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.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Kevin, May 6th, 2011 @ 7:29am

    It's about time

    ...someone did this. Now we can point to real world examples instead of thought experiments!

    Hooray for self-refutation! \o/

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    fb, May 6th, 2011 @ 7:42am

    I gotta say...

    ...those are some awfully pretty reproductions. Good thing Obsolete sued: I woulda never seen 'em otherwise.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    DannyB (profile), May 6th, 2011 @ 8:01am

    I can see why Obsolete is offended

    Obsolete sells an antique lamp. That is scarce.

    Restoration Hardware wants to make non-scarce cheap copies that people can inexpensively buy and enjoy.

    Like the copyright maximalists, the underlying offense here is felony interference with creating artificial scarcity where no natural scarcity actually exists.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    Squirrel Brains (profile), May 6th, 2011 @ 8:18am

    Like the article said, the two stores are not in the same market. Obsolete's fixture have something Restoration's will never have: age and authenticity. Someone who will buy Restoration's fixture will not buy Obsolete's and visa versa.

    In addition, there seems to be no affirmative deception. I am wary of cases for failing to tell someone something. I believe that everyone should have to work to get any sort of legal protection in this realm. If you don't want to sell to a certain type of people, you should have an affirmative duty to ask if they are of that class and reasonably investigate your customers. If you are not willing to do that, then it obviously isn't worth much to you and you should not be protected.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Chris-Mouse (profile), May 6th, 2011 @ 8:27am

    Seems to me that the guy's whole complaint boils down to "the company buyer wasn't identified, so I didn't get a chance to gouge the company when I sold them the original"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    chris, May 6th, 2011 @ 8:36am

    At least they had the brains to go at it from a business practices angle instead of trying to use copyright. The only way I think Restoration Hardware would be in trouble is if they were actually claiming the lamps were antiques.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    SUNWARD (profile), May 6th, 2011 @ 8:58am

    $7,500 for a lamp?

    criminal, I say.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    KB, May 6th, 2011 @ 9:20am


    That's all...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    mischab1, May 6th, 2011 @ 9:34am

    The correct response for Obsolete would have been to create a commercial letting people know that Restoration Hardware found the original lamp at Obsolete and inviting the public to come discover other original, historic, etc. antiques for themselves.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    SUNWARD (profile), May 6th, 2011 @ 10:41am

    ethics for others

    what a bunch of hypocrites. On the blog page, there are links to a pdf file from the Harvard Business Review and 2 pdf's from the New York Times. Others can't copy but they can.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 6th, 2011 @ 10:52am

    Ideas are hard to contain

    This pops into my head every once in a while. As a hobby machinist I come across prints, drawings and ideas all the time. What are the legalities of reproducing designs for personal use? I figure as soon as someone manufactures with intent for sale, the lawyers get involved but what are the ramifications of adapting, modifying or outright copying a patented design for personal use?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 6th, 2011 @ 11:21am

    Re: I can see why Obsolete is offended

    Umm, I understand what you're trying to say, but from an economics perspective, both the originals and the copies are scarce.

    The opposite of "scarce" is "abundant", but "abundant" doesn't mean "lots", it means "so much that you don't have to worry about it." An example of something that's abundant is air. The lamp copies are not like air, so they aren't abundant, they're scarce.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    That Anonymous Coward, May 6th, 2011 @ 4:08pm


    But they decided to go to a lawyer first, because when in doubt assume its illegal and you have been wronged!

    Maybe Obsolete felt it was an attack on them directly, that by mass producing new "antiques" would destroy their business model.

    The commercial would have been a unique response, but I doubt people who were Restoration Hardware customers would be interested in going to Obsolete to find a lamp they liked, only to find out you can't match it. To paraphrase Bette Midler, Art is to free the soul, but we still buy the painting to match the sofa.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    AW, May 6th, 2011 @ 9:22pm

    I understand that others feel that antiques are worth more with age, but I don't get it. A doctor with old knowledge doesn't demand a higher fee than a doctor with up to date knowledge, assuming equal experience. Not to mention the added difficulty of wiring old items, sometimes that stuff is just a rats nest or rotted and you have to rewire it anyways. These aren't people, they don't gain experience points or level up, they just get older.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    Steve R. (profile), May 7th, 2011 @ 8:17am

    Concept of "Sale" Being Elimnated

    Seems that we have never ending examples of companies asserting that they continue to own a product even though the supposedly "sold" it. Look at the Amazon deleting Orwell books from the Kindle or Sony post sale modifying the PS3 by disabling features.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2011 @ 3:16pm

    Let's assume that every fact alledged by the plaintiff is absolutely, 100% true, So Held Me God (said with hand on The Bible). Specifically, it has invested significant sums of money and time to scour everywhere in an effort to find unique items for sale to its limited and discriminating client base. Also, the defendant, aware of what the plaintiff has done, enters the plaintiff's establishment and proceeds to cherry-pick specific items with the intention of taking those items back to its mega-copy production facilities to create knock-offs.

    Of course, there is inherently nothing wrong with making copies of something that is not protected under classical IP law. At the same time, however, it does seem to me that there is something not quite right about Restoration Hardware allowing the plaintiff to do all the heavy lifting, and then swooping in and taking advantage of what the plaintiff has done.

    Having read the complaint, and being well familiar with California's laws relating to unfair competition, in my opinion the plaintiff's complaint does set forward meritorious causes of action.

    Will the plaintiff prevail? Of course, that will depend upon the evidence discovered pre-trial and presented at trial.

    But at this juncture to suggest that the plaintiff is overreaching and should be vilified is plainly wrong.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    The Devil's Coachman (profile), May 8th, 2011 @ 7:48am

    Working for the plaintiff, are you?

    Looks that way to me. Besides that, your argument is a load of crap.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2011 @ 9:11am

    Re: Working for the plaintiff, are you?

    An intellectual rejoinder of the highest caliber.

    Did you by chance even read the complaint, followed by the all too predictable rant in this article?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    That Anonymous Coward, May 9th, 2011 @ 3:05am


    "At the same time, however, it does seem to me that there is something not quite right about Restoration Hardware allowing the plaintiff to do all the heavy lifting, and then swooping in and taking advantage of what the plaintiff has done."

    You mean finding items they intend to sell to others. They "cherry picked"... You mean like every other person who goes to Obsolete to find items they desire? Restoration did not steal the items out of the store or from the hands of clients. They purchased items like anyone else could.

    They sold an item and are unhappy with what the new owner did with it. Does Obsolete intend to sue any customers who might unload their previous finds in a garage sale? Do they intend to sue if someone puts a red shade on a lamp they sold with a white shade?

    Obsolete decided to go for a pound of flesh, probably on the advice of a lawyer who told them they would be rich. The downside is people will not want to shop at Obsolete now, because if they have a reproduction made to have 2 matching items Obsolete has shown they will sue you for competing with them.

    Unfair competition... When did Restoration Hardware enter the antiques market? Did Restoration tell customers to not shop at Obsolete because they were going to buy all of the stock there and reproduce it at a cheap price later?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    TheCrut, May 9th, 2011 @ 8:38pm


    It's just a lamp. Maybe if it were something real cool then it might be a bigger deal to the antique store... but... a lamp...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. icon
    eeckholt (profile), May 27th, 2011 @ 2:51am

    "It's not wasteful if it's expensive."

    What a stupid lawsuit. Resto did what many artists do, get inspired and create. However there are actually real ethical questions when it comes to Restoration Hardware. As they claim to "salvage" materials for their finished products, the packaging that these items are shipped in (like shipping crates made from rainforest plywood and mountains of styrofoam) are appallingly wasteful for a company that markets itself as "green". Made in China and disposed of in the landfill of the USA. I doubt anyone cares.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    artichoke, Jun 26th, 2011 @ 12:58am

    false advertising by RH

    In the midst of the US recession, RH decided to go upscale by reinventing their strategy, style, and stores so as not to compete head-on with Pottery Barn, Target, etc. Nice strategy and nice new products but problem is they claim these are made by 'artisans'. I've seen their products in large manufacturing plants in Vietnam that are nowhere near artisanal. They claim solid wood when they are actually made of 2mm veneers and laminated boards. Its a pity because these products are nice and at the right prices and yet they unnecessarily resort to false statements to drive sales. Nice new look, but same old values.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    RH has bad values, May 26th, 2012 @ 9:55pm

    The main problemi s the FALSE ADVERTISING! PERIOD! RH shops local Ca. dealers and basically steals their concepts....... They then Mass produce most everything in China, Vietnam and India..... then LIE in detail about how they found them on travels through Europe....Blah, blah, blah ....they have basically reduced their creative team down to liars and cheats. You can ask them at time of purchase who they are..and they are trained to lie...Yes, I'm talking to you Ms. Christina Holland RH product developer. Obsolete has done one thing right and that is the article in the L.A. times....RH's CEO should be ashamed of his lack of creativity....not to mention the hair plugs and spray tan... his skin is orange or should I say "Belgium tangerine" ?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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