By  on August 9, 2007

NEW YORK — Narciso Rodriguez, Nicole Miller, Yeohlee Teng and other designers turned out Wednesday at the Fashion Institute of Technology to support Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) as he plugged new legislation to protect fashion designs from knockoff artists.

The Schumer-backed Design Piracy Prohibition Act would protect original fashion designs for three years once registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Current U.S. laws only address counterfeits if they involve anything that infringes on a registered trademark or falsely purport to be authentic. Under current laws, patents can protect creative objects or ornamentation, but it is virtually impossible to get a patent on an entire article of clothing. Trademarks only protect brand names and logos. A loophole in copyright law leaves New York fashion designers open to having designs pirated. Unlike the arts, books, music and films which are protected, fashion design is not covered.

Design is "every bit intellectual property — yet the law says, 'Come, rip it off' — it's absolutely amazing," Schumer said.

Introduced last week in Washington by Schumer and eight other senators, the DPP Act stemmed from concerns about how copycats are devaluing designers' original designs and how cheap overseas labor is challenging growth in the $350 billion U.S. fashion industry. The bill's aim is to preserve intellectual property and to safeguard established and up-and-coming designers. Similar laws in Italy and France have fared well, Schumer said.

"Fashion week is just 10 years old — that's hard to believe. Yet all of a sudden, New York is the fashion capital of the world. It's not Milan, it's not Paris — it's New York," Schumer said. "It gives us that star quality that helps attract millions to New York and employs thousands and thousands."

In fact, New York's $47 billion fashion industry employs 150,000 people, said Schumer. While imitation may be the finest form of flattery, it is costing the city $1 billion in lost taxes annually, according to another speaker, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.), who is shepherding similar legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Kate Winslet's movies are protected from pirates, but Kate Spade's bags are not," Nadler said.Rodriguez knows firsthand how extreme piracy can be. He said an estimated eight million copies of the slipdress he designed for his friend Carolyn Bessette Kennedy were sold. And by the time he produced that same dress for his own collection, he sold "maybe 45 — it was already too widely distributed" by copycats. "It was very harmful to my business." He also said that at one point he had a fledgling accessories business, but before he could produce it, knockoffs already were being distributed by larger companies.

Designer Jeffrey Banks explained that under the new legislation, a designer can photograph the front and back of a garment, send those images to the copyright office, pay a fee of $30 or less and the design would be registered. Designers would have six months to register a design. Existing designs are already in the public domain and would not be covered under the new legislation, said Schumer.

Before the program got under way, designer Marc Bouwer told WWD that Faviana, a dress company, made its $238 interpretation of the dress he designed for Marcia Cross to wear to last year's Golden Globes into one of this year's best-selling prom dresses. "We're all for making more affordable clothes. Have us working for Target and H&M and others — but let it come from us. Do not counterfeit our designs in such a blatant manner," Bouwer said.

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