Fashion Design and Copyright

By López, Edward J. | Freeman, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Fashion Design and Copyright


López, Edward J., Freeman


Should fashion designs be eligible for copyrights? When I listen to people talk about this issue, many of the same interesting arguments come up. These people know about designer knockoffs and feel that something is not quite fair about them. Yet they also view copyists as moving innovation along in the fashion world. Copying releases new fashions from the small circles of their origins to the wider marketplace; it translates designs from abstract experimentation on the catwalk to concrete wearability on the sidewalk. Copying thus plays a vital market role in fashion. And so, in my admittedly small and biased sample, a typical conversation about fashion copyright invariably trends toward a reluctant opposition.

The issue arises because after a century of relegating fashion designs to the wilderness of intellectual property law, Washington seems poised to begin domesticating the fashion industry. With Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N. Y.) as lead sponsor, the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act (S. 3278) was introduced last August. Design protection bills have been introduced routinely since the 1970s. Yet only in recent years has the cause gained significant legislative momentum. Since 2005 about a dozen precursors to the current bill have been introduced in the House and Senate. A slate of hearings has harvested the views of academics, designers, and celebrity witnesses. The current bill - pruned by numerous drafts and political-legal deals, plus a detailed review by the U.S. Copyright Office - was a honed legislative compromise designed to win majorities in both chambers in a postelection congressional logrolling frenzy.

If enacted the bill would amend the Copyright Act to provide three years of protection to fashion designs that meet defined standards of originality and novelty. As defined in the bill, a fashion design is the "appearance as a whole of an article of apparel including its ornamentation." An infringement of a protected design occurs if a copy is found to be "substantially identical in overall appearance" to the protected design, so long as it can be "reasonably inferred [that the copyist] saw or otherwise had knowledge of the protected design." The bill includes a system of penalties and various provisions to limit collateral consequences like excessive litigation as well as unfair burdens on emerging designers and home sewers. Once the law was in place, fashion would join computer software, vessel hulls, and architectural designs as recent exceptions to the "useful article" rule written into the Copyright Act.

The U.S. apparel industry has essentially always operated in a "low intellectual property equilibrium" (as law professors KaI Raustiala and Chris Sprigman have aptly surmised in their influential study of fashion copyright). Trademark protects certain features in fashion design like brand names, logos, and unique attributes that consumers use to identify designs with a particular brand. The stitched polo player on Ralph Lauren's shirts is protected, but the overall design of the shirt is not. The plaid pattern made famous in the linings of Burberry's top coats is protected; the silhouettes of their topcoats are not. As for patents, the process is too slow and its standards of novelty too strict for fashion.

Copyright law has traditionally not protected fashion because a garment is considered a "useful article" that combines a utilitarian purpose (covering the body) with the designer's creative expression. Still, certain articles like a sculpted brooch or an artistic belt buckle are protected if they are considered works of art that are separable, at least conceptually, from the clothing article itself. And while a two-dimensional sketch is protected, the physical rendition of the design as an article of clothing not. "[A] man's property is limited by the chattels of his invention," wrote Judge Learned Hand in an important 1929 case involving dress designs, Cheney Bros.

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