by: John Caddell

It's Fashion Week in New York, and once again the subject of fashion knockoffs (do they help or hurt designer sales? how to stop them? etc.) is in the newspaper (see today's article "Can Fashion Be Copyrighted?" in the Wall Street Journal) and on the radio (a National Public Radio piece today as well).

Intellectual-property lawyers are weighing in on the subject as well. Here's an interesting paper on the subject from a Boston College law student (in 1997! This issue has really been around forever), and another from a Harvard law student in 2000.

Knockoff manufacturers are unanimous in stating that they help designers, not hurt them. The Journal states: "Joel Paris, who offers some 2,000 handbag styles resembling designer models on his Web site... maintains that knockoffs can boost a design house's profile."

But rather than focus on what can be done to inhibit and punish infringers, what if there were a more straightforward way to navigate between complete freedom to copy, on the one hand, and a completely proprietary market, on the other? Would that be something the fashion industry might be interested in? (Apologies to Bob Ryan.)

It's been done in the music industry for a hundred years. Songs are copyrighted, yet anyone can record or perform a song, as long as they pay a standard royalty to the copyright holder.

Couldn't this be done in fashion? Allow copyrighted designs, yet allow knockoff manufacturers to register their copies and pay a standard royalty (say a percentage of the wholesale price) to the copyright-holder.

That way, the designers would have protection (and participate financially in any knockoff), the knockoff artists could still function, and if there were any promotional value in having the knockoff, it would continue.

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