The creative industry in China: Less copyright, more “copy, right?”

Ubi GalleryAfter working as a cultural counselor at the Dutch Embassy for five years, Machtelt Schelling decided to make her dream come true and start her own gallery. She founded Ubi Gallery in Beijing in November, 2012. Machtelt says:

“I always had a personal interest in applied arts. When I moved to China I searched for forms of contemporary Chinese design, but could hardly find anything. I visited art academies and asked what their students do after graduating. I found out that it is very difficult for young Chinese designers to start a business. This is partly because they often lack the capital required to start a company and the Chinese educational system does not teach them how to use their talent commercially. Another important reason is that graduates are reluctant to promote their products, as they assume their designs would be copied if they showed them.”

Machtelt decided that she wanted to offer talented, Chinese art graduates a platform to present their designs. Ubi Gallery aims to showcase top-class, contemporary applied arts with a focus on Chinese artists. Because the gallery is a serious platform and emphasis is placed upon protection of the work featured, young Chinese designers lose the fear of their products being copied when exhibited in the gallery.

“The collection is quite exclusive, which is why I think the products are not an easy target for counterfeiters”, says Machtelt. “It is the artist’s responsibility to make sure that they have their designs registered and protected. As owner of the gallery, it is my duty to make sure that the products are exhibited properly and that the offering is authentic. I currently have one employee who signed strict non-disclosure and non-competition agreements which state that he cannot divulge any pictures, drawings or other materials related to the designs we exhibit.”

Ubi Gallery is frequently contacted by Chinese artists offering their products, which also include counterfeit items.

“Sometimes I receive emails from people offering counterfeited designs as their own original work. When this situation arises, I ask the counterfeiter why they copied the design. The response I most often receive is this: artists in China become inspired by pre-existing designs and put their own twist on it. They rationalize this behaviour by simply saying ‘Everybody does it in China’.”

Machtelt observes that many artists are still taught under this mentality which makes protection of designs by registering them as design patents or other types of intellectual property all the more important.

“Chinese art academies begin training young artists to copy designs or architecture, rather than creating their own from the start. Only after they master replications of other artists’ pieces are they deemed ‘ready’ to create their own products. The European view on educating young artists differs greatly from the Chinese view, in that European students are expected and encouraged to be creative and innovative from the very beginning of their academic careers.”

Not long after the founding of Ubi Gallery, a recent graduate from a Hangzhou art academy, accompanied by a business partner, visited the institution. Machtelt clearly remembers:

“After browsing through the collection for hours, they selected six items and told me: ‘We want to buy these so we can base our own design on them’. Although I was thoroughly against the idea, I was intrigued by their motives. The graduate wanted to start her own silver jewelry line, but said she could not find good designers.  I advised them on how to find talented artists, and explained that a new design line can only become successful if the design is innovative and authentic.”

What fascinated Machtelt most during this conversation was the difference in the fundamental views of business and design:

“She was extremely surprised that I did not want to join their ‘perfect’ business plan. They said they would come to the gallery regularly to purchase new designs. I am very happy they were so naïve as to tell me their real motives. If I wouldn’t have known their true intentions, I would have mistakenly sold them the products.”

Curious about the applied arts and design in Ubi Gallery’s collection? Learn more by visiting the gallery’s website.

To learn more about protecting your creative works in China, read the Helpdesk’s guide to IPR Protection in China for the Creative Industries.

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