Who Owns a Design Idea?

In the larger sense of things, I think of ownership of ideas the same way I think of ownership of land or water.  This stuff isn’t ours to own, really.  We share it, take care of it, maybe even develop it, and ultimately, we return to it. The concept of owning land is a way of dividing up the area we get to play with according to the rules.  By honoring design ownership, we allow the originator of a design to recoup the cost of development and gain some financial benefit before others get to copy it.

Throughout my woodworking career, I have enjoyed sharing ideas pretty freely and have benefited from the same from others to whom I am very grateful for that generous spirit.

A little over twenty years ago, I started designing tools.  I made about 200 of them myself before feeling I had quenched the thirst to be a tool maker. Selling rights to Veritas to produce my first spokeshave design provided my introduction to the concerns of intellectual property protection.  Later, setting up a contract with Lie-Nielsen Toolworks for a trio of spokeshave designs deepened that journey.

Several years ago, Wood River put out their exact copy of my flagship spokeshave design, selling it for about half the price of Lie-Nielsen’s version.  My gut reaction was “oh, well, it’s been a good ride” thinking we were in a losing battle of copy-cat manufacturing.  Fortunately, the strength of the Lie-Nielsen Brand and the loyalty of its customers was greater than the attraction to a cheaper knock-off. In the end, we felt little effect from this encroachment.

My biggest investment ever in developing a design continues to evolve as we hone in on the making of our new Cio and upcoming Linsit series of chairs.  I am approaching two years in development and am nowhere near the end of what looks to be a significant line of state-of-the-art seating. Whether all this investment will be worthwhile is yet to be seen.  The idea of intellectual property now plays a new, elevated role for us.  Regardless of how one defines ownership of design, I have a greatly heightened reason to protect my design concept.

Brian Boggs Chairmakers is working with patent attorneys for the legal protection part.  This effort will be the second patent we hold; the first being our Sunniva Swing.  The big question now is how do I maintain a spirit of sharing of knowledge and openness while protecting patents?

To support this openness, we offer shop tours at 3PM Monday through Friday ($10 per person) for anybody who is interested.  Everything we do here is open for all to see and questions are answered candidly.  We have woodworkers dropping by often and we share anything they ask about.

We also share educational and entertaining images on Instagram. Sharing this knowledge in such an open way on this platform allows us to increase this benefit exponentially.
As we’re sharing on Instagram, we sometimes see efforts to replicate what we do appear in posts there.  And it’s actually fun to see what others are doing in their efforts to build our designs.  I don’t mind woodworkers making our designs for their own exploratory fun.

A great way to encourage and honor the generous spirit we all enjoy in our woodworking community is to credit the source of a design we emulate when we don’t discover it originally. I prefer to see woodworkers explore these ideas in order to discover more original concepts themselves.

I hope that our designs inspire woodworkers to create, not to copy.
Brian Boggs

P.S. I do draw the line at allowing our work to be copied for commercial gain. And I think that’s fair. If you ever have a question regarding the fair use of one of my designs, please feel free to contact me.

1 thought on “Who Owns a Design Idea?”

  1. Hi Brian,
    First, thanks for all you do for the woodworking community.
    It sounds like you want people to use your designs, as long as they give you credit and do not use it commercially, and anything outside that would require contacting you, correct? If so, have you considered using one of the Creative Commons Licenses, like the “Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International” license:
    You can also fine tune the terms (should people be forced to share back their creations/modifications under the same license?). There is a “wizard” to tailor your license:
    And both the “legalese” and the “simple text for humans” versions are generated for you, you can put links to the license in your web page or PDF. These licenses are well established (see, for example, Wikipedia articles). It would save you and other people from having to communicate over the “typical case” of someone wanting to use your design for personal use, hopefully allowing you to share your designs more safely.
    There is the issue of someone copying your chair for personal use, then posting it on youtube and monetizing that with ads… is that commercial use? I suppose that’s a case where you would want the person to contact you if only to keep track of the spread of your designs.
    Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, not trying to give you legal advice. Just an idea.

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