Blog: Leonie BarrieDesign protection a double-edged sword?

Leonie Barrie | 20 August 2007

While plans to protect fashion designs from cheap copies and knockoffs for the first time might seem like a good idea on paper, the reality is more like trying to answer the question “How long is a piece of string.”

US lawmakers want the Design Piracy Prohibition Act to extend current copyright protection – which already covers things like logos, lettering or an identifying mark such as embroidery – to the entire design of a garment. But their plans seem to have been drawn up without any comprehension of the industry they’re trying to protect.

It’s a well-known fact that all designers, whether at the top or bottom ends of the market, are all feeding from the same inspirations as they attempt to tap into the mood of consumers, be it long-term colour and fabric forecasts or dipping into everything from the art world to the ‘street’ in an attempt to hit the right emotional temperature.

So at what point does one designer start a trend that inspires another? Or when does a copy become a homage? All designs are, to a large extent, simply an evolution of what’s gone before.

And what about the logistics and enforcement of the law? At what point does a garment be copyrightable – sketched on a design pad, at first sample, or in the retail store? And who is going to check the millions of garments designed each year for copyright?

Designers like to argue that knockoffs eat into sales, tarnish a brand, and make it more difficult for young designers to make their mark. But don’t copies also make the originals more widely known and increase the value of the brand name versions? And doesn’t the lack of copyright protection on fashion designs mean to a certain extent that designers need to be more innovative more often to stimulate sales?

It’s proving difficult enough to enforce current laws that protect logos or ornamentation, so what are the real chances of protecting the designs themselves?

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