Designer Vs. Vendor: Battle Over Copyright Issue Hits Congress

The two sides of the fashion industry squared off in Congress on Thursday over the issue of whether fashion designs should be protected by copyright law.

Narciso Rodriguez and Steve Maiman

WASHINGTON — The two sides of the fashion industry squared off in Congress on Thursday over the issue of whether fashion designs should be protected by copyright law.

This story first appeared in the February 15, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

A bill that would put more teeth into copyright protection for fashion designs that is trumpeted by the Council of Fashion Designers of America has been stuck in committee because of industry infighting. On Thursday, the pro-and-con cases were presented before a House committee by Narciso Rodriguez and the owner of a California apparel firm, respectively.

The CFDA is trying to bridge the divide with the rest of the apparel industry and has held discussions with the American Apparel and Footwear Association for over a year, according to the designer and written testimony from Kevin Burke, the association’s president and chief executive officer. The AAFA represents most of the industry’s major brands and companies.

Rodriguez, who claimed knockoffs of his designs take away millions of dollars a year from his business, told lawmakers he is “hopeful” the two associations will reach an agreement within a month on the language of the bill regarding the scope and risk of litigation.

Rodriguez laid out a case to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property on behalf of the CFDA in support of the Design Piracy Prohibition Act, which has been introduced in both the House and Senate but has not moved out of committee. The subcommittee is expected to wait to see if the CFDA and the AAFA can reach a compromise on the acceptable language in the bill before voting whether to move the legislation.

The bill would amend current law to allow companies and designers to register their fashion designs for three years of copyright protection. Apparel, handbags, footwear, belts and eyeglass frames would be covered. The measure also would establish penalties for designers or companies knocking off designs. The fine would be $250,000, or $5 for each copied item, whichever was more.

“The more acclaimed America’s fashion designs become, the more they’re copied,” said Rodriguez in his testimony, citing a U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimate of $12 billion in lost revenues due to counterfeiting and piracy in the fashion and apparel industry in 2006.

Rodriguez said he designs and puts together a 250-piece collection in one year over the course of six to 12 months for the fall and spring runway shows, which cost an average of $800,000 to stage. The fabric for samples costs another $800,000, pattern and design development costs $1.5 million, travel for design and fabric development reaches $350,000 and marketing rings up another $2.5 million.

“There are so many aspects of a fashion business that make it risky in the best of circumstances and the pirates are only making it riskier,” he said.

The designer, whose firm sold a 50 percent stake to Liz Claiborne Inc. last year, told lawmakers about his passion and inspiration for design, singling out the dress he designed for Carolyn Bessette when she wed John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1996. Rodriguez later sold 40 of those dresses.

“The pirates sold 7 to 8 million copies,” he said. “It was very personal. I’ve been pirated so much that my brand has been diffused.”

Young designers will not survive in the face of knockoffs that dilute the value of the original design, he told lawmakers, urging them to pass the bill.

But the bill’s opponents argue that inspiration will be stifled by such legal restrictions, leaving thousands of companies exposed to frivolous lawsuits that could drive them out of business.

Steve Maiman, co-owner of Stony Apparel Corp., a moderate women’s and children’s apparel manufacturer based in Los Angeles, carried the flag for those in the industry who oppose the bill.

“Extending the copyright laws to the fashion industry is thoroughly a bad idea,’ said Maiman. “The bill is misguided and unnecessary, for several reasons.”

Maiman told lawmakers the fashion industry has thrived without “help or interference” from this type of copyright law. He argued that it is “impossible to determine the originality of a design because all designs are inspired by existing designs and trends.”

Maiman also said the bill would spark a steady stream of lawsuits and expose retailers to liability as well.

“We’re in this business to make cute garments at a fair price for the average American, not to sit in depositions in copyright lawsuits, arguing with lawyers over who invented an original style…of a kid’s top for $14.99 retail before it goes on sale,” Maiman said in his testimony.