C & D
With prints back in fashion and knockoffs in the news, the fashion community has begun to keep an eye out for suspicious sartorial similarities. Check out these contributions from nitro.licious, Fashionista, and Fashion Theory, respectively:
And now the legal question: If the original dresses (left) were subject to design protection in the U.S., as they are in Europe and Japan and as proposed in the recently reintroduced Design Piracy Prohibition Act, would the copies infringe that protection?
Answer: No. The dress designs as a whole weren't copied; only the fabric patterns are the same.
Q: So these copies are legitimate?
A: No, I didn't say that. If they're actually copies, they may very well violate the U.S. law as well as that of other countries. The question is, which type of law?
Each of these fabric prints may qualify for copyright protection, in the U.S. and pretty much everywhere else. That's how DVF could bring her much-discussed lawsuit against Forever 21. New legislation won't change that in any way. Just like images created with ink on paper or paint on canvas, prints created with dye on fabric are subject to copyright protection -- and have been under U.S. law for over half a century.
Much of the time, however, this copyright is held by the company that created the fabric, not the designer who created the garment. Some designers sell a large enough volume and are successful enough to design their own prints on a regular basis, in which case the designer holds the copyright, but most designers simply purchase material from fabric mills. If the order isn't large enough to be exclusive, this can result in 2 designers using the same fabric -- just as if 2 individuals went to the same store and bought a few yards each from the same bolt of fabric. This isn't noticeable if the fabric is, say, black wool crepe, but printed cotton is another matter.
If the prints on the left were created by the designers of the original dresses (presumably Anna Sui's claim, since she's brought a lawsuit against Forever 21), then the copies may very well infringe copyright. If, however, the printed fabrics were simply bought from the same source, no problem. Another possibility is that the fabric prints were copied but are in the public domain, like older vintage works -- again, no problem.
Whatever the story with these particulalr fabric prints, the original garment designs cannot be protected in the U.S. Of course, in these examples the garment designs weren't copied, so the question of infringment would in any case be limited to copyright in the fabric prints (or possibly patent, but that's another matter).
What design protection offers is the ability to protect not just the print, but the overall design of the garment. The idea is to give fashion designers rights to protect their designs. At the moment, fabric designers get protection in the U.S., while fashion designers don't.
In other words, if our intrepid fashion bloggers are correct, then the copyists responsible for the images on the right aren't exactly legal luminaries. They engaged in unauthorized duplication of the only protected part of the original dresses -- the fabric prints -- while ignoring the unprotected garment designs.
Call in the lawyers -- it's time to send out the C&Ds.