21 December 2012

IP and Fashion

It appears that congress is proposing to give fashion designers a three year copyright term on their designs. (Bill text here.)  This is a remarkably stupid idea.

In the first place, this means that the fashion industry will eventually be overrun with lawyers whose sole purpose will be to sue everyone who designs and manufactures clothing for violating copyright law. One firm—probably one with mediocre design and production processes—will find it more lucrative to sue other companies than to come up with something that people would want to buy, and eventually all the other companies will go down the lawsuit path to cover their own butts.  The lawyers will, unsurprisingly, ague for strengthening copyright laws for fashion designers, which will only make the problem worse. Eventually, clothing designers and clothing manufacturers will spend as much time and money suing one another and threatening to sue one another, and trying to coerce money from one another as they do designing and producing clothes.  Prices will go up, fashion will become somewhat more stagnant, and consumers will have to pay more to not look so old-fashioned.  The only ones who will improve their bottom line will be the lawyers.

In second place, copyright law cannot solve the problems of a tanking market.  Just ask the RIAA.  If people are going broke, using government force to reduce competition is not going to make everyone else richer, nor is it going to make them buy your product.  Eliminating knockoffs isn’t guaranteed to make one richer because there is no guarantee that people would have bought your product in the first place.  In fact, if the music industry is any indication, a relatively lax IP system actually boosts sales because it increases exposure and spurs demand.  Also, if you’re mark-up is such that you’re pricing yourself out of business, the problem is not so much the competition as the problem is you.

Finally, this simply is not necessary.  The government is hypothetically supposed to have a limited function, per the bounds of the constitution , then the government would do well to recall the point of copyright.  According to the constitution, the purpose of copyright is to promote the arts.  Now, the question is this:  does the fashion industry seem to be lagging in creative output?  Compared to other artistic mediums (movies, television, music , painting, sculpture, etc.), fashion is not doing all that poorly.  It’s interesting to note that the media with the least mainstream innovation (as opposed to fringe innovation)—movies and music—use a direct pay model while the most innovative medium—television—uses a subsidized model.  Applying copyright law to fashion would cause fashion to shift more towards a direct pay model, and would likely stifle innovation since designer would have a smaller support base and would be more beholden to it (also, designers would probably be more repetitive with their designs so as to avoid copyright disputes).

In sum, applying copyright law to fashion is a terrible idea because it will lead to the further infestation of lawyers and lobbyists, it will tank the fashion market, and it will stifle innovation.  Given all these strikes against it, I bet the fashion copyright legislation eventually gets passed.

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