After global outcry, IKEA softens stance against superfan (updated story)

After global outcry, IKEA softens stance against superfan (updated story)

After worldwide outcry, including on its own Facebook pages, IKEA appears to be softening its position against, a superfan's popular blog of DIY projects that customize the Swedish giant's products. [Editor's note, 10:20 a.m. PT Wednesday, June 18: This story has been updated throughout.]

IKEA told Yahoo Homes in a new statement this morning, after "further review of this situation":

"We want to clarify that we deeply regret the situation at hand with IKEAhackers. It has of course never been our ambition to stop their webpage. On the contrary, we very much appreciate the interest in our products and the fact that there are people around the world that love our products as much as we do.

"We are now evaluating the situation, with the intention to try to find a solution that is good for all involved."

IKEA had sent a cease-and-desist letter to IKEAhackers' founder, telling her to turn over her domain name to the company or face legal action. She and her lawyer negotiated with the company and IKEA agreed to let her keep the domain -- but only if she stopped taking making money from advertising on the blog.

IKEAhackers is her main source of income, she told Yahoo Homes. She announced the legal situation in a blog post over the weekend.

She founded the site eight years ago after noticing that the Internet abounded with brilliant ideas for customizing IKEA's inexpensive but ubiquitous products. She took the pseudonym "Jules" because it was the name of an IKEA chair she spotted in a catalog. Her last name is Yap, she's 44 and she lives in Malaysia.

Popular Woodworking magazine calls IKEA hacking "the largest contributor to the trend [of furniture hacking] today." A Web search for the phrase "IKEA hacks" turns up 2.7 million results, due largely to Yap. (Click here or on a photo to go to a slideshow with some of IKEAhackers' best projects.)

Mei Mei Yap, aka Jules.
Mei Mei Yap, aka Jules.

Many of Yap's readers say they've bought IKEA products because of projects they saw on IKEAhackers. IKEA USA even has a Pinterest board of DIY projects stocked with lots of pins from IKEAhackers.

We asked Yap whether she'd had any inkling that IKEA might take such action, and whether she'd been in contact with IKEA over the years. She replied unequivocally: "No, I did not have an inkling that this would happen. It was their first 'official' communication with me, and imagine my shock to receive a legal letter. I tried to reason with them that IKEAhackers have been around since 2006 and they have not raised any objections -- and in fact, in a 2007 NYT article their director of public relations seemed pretty amused by my site. I have also been featured in their IKEA Swedish online magazine, Livet Hemma."

Yap continued: "I have had no indication that my site was frowned upon up in the blue & yellow mothership."

Indeed, we found the 2007 New York Times article that Yap referred to:

"Mona Liss, director of public relations for Ikea in the United States, took her first look at Ms. Yap’s blog a few weeks ago, pointed there by this reporter. 'I could spend all day looking at this,' she said, and then opined that what compels an Ikea hacker to hack, in addition to what she called Ikea’s clean palette, 'is this invisible aura of Ikea, something in our DNA that is inviting and unspoken.'

"'Being an Ikea worker,' she continued with animation, 'I can tell you we’re a culture that’s asked to challenge conformity, to speak outside the box.'"

And here's the profile on IKEA's Swedish-language Life at Home site, where we also found a number of links to IKEAhackers.

The company initially explained its position in the media statement below, and has repeated variations many times to outraged commenters on its U.S. Facebook page over the past couple of days:

"We very much appreciate the interest in our products and the fact that there are people around the world that love our products as much as we do. At the same time we have a great responsibility for our customers, they should always be able to trust the IKEA brand. High quality and good service are essential elements of this. Another important aspect is that the many people want to know what really is connected to IKEA – and what is not.

"For that reason the IKEA name and brand must be used correctly. When other companies use the IKEA name for economic gain, it creates confusion and rights are lost.

"Therefore we are happy for the agreement between Inter IKEA Systems and IKEA Hackers. IKEA Hackers may continue as a fan-based blog/webpage without commercial elements, just like it started some years ago."

IKEA may have gotten more attention for its legal move against IKEAhackers than it expected. Little of the sympathy is on the company's side:

• "You’d think Ikea would be thrilled that a site is hyping their goods and giving customers more reasons to come to their store," the Washington Post writes. "But now Ikea has been trying to shut her down."

• "The site relies on strong connections to the IKEA name brand and other imagery, but Ms. Yap makes clear on the site that is independent and relies on external advertising for survival," the Wall Street Journal writes.

• "Ikea's C&D is, as a matter of law, steaming bull[bleep]. There's no trademark violation here -- the use of Ikea's name is purely factual. ... This is pure bullying, an attempt at censorship," influential Internet writer Cory Doctorow says on Boing Boing.

• "IKEA Plan To Shut Down IKEAhackers Frustrates Bloggers And Designers," reads the International Business Times headline.

• "What absolute clots," a post on Lifehacker Australia opens. It continues: "The reality is that the brand damage done by this kind of Streisand effect move is potentially greater than any risk of dilution."

• "Why Ikea Shutting Down Its Most Popular Fan Site Is a Giant Mistake," the headline on Gizmodo says.

Yahoo Homes has spoken to various IKEA representatives over the years, so we know IKEA can be perhaps a little tetchy about the hacker subculture it inadvertently spawned.

They have some good reasons -- prime among them the fact that furniture is designed to certain, often stringent safety specifications. Modifications can create dangerous conditions that IKEA would never want its name associated with. Reps have told us in the past that they're delighted by cosmetic hacks that, say, add paint or decorative panels (Centsational Girl has a terrific dresser hack, and IKEA sometimes promotes such hacks too), but not ones that tamper with the structure of the product.

Maybe that's what IKEA is getting at in its statement when it mentions "high quality" and "trust." But if so, we wonder why Yap's use of the IKEA name was acceptable as long as she took no advertising.

(Click here or on a photo to go to a slideshow with some of IKEAhackers' most popular projects.)

And speaking of the ads: Most of the ads we see on promote companies that are built on, but unaffiliated with, IKEA products. Panyl sells a self-adhesive furniture covering; its slogan is "Customize your IKEA furniture the fast, easy, fun way!" Prettypegs sells furniture legs "to add character, color and uniqueness to your IKEA piece in a fast and affordable way." Semihandmade, an offshoot of Handmade woodworking, offers custom doors, panels and drawer faces that are "measured and drilled to fit IKEA kitchens." Overlays sells paintable fretwork panels in kits named after the IKEA product they're meant to gussy up. Knesting provides custom slipcovers "to make your IKEA furniture look new and unique."

Knesting owner Susan Knight told Yahoo Homes: "Knock on wood ... I have not received any contact from IKEA, but this move definitely puts those of us in the IKEA hacking business on edge."

She said she's "incredibly sad for Jules and all the hard work she put in to building IKEAHackers over the years. Her site was truly an inspiration for me to start my business, and I know she will come back even stronger."

We have not heard from Yap since IKEA's statement today, but her plan yesterday was to move her site to a domain with a new, non-IKEA name. She asked her followers to sign up for an email list to be notified of developments.

Yap told Yahoo Homes: "I am relieved that they backed down from wanting me to transfer over my domain. Keeping the domain was my chief concern as it represented all that the IH community has built and will always be linked to me.

"I am over the fighting phase and want to concentrate on building a bigger, better site."