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Strategy at the Edge of Intellectual Property

Imagine working in an industry with no intellectual property protection at all.  Unlike the book, music, and high tech industries, you couldn’t use the law to shut down an infringer who was ripping off your products.

How would you stay in business?

Ask the fashion design business.  That’s what BusinessWeek did.  According to BW, garment designs are not copyrightable (but "counterfeit garments … right down to the label … are illegal").

BW found these strategies:

1. Protect what you can under existing intellectual property law – at the edge of IP, so to speak.  Diane Von Furstenberg has begun protecting her copyrights to fabric patterns (as opposed to the entire garment itself), as art.  Shoe designer Stuart Weitzman patented a shoe’s buckle and ornamentation.  Both Von Furstenberg and Weizman have sued to enforce their intellectual property rights.  (Similarly, blue jeans companies have for years registered and sued to protect their trademarks in the ornamental stitching on the back pockets of their jeans.  For example, see Levi Strauss’s U.S. trademark registration number 1,139,254.)

2. Use time to market to your advantage.  According to BusinessWeek, Designer Halston now makes its fashions available quickly at Net-a-Porter.com, to speed ahead of the inevitable copycats. Many industries have used this strategy successfully over the years, even the U.S. media industries in the late 19th century.  (See Stephen Breyer, "The Uneasy Case for Copyright: A Study of Copyright in Books, Photocopies, and Computer Programs," 84 Harvard Law Review 281 (1970).

3. Use "natural intellectual property" — materials or processes that others simply can’t copy, or that would be too expensive to knock-off cheaply.  For example, Weitzman is making shoe heels out of steel and titanium, which are too costly for low-price imitators.  When imitators try to use cheaper wooden materials, "the heels will snap."

4. Change the law.  The designers are supporting a proposed Design Piracy Prohibition Act.  But Congress is deliberative, and that path is slow and risky.