Ethical Reproduction Woodworking

Blogs, books and magazines that provide research, documentation, and design notes are usually intended for educational purposes. In the sharing of knowledge, enthusiasts can expand their base of information to feed their desire to learn. I rather enjoy this concept. Without it, I’d likely never have gotten a start in Medieval and Renaissance Furniture Reproduction. In time, this interest led to wood working on a professional level. When that transition from “hobby” to “career” came about, however, I had to face some new ethical questions.

Reproducing an extant furniture piece pretty much means that one cannot patent a form. In the case of European Medieval and Renaissance reproductions, the extant originals are at least half a millennium old, which extends well beyond anything covered by any copyright or patent law. Which is right and good for the hobbyist who enjoys making sawdust. We can visit museums, flip through coffee table books, and cruise the internet looking for pieces to recreate for our own enjoyment or to manufacture for others, paid or otherwise.

Many have, in the interest of spreading knowledge, taken up recording and publishing their research and construction techniques for the benefit of others. Some share freely, others sell the results of their efforts, and some do a combination of the two. Is it then acceptable to take the research done by others, take the particular designs for reproductions done by others, and charge customers without credit or compensation to the person who did the research or wrote manufacturing plans? I think it depends, but usually no, it is not acceptable.

Say you spent forty or more hours researching Fifteenth Century Flemish Footstools. After spending many more hours garnering eyestrain investigating joinery methods and comparing dimensions to determine historical methods and techniques, you publish your findings. From your efforts you may even decide then to curate the process you used to make an example of the pieces you have studied. You share this information because it would benefit your community. These are all laudable things. In this, it is expected that someone may come along and be able to create similar pieces. In the reenactment/re-creation community, we rather hope that what we add to the community will spread in order to advance the improvement of the community as a whole. We intend to raise the standards through our efforts. This is a laudable thing.

When we publish these studies and techniques, however, it is because of ethical responsibility that we cite our sources and credit where the pieces we study are found. This is in addition to proving we aren’t just making it up. Why would it be any different, then, to build something that someone else provided the research and design without giving some credit to them? For non-commercial purposes, nothing more is usually expected than to say “inspired by” or “based on the previous work of” so and so. Courtesy might even be extended to ask the originator if you may repeat their processes or use their findings before beginning work.

But, if you freely posted your study of Fifteenth Century Flemish Footstools for academic or educational purposes, and then someone intends to use that information to make a profit, it would be less than ethical unless some credit or accommodation was reached with the researcher.

The most extreme case which I have seen are people who state outright that they are looking for research and design information for a piece they have already accepted a commission to build, and will be paid for their work, but offer no compensation for those supporting their commercial endeavor. That is, these “professionals” are not bothering to spend the time researching the pieces they are being paid to produce, but expecting others to provide for them without offering compensation or credit. That is a straight up dick move. It shows a ripe contempt for those who have done the work from which one would benefit.

That is not to say that some kind of professional courtesy is out of order. From time to time everyone might have a particular problem where the solution could be found by speaking with others in the same field who have addressed the same problems, looking for their insight. At the least, this should be a two-way street. If someone should not be willing to share, gratis, as one professional to another, that isn’t particularly wrong either. If two parties might work out some portion of compensation for the respective work they have done, everyone may benefit monetarily and ethically.

It is just so hard, sometimes, to express what is and is not an acceptable use of freely shared information within an educational community. Other times, it is painfully obvious when someone is being unethical, rude, and discourteous.

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