Discount German retailer Aldi has found itself in hot water after Australian designers have accused the multinational of copying their designs for its coveted ‘special buys’ range.
A statement from the industry body for Australian designers, the Design Institute of Australia (DIA), has accused Aldi Australia of “copying” two designs from two separate Australian furniture and homewares designers.
The DIA alleges Australian designer Mark Tuckey’s iconic ‘Egg Cup’ stool, which retails at the furniture design store for around $550, has been copied by one of Aldi’s most recent special buys, the ‘Natural Wood Side Table’, which shoppers could pick up for just $69.
Similarly, local designer Siobhan Glass’ Clothes Airer #2, which can be bought for around $320, has been allegedly copied by Aldi in a recent series of clothes dryers, which cost shoppers $29.99.
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Glass herself took to Instagram to protest Aldi’s actions, saying the retailer had initially used her real Clothes Airer #2 as a backdrop for a towel range, and that Aldi customers “went crazy” thinking it was part of Aldi’s range.
“It appears you have been very inspired judging by your catalogue starting tomorrow with your range of Clothes Airers,” Glass said.
“The tapered ends, the leather strap and the hooks on the side were the details that made this design unique to my brand. Make your own towel rack but don’t take the unique details away from a small Melbourne furniture designer like me.”
According to the DIA, chief executive of the industry body Jo-Ann Kellock spoke to Aldi Australia and demanded the products be pulled from sale, and that the retailer issue an apology to the designers.
Following the outrage, Aldi Australia announced yesterday on its Facebook page that the Tuckey-esque stool would no longer be part of the July 11 special buys range, citing “production issues” as the reason. However, the retailer said it would be available again for purchase on August 29.
In a statement to SmartCompany, an Aldi Australia spokesperson said the reason the table was pulled from the special buys was due to “a production issue in relation to Australian Quarantine”.
“The product needs to undergo further treatment before it is sold in ALDI stores. We can confirm it will be available to purchase on Wednesday 29th August,” the spokesperson said.
The same old story
This isn’t the first time Australian designers have called out large Australian retailers over claims their designs were being copied, with business owners accusing fashion and homewares retailers such as Cotton On and Kmart of “flagrantly copying” their products.
Speaking to SmartCompany, intellectual property lawyer and director at Hitch Advisory Nicholas Hitchens says these situations are “hugely common”, drawing on the rise of fast fashion as one of the main areas small-time designers are being screwed over by bigger players.
He notes that even big-name design houses face the problem, but they can afford the full gamut of IP protection; small-time designers and business owners are unlikely to be able to afford the thousands they need to register and protect their designs.
“Small Aussie designers can probably afford a single trademark, but they often can’t go to the next level of spending $1,500 to $2,000 to register their design under the Designs Act,” Hitchens says.
Designs registered under the Designs Act gives the designer exclusive rights to commercially use, licence or sell the design, and goes a step further than a typical trademark. Hitchens says the issues with the Act are more than just the cost, claiming that many local designers aren’t aware the protection is available to them at all.
“The fact of the matter is that many don’t understand the Design Act or even know it exists, and even if they could many can’t afford the couple of thousand you need to register,” he says.
Hitchens advises SMEs with unique designs to spend their first $10,000 on marketing their product, and their next $5,000 on IP protection, calling the whole thing a “balancing act”.
David vs Goliath
Even though Hitchens believes Aldi Australia isn’t “stupid enough” to copy something protected under the Act, he notes that registering a design isn’t the only step businesses have to take.
“Even if you’ve got it registered, if you think someone’s stolen your design you’ve still got to book a date with them in Federal Court,” Hitchens says.
At this point, it becomes the same old story many SMEs will face in their life, one where bigger players can effectively shut small businesses out of any form of recourse thanks to their better resources and bigger wallets.
In her Instagram post, Glass addressed this issue, calling for larger retailers to spare a thought for the smaller players.
“Spare a thought for us creative small businesses who rely heavily on a small range of products to pay our rent and put food on the table for our families,” she said.
“You know we can’t compete with you and this is exactly why you do it.”
In these situations, Hitchens paints a bleak picture of the available solutions for SMEs.
“You just have to move away and take solace in the fact that you were innovative once, and hopefully you’ll be innovative again. SMEs can take comfort that there’ll always be a market for original thought,” he says.
SmartCompany contacted Mark Tuckey and Siobhan Glass but did not receive a response prior to publication.