Intellectual property law for fashion

I’m going to get serious for this post, but it’s because I’m an academic at heart and this is an issue I frequently ponder: should fashion designers be able to copyright their intellectual property?

Read, read and watch.

NYTimes Copyrighting fashion: who gains?
Yglesias We don’t need fashion copyrights
Ted Talks Johanna Blakley: Lessons from fashion’s free culture

Now it’s my turn. So basically my opinion has been that I’ve been completely in favor of having intellectual property laws that protect fashion designers and their designs. I’ve even had previous posts on how outrageous it is that Forever 21 and Steve Madden can totally recreate a high fashion or ready to wear design from the runway and sell it for a tiny fraction of the designer price. Granted, sneaky business savvy like this is what makes the fashion world go ’round – and that’s what I’d thought right past. Before reading these articles and watching this short video, I had been in the corner, rooting for design copyright laws without thinking about it cerebrally.

Yeah, it sucks that fast fashion retailers can do this, but I’d be a total hypocrite if I didn’t think they were good at what they do (I even praise fast fashion on this same blog where I’ve gotten on their case for knockoffs, see?). But what I’d been missing before is that if fashion designs were copyrighted there’s no way we could afford to dress ourselves in the stylish clothes. Fashion exists because of the freedom to duplicate trends so they are available to everyone and so that fashion can have participants at all economic levels. And that’s one reason I love fashion! I’m even more a hypocrite than I thought, please tar and feather me appropriately.

I mean retailers at all price points want to give their consumers what they want: the latest trend or classic style. While yes, I think this can be achieved without blatantly copying a design (see above images), there’s no way to eradicate that misuse of the ability to duplicate without shunning the trend followers who want – no, they crave – the trends affordable to them.

I am aware of a bill that could be making its way through the US legislature that would grant intellectual property protection to fashion designers, but now I’m not so sure it’s a good thing (and also, would it be more like similar laws for the EU or more like Japan?)

In the end I suppose intellectual property law for fashion is like deciding between the lesser of two evils. Without it, the world is a frustrating place for designers who get shorted by Forever 21 and Steve Madden (among others!), but it is also marketplace for ideas that yields the most creative and innovative designs. With it, the world would be much a much harsher reality for the trend mongers and style bloggers like me.

Am I changing my tune about this topic? I think I might be.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Intellectual property law for fashion

  1. Alex

    If Ashleigh doesn’t mind, I’m going to geek up the comments section here with an economics perspective:

    There are two competing justifications for copyright in any field. The first is the idea that creating a work of art – a song, a movie, a painting, a dress – confers a moral right to control that work and to profit from it. Creating popular art requires talent and effort, and so just as a carpenter is paid for each piece of furniture, an artist should be paid for each work of art.

    The second justification is that copyright is just an incentive to increase the amount of art available to everyone. Copyright raises the price of a given piece of art, because the creator is given a monopoly on it. This means fewer people can enjoy the art. But without copyright, it might be that very little of the art would be created at all and so everyone would be worse off. Under this justification, copyright should be chosen to balance the amount of art created against the price of buying it, so that consumers get as much possible benefit.

    (Aside: the power to create copyright is actually one of the few explicitly granted to Congress, and the Constitution cites the second reason. See Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8.)

    There is no reason anyone has to subscribe exclusively to either of these beliefs; it’s completely reasonable to believe that we should balance the moral rights of artists against the benefit to consumers. But when reading opinions for or against fashion copyright, it is useful to keep them in mind, because the author often won’t explicitly say which justification he prefers. Such is the case with the Matthew Yglesias piece linked above; he implicitly rejects the first justification out-of-hand.

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