By  on July 23, 2007

Gwen Stefani and Diane von Furstenberg, who have accused fast-fashion retailer Forever 21 of copying their designs, have plenty of company.

There are at least 20 lawsuits alleging Forever 21 violated intellectual property rights. The most recent is a filing in late June by Stefani's Harajuku Lovers brand.

Other well-known designers and retailers who have filed lawsuits against the retailer since January 2006 for allegedly selling clothing and accessories that infringe on their copyrights and trademarks include Tokidoki, Bebe and Anthropologie.

Sources familiar with the cases say the retailer's actions and its responses to litigation seem indicative of a systematic approach to copying designers.

"I believe that Forever 21's business model is to copy the designs of other well-known designers," said Marya Lenn Yee, a partner at law firm Donovan & Yee. Yee represents Anna Sui in pending litigation against Forever 21. She also represents Toronto-based Foxy Originals, a jewelry designer who has made claims against the company regarding its fashion jewelry line.

Forever 21 did not return calls for comment and has not commented on past cases. Stefani and Harajuku Lovers did not return calls seeking comment.

The number of filed cases is just the tip of the iceberg, Yee said. There are other intellectual property claims that haven't been filed because they were settled or other issues arose.

Von Furstenberg filed a lawsuit in March alleging that Forever 21 infringed on copyrights for fabric prints in two dress designs. The company initially contacted Forever 21 and they were "rightfully apologetic," said Harley Lewin of Greenberg Traurig, who represented DVF in the lawsuit and is working with the company to implement a three-year anticounterfeiting strategy.

Initially, Forever 21 said it was taking steps to organize itself to prevent intellectual property violations from happening, Lewin said. Since then, DVF has found additional products they alleged infringe on their designs. The discoveries led to a number of amendments to the original complaint. "Their credibility is substantially down in our opinion," Lewin said.

Forever 21 does not have its own design team, and in litigation has said it is simply purchasing the designs created by its vendors.

"Our concern, and my concern, is that it appears to be a repeating pattern," Lewin said. They are taking a tougher stance as a result. The DVF lawsuit is in the discovery phase.Like the DVF lawsuit, the majority of the cases filed alleged copyright infringement, mostly of fabric prints. The spike in cases related to fabrics could be driven by the current popularity of distinctive prints, lawyers speculated.

Anna Sui filed a copyright lawsuit in April against Forever 21 for infringing on a number of copyrights it holds for women's clothing pieces. The lawsuit alleged that the retailer had made an ongoing practice of copying Anna Sui designs going back as far as late 2005.

The good news for some companies is that copyright infringements can be easier to prosecute than trade dress infringements or some trademark infringements if you have registered copyrights, lawyers said. Under copyright law, the plaintiff does not need to prove that the infringing items create confusion in the minds of consumers, which is the underlying principal in trade dress and trade mark infringements.

It is important for designers and fabric companies to register fabric designs for copyright protection, Yee said. It's a simple process that can give them real teeth in fights to protect designs down the road. Damages in some cases run into the millions, she said.

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