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.
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."
Copyright is not a magic bullet, points out University of Virginia's Christopher Sprigman, who studies the process of innovation.
"People don't understand that it would make unlawful anything that is substantially similar to a preceding thing," says the law professor, who testified against the CFDA-backed bill last July. "What copyright would do is blow up the entire fashion industry as we know it," he adds.
Nonetheless, far from being flattered by knockoff imitations, many top designers do a slow burn as they watch their months of effort replicated overnight, with others earning the profit.
"We are one of the only creative industries that has no protection," says New York designer Joanna Mastroianni, who has been clothing celebrities for red-carpet functions such as the Oscars for years.
"Would someone borrow software from Microsoft and say they were just doing it for inspiration, then tinker with it a little bit and then sell it as their own?" asks Ms. Mastroianni. She calls the threat of an industry collapse ridiculous, adding that imitation is the biggest problem she sees in her world. "We need to be encouraging originality, not rewarding imitation," she says.
Three firms that offer couture cheap – ABS, Eletra Casadei and online seamstress Jane Langdon – all declined interview requests. On her website, Langdon defends her work as a service to women who want to be fashionable but cannot afford designer prices. Through a media spokesperson, ABS design director Allen Schwartz points out that his Oscar line is only 2 percent of his business and says ABS wants to be known primarily for its own original designs rather than for its copies.
But fashion suffers from more than the knockoff industry, say some experts, who believe that the discussion of copyright protection reflects a deeper lack of respect for the art and science of design.
"Fashion has long been the stepchild of the design world," says Natalie Weathers, assistant professor at the Fashion Industry Management School of Engineering and Textiles at Philadelphia University. "For the longest time, it was relegated to the home [economics] curriculum and you know how much respect that's gotten from both men and women," she says.
Whether or not this legislation addresses the fashion industry's concerns, the next generation of designers and consumers both have a stake in protecting creativity, contends intellectual property lawyer, Tracy Durkin.
"What about the young designer who puts together a show, which is a lot of time and very costly, only to see it turn up on the Internet within a matter of weeks? The big designers can weather that kind of hit, but the up and coming won't be able to survive."