Crimes Against Fashion: How can we protect against Intellectual Property theft?

As seen on Fashion Roundtable.

Perhaps one of the biggest assets we have in the creative industry is our Intellectual Property (IP). And with our social media feeds abuzz with the latest product launches and fashion week now live-streamed for all to see, it’s easy to see why IP theft is becoming increasingly prolific. My first taste of this was some 12 years ago on a trip to Thailand. I was meandering through a local market when I spotted a row of leather bags, and on closer reflection realised they were direct copies of Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Mulberry. These weren’t your average cheap knocks off as you’d expect, but made from soft, buttery leather with heavy metal detailing minus the price tag. What struck me at the time, albeit naively, was why the local community wouldn’t make something authentic utilising the same process – surely handmade goods created by local artisans would be a very real selling point? What I couldn’t have foreseen at the time was just what counterfeit goods would be worth in today’s market. In fact, a report by the International Chamber of Commerce revealed that the value of counterfeit goods is predicted to reach $2.8 trillion by 2022.

Where it gets particularly confusing is that currently we are automatically protected against IP theft for art works and writing, but have to apply for protection for others like product names and logos. While the UK remains in the Brexit transition period, the same laws apply until the transition ends on 31 December 2020. However, with the end date looming and legislation shifting, this will undoubtedly cause substantial issues for designers and brands alike. 

UAL’s Creative and Cultural IP Rights Specialist, Roxanne Peters argues that fashion is copied all too often, due to its subjective nature: “The intersection of IP and Fashion embodies the idea of inspiring and innovating on the one hand, but simultaneously involves discouraging imitation. Fashion is notoriously difficult to define in a legal sense and as a result, designs are often copied.”

Due to the complexity here, Peters states that students at UAL are encouraged to think about how to manage and protect their IP at all stages of their creative process, from idea to industry. Students are actively encouraged to recognise the value of their IP as a vital tool in building sustainable futures and connections within the industry – which should be central to all creatives and their work. 

As fashion production has increased and continues to move at such an alarming rate, this particular issue has lacked designated resources. The long lead-times required to bring legal actions also mean the design will likely be sold out by the time the case is heard. This is an ongoing issue that doesn’t discriminate, affecting large brands and small independent designers and artists alike. However, fast-fashion companies are perhaps the worst offenders with Zara famously copying Kayne’s cult Yeezy’s back in 2016. And around the same time, Forever 21 imitating a coat by CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist Sandy Liang showing a severe lack of respect and blatant disregard for the originality and work that went into the piece. 

This very situation happened to my friend, illustrator Carissa Tanton not once but twice, and most recently she found her artwork printed on to mass-produced jumpers: “There’s the first initial shock, that feeling of being robbed, then anger and the frustration of trying to chase it down and realising that your almost powerless to your emails being ignored.”

Both times her work was stolen, she found out from someone within her social media community. In this recent incidence though, it seemed the product was created by a wholesaler who then distributed the product to around 10 different websites for on-selling. None of these sites had social media accounts and very little in the way of customer service. After trying to make contact on numerous occasions, she was left with 2 responses from people who removed the design. 

“The only tool we have as small businesses who don’t have the money to cover expensive legal fees and the knowledge of where we stand with it all is to head to social media” says Carissa. “This summer when my work was stolen I had over 100 messages alerting me to it. I was contacted through Instagram, Twitter, sent emails, contacted on eBay from someone who had previously bought my work, messaged by people who had never seen my work until the stolen advert and sensed something was off. After all the negative emotions comes this absolute tidal wave of support, and for me this far outweighed the anger of being stolen from.”

And in an admirable ‘can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ approach she contacted an organic dyer and screen printer based in North Wales who had her design printed onto organic cotton t-shirts and jumpers and dyed using vegan inks, which she is now offering up as part of a pre-sale— offering a stark contrast in authenticity and sustainability to the mass-produced versions.

Finally, it’s undeniable that we’re experiencing an intellectual property crisis within our creative community at the moment. No matter what terminology we use, whether plagiarism, counterfeit, or theft – this concept of taking something that belongs to someone else is undeniably wrong and I’m constantly left wondering how this moral code became so skewed? Although no consolation to the issue, I do feel strongly that no-one will ever be able to truly replicate something original with the same authenticity and pride as the creator. We can’t underestimate the power of a strong community and if you’re struggling to get the desired result, use your ingenuity to go one better. No-one can or will ever do it like you and that’s the power you have.


If you’d like to learn more, UAL’s Creative and Cultural IP Rights Specialist, Roxanne Peters kindly contributed the additional resources below:

·     First of all, it’s always best to seek legal advice. 

·     Make use of the free IP Clinic’s around the country particularly if you’re thinking of launching a new design, product or offering. 

·      Podcast: London College of Fashion x Sheridan’s Law Firm to help creatives gain confidence to recognise some key areas of their practice; when IP might apply or need to be considered; and best practice online.  

·      Case Study featuring key considerations from Roxanne Peters, UAL’s Creative and Cultural IP Rights Specialist, as Fredrik Tjaerandsen, CSM Womenswear student moves his embryonic career to the next level.