Sizing up the spat over red carpet copycats
SHERMAN OAKS, CALIF.
If you thought the red carpet at Sunday's Oscars was merely a fashion show, think again. For millions of American women who aspire to celebrity style, it was a shopping preview. Any minute now, low-priced versions of the gunmetal gray Armani sheath worn by Cate Blanchett or the ethereal feather and chiffon confection sported by Penelope Cruz will show up online or in a Bloomingdale's or Macy's near you, courtesy of firms like ABS, the acknowledged knockoff champ. Couture originals that went for a pricey five figures will retail in the $200 to $500 range.Skip to next paragraph
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ABS and a growing number of other companies can copy these designs, most with minor alterations – different ruffles on the Versace skirt, for instance, or a single dress instead of two pieces on Blanchett's outfit – because unlike music and movies, fashion apparel cannot be copyrighted. Some industry analysts, and some consumers, applaud this, calling imitation the life-blood of the fashion world. Designers call it bad copyright law, and say even if it's legal, copying someone else's designs is at least unethical. A new federal bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia in 2006 and backed by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, would allow individuals to copyright a design for three years. CFDA executive director Steven Kolb expects the bill to be reintroduced this month.
But as battle lines are being drawn, many cultural observers say this is more than a struggle over the future of a trillion-dollar global industry. It's also a window into changing American ideas about ownership and ethical behavior.
"We can't view the issue of fashion being copied in isolation," says David Schmidt, professor of business ethics at Fairfield University in Connecticut. "There is something happening that runs across all these activities, such as downloading music or sharing videos." In previous generations, he says, ownership was clear. "If you had it on your shelf, you owned it. And if someone copied it, there was always a degradation from the original that made that original valuable."
In the digital age, however, copies are often identical by every meaningful measure.
Beyond that, the sheer availability of the replicated items lends to a sense of confusion about fundamental ethical values, such as what it means to "own" something that isn't the original item.
While millions across America were watching the celebs strut their stuff on Sunday, production accountant Suzy Sherman was trolling the designer racks at Bloomingdale's at the Fashion Square Mall here. Asked whether or not she thinks the copyrighting bill should be passed, her response is unwavering. "Absolutely not," she says.
With a hearty laugh, Ms. Sherman waves a hand at the dozens of racks of dresses surrounding her. "If you had designers copyrighting everything they did, all this would go away for the average middle-class person like me because the originals would all be too expensive," she says, adding that the democratization of high fashion is good for everyone because it keeps the marketplace alive with fresh ideas. "Everybody builds on everybody else, that's how fashion has always grown and changed and made its way into mainstream America," she says. "That would all slow way down and maybe even stop if they could copyright everything."