Designers Fight Knockoffs

Today marks the final day of New York's fashion week, a fête of fluttery skirts, voluminous dresses, out-of-this-world pants and the designers who dreamed them up. Seeing models strut down the runway, celebrities, socialites and industry insiders have settled on their objects of desire, garments that will make their spring 2007 wardrobes.

They're not the only ones watching.

Across the country and around the world, clothing manufacturers have been taking note of what's in and what's out, deciding what runway fashions they'll recreate and sell to the public at a fraction of the designers' price.

Members of the fashion elite are hoping to halt that process. Leading American designers including Diane von Furstenberg and Zac Posen have teamed with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) to seek copyrights for their garments.

Along with Congressman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., they're advocating legislation that would give designers the same protections as those offered to artists, writers and musicians. Their quest has set off a heated debate about the multi-billion dollar women's fashion industry.

Under the proposal, designers would be able to register their fashions with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registrations would protect the overall appearance of a garment for three years, making it illegal for anyone to craft something strikingly similar.

Not covered under the copyright would be designs created before the passage of the law, like t-shirts and jeans, considered to be in the public domain. Copyright infringement would cost $250,000, the price of roughly 750 Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses.

Protecting the Artists

"It's really about protecting unique, individual designs that are specific. That's what the legislation is about," CFDA president Steven Kolb said.

The CFDA, an organization of over 270 designers, takes issue with outright knockoffs, often of dresses worn by starlets at awards ceremonies.

"There are a number of companies that are legitimate businesses that hijack, more or less, the designs of American designers who are doing red-carpet garments," Kolb said.

"Right now, it's legal for these people to do that and for them to appear on television morning shows the day after an awards ceremony saying 'Here's the designer's version that costs X and look at my version that costs Y,'" he said.

By making knockoffs in foreign factories, manufacturers can get their version in stores in a matter of days, even before the designer who actually created the garment.

According to Kolb, that's just not fair.

"The reality is that if there were a law, they wouldn't get on that morning show," he said. "The designer would have rights to their garment."

The Death of Trends

If passed, the bill could affect more than stitch-by-stitch knockoffs. It may spell the end for cheap, chic clothing available at mass market stores around the nation.

Chris Sprigman, a University of Virginia law professor and an expert on intellectual property law, argues that a fashion copyright could prevent manufacturers from making anything inspired by high fashion.

"Copyright law doesn't just prohibit copying, it prohibits any article that's substantially similar," he said. "And the courts interpret that broadly."

Sprigman argues that copyright protection contradicts the creative process on which the industry relies.

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