Young entrepreneurs in the fashion design industry often want to know if they are able to copyright their latest creation.
Unfortunately, they can’t.
Copyrighting a fashion design is not possible because it does not provide the creator of that design with the kind of protection they really want – protection from knockoffs. In fact, the converse is true when a fashion designer gets ready to launch a new design; they expect they will be copied. Often, they get knocked off before their product even hits the market; such is the cutthroat competition within the industry.
Until recently, this dire state of affairs has caused a great deal of angst among designers who want to go places but want their creations to remain their own and not show up under someone else’s label as a “less than perfect copy” of the original. There may be good news on the horizon in the form of the Design Piracy Prohibition Act – if it actually passes into law. This bill would offer copyright protection for fashion designs widely defined as eyeglass frames, duffel and tote bags, handbags, purses and clothing. Admittedly, clothing is a tad vague, but chances are that would be sorted out in the courts when push came to shove and a lawsuit was filed.
This Act actually amends Chapter 13 of the Copyright Act, which you may find rather interesting since that chapter provides protection to one category of useful articles, boat hull designs. Wondering what boat hull designs have to do with clothing, et cetera? The key here is the term “useful article.” Currently, fashion designs are classified as “useful articles” and have what is referred to as an intrinsic utilitarian function. There is more to that definition, but you have the key element.
Right now, designs of useful articles may be protected under copyright law “only if such design incorporates pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” In addition, there is very limited protection to be had under trade dress (trademark) and design patents (patent) law. The problem with those two “protections” is that they’re not practical for the fashion industry.
The proposed Act suggests a three year protection for fashion designs. Why? It’s limited because typically fashion trends are rather short-lived at the best of times. You’ll also find out that applications for protection may be filed at the U.S. Copyright Office, where it would be put on a database of protected designs and images of that design.
The Act also aims to narrow the definition of innocent infringement so that the courts are able to impose liability on those who had reasonable grounds to believe a design was protected. It would also boost damages for infringement, something the fashion industry would be enormously happy to see.