“The Piracy Paradox: Innovation and Intellectual Property in Fashion Design” is sparking an interesting conversation about copycattiness in creative professions.
The paper argues that copying in the fashion industry does not deter innovation (and may actually promote it). James Surowiecki summarized the essay in The New Yorker and argued that fashion piracy results in “more innovation, more competition, and probably more sales than there otherwise would be.”
Designers’ frustration at seeing their ideas mimicked is understandable. But this is a classic case where the cure may be worse than the disease. There’s little evidence that knockoffs are damaging the business. Fashion sales have remained more than healthy—estimates value the global luxury-fashion sector at a hundred and thirty billion dollars— and the high-end firms that so often see their designs copied have become stronger. More striking, a recent paper by the law professors Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman suggests that weak intellectual-property rules, far from hurting the fashion industry, have instead been integral to its success. The professors call this effect “the piracy paradox.”
The paradox stems from the basic dilemma that underpins the economics of fashion: for the industry to keep growing, customers must like this year’s designs, but they must also become dissatisfied with them, so that they’ll buy next year’s. Many other consumer businesses face a similar problem, but fashion—unlike, say, the technology industry—can’t rely on improvements in power and performance to make old products obsolete. Raustiala and Sprigman argue persuasively that, in fashion, it’s copying that serves this function, bringing about what they call “induced obsolescence.” Copying enables designs and styles to move quickly from early adopters to the masses. And since no one cool wants to keep wearing something after everybody else is wearing it, the copying of designs helps fuel the incessant demand for something new.
Law school professor Susan Scafidi calls this “a tired, old argument” and says it’s based on an outdated, pre-internet portrait of the industry.
The designers who suffer from copying are the little guys – those whose designs are copied, while their trademarks are not. Consider the accessories designer who received an order for a belt from a large department store – only to have the store place its larger reorder with a cheaper manufacturer. Or how about the jeweler whose work was admired by a buyer at a trade show and hoped for a sale, only to open the large company’s catalog months later and see an exact copy of her design? Maybe the dress designer who saw her dress praised in an online forum, only to have the next post recommend buying an exact knockoff elsewhere – followed by thanks for the “tip”? Perhaps you’d be convinced by the handbag designer who actually received a wholesale order, only to have it canceled a few days later because the buyer found an exact copy of her original design elsewhere at a lower price? The stories are common ones, but these are not hypothetical examples. These are real people, some of whom prefer not to be named. They have invested time, money, and talent – R&D to any other industry – in realizing their visions, only to have their work stolen, often by huge companies. You would recognize many of the names of the corporate copyists; I doubt that most readers would ever have heard of the startup designers.
Handbags at dawn offers some more pushback to the Piracy Paradox.