Toronto, July 12, 2012 – Like many of you, I love TED Talks. I spend generous amounts of time each week searching a myriad of topics that pique my interest, and some additional time learning about topics I wouldn’t normally inquire about. That’s the great thing about them; so many subjects outside of your norm waiting to engulf you.
I often search for fashion-focused Talks as I not only love the ‘surface level’ aspect of fashion (and by surface level I mean the clothes themselves and scene that comes along with it), but I’m completely intrigued by all facets; from creative force, to design, to production, to business and the intricacies that come along with it. TED Talks are wonderful to be able to explore fashion-related issues that you may not normally hear about. I recently came across Lessons From Fashion’s Free Culture, by Johanna Blakely. Blakely is a Deputy Director of the Norman Lear Center (a media-focused think tank at the University of Southern California), who specializes on the impact of intellectual property rights on innovation and lack of creative ownership in fashion.
In the video, Blakely explains that there is very little intellectual property protection in the fashion industry. There is trademark protection, but no copyright or patent protection. This means that anybody can copy any garment and sell it as their own design. The only thing that they can’t copy is the actual trademark label within that piece of apparel (monogram, etc).
The reason the fashion industry doesn’t have any copyright protection is because the courts decided long ago that apparel is too utilitarian to qualify for copyright protection. Blakely explains that, “…they didn’t want a handful of designers owning the seminal building blocks of our clothing. If they did, everybody else would have to license a particular cuff or sleeve because Joe Blow owns it.” She argues that one reason fashion design has been elevated to an art form is precisely because of the lack of copyright protection as they currently can incorporate just about any element of their peers’ creative work into their own design.
Steven Kolb, Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) CEO says, “All designers deserve the right to design protection and only the creator of an original design should profit from that design. Taking someone’s work and calling it your own is wrong and robs the designer of a rightful return on their investment.”
In 2006, President Diane von Furstenberg of the CFDA, as well as other members including Jeffery Banks, Marc Bouwer, Joseph Abboud, Nicole Miller and Zac Posen, went to Washington to meet with senators to discuss the issue. Three years later, Senator Charles E. Schumer introduced a bill to the US Senate called the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act. The bill would protect original fashion designs for a period of three years from their registration with the U.S. Copyright Office. The bill has two main objectives: “to protect both the established and the up-and-coming designers whose development, growth and success helps to support the $350 billion U.S. fashion industry; and to preserve intellectual property.”
Blakely’s Ted Talk sent me digging. I wanted to see where CFDA was with their fight to establish legislation to keep designers from copying each other. To my surprise, I didn’t find any recent updates on their website. They did, however, create a Design Manifesto as a reminder “to respect the rightful ownership of ideas”.
Currently, this bill has not passed. Steven Kolb went on to say that, “…if we learned nothing else in this giant civics lesson, we learned that’s the way things work in Washington.…A bit of patience is needed. We remain focused on it, but we are also building other ways to spread the word on why intellectual property belongs to the person who created it and shouldn’t be stolen from them by a pirate.”
I do believe that fashion apparel is a form of art and deserving enough of protection the same way that film, paintings or pieces of writing are. In addition, I’m completely against counterfeit goods, like the one’s sold on Canal Street or Santee Alley, but I also see Blakely’s point; will everyone suffer? “Consumers will pay higher prices and they won’t have the same access to the plethora of items that will allow them to participate in global fashion trends without paying aristocratic prices. Designers who can’t afford legal counsel will worry about being accused of copying, and they won’t be able to sue if someone copies them because litigation is expensive.”
In regards to innovation, will this bill hinder it as designers won’t be able to integrate any element into their designs (take Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap dress, for instance – how many fashion houses have incorporated that into their designs?), or will it propel designers into another facet of creativity?
Only time will tell.
Pilar is a Toronto-based PR professional and fashion aficionada who has also lived in Argentina and Washington, DC. She has an eye for irresistibly chic and stylish design and has covered Toronto’s LG Fashion Week and is the co-founder and editor for Fashion IV. She’s also an avid runner, lover of almost anything French, and slinky internationalist.