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The glass artist Victoria Balva has seen her skylights and windows go up in Canada and the United States, but never in China. So she was surprised recently to receive photos of an enormous skylight at a Chinese office of Huawei that looked very much like her work – but was being built without her knowledge.

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A rendering of the glass ceiling at Huawei headquarters, designed by Japanese firm Nikken. Victoria Balva is engaged in a dispute with Nikken, alleging copyright infringement over the skylight's design.Huawei

Now she is engaged in a dispute with a Japanese architecture and design firm, Nikken, which designed the building for the Chinese telecom giant. Balva is claiming copyright infringement. The dispute reveals the complex interface between copyright law and artistic practice, and casts an unflattering light on a company that is already the subject of serious controversy in Canada.

“I have been working for many years to explore my artistic language,” Balva says from her home in Mississauga. “I am an artist, and these are my ideas being used without my permission.”

The subject of the controversy is at Huawei’s Ox Horn Campus, outside of Dongguan in China’s Pearl River Delta. The complex includes several buildings that are modelled after European institutional architecture: a quadrangle from Oxford University, a building from Heidelberg University and so on. A building known as Paris Block includes a large room modelled after the former National Library of France, an 1860s masterpiece of French Classicism by the architect Henri Labrouste. The Huawei version includes a massive leaded-glass skylight, which is, according to Chumak, roughly 23 metres across.

The Huawei project “could be the largest skylight in the world in the 21st century,” Balva says. This, she says, poses serious technical and artistic problems. The designers “had to refer to existing skylights,” she argues, “because they had no experience in making this kind of work.”

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A detailed comparison of Nikken's proposed skylight design and elements of Balva's other projects.Chumak & Co

A Huawei Canada spokesperson did not respond to queries.

The design firm Nikken, however, denies any breach – and says that construction on the skyline has not begun yet. Its Canadian lawyer, Anthony Prenol of Blakes, says that what Balva has seen was a drawing that “has never been used for actual construction by Nikken on this project or any other project.” He adds, “Nikken has now finalized its skylight design for this project. It has provided Balva with a drawing of its design and firmly believes that its design does not in any way infringe Balva’s copyright.”

Chinese copyright law is notoriously loose, particularly when it comes to the work of foreigners. During the building boom of the last generation in China, the country’s architecture has featured many buildings that emulate or simply duplicate Western precedents. Another office building for Huawei, at a company research centre outside Beijing and designed by a branch of the German firm GMP Architects, includes one building with a deep, angled colonnade that very closely resembles an Expo pavilion in Lisbon by the eminent Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza.

Balva says the skylight in the Paris-themed building replicates a project that Balva created, on a much smaller scale, for a private house in Toronto in 2012. “It is not a good copy,” Balva argues. The project also includes compositional elements that echo those in four other projects by Balva. An annotated set of drawings provided by her lawyer shows what appear to be several details that match those in works of Balva.

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A glass dome, 11 feet in diameter, Balva designed for a private residence in Toronto.Courtesy of Victoria Balva

Yuri Chumak, a Toronto-based intellectual property lawyer who is representing Balva, argues that by Canadian standards this is clearly a violation of copyright. “The scale of the infringement is massive,” he argues. This project is “a very significant commission,” and “it is a copy,” he says, “of Balva’s signature style.”

Chumak adds that, based on the photographs and images his team has seen, the building is in an advanced state of construction and stressed that the alleged borrowing of Balva’s ideas should not be allowed to stand.

“To the degree that Huawei is pursuing government contracts in Canada,” he says, “they should respect the rights of Canadian inventors, artists and creative people.”

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