Herman Miller Pursues Legal Action Against Online Retailer

The furniture manufacturer has filed a motion against Madison Seating, citing “misleading business practices.”

Courtesy Herman Miller

The litigious protection of intellectual property appears to be on the rise, with the number of patent lawsuits having doubled from 1994 to 2010, and then doubled again in 2013. This trend has found interesting expressions in the furniture industry, most recently a case involving manufacturer Herman Miller.

The problem is compounded by the fact that furniture products are also closely associated with their design—an ephemeral attribute that merges the way a product looks with how it works. Historically, this aspect of house and office wares has been difficult to protect in court. While an image of a piece of furniture can be protected by copyright, and its name can be registered as a trademark, only the decorative components of a design can be protected with a design patent, which, if granted, lasts for only 14 years. How then does a company, especially one that’s long-established in the industry with many of its design patents expired, continue to protect its products and brand?

For Herman Miller, the strategy revolves licensing and certification. A recent announcement from the company said that Herman Miller has filed a legal action against online furniture retailer MadisonSeating.com for “unauthorized use of its trademarks and improper marketing and sales of Herman Miller products, including the iconic Aeron chair.”

According to the statement, this filing is a follow-up to a prior-consent judgment between Herman Miller and the current manager of Madison Seating, Levi Cohen, who had allegedly engaged in similar misleading retail practices with the now defunct website LuxuryChair.com.

As of August, MadisonSeating.com had approximately two dozen Aeron chairs listed for sale, with each explicitly identified as Aeron chairs manufactured by Herman Miller. The details page for each listing indicated that MadisonSeating.com is not an authorized Herman Miller retailer, and that these chairs are sold in the “Open Box” condition. According to the website’s terms of use “‘Open Box’ simply means that the item has been removed from its original packaging. The chair was returned, refurbished, reconditioned, or the price has been reduced due to an overstock of open box inventory.”

The flare-up echoes another recent dispute in furniture design between the American manufacturer Emeco and IKEA. Earlier this year, Dezeen reported that Emeco was suing Ikea for infringing on the 20-06 Stacking Chair, designed for Emeco by Norman Foster, with Ikea’s Melltorp dining chair, by Swedish designer Ola Wihlborg. But litigation isn’t always the best option, especially when the patent of a design is expired. In a novel attempt to assert the legitimacy of its Series 7 chairs, the manufacturer Fritz-Hansen produced a short video showing how easily a knock-off chair breaks compared to the authentic version.

Perhaps another indicator that design is difficult to defend in court is the recent formation of an industry advocacy group called beOriginal. Comprising 11 furniture manufacturers, Herman Miller and Emeco included, the organization promotes authenticity in design by grounding the issue in ethics. [Disclosure: Metropolis is media partner of beOriginal.]

Though the statement from Herman Miller made no direct claims that MadisonSeating.com was selling products that were inauthentic, inferior, or in any way infringed on Herman Miller’s copyright or patent holdings, a statement from CEO Brian Walker implied that selling the brand’s products without authorization is as damaging to the brand as selling knock-offs. “Misleading business practices are a scourge of the industry. [They] damage the brands and reputations of companies like Herman Miller … that are committed to creating and selling authentic, innovative, high-quality products that last for generations.”

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