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Mon, Apr 09, 2007 - Page 11 News List

IPR protection not an aid to all

PROTECTION FREE FASHION Piracy of designs is common in the industry. When a designer produces a new style that catches on, it is quickly copied and sold

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

A model walks the runway at the Monarchy Collection Fall 2007 fashion show during Mercedes Benz Fashion Week held at Smashbox Studios in Culver City, California, on March 21. The US fashion industry does not have any protection under intellectual property right laws.

PHOTO: AFP

The growth of the Internet has created significant challenges for intellectual property law. Virtually every day there is another story about online copyright infringement of some form or another. Music, photos, film, video, books -- all the content-producing industries are being shaken up.

The legal motivation for patents and copyright is written into the US Constitution: To promote the progress of science and useful arts. By granting innovators an exclusive right to their writings and discoveries, Congress provided a strong incentive to engage in innovation. As president Abraham Lincoln put it, the patent system added "the fuel of interest to the fire of genius."

But intellectual property right (IPR) law is not the only way to provide such incentives. Ideas, for example, cannot be patented. Yet university professors churn out hundreds of thousands of publications each year that are full of ideas, both good and bad. The social norms in academia, among them citation requirements and plagiarism taboos, seem to work pretty well.

Another industry that seems to get along well without intellectual property protection is the fashion industry. Brand names and logos are protected by trademark, but the design of clothing is generally not protected in the US.

Recently, two law professors, Kal Raustiala of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Chris Sprigman of the University of Virginia, wrote a fascinating paper that outlines the workings of the fashion industry and how it manages to function without much IPR protection.

At one time, the fashion industry did have a self-imposed system of intellectual property protection. In the 1930s, the Fashion Originators' Guild prohibited copying among its members and urged retailers not to sell items from those who copied other designs. The guild was reasonably successful in these efforts. But in 1941, the US Supreme Court held that its practices violated antitrust laws, and since then the fashion industry in the US has had no intellectual property protection for designs.

A result has been that "piracy" of designs is common in the fashion industry. Designers constantly experiment with new shapes and colors. If a particular style catches on, it is quickly copied. Skinny jeans have been fashionable for the last few years, but there are signs that the trends are now moving toward straight-leg jean designs. If the tide changes, pretty soon everybody will be selling straight-leg jeans.

According to Raustiala and Sprigman, the fashion industry can survive without intellectual property protection because of two interacting factors that they refer to as "induced obsolescence" and "anchoring."

The first factor means that clothes become unfashionable before they wear out, so trendy people have to keep buying new clothes every year. When you are wearing the same thing as your cool friends, that's great. But when you start seeing that style on decidedly uncool people, it's time for something new -- which the fashion industry is happy to provide.

But how do the fashionable decide what the next big thing is? Or perhaps more to the point: How does the fashion industry convey to their consumers what they should be wearing? How does the industry "anchor" the consumers in this season's fashions? This is where copying comes in. If all the designers are showing baby doll dresses in the spring, then there's a good chance that is what everybody will be wearing by the summer.

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