Fashion seeks patents to stop copycats

A model walks down the runway during the Margaret Howell LFW Autumn/Winter 2008 show at the Margaret Howell store, Wigmore Street, on February 14, 2008 in London, England.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson were wearing regulation Washington attire this morning when they testified: dark suits, white shirts, ties that weren't too flashy. Elsewhere in the capitol, though, flash was exactly the point today. Fashion designers were making the rounds. They're trying to get Congress to let them copyright their designs. Jeremy Hobson has more.


VENDOR: What kind of bag you looking for?

SHOPPER: I need to know what brands you have.

VENDOR: They got everything there. Just, lets go take a look at it, no problem, alright?

JEREMY HOBSON: On New York's Canal Street, you can get knock off handbags, shoes, clothes, anything, at a fraction of the retail price. They look like the real thing...but they're not. In fact, you can head into any H&M, Zara, even Wal-mart and you might find something that looks just like a high-end designer piece of clothing but isn't.

Attorney Alain Coblence represents the council of Fashion Designers of America. He says under current U.S. law, all this is perfectly legal.

ALAIN COBLENCE: It's not just that you can sell the copy of a design. It's also that you can even brag and advertise the fact that it's a copy.

HOBSON: Coblence is leading the charge for a bill in Congress that would allow fashion designers to copyright their designs for three years. How a dress is cut, for instance. The exact shape of a bag. The subtleties of fashion.

He says the industry is missing out on tens of billions dollars a year in New York City alone because of this problem. But there's no need for a law, according to UCLA professor Kal Raustiala -- who did extensive research on this issue.

KALA RAUSTIALA: The fashion industry is an example of an industry that does not seem to be suffering from a decline in creativity or innovation in fashion.

HOBSON: In fact, he says, all the knock-offs help speed up the fashion cycle by creating trends.

RAUSTIALA: And trends are really the heart and soul of the fashion industry. A trend is a series of things that looks somewhat alike. And so one of our concerns is that this bill will make trends more or less go away.

COBLENCE: Well that's a brilliant reasoning. I mean it's like saying that robbery is a wonderful thing in the economy because by way of replacing the stolen goods, it encourages industrial production. I mean: it's absurd.

HOBSON: They may not be able to convince Alain Coblence but critics of the proposed bill argue it would lead to an unimaginable amount of lawsuits, giving the edge to big designers who can afford expensive lawyers.

I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

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