artistry, or any of the other characteristics prized by Obsolete and its clients.” In other words, in its own lawsuit, Obsolete flat out admits that these knockoffs don’t harm Obsolete, because Obsolete’s customers are discerning and want the real thing instead of the copies. Frankly, I’m sort of amazed that Obsolete completely undercuts its own argument directly within its own filing. This also completely refutes the unfair competition claim, since Obsolete itself admits that Restoration Hardware isn’t competing for Obsolete’s customers.
Either way, this is yet another example of the ridiculous results you get when you build up the belief that ownership extends beyond physical items to some sort of amorphous intangible “right.” In this case, it’s not intellectual property, but Obsolete’s bizarre claim that only it can ever have any connection with such lamps.