I just saw an article today in New York Magazine’s The Cut about new legislation which will provide copyright protection for fashion design. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting close. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) is behind this and, on the surface, it seems like a good idea. IP and copyright protection is certainly necessary in innovation-centric industries (read, pharma, high tech, etc.) and many would argue that fashion is all about innovation – new designs, new colors.
A recent podcast on my beloved Planet Money gave me a new perspective on this issue. They argue that, in fashion, high-end and cutting-edge designers are incented to design precisely because of copycats. If they didn’t stay one step ahead, their designs would be the same as mass market offerings. If you take away that motivator, it is possible that new design and innovation would slow or diminish.
But the CFDA is behind this, aren’t they watching out for the interests of designers? Possibly, but they also represent some of the largest labels and brands in the industry – Diane Von Furstenburg, Marc Jacobs, etc. These brands are companies, which must turn a profit and that is harder to do when your goods are copied and sold at lower prices.
My real fear with this legislation, and this was also mentioned in the Planet Money podcast, is the bureaucracy it will create as courts battle over whether a design is a knock-off or was simply inspired by another designer. I disagree with the American Apparel and Footwear Association that knock-offs will be obviously different from inspiration and easy to spot. In my experience, bureaucracy, not mimicry, is the biggest hurdle to innovation.