Woolworths fights back in hummingbird row

Cape Town - The buzz about a Cape Town artist's claims that Woolworths [JSE:WHL] stole her design of a hummingbird continues, with the retailer having entered the debate on Tuesday.

Euodia Roets, an artist, illustrator and designer for Touchee Feelee whose art and products have been sold across South Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, Canada and the US, turned to the internet to accuse Woolworths of stealing her design of a hummingbird by using a similar design on one of its scatter cushions.

"This isn’t going to be a happy post, because what’s happened has left me very, very sad," Roets said in her blog post on October 18.

Roets said she had met with Woolworths representatives over a period of months and showed them some of her designs.

Apparently price turned out to be the deciding factor which made Roets decide not to enter into an agreement with Woolworths.

The issue was hotly debated on social media since the weekend. Even photographers joined the debate by complaining about how their photographs are often used by artisans for their designs, but without acknowledgement.

Even in the Roets case, she admits that her design was painted in 2012 from a photograph by RW Scott. It clearly says on Scott's website that the photographs in his range are copyrighted.

“The use of birds and hummingbirds is a global trend which inspired our design,” said Brett Kaplan, managing director of clothing and general merchandise at Woolworths in response to a query by Fin24.
“Images and photographs of hummingbirds in flight in a similar pose are common, hence the resemblance of the designs. It has inspired retailers all over the world, including South Africa.”

Fin24 found examples of the trend on the website of Etsy, a global retailer of independent designers, for instance.

The process

In a radio interview with John Robbie of 702, Woolworths CEO Ian Moir said Woolworths did not steal Roets' design.

"Everything [about our dealings with Roets] is documented. I can see the whole process [on paper] and I am absolutely confident we did not steal Roets’ idea," Moir told Robbie.

"Hummingbirds have been around for a long time. In 2011 we already had a hummingbird on one of our plates. We even wanted Roets to come in and speak to the artist who prepared our hummingbird design."

Kaplan told Fin24 Woolworths had commissioned a Durban artist at Republic Umbrella to interpret this trend in August 2012 and signed off the design in November 2012 for its range of summer cushions this season.

“We develop new cushions every summer,” he said.
“We only met Euodia Roets many months later when we saw her work at a market in January this year. We consider her a talented artist for which we are always on the look-out.”

He said Woolworths met Roets in an attempt to include her as one of its suppliers and considered some of her work for its artisanal range, which supports local artists.

“We viewed a wide range of her work, one of which was a hummingbird,” said Kaplan.
“We currently support 17 designers through the artisanal range. This is a very small part of our business, which we do largely to support local talent.”

He said while Woolworths supports the artists by providing advice on how to commercialise their work, it does make it clear that it can only use their designs if it is commercially viable for Woolworths and the artist.
“Woolworths has a proud tradition of supporting local artists and entrepreneurs and helping create sustainable and profitable businesses,” said Kaplan.
“This is a rather unfortunate turn of events. I have tried since Friday to engage with Ms Roets. We concede that our communication with Ms Roets could have been handled better.

“Woolworths goes through a rigorous process to ensure commercial viability. We have to understand all the cost involved and we try hard to structure a fair deal for artists,” Kaplan told Fin24.
“Regrettably, we could not find a workable model that made financial sense with Ms Roets. We therefore did not pursue the opportunity further with her. This is a rather unfortunate turn of events. We hope to meet Ms Roets to discuss this issue.”

This is the design by Roets:

Trading with Woolworths

Nicole Kingston of Pret-a-pot has been supplying ceramic products to Woolworths for the past 30 years.

“I have built up a relationship of trust with the team I work with there,” she told Fin24.

“From my personal point of view, I think entrepreneurs should understand that getting a product on their shelves is not a quick process. Understand how the system works. It is not about taking a product to them one month and the next month it is on the shelves.”

She said the Woolworths range a product is developed for, would also determine what the price paid to the artist would be, since certain ranges have higher prices.
“Sometimes price points are key. They do drive a hard bargain and ultimately it is what clients want that dictates how the buyers operate,” said Kingston.

She said it was also not the case of all her products always being accepted. Some were rejected over the years.

“Entrepreneurs should understand that if other similar products come out it might be that something is trending. A design of butterflies is an example,” she said.

“From my personal experience I would say look at the whole picture. Be pragmatic about it. It is expensive to copyright everything so maybe at least have a confidentiality document drawn up.”

Taking Woolworths to task

Last year Woolworths decided to withdraw a soft drink range from its shelves after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled the "Good Old Fashioned" phrase must be removed from the labels of its vintage soda range.

This followed a complaint lodged by the owner of KwaZulu-Natal based company Frankie's. The owner of Frankie's claimed that Woolworths had copied its product line after it approached the retailer about selling the product in its stores.

- Fin24

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