The two most relevant forms of intellectual property protection for fashion designers are copyright and trademark law. Here is a bit about both - in terms of U.S. legislation and that of our international fashion competitors ...
Current US Copyright Law
US copyright law protects “original expressions,” such as text or graphics, but not functional elements. Fashion accessories such as belt buckles or jewelry are considered decorative non-functional items that are eligible for copyright protection, while the shape and silhouette of apparel are considered to be “utilitarian” and therefore not eligible for copyright protection.
Accordingly, copyright normally protects only the completely decorative elements of apparel, such as graphic images or patterns (including stitching) on fabric. Even then it is often easy to design around any potential copyright infringement claim. The standard of copyright infringement is substantial similarity between the original and the knockoff, specifically whether the knockoff has the same aesthetic appeal as the original to an ordinary observer. But if the knockoff has a distinguishable variation from the original, and is not merely a slavish copy, it will not infringe the original.
Proposed Amendment to US Copyright Law
The above state of affairs would change under the IDPPPA, which would grant copyright protection for a term of three years to most varieties of apparel, handbag, and eyeglass frame designs (defined to include “the appearance as a whole” of an article of apparel) registered with the Register of Copyrights, and impose liability on designs that copy them, except if the accused design:
1) is original and not closely and substantially similar in overall visual appearance to a protected design;
2) merely reflects a trend; or
3) is the result of independent creation.
The penalty for copying would be the greater of $250,000 in the aggregate or $5 per copy, and secondary liability could be imposed on parties that benefit from the infringements, including sellers and distributors.
The arguments for and against the bill echo the usual open source versus closed source IP arguments. Supporters of the bill, including many high-end fashion designers, argue that the ability of designers to profit from their designs is the greatest driver of fashion innovation, while opponents argue that the free exchange of ideas has always been the greatest driver of fashion innovation, and in any case, it is unlikely that a purchaser of a $100 Diane von Furstenberg knockoff would pay 10 times that amount for an original if the bill were enacted.
European Copyright Law
The European Community (EC) has already enacted an even higher level of IP protection for designers under the Community Design System than that proposed by the IDPPPA. The Community Design System gives exclusive rights to the creator of a design (including but not limited to fashion designs) for three years in the case of unregistered designs and five years in the case of registered designs (renewable every five years to a maximum of 25 years).
Some individual EC countries, such as France, have even more stringent laws. However, while they may disagree about the reasons, many analysts agree that the Community Design System has done little to deter knockoffs. In fact, three of the world’s biggest “fast fashion” retailers — H&M, Topshop, and Zara — are all headquartered in Europe.
US Trademark Law
While the purpose of copyright law is to protect original creations, the purpose of trademark law is to prevent consumer confusion as to the source or quality of goods and services. Thus, trademark law primarily protects the integrity of a designer’s name. Trademark law can also protect a design element of apparel, but not a single season design innovation, rather a design element that has become associated with a particular designer over time such that it is the designer’s “trademark.” Think for example of the Burberry pattern, or the Louis Vuitton gold “LV” initials and geometric shapes against a dark brown background.
In the case of Wal-Mart Stores v. Samarra Bros. Inc., the US Supreme Court ruled that there is a higher evidentiary hurdle to establish trademark protection for an apparel design element compared to a word or a packaging design trademark. Conversely, it is comparatively easy to secure trademark protection for the words or logo on a fashion label, which explains why many fashion designers often use their “label” as a prominent design feature of their fashions. These designers are fully aware that copyright law is unlikely to prevent knockoffs of the cut or silhouette of their designs, but that trademark law is likely to punish pirates of their names. The standard of trademark infringement is whether the challenged trademark (label, packaging, design element) is likely to confuse consumers that the product or service was produced by or originated with the owner of the accusing trademark.