Author Interviews
2:28 am
Mon September 10, 2012

Why Knockoffs Are Good For The Fashion Industry

Originally published on Mon September 10, 2012 1:48 pm

During New York Fashion Week, designers will present looks that you might find in a department store next spring ... or, as knockoffs at Forever 21. That's because copying fashion designs is perfectly legal — and that's a good thing, if you ask Kal Raustiala.

Raustiala is the co-author of a new book called The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation. He talks with NPR's Renee Montagne about who copies fashion designs, why it's legal and how copying ultimately benefits the consumer and the industry.


Interview Highlights

On why copying is a good thing for the fashion industry

"The first is that fashion relies on trends, and trends rely on copying. So you can think of copying as a turbocharger that spins the fashion cycle faster, so things come into fashion faster, they go out of fashion faster, and that makes fashion designers want to come up with something new because we want something new. We're sick of what's out there.

"The second is that copying helps condense the market into something that consumers can understand, so people want to follow trends, they want to be able to dress in a way that's in style; they have to understand that."

On the winners, the losers and the 'big picture'

"There are designers that get hurt by knockoffs. And we're very sympathetic to that. But when we think about what our law should permit, we need to think about the big picture: What's going to grow this industry and make it successful, create jobs, create a robust sector. And in doing that, I think it's clear that the American approach is to allow copying in the apparel industry."

On why fashion is not protected under copyright law

"Copyright law does not address things that are useful. So, for example, clothing, we have tended to think about in American law as something that — you know, we wear it to stay warm, to cover our bodies, so it has a functional dimension. So as a result, it's not considered a proper subject for copyright. Copyright is really meant for things like forms of art, literature, poetry, music, film, etc. Now, of course, fashion has a big artistic component to it. ... It could be [protected by patent laws], and sometimes fashion items are. So, for example, handbags and shoes sometimes are covered by design patents. But, it's unusual to do that because, 1) it's very expensive to get a patent, and 2) patents require a standard of novelty and originality that's often hard to reach in the fashion industry, where many things are reworkings of previous things."

On who copies in fashion

"We tend to think about copying and knockoffs as something that either happens in a store like Forever 21, or some of these firms that specialize in knockoff dresses, like Prom Girl or Faviana, which are companies where you literally go to their websites and they say: Here's the original, and here's our version of it.

"... And they're very upfront about it. They don't try to hide it. They trumpet that fact. Now, that's a big part of the knockoff industry in fashion. But at the higher levels you see it as well ... there it's a little more subtle, [and] there's even been, in other countries, where copying in the fashion industry is illegal, there have even been lawsuits about it. [Ralph Lauren lost in a lawsuit brought by Yves Saint Laurent in France.]

On consumers, who reap the benefits of copying and competition

"By no means is copying limited to the lower end. But I think in practice, the majority of copying that we see in the fashion industry is lower down in price. And that has some positive effects. So, regardless of the effects on the industry overall, it's good for consumers in the sense that copying breeds competition. When you have copies, it means you have multiple things competing in the marketplace that are similar. And if they compete on price, then consumers have an option that they wouldn't otherwise have."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And it's New York Fashion Week where the spring fashions are being unveiled, designs most of us can only dream of buying. But anyone can likely find and afford a knockoff. Borrowing ideas is time honored in the fashion industry. And if not embraced, it's at least tolerated as Coco Chanel put it, Being copied is the ransom of success.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That quote is in a new book by Kal Raustiala called "The Knockoff Economy." Now, while counterfeit goods, say, a fake Prada bag passed off as the real thing, are illegal...

MONTAGNE: Copies are not. And that, says Raustiala, is a good thing.

KAL RAUSTIALA: Fashion relies on trends and trends rely on copying. So you can think of copying as a turbocharger that spins the fashion cycle faster. So things come into fashion faster, they go out of fashion faster, and that makes fashion designers want to come up with something new because we want something new. We're sick of what's out there.

MONTAGNE: If copying helps trends, how does it help the actual designers?

RAUSTIALA: Let me say there are designers that get hurt by knockoffs. And we're very sympathetic to that. But when we think about what our law should permit, we need to think about the big picture, what's going to grow this industry and make it successful, create jobs, create a robust sector. And in doing that I think it's clear that the American approach to allow copying in the apparel industry.

MONTAGNE: That in itself is interesting. Why has clothing, since the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution and included the notion of copyright and patent protection - why was it separated out and not given that sort of protection?

RAUSTIALA: Copyright law does not address things that are useful. So, for example, clothing, we have tended to think about in American law as something that, you know, we wear it to stay warm, to cover our bodies, so it has a functional dimension. So as a result, it's not considered a proper subject for copyright. Copyright is really meant for things like forms of art, literature, poetry, music, film, et cetera.

Now, of course, fashion has a big artistic component to it. But because it has this functional element, typically those functional items fall under patents.

MONTAGNE: Patents, right. So why wouldn't it be protected, more strongly, by patent laws?

RAUSTIALA: It could be and sometimes fashion items are. So, for example, handbags and shoes, sometimes are covered by design patents. But it's unusual to do that because one: it's very expensive to get a patent; and two: patents require a standard of novelty and originality that's often hard to reach in the fashion industry, where many things are re-workings of previous things

MONTAGNE: Also, within the fashion industry it's understood that even at the highest level there is a lot of imitation, including direct copying.

RAUSTIALA: Yes, so we tend to think about copying and knockoffs as something that either happens in a store like Forever 21, or some of these firms that specialize in knockoff dresses, like Prom Girl or Faviana, which are companies where you literally go to their Web sites and they say: Here's the original and here's our version of it.

MONTAGNE: You can be watching the Oscar's and you can go to the Web site, as soon as the show is over, and they're starting to offer those gowns.

RAUSTIALA: That's right and they're very upfront about it. They don't try to hide it. They trumpet that fact. Now, that's a big part of the knockoff industry in fashion. But at the higher levels you see it as well. Now, there it's a little more subtle and there's even been, in other countries - where copying in the fashion industry is illegal - there have even been lawsuits about it.

MONTAGNE: Right, Ralph Lauren was sued.

RAUSTIALA: Yeah and lost in France.

MONTAGNE: By?

RAUSTIALA: Yves Saint Laurent

MONTAGNE: So those are pretty big names.

RAUSTIALA: Those are big names, so by no means is copying limited to the lower end. But I think in practice, the majority of copying that we see in the fashion industry is lower down in price. And that has some positive effects. So, regardless of the effects on the industry overall, it's good for consumers in the sense that copying breeds competition.

When you have copies, it means you have multiple things competing in the marketplace that are similar. And if they compete on price, then consumers have an option that they wouldn't otherwise have.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much for joining us.

RAUSTIALA: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Kal Raustiala is the author, along with Christopher Sprigman, of "The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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