Proposed law aims to curb fashion copycats

An antique mannequin sits by a window at the Victoria Royal clothing manufacture with a view of West 37th Street in New York City's Garment District.

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ADRIENE HILL: Fashion week begins today in New York. Those pricey catwalk designs are out of reach for most of us. But cheap copycat versions could be available in no time. So a proposed law aims to copyright clothing designs. But some legal experts say that would be a '"fashion don't."

Janet Babin reports.


JANET BABIN: Designer Nanette Lepore has held dozens of fashion shows, but she says it's always a mad dash to the catwalk.

NANETTE LEPORE: We're still scrambling, we're behind, and I'm panicked.

About 130 people work at her Garment District studio. For the show, she's mocking up a blouse with bias-cut sleeves.

LEPORE: So we're into like playing with bias again, which always makes me nervous that we keep harking back to 1930s, since that was our Depression-era clothing.

Lepore's business was flat last year. This drapy sleeve could help drive sales.

But distinctive designs like these are easily knocked off, then sold by mass marketers for a fraction of the original's price. That's good for people who shop at places like Zara and H&M. Not so good for designers. Lepore's lost sales to imitators before.

LEPORE:I discovered this lace-up-the-back trick, that made it so that we didn't have to make sizes in clothing. But a lot of bigger companies took that and ran with it.

Lepore supports a bill that would give copyright protection to her 'unique and original' designs for three years.

But Duke Law professor James Boyle says the bill will have unintended consequences. Imagine, he says, the courtroom drama that could break out over two little black dresses.

JAMES BOYLE: The idea of federal judges or juries deciding whether or not they think something looks similar -- can you imagine? The fashionistas will be rolling their eyes.

And even designers at the top of the fashion food chain draw from the zeitgeist.

Jennifer Jenkins directs the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School. She says a few years ago, Diane von Furstenberg created an adorable jacket, only...

JENNIFER JENKINS: It looked exactly like a jacket made by a small Canadian designer named Merci.

von Furstenberg can afford expensive copyright attorneys. But even if this bill passes? Jenkins says smaller shops, like Merci, will struggle to prove their work is their own.

Congress is expected to consider the bill some time this year.

LEPORE:OK good, can I have two pattern makers from upstairs today?

Just, not in time for Fashion Week.

In New York, I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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