Protecting Your Designs From Plagiarism In The Fashion Industry
What if someone copies my designs?
We constantly receive DMs, have phone meetings, discuss during consultation calls with one-on-one clients, and chat inside the AE membership program about this ONE topic, this one dreaded issue – Plagiarism.
Many designers are afraid of this happening to them or they have already had some bad experiences with issues regarding this problem. We are going to talk about plagiarism and copying.
How to protect yourself and deal with someone or another brand knocking off your products or design.
Before we continue we need to have a little disclaimer. We have to state clearly that we are not lawyers. We are a designer and an engineer. What we talk about here is not legally binding advice. All laws are different in the country and state you live in. What we are going to cover are examples we have seen and learned about in the many years we have worked in this industry.
So if someone has copied your design and you want to legally proceed and tackle this issue, get full LEGAL advice. Please see an attorney and hire a law firm, that can properly and legally help you in your state and country.
Two scenarios of plagiarism
Brands ripping off other designers’ work is not a secret. In recent years its been easier to out copying brands with all the social media and the blogs and the Insta lives and stories. Something nasty like this does not stay a secret for long. For some designers, it is a big issue and we felt we had to talk about it now.
Hopefully after this reading this you will have more “meat on your bones” as we say in Swedish. Meaning you will have more info to help you with your decision along the way.
We see two specific scenarios where designers are afraid of plagiarism:
- Designers are afraid even before they begin. That the manufacturers or suppliers are going to copy their design when they send away the tech packs and sketches for sourcing or product development.
- Someone has already copied their design and they are angry, bitter and pissed off and don’t know what to do about it.
The other day we had a long DM conversation with one of our members about a person copying his product. He had copied the product and unfortunately done it in a poor way. Our member had confronted this person but nothing happened. So, he wants, of course, to know what he can do in a situation like this.
We actually have a personal story as well with a similar experience. When we exhibited at an outdoor fair with Sinaia, our technical urban wear brand. We had a big brand knocking off one of our garments. At fairs, there are not only buyers, but there are also designers form other brands. During the fair, we welcomed curious people into the booth, explaining the concept, talking about the material ideas behind the designs and we also asked where they were from, what they looked for at the fair. This time, the people we talked about were 2 designers form a pretty big outerwear brand in Scandinavia. They were very interested, had loads of questions, looked extremely carefully at the garments and trying them on. When they left the booth they also took one of our look books. At the time, we didn’t think much about it but one year later we saw in their collection- one very very similar parka to our style. Of course, we were pissed off, we felt stupid for talking to them and for giving them so much information about our styles, and finally that we let them leave with a look book. But we couldn’t have known.
Get Real – The Knock Off Fashion Industry
Basically you have to get real – this is the industry. This industry has always been like this and will I guess always be like this. No matter how many laws or rules there are implemented. It’s the name of the game.
Even well-renowned fashion houses are accused of plagiarism. You have big names like Chanel, Michael Kors. Balmain was accused of ripping of Givenchy. Then you have the obvious ones, brands like Zara, H&M, Forever 21 that allegedly copy designs as soon as they walk down the runway and their products land in the stores a couple of fo weeks after the show, way before the designers’ original products have been introduced to the market.
Is this fair? NO! Is this OK? no!
It’s a money game. It doesn’t have anything to do with integrity or originality, or authenticity. It’s just about the money. And yes, it’s also about the money for you as a brand, that has been ripped off.
Let’s take a closer look at design protection in general.
It is very very difficult to protect a design. The copying brand can change the design just by little and state it is something new and different. It can still be very obvious that it’s a knock off, but most of the time, it’s a dead end.
If you have a patent-pending or a patent, then it’s a completely different game. That protection is for a specific function or design detail, or construction, not for an entire design. It’s very time consuming to do a patent registration and it also costs a lot of money. Unless you really have a super innovative, unique, function ,or construction then it’s not worth it.
Let’s give you some examples:
For example a hand pocket construction on a pair of pants. The pattern construction keeps the things inside the pocket from falling out and stay in place. It’s a very specific innovative solution.
Another example: a special hood construction, that has internal construction to keep the hood snug on the head while moving.
But a design line on a blouse or a scooped collar, or a floral print is not going to be given a patent. These things need to be very specific.
Instead of worrying like crazy or letting this drive you mad you can shift your mindset and use it to your advantage as much as you can. You could look at it from another angle –
What can you do before, to be proactive?
And how can you use it to your advantage and how can you leverage this to give yourself more publicity, or traffic to your site or actually sell more products?
Now let’s talk about the 2 scenarios:
- How to protect your designs before you have a product
- How to protect your designs when you already have a product
Hopefully, we can give you some calming information and ways you can go about these issues.
How to protect your designs before you have a product
You may have not registered or trademarked your brand yet, and you might be right in the starting phase. Things like this take time but you might be in a rush to bring your products to market.
You might already have a tech pack or a finished idea and you want to take it to a manufacturer.
The worry here is that suppliers and manufacturers will steal your design.
That is a very low risk. They see and work with so many brands and designs. They don’t have an interest in copying your stuff. Their reputation is on the line as well.
Is your design really unique?
Most of the time, your design is not that unique. Your brand might be or your overall service or business model, but the product itself is probably already similar to something else. Nothing is that new under the sun.
Now let’s say you do have a very specific and unique product or design, then you can have them sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement – a confidential agreement.
Document everything, put dates on everything, including your sketches. You can’t protect an idea but you can show proof for everything physical that you have. Like a sketch or a prototype. Take pictures of the product developments, make videos, put dates on everything.
Terms Of Agreement Contract
To be on the real safe side, use a contract with your Manufacturer and/or supplier.
Have a signed contract at the beginning of your cooperation, that states that you are the intellectual property owner of your designs and products. Also, do your background check on that manufacturer or supplier, talk to reference brands. What is their experience with that manufacturer or supplier? Due diligence is extremely important if you want to avoid some ugly traps.
How to protect your designs when you already have a product
Scenario nr 2
As soon as you put your designs into the world, they are out there for everybody to see. It’s hard to “protect” them.
But you can still be very proactive about it.
Keep documentation of the birth of your product, from sketch to the final finished product. All the samples and protos and mockups, with as we mentioned, clear dates on everything. If something happens you can go back and have proof of your designs.
Market the crap out of it
State clearly that it’s YOURS. Show the world your process! Tell the story! Show the behind the scenes, show the entire process to visually tell your customers how it came to be.
Talk about the inspiration, the reason you chose to design it, the problem it solves, the color choice, talk about all the materials and the details. Talk about your choices and the reason why you did what you did. By doing this you will show your authenticity. This will also connect your brand with your customers on a deeper level. They will appreciate your designs even more. It strengthens your brand and what it is doing.
Be one step ahead
Remember that if someone copies you, they are doing what you have already done. They are one step behind and you are one step ahead. If it’s a style – change the color, or a detail, or scrap that entire design. But keep moving.
Now let’s look at some general tips:
Constant evolution and innovation
Your brand and your products have to constantly evolve. This applies even to your core products. Every batch, every new season, keep tweaking keep improving them. Never stand still with a product.
Your brand is everything
A design or product can be copied, but a brand can’t. Because the brand is unique! Products evolve too, some designs that are really fashionable and on-trend right now can get outdated in 6 months, but a brand is timeless. There is no expiration date. So work on your brand message every day in your marketing.
Be almost ready for it to happen. And RUN with it in your marketing. Remember the Balenciaga bag that looked exactly like the IKEA plastic bag. Yeah. I’m sure you know what we are talking about. If you don’t, go Google it. The way IKEA tackled the situation was unbelievably clever.
Also, take a look at accounts like @DietPrada on Instagram and you can see daily how many brands are being copied. It’s a great way to get ideas on how you could write about it if it happened to you.
One important fact…
How original is your design or product in the first place? Trends happen, there are cultural phenomenons happening, and you might get a brilliant design idea at the same time as another designer. That can actually happen and it happens all the time because that’s how ideas work. They are influenced by what’s going on in the world.
So, think about it, is your design actually the original? If you dig a little bit deeper and find out it isn’t, eventually, it can blow up in your face.
We have seen a situation where a designer accused another brand of stealing her skirt design and when this whole thing escalated on social media, people started to state that in fact, the designer’s product was very very similar a 30-year-old product.
Inspiration can come from many places and sometimes it’s even subconscious. You think you get an idea and actually you have seen it on the street on a person walking by. So unless your design is truly, truly unique, you can take a deep breath and think a bit more about if you want to take this further.
It’s a money game
The bigger brands most always win over the smaller brand. They have the cash and the people and can put muscles behind it. If you are a solopreneur, this will be one of your thousands of things to do. Do you really have time and money to go to court?
Instead of going to court, you can make this situation into an advantage and use it to your benefit. Use it to strengthen your brand message even more! But you have to take action and do something with it in all your content. Use humor, make it into something funny for example, instead of something aggressive or negative.
Think flattery – you have done something great that another brand wants to be part of.
Be willing to confront
When you clearly see that another designer or brand has copied or been “inspired” by your design, one of the first things you can do is to confront them. This gesture can scare them a little bit and bring them to reality and they may just by that fact, take down that product form their collection. This may or may not happen, but you have to know what you want them to do before confronting them. Do you want them to remove the product, do you want them to pay you a fee for using a similar product, again, talk to a lawyer and they might have more solid suggestions for how you could be compensated for your design. We have also heard that a designer reported a website that had a very similar print design and the website was shut down.
One last thing. We know you have tons and tons of things to do but do take a couple of hours, half a day, or even a weekend and educate yourself on the basics of law. You will know what it means and you can make strategic decisions based on what you learn so that you can protect yourself against plagiarism. And if it happens, you will know what to do instead of getting into panic mode.
Again, different countries have different laws, in Europe, designs can be protected by copyright law as soon as the product is made, in other countries not. That’s why it’s so important that you check with a law firm where your business is registered. You want to work with someone who deals with intellectual property rights issues on a daily basis and is specialized in the fashion industry.
This is a tough topic and we hope this post has helped you get more clarity on this issue.
So to sum the entire thing up in a sentence – focus on your thing, be constantly evolving and innovating your designs and products and if other brands would copy your designs use it to your advantage in your marketing.