In 1999, when the United States was introduced to Napster, a huge wave of unforeseen dogfights came along with the downloading system. Let’s face it, the idea of free music is seemingly harmless – that is, unless you are Kanye West or The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The colossal issue of illegal downloading in the music industry is like the issue of knockoffs in today’s fashion industry. “It’s the same thing. It’s all integrity to oneself,” said Tony Gianacakos, design senior and MSU’s Student Apparel Design Association president.
“We talk about knockoffs and what they are; it’s like cold water in your face,” said Rebecca Schuiling, a human environment and design professor about MSU’s involvement with knockoffs. When Schuiling entered the design school at MSU, she thought she’d be creating designs from scratch. What she found is professors and students have a much more cavalier attitude toward using someone else’s ideas for inspiration. “This is reality,” design professor Carol Beard said, “What I’d like to do is teach them how to do it right as opposed to exactly copying.” [couch12]
There are several high-end fashion designers that, if referenced in everyday conversation, could be recognized by the average person – Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel and Marc Jacobs, to name a few. Compare this number to the thousands of no-name fashion designers across the country. Smaller designers that will never become as high-scale fashion as Gianni Versace simply attend New York Fashion Week – scamming the latest designs directly from the catwalk. “People would rather get knockoffs because they’re cheaper and practically the same thing,” nursing freshman Brittney Singleton said. “Designers aren’t getting back what they put into it.” Much like music artists’ fight against illegal downloading, the fashion industry has an uphill battle. Music, though, has the RIAA to help crack down. Where is fashion’s enforcer?
Trademarks, Copyrights and Patents, Oh My
[cheap]There are ways by which inventions, logos, movies and books can all be protected. Whether by trademarks, copyrights or patents, creators have means of shielding their work from the prying eyes of would-be mimics. It has only recently been brought to the attention of many that those producing the inventions of the fashion world do not receive the same treatment. “It’s always going on – I think it’s always been in place,” Gianacakos said. However, because of the lack of creative protection, people who can’t afford the $1450 shirt dress in the front window of a Dolce & Gabbana store can go out and buy a shirt dress for $30 from everyday retailers like Target or Kohl’s. “[Knockoffs] are never going to stop because people want that look,” Gianacakos said.
According to an article from National Public Radio online by Rick Karr, under current law, a design cannot be copyrighted. What these smaller designers are doing is not illegal, unless they are claiming that the knockoff design is the real thing. If it is stated it’s a fake or a knockoff, no law is broken. “The legal type is great. I don’t think that’s copying. It’s a way of business,” Gianacakos said. The issue for designers, however, is not losing money – it is protection of their own ideas and designs.
To the Senate
A version of the Design Piracy Prohibition Act, a bill to amend Title 17 of the previously created bill to protect designers, is currently on the Senate floor. Through all the scandal related to knockoffs, what designers seem to have found is the original bill needed a little adjusting and clarification. The goal is simple: the protection of designers. This bill proposes to protect original fashion designs for a period of three years after the design is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Similar legislation is already in effect in Europe, Japan and India. “If the legislature passes it, it’ll have a negative effect on the economy because mainstream fashion is such a large market,” Beard said. “They can’t legislate it.”
Copying in the fashion industry fuels the innovation and demand for more. The fact that copying moves the latest designs from the catwalks to the masses in a period of two weeks allows the consumer to quickly demand newer looks. Each market is only attempting to give their buyers exactly what they want. “Until the consumer stops purchasing, they won’t stop creating [knockoffs],” Gianacakos said. One of the key elements of the bill is that copyright registration is mandatory, which is a provision that is not required for most other protectable works. Designers must register a design within three months of a design being made public. This brief filing time could pose problems for smaller designers because they would need to create internal systems for filing that have not been needed in the past. The bill might also restrict the ability of designers to be inspired by and use ideas from one another – the creative give-and-take that is now prevalent, even among high-end designers.
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em
[smart]So is the knockoff phenomenon ultimately a good or bad thing? It would, of course, depend on whether you are the customer or the designer – that is, the high scale designer. For a small designer, it’s less expensive, less risky and takes less time to simply recreate a style that has already done well. “Designers are getting smart and knocking off themselves,” Beard said. Designers are now starting to understand the most consumer spending in the industry is in mainstream fashion, so they’re now making more affordable pieces that showcase some of the ideas seen in their expensive designs, and they are selling them at retailers that ordinary people frequent. Designers like Vera Wang and Isaac Mizrahi have successful lines at Kohl’s and Target, respectively. In some cases, a knockoff can be out on the shelves before the real deal. Schuiling said of the possible production time for a knockoff product, “Fourteen days! I was shocked!” “I think knockoffs will always be around, it’s so easy to do,” Betsy Johnson store manager Katie Weigandt said. “I don’t see why it would ever go away.”
However, the sad, or possibly exciting, fact about this situation is copying in an industry like fashion is inevitable, and designers have grown to accept that. “In fashion, there’s nothing new under the sun; it’s a fresh rework,” Beard said. Designers like BCBG’s Max Azria and Oscar de la Renta still reap benefits from their dedicated – and not to mention extremely wealthy – shoppers. “It’s hard not to keep making the same thing again,” Schuiling said. “It’s almost like you have to have blinders on to the world.”
Part of the controversy is that it is nearly impossible to set an exact line between what is a “copy” and what is only “motivated” by a catwalk look. “Some knockoffs are so closely related that when you see someone carrying a Coach bag, you still don’t know whether it’s real or fake,” psychology freshman Cassie Whitcher said. “So, what’s the difference?” Filing lawsuits against other designers is a long, difficult and expensive process because it’s difficult to prove a particular product was actually copied. And often, the designer is unsure of whether they will win the case. And in the case of an industry characterized as being “over the top,” many designers do not want to take this gamble with their profits. [knockoff2]
The issue of real versus fake isn’t entirely about money, but also about status. “You can tell they’re fake,” Singleton said. “I think they’re gross.” There are people who think they need to have the real deal. Whether it is for social purposes or personal reasons, the designers have the loyalties of those shoppers. “There are still people willing to spend money on the actual designer’s work and support them,” Singleton said.
We’ve all seen the commercial on TV: “You wouldn’t steal a car. You wouldn’t steal a handbag. You wouldn’t steal a television. Downloading is stealing!” Well now we’re seeing these same kinds of advertisements, but for the fashion industry. With the Senate bill in the works, it’s only a matter of time before those fake Coach bags and Ugg boots become the subject of investigation. Better wear them while they’re still legal.

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