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“Just like the original… Only a little smaller..

There’s an old joke: the counterfeiter is asked if the funny money is exactly like the original. ” Of course, EXACTLY… only a little smaller! From music, watches, photos and now even original designs, unlawful duplication is becoming rampant. While it may be the sincerest form of flattery, the copying of architectural designs is a serious conversation. This week’s reporter Taz Loomans takes a look at a growing trend in architectural “reproduction”…

China seems to be on a copying frenzy when it comes to architecture. They have copied not only single buildings, like Le Corbusier’s iconic Ronchamp in shocking detail, but entire towns and city skylines, like building a replica of Manhattan on the site of a 15th century fishing village. One of China’s latest copycat ventures has ruffled a lot of architectural feathers, as it copies a yet to be completed original design without acknowledging that it is a copy at all. The worst part is that the copy may be completed before the original.

The project in question is Zaha Hadid’s design of the Wangjing Soho Complex in Beijing for Chinese developer Soho China. The Soho Complex, unveiled in August of 2011, is supposed to be a campus of 3 pebble-shaped buildings, with signature Hadid curves, going up 650 ft. It is projected to be completed in 2014.

Meanwhile, another Chinese developer, Chonggin Meiquan, is building what many regard as a pirated copy of Hadid’s design for the Soho Complex in the town of Chongqin to the south of Beijing. And to add salt to the wound, the Chongqing project is being built faster than the Soho project, according to Zhang Xin, head of Soho China.How could this happen? Satoshi Ohashi, a project director at Zaha Hadid Architects, admitted to German newspaper Der Spiegel that “it is possible that the Chongqing pirates got hold of some digital files or renderings of the project.”

A furious Nigel Calvert, the practice director at the firm vowed, “we will be demanding that the copycats immediately cease construction, change the exterior of the building, offer a public apology and provide compensation.” Pan Shiyi, the chairman of the Soho empire, also promised to hold the accused design pirates accountable. With both the architect and the developer of the original design up in arms, it looks likely that this case is headed to court, which might set a significant precedent for future copycat projects in China.

According to You Yunting, a Shanghai-based lawyer specializing in intellectual property who spoke with Der Spiegel, Soho China and Hadid could have a decent chance at winning litigation. But even if the judge ruled in favor of Soho, the court most likely wouldn’t force Chongqing Meiquan to tear their building down. It could, however, require that compensation be paid to Soho and to Hadid.

All the while, the copycat developer Chongqin Meiquan pleads innocence, insisting that their building is modeled after the cobblestones on the bank of the Yangtze River by which Chongqing was built and is not stolen from Hadid at all. Plus, it has come up with an advertising campaign based on the slogan, “Never meant to copy, only want to surpass.”

All this copying, especially this egregious case with a simultaneous project, has shined some light on China’s lax intellectual property laws. China Intellectual Property says, “up to now, there is no special law in China which has specific provision on intellectual property rights related to architecture.” The problem, contends The Guardian’s architecture critic Oliver Wainright, is that due to the definition of architecture as a work of applied art, with both functional and artistic qualities, only the latter is protected, leaving architecture unprotected on the whole. And so Chinese developers may get away with copying the world’s best architecture, past and present, for some time to come.

Just because they can, doesn’t mean they should. Hadid captures the essence of China’s offensive intellectual theft best by saying, “It is fine to take from the same well, but not from the same bucket.”