04/08/2014 11:51 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Adventures in Copyright - Small Business vs. Retail Giant

In November 2013, a friend and fellow designer tweeted me an Instagram picture posted by the UK retail giant Marks & Spencer of a book page, in a black frame, printed with a quotation in a thick serif font. Cue a double take. Hey! Cool! That looks exactly like my work. Wait, what?! That looks exactly like my work!


I've been designing, hand-making and selling typographic book page art since 2009, when I inked some thick, serif letters onto an old french dictionary page, mounted it on board in a custom-sized frame, held it at arm's length and thought: "I wonder if anyone else would want one."

To my surprise and delight, four years on, it turns out thousands of people wanted one, or two, or even three. I still get messages from happy customers, and I react much as I did back then, with my small Etsy shop and a handful of sales: "Yay, they liked it!"

Can M&S just do that? It's not exactly the same of course, but squint and you're hard-pressed to see a meaningful difference. The independent design community is replete with stories of major retailers introducing products that bear unmistakable resemblance to established designs, and I'd had some advice from an intellectual property lawyer in the past about what I could and should protect.

So off the letter went. In the meantime, what had been just an Instagram post became a real product for M&S, in stores and online. Returning from the holidays after an exhausting festive sales period, there was a reply. "We find your claim unfounded." They mischaracterized my assertion of copyright as wanting a monopoly on "text overlaid on book pages," which I never suggested, and that was it.

My lawyer was honest about pursuing the matter. The risks (read: "costs") would be large, and even if we win, we may have nothing to show for it.

Unlike huge companies with limitless resources to mount legal wars of attrition (which, regrettably, the legal system favors), whether I make some money with my designs determines if my family goes away on holiday this year. The moral victory is honorable and worthy, but I also want my little boy to meet Mickey Mouse, thank you very much.

With their product sneering at me from the shelves I figured if nothing else, a few people on Facebook and Twitter might chime in and tell me that they agreed with me. That whether intentional or not, M&S were copying the substantial and essential character of my designs, and they oughtn't to do it. When all else fails, a few pats on a back and the promise of some righteous indignation goes a long way, and I don't mind admitting that's what I hoped for.

And I got it. And coverage in the national press. And a spot on local radio. And the TV news. It was a pretty nerve-wracking time. Unless you're used to dealing with the press, it's hard to know what everyone's angle is, and decisions have to be made fast; the presses don't wait, and no one is interested in yesterday's news.

As far as I can tell, I navigated through unscathed. M&S were asked for comment on a number of occasions, and gave various flavors of the same answer, to the effect that they were "happy to answer any of my further queries" (whatever that means). It was reported in the Daily Mail that they had not bought many of the highlighted product and weren't planning to sell it any more.

It also said that "The firm added it was trying to reach agreement with Mrs. Verity." To this day, I have no idea what this was referring to; M&S never contacted me after their original letter, and it contained no hint of trying to reach agreement.

The sad truth is that M&S could easily have worked with me, and other independent designers who've had similar experiences. Licensing designs isn't prohibitively expensive, at least, not amongst any designer I know. Working with large retailers is something many designers aspire to. If they choose to travel down this road more in the future, I'd be thrilled if I'd played a small part.

So what did I learn? Creativity is difficult to protect! So stand up for yourself, take any help you can get, don't expect everyone to agree with you, and if you think a reporter is going to show up at your house, don't let your husband answer the door in a Batman dressing gown.

I need to thank the following people; Kelly Hudson at McDaniel & Co, Jon Bamford at Franks & Co, The Independent on Sunday, The Daily Mail, BBC Radio Northampton, ITV Anglia, The Northants Herald and Post, Diana Parkhouse of Badgers Badgers, Coulson Macleod and everyone else that has supported me -- too many to mention!