Fashion Knockoffs: Good or Bad?

Sep 27, 2010


to protect fashion brands from knockoffs,
but some believe the proposed rules would hurt
both the industry and consumers. Currently,
U.S. law does not prohibit copying fashion

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), the bill’s sponsor, said the U.S. fashion
industry is being hurt by knockoffs and is at a disadvantage compared with
Europe, where laws protect registered designs for up to 25 years. The proposed
law, which has bipartisan support, would protect unique designs for three years.

“Unfortunately our local industry is at a severe disadvantage because
greater protections are afforded to designs made overseas than in New York
or the United States,” Mr. Schumer said of the bill, according to Women’s
Wear Daily
. “Unregulated,
high-end knockoffs are hurting the integrity of this industry.”

however, believe free copying of fashion has long extended sales opportunities
across the industry and continually drives innovation.

“Copying helps set trends (you can’t know it’s a trend until
it’s been copied) and then helps destroy them — once a design has
been widely copied, the fashion-forward hop on to the next new thing,” wrote
Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman in the Freakonomics blog in The
New York Times
. “This is the familiar fashion cycle. What’s less obvious
is that the absence of copyright makes the process possible. The fashion cycle
turns faster, and the industry gets richer — and creates new designs
more frequently.”

“The industry is actually working very well today, and there is no compelling
reason to change,” Kal Raustiala, a law professor at the University of
California, told The Toronto Sun, “The point of copyright
laws is to ensure that copying doesn’t kill creativity. In fashion, we
have long seen copying coexist with creativity. Indeed, copying often fosters

Opponents also fear a rash of lawsuits.

Some fashion designers in recent
years have been pushing for more protection after seeing their designs quickly
replicated by H&M, Zara, Forever 21
and others. The Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University was opened earlier
this month in large part to address the issue.

For the same reasons such laws
are applied to books, painting, photography, film and music, proponents claim
fashion knockoffs reduce the incentive to create. They also believe those
copying will be forced to come up with fresh designs.

“Once former copyists realize that they need to up the design ante …
the culture of copying within the industry will change,” said Susan Scafidi,
head of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University, to The Toronto
will have available a greater variety of inexpensive choices rather than the
same old cheap copies.”

Discussion Question: Is enabling the copying of fashion designs ultimately
healthy or unhealthy for the fashion industry? Is it an incentive or disincentive
toward innovation? Generally, are you for or against greater design protections
for designers?

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11 Comments on "Fashion Knockoffs: Good or Bad?"

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Bob Phibbs
11 years 7 months ago

If music copyrights can cover a riff of a guitar on a track that is sampled, I’m not sure why this would not extend to complete designs. If more and more designers find their creations in stores within 3 weeks and derive none of the profit, why would anyone continue to provide this free service for others? Bragging rights only go so far to pay the bills.

David Biernbaum
11 years 7 months ago

The entire issue of fashion knockoffs is very similar to the debate about how much, or little, private brands ought to be able to knock off advertised national brands in the consumer products industry. My “real world” suggestion is that fashion knockoffs should be required to identify who they really are on the tags of the fashion products, just as private label goods are required to reveal the true marketer, which in most cases is a retailer.

Bill Emerson
Bill Emerson
11 years 7 months ago

This is a tough one. What exactly are the definitions of a fashion design and how broad is that definition? If a designer decides to use a shade of red as a signature color in a line, does that mean that no one else can use that red? How about a neck line? How about skirt length? Collar treatment? You get the idea.

The reality is that all new designs are basically revivals of earlier designs, either in total or in combination. The dictionary definition of fashion is “prevailing style or custom,” emphasis on the word prevailing. Under this definition, the copiers (particularly H&M and Zara) are actually validating the design as a fashion, not diminishing it.

As an aside, I’m not sure who Schumer is ostensibly “protecting”. NY has a thriving knockoff business, but very few original designers. Oh, that’s right. They do have a whole lot of trial lawyers.

Cathy Hotka
11 years 7 months ago

This is a crazy idea. Imagine the enforcement mechanism — a review board that would determine whether an exposed zipper is a protected design statement? A bureaucrat whose job it would be to determine that, once a designer used a puffed sleeve, no one else could?

Paula Rosenblum
11 years 7 months ago

I agree with Cathy Hotka. It’s a crazy idea.

Everything is derivative of SOMETHING … and it would be really challenging to determine what crossed the line into “knockoff.” Plus, the apparel industry has been knockoff based forever. The pattern used to be year 1 – runway, year 2 – ready to wear, year 3 – discount product for the masses. If anything, the volume of knockoffs seems to have gone down rather than up. It’s just that the time to commoditization has compressed.

Just what our industry needs – a few decades of endless litigation. Not exactly.

Ed Rosenbaum
11 years 7 months ago

What an interesting scenario. There is a tip from someone that the manufacturer is copying certain items. The Fashion Police move in to inspect all your work — past, present and future designs. They inspect sizes and see you are copying the same — S, M, L & XL that the tipster gave. They see you are using the same basic colors. They see you have sleeves on the shirts and legs on the shorts, just as the tipster said. Oh my, we are going to be put out of business for knockoffs!

Yes, I understand the differences, and my example is certainly farcical. My point is, who is going to pay for this inspection process? Are we setting up for another bureaucratic logjam? But wait! This could be the answer to our severe unemployment problem. Ahh, problem solved.

Gene Detroyer
11 years 7 months ago

The solution is simple. Attribution. It is all about the label. Names and logos are simple to copyright and trademark. If the label says “Chanel”, then it is Chanel or it is infringement.

If the same-looking garment says “H&M”, then it just looks like Chanel and the consumer knows it.

If anything, the knockoff extends the value of the original. It may be counter-intuitive, but copyrighting the design itself may actually limit creativity as the incentive for new design may be diminished as designers could rest on their copyrights.

Craig Sundstrom
11 years 7 months ago

All good points, both pro and con; but in the spirit of “fast fashion”–a phrase of which I’m rapidly tiring (but happily one which will probably disappear as quickly as what it describes)–I suggest a compromise: fashions will be subject to copyright, but for a much shorter period than other creative works…say 1-2 weeks.

Lucie Winters
Lucie Winters
11 years 7 months ago
Suggesting a compromise of only two weeks is ridiculous. I applaud Europe for having the smarts to have a 25 year ban on copying fashion designs–they recognize the importance of this issue. The copying of designs is the very thing that is ruining the fashion industry in America. When a brand or house designs a product, you are not just paying for the brand name, you are paying for someone’s ideas, inventiveness, originality and creativity. They work hard to create a new design. And in less than four weeks it is copied to death in Chinese factories and churned out to every cheapo manufacturer you can think of, all because they can look at a design and make it for less. This is one of the key issues that is ruining and degrading the bridal industry. More than half of the stock sold at David’s Bridal, the Wal-Mart of the bridal business, is copies of other brand name designs, and they are not the only ones guilty of copying high-end designs. The point of having… Read more »
Christopher P. Ramey
11 years 7 months ago

How can we disregard the intellectual property rights in the fashion industry? Theft is wrong regardless of the category, and any legislation to protect IP is welcome. This is akin to counterfeiting and it disappoints me that so many of my colleagues have a cavalier attitude toward it.

The cost of copying is immense. Let’s do whatever is necessary to stop it.

Rus Feeney
Rus Feeney
11 years 7 months ago

While it’s fun to watch fashion industry feathers either being ruffled or premed, what about the little consumers? Whether original or knockoffs, the garments are still being manufactured overseas (just like all the other industries in America). These days, the average man or woman on the street is in survival mode. American business leaders need to wake up to the reality that a consumer-driven economy cannot run without consumers. Fewer jobs translate to fewer disposable dollars available for fashion items or anything else.


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