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Designed Piracy

Did you ever wonder at what point in fashion history we decided to start using our chests as billboards?

There were tabards emblazoned with coats of arms in the Middle Ages, of course -- under all that armor, it probably helped to know who riding toward you on horseback with a lance.  But according to The Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, it wasn't until the 20th century that the humble T-shirt became an expressive medium.  MGM used the T-shirt to promote The Wizard of Oz in 1939, and Thomas Dewey (the guy who "defeated" Truman, remember?) distributed T's during his 1948 campaign.  It took the multiplication of messages and identities in the 60's, though, to turn the T-shirt into the current quotidian hybrid of apparel and self-expression.

From an intellectual property perspective, the T-shirt is a good illustration of the doctrine of "conceptual separability."  This U.S. copyright principle basically says that you can protect the design on the surface of a functional item, but you can't protect the item itself.  In other words, you can copyright the picture on the front of your T-shirt, but not the T-shirt as a whole. 

Of course, some designers may be philosophically opposed to protection.  Check out this design:

And remember back to 1999 and the DeCSS T-shirts, which were imprinted with source code for de-scrambling DVDs to make a point about free speech -- and thus became part of several trade secret lawsuits?

Perhaps the next step is to take a page out of Abbie Hoffman's book and print "Copy this T-shirt!" T-shirts.