Woolworths denies stealing local designer’s work, may have infringed Wikipedia though

A proper brouhaha is brewing on social media, where supermarket giant Woolworths has been accused by a local designer of ripping off her cushion designs and – in the process – violating Wikipedia’s terms of usage too.

The accusations were made by Euodia Roets in a post entitled “How Woolworths really operates!“, in which the designer outlines a seven month process of pitching her Touchee Feelee brand cushion range to a buyer for the store.

From her site:

I was asked my wholesale prices, and as soon as I mentioned the first number, the atmosphere went from friendly chat to hardball in a matter of seconds. I was told very bluntly that “they will never go for that.” OK, we’re negotiating. I can deal with it. After they attempted to butter me up by promising me a feature in Taste Magazine, I left behind a few items printed with my hummingbird painting.

The precised version of the post, which is well worth reading, is that the buyer negotiated, hummed and ha’ed, drove down the price and then pulled out.

And then Woolworths brought out a cushion with a strikingly similar design. You can see the two below. Roets’ original cushion is on the left, Woolies’ is on the right.

hummingbird controversyAs Roets points out, the background text in the second design appears to be an uncredited lift from Wikipedia, which violates the Creative Commons licence used by Wikipedia (and htxt.africa).  Free as in libre, not beer etc.

Roets’ post went viral over most social channels, attracting the attention of Woolworths. The corporation has published a statement in which it says the design was finalised in December 2012, before its buyer met with Roets. The full text is below.

Today, a serious allegation was made against us, claiming that we stole a hummingbird design, which we then used on some material covering scatter cushions.

Please be assured:


  • Our hummingbird design was finalised with a Durban supplier mid-November 2012, while Euodia Roets met with our Artisan representative in early 2013.
  • We are trying to contact Ms Roets via a number of social channels, as we want to meet her as soon as possible.
  • We are investigating this as a matter of urgency.

We’ve tried to contact Woolworths for more. Will update when we get it.



//Update – This post was edited on MOnday 21st to make it more clear that the fourth paragraph is a quote from Roets’ website.


  1. CJB says:

    Really? And you are 100% certain that Ms Roets did not plagiarize http://www.gregscott.com/rwscott/rwscott.hummingbird_small.jpg

    • Adam Oxford Adam Oxford says:

      I’m saying Roets has laid an accusation against Woolworths, which that company has denied, and we’re investigating what we can further. That’s all I’m certain of.

    • Karin says:

      Read the small print: even Greg Scott admits that other photographers have taken very similar photographs. Woolworths does this sort of thing all the time and it’s disgusting. That remains the problem in my books.

  2. It’s clear that Roets copied the photograph by RW Scott to make her hummingbird painting – another case of designers disrespecting the copyright of photographers?

  3. Very interesting opposing comments. Do you understand what the under pinning question is? I think not. The question is not about copy. Only a fool will argue this lot. We know that patents are being stolen across the world. Just change the design slightly and you have the new patent. This question is about something far worse. I will use an example for those of you who are slow.
    When I write the play “Phantom of the Opera” and I show it to a thousand people as a design method, to see what reactions will be, only the thousand people will know what it is about. If I signed a restrictive order, a Non Disclosure Agreement, with them and next week I find that two thousand people knows about my project, there is obviously a person in the audience who shared/leaked without consent. Am I in any condition to take legal action? It is unlikely that I will find the person who divulged because of shear numbers. Wool Worth’s are bargaining on this chip, that is why you are never the only one who find yourself on the forgiven shelf.. It is this same unwritten pledge and anomaly, which Wool Worth’s use to hide behind. They contact ten people with the same demand and then use the best frame of knowledge, gathered from unsuspected show offs, without giving one of those credit. This way they circumvent being legally responsible for any bill’s. The other offensive position is that they know that many shop owners are have great difficulty surviving hard times, so make use of that pressure to alienate you when you insist on a Non disclosure agreement. If anybody from this company wish to expose yourself, show us the Non disclosure agreements you entered into in the last year. If you cannot, you are as guilty as hell.

  4. Greg Scott says:

    My dad, R. W. Scott was the photographer of the original image. He gave me the rights to the digital image. years ago, around 1990, perhaps. I scanned his slide, edited out an overly complex background, and posted it on GregScott.Com and have given rights to use the photo for reference to many artists, provided they they don’t sell a “direct copy”, that is, that they should make creative interpretations of the image. From my perspective, I’m assuming that both works of art are licensed derivative works,and that Woolworth’s has compared two similar images and chosen one work over the other. Clearly two works derived from the same image can be legitimate, and yet have a strong resemblance.
    I don’t see any wrongdoing here, except perhaps for making unwarranted accusations without adequate facts. It does bother me that people seem to assume that big business (Woolworths) is in the wrong, when they bought and paid for the image from the artist. If there are license/copyright issues here, I only see a potential concern with the Wiki text.

    • Adam Oxford Adam Oxford says:

      Hi Greg, Thanks for posting and clearing up the details about the original image. Woolworths says it has a paper trail to show the final product used was commissioned before discussions began with Roets – although it hasn’t actually shown that to anyone or released the name of the Durban artist yet.
      I am concerned about the fact people assume Wikipedia/Creative Commons means ‘fine to use without credit’ – it’s a global issue that there’s still a lot of education required around. As a CC publisher, it’s obviously something that concerns us – we want to promote sharing, reuse and creativity, why should a credit be so hard?

      • Greg Scott says:

        I totally agree that citations should be provided for wikipedia quotes.
        On another issue, the “woolworth hummingbird” controversy concerns me deeply.
        People seem to be slandering all parties concerned. Clearly anti-capitalists don’t mind defaming big companies, and artists may not know or recall the full provenance of an image, or conditions attached to a license granted to use a source image.

        You should protect yourself by using gentle terms and conditional qualifications in language.

        Gregory J. Scott. Owner of the copyright on the hummingbird photo being discussxed.

        • Adam Oxford Adam Oxford says:

          At this stage, we’re just reporting the allegations and the response without bias – I think it’s right that issues like this get raised, and Woolworths has responded, we’re just waiting for more details to back up that response. Which I think they should be obliged to do.
          The possible shame of the hummingbird part of the issue is that if it does turn out Woolworths is in the right here, it will take away from the other two points Roets’ raises – whether or not the supply chain is fair to local artists the company makes an issue of supporting, and the issue of online rights. It’s absolutely right that if a company makes its support of local artists a major selling point, they should be held to account on that claim by the press. Again, as with the hummingbird – if it turns out that they’re behaving with due propriety they’ll come out of it stronger and with public opinion behind them (which is what seems to be happening here). But at the moment all the discussion is about he hummingbird which may well turn out to be a herring…

          • Greg Scott says:

            Here’s a question: I would assume that when purchasing a design for mass retail sale, the retailer would get a signed statement from the artist/designer that they legally own the work. I would assume that this would be standard practice. And likewise, I would assume that the responsibility for the wiki quote lies with the designer/artist, not necessarily with Woolworth. Why is the assumption that this is Woolworth’s fault?

          • Adam Oxford Adam Oxford says:

            Partly because Woolworths have precedent in this area, and were caught ripping off a soft drink design a couple of years ago. The CEO was on the radio this morning, however, saying that because of that incident, they do keep a paper trail now and have it to back up their claim here. As far as I’m concerned, all they need to do is show it to us and the matter is settled. There’s no assumption – just an accusation that’s been raised.
            As for the bigger question about why the pressure is on the business rather than the individual in cases like this – from a journalist’s point of view it’s because that’s the way the balance of power lies. It’s far easier and more common for large businesses to act exploitatively and get away with it than it is for a fabric designer to do the same. So when concerns are raised, and seem reasonable, it’s fair to report on them.
            But the flipside is that we also report on – for example – a telecoms operator who feels they’ve been dealt with unfairly by the regulator.

  5. Michael says:

    South Africans will do anything to try lambaste big businesses. Even when the big business employs and puts food on the table for tens of thousands of South Africans. Trust me, Wikipedia (even if they knew about it) probably couldn’t give a continental.

    • Adam Oxford Adam Oxford says:

      As a foreigner living in South Africa, I absolutely disagree – I think ‘big business’ gets a far easier time of it here than overseas. I couldn’t imagine the McLibel Trial happening here, or the Nestle Boycott or even much of an outcry over sweatshops.
      My impression – based only on experience – is that people instinctively trust business more than government, that businesses are seen as providing the social cohesion that’s missing through lack of public infrastructure, and that the public institutions which are supposed to keep businesses’ behaviour in check is rotten to the core.

    • Helen says:

      I wouldn’t be too sure about Wikipedia. They are dead serious when it comes to copyright issues as anyone editing Wikipedia will find out sooner or later (just try uploading a non-free image). More importantly, Wikipedia editors like myself do mind a great deal when our rights are ignored and our efforts are abused.

  6. Adele says:

    Hi there

    I think what some people seem to be overlooking is the design of a RANGE. Yeah the hummingbird belongs to all, as do other things in nature (which big companies and govt steal from us), but putting a RANGE together (cushions, napkins and other homeware .. or whatever other creative ranges) and artistic design/presentation plays a role. I mean really – almost same friggin size and representation on that scatter!! Come on!!

    If I remember correctly WW was one of the first to get caught with pants down with some T-shirt ages ago that had the proudly SA logo on and yet in the seam “Made in CHINA” tag. Next thing we had import laws change and had to start putting tags in/on all fabric goods stating whether fabric or unit imported and make up of fabric used.

    One would think WW would have an up and coming SA designer department – in each and every store – so if customer wants to support local they know why the price is higher and they can choose to support or not. But the sad things is WW would probably take as much as possible and tell designer that is the cost of exposure. Greed is taking over and big business is “training” their staff that this is how things should be.

    Seems WW and ANC in bed when it comes to ethics and basic decency to the customer … and we know how low the ones morals are!!!

    In business?? Today??

    No wonder the youth of today don’t have much to look up to, and if no one is prepared to stand up and pull finger … things can only go from bad to worse.


  7. I think Roet’s blog was not slander and the issue is more to do with how Woolworths apparently messed her, and others, around.

    The public outcry exists in my opinion only because Woolworths staunchly positions itself as a pro-design, pro-local, ‘ethical’ company. Its Woolworth’s HUBRIS (and the inflated prices that go with it) that has precipitated the outcry, not the merits or demerits of Roets’ case. If it had been a retailer further down the food chain, like Mr. Price for example (lifestyle retailers who are known for a magpie approach to procurement, made mostly in China), less people would give a damn.

    Although there is nothing particularly special about the hummingbird, iconic as it is (as the original photo captured it), the ‘originality’ comes in the putting of it onto a cushion and various other homewares – the compendium of the graphic onto various artefacts, a collection as such.

    That being said, as far as I know, in terms of copyright infringement, once a fair degree of skill in the creation of the original has been established, the South African courts look for only two things to prove a case:

    1) Is there a marked similarity between the two things? (the original and the copy). In this case THE CUSHIONS as a totality are the issue (not the graphic of the bird per se, or Wiki’s text – tragically poor taste as that is)

    2) Was there an opportunity for copying to have occurred?

    The real question therefore is, who’s idea was it to put the hummingbird onto a cushion?

    Woolworths’ statement that it had already finalised a similar design months earlier (before treating Roets quite badly for weeks, apparently) is appalling if indeed it is true, but much more appalling if it is not! This also adds to the rage of sympathetic commentators, many of whom have had similar stories to tell.

    What many South Africans, particularly in the “rag trade” don’t understand, is that an adaptation of a design is no less damaging or infringing than a verbatim copy, and the South African Copyright Act protects designs in this way, even if they may have infringed the rights of others (like R.W.Scott) in the first place. This is very important to note.

    As a plaintiff in a similar case (sub-judice, don’t ask) I would very much like to see this one go all the way through the legal system and set a precedent for the design industry, in order to dissuade unimaginative so-called design houses from simply “altering” a design by 10-30%” to “get away with it”.

    In my opinion there is nothing wrong with recontextualising design inspiration in a referential way, (hommage, collage, decoupage) but when no new creative perspective is added and you have made an abortion (which WW’s ultimate cushion IS!) then really, why should consumers be mute?

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