Be aware of what you are and are not legally entitled to. Ideas aren't free, and if you don't pay for them, you don't own them.
Everyone understands the concept of intellectual property. Still, many of us don't think twice about "borrowing" a photo from the internet or burning a digital copy of a Blu-ray Disc we rented from Redbox. That's why, in 2012, the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center teamed up with six movie studios to launch new antipiracy warnings for films. The crux of the campaign was the idea that piracy is not a victimless crime – it impacts jobs and the economy while devaluing the creative work of those in the entertainment industry. But the issue of intellectual property rights isn't confined to music and movies. The exhibition industry has its own brand of this theft of creative work.
When looking for a new exhibit, most companies issue a request for proposal (RFP). During the RFP phase, exhibit houses are asked to create renderings based on the parameters outlined in the RFP. Known as speculative design, this process essentially demands that exhibit houses invest countless hours and creative capital to custom design exhibits for free, in hopes that clients will bite and fund the project through to fabrication. But too many exhibitors take concepts proposed by one firm and have them fabricated by another at a cheaper rate. And there's a twist: Many perpetrators don't think what they're doing is wrong.
While poring over data from the 2017 RFI/RFP Survey featured in this issue, I discovered that more than one-third of exhibit managers (36 percent) believe they are entitled to creative concepts proposed during the RFP process. In other words, they think they can take a rendering from an exhibit house they chose not to hire, bring it to another firm, and pay the second firm to fabricate it. That's like asking an architect to design your dream home and then taking those plans to a general contractor to turn the home into reality – without ever paying the architect a single cent.
Stealing one company's proposal, or any ideas that originated within that proposal, without compensating the firm responsible is not only unethical, but also illegal. Exhibit houses and designers are well within their rights to sue exhibitors and/or fabricators responsible for violating intellectual property guidelines. But legal battles aside, this practice also devalues the design process. In essence, design is commoditized, and the Sintra panels in your booth are valued above the "creativity" and "appropriateness of design," which according to exhibit managers surveyed are two of their top three criteria when evaluating proposals and selecting a new exhibit house.
Bottom line: Exhibitors need to be aware of what they are and are not legally entitled to. Ideas aren't free, and if you don't pay for them, you don't own them. Exhibit houses, on the other hand, need to do a better job of informing prospective clients that they are not entitled to the concepts developed during the RFP process. And relegating that important clause to the fine print is insufficient. If you're not unequivocally communicating this point, then you're at least partly to blame for the misperception that exists among exhibitors.
I know of at least a handful of instances where exhibit houses and fabrication firms have refused to do business with clients because they suspected part or all of a design had been unethically obtained. It's not easy, especially in this economy, to turn down work simply because it's the right thing to do. But if more companies commit to doing the right thing, perhaps we can curtail this unethical practice and make sure all parties understand that whether it's burning a bootlegged Blu-ray or stealing a double-deck design, piracy is not a victimless crime. E