By  on April 26, 2007

WASHINGTON — Knock off a dress design and go to jail.

Maybe not quite, but a new bill designed to put real teeth into copyright protection for fashion designs is now before Congress.

The specter of fashion design piracy sends shivers down the backbone of the fashion industry, but defining "piracy," "knockoffs" and "original" designs under intellectual property laws has proven elusive. Trademark laws protect designer logos and patent law periodically applies to "innovative or ornamental" design elements. Prints and artwork are protected by intellectual property laws, but fashion designs have no protection under copyright laws.

That is why fashion designer Nicole Miller and others came to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby lawmakers, many of whom sit on the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, which have jurisdiction over intellectual property laws, on a bill they hope will change the law.

"Design piracy denigrates the integrity of the style," said Miller. "This year, we have been copied more than we have in past years. With this legislation, people will be deterred from making everything too literal. It's the line-for-line copies that bother me."

Diane von Furstenberg, the new president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, is involved in the aggressive campaign on Capitol Hill.

"It has gotten to a point at which, unless we get regulation, people will continue to boast about copying," said von Furstenberg, famous for her ubiquitous wrap dress. "Laws are really about intimidation, and we need to have a little law here and a little intimidation. By passing a law, we emphasize the value of designs. It is not an elitist thing. Even Target and Wal-Mart are beginning to use designers in their stores."

Miller, joined by Glenda Bailey, editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar, and Valerie Salembier, senior vice president and publisher of Harper's, pounded the halls of Congress on Wednesday to meet with key senators and House members, including Sens. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), Benjamin Cardin (D., Md.), Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R., Tex.) and Orrin Hatch (R., Utah).

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