Another day, another high street retailer accused of stealing designs from an independent designer. This time it’s our old friends Dunnes Stores, certainly no strangers to accusations of copying!
According to The Irish Times, the nine year old Irish independent t-shirt designer Hairy Baby has accused Dunnes of copying logos and slogans found on T-shirts selling on the hairybaby.com website and selling them for €8 compared to the €23 they cost via Hairy Baby. And looking at the images, it’s not hard to see why! The wine coloured Dunnes Stores T-shirt (on the left) features a coin with the phrase ‘sound as a pound’ printed on the inside. The original Hairy Baby t-shirt is on the right.
While we’d be inclined to suggest that this one will settle out of court but with Dunnes Stores you just can’t be sure. The company has a reputation for being stubborn and who can forget its seven year ill advised legal battle with Karen Millen that it was never going to win? There was never any doubt Dunnes had breached the unregistered design regulation yet its lawyers fought on while the rest of us scratched our heads in bewilderment. We can only hope they’ve learned their lesson and don’t drag a small independent designer with only five members of staff through the courts.
When we think of copying in the industry we often presume it’s the big corporations, Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton, that are being copied. But that’s not always the case. Many designers like Hairy Baby find themselves copied by highstreet brands and face a David and Goliath situation. Here in the Ireland we have a myriad of laws protecting fashion designers. However, it’s often the situation that smaller, niche designers targeted by the fast fashion giants don’t have the finance, time or team of lawyers required to take on a legal challenge and enforce their rights.
Designing is not like sprinkling fairy dust; it requires years of practice, study and work to develop the necessary skills. It can take months for designers to develop textile prints, design a bespoke item of jewellery or to develop the perfect dress. The basic philosophy behind intellectual property laws is that people will invest more time and energy in developing new and original designs if they can profit from them. This incentive is somewhat diminished if a designer’s work can be stolen the moment it is unveiled. Would you spend months developing something that will be reproduced on the high street and sold for a fraction of the price for no monetary reward or attribution?
Social media has played a huge role in protecting smaller designers in recent years. Designers and their customers can ‘shame’ those that have copied into removing the product from their shop floors via social media sites. Just a couple of years ago, jewellery design duo Tatty Devine discovered near identical pieces of jewellery to their designs on sale in high street giant, Claire’s Accessories. When Claire’s ignored their complaints, Tatty Devine posted their grievances on their blog. Before long the story had gone viral and was picked up by mainstream media and national newspapers. Amidst the storm of negative media, Claire’s promptly removed the designs. Marks & Spencers also stopped selling a range of flower-print clothes back in 2012 when a young independent designer spotted designs that were “strikingly similar” to her own in M&S shops. Last month the brand was again forced into investigating alleged copying when children’s designer Tootsa McGuinty discovered almost identical designs to her own for sale in a Marks & Spencers shop. They initially ignored her pleas but a plethora of tweets and online articles forced them into taking action!
But is this the answer? Surely naming and shaming organisations on social media is a last resort. It doesn’t address the financial and emotional strains suffered by the designers who find themselves the victims of copying. The issue can be more easily resolved if organisations agree to pay for the designs that they use in the first place. Many small designers would be happy to discuss the possibility of licensing a design but don’t get the opportunity – their designs are taken and copied without their knowledge.
So while purchasing a designer dupe on the highstreet may seem harmless, remember, someone, somewhere put a lot of time and energy into creating the original. Intellectual property theft is not a victimless crime so let’s not encourage it. Innovative, creative designers should be rewarded, not punished, and retailers should pay a license if they want to use a design that belongs to someone else. Think inspiration, not imitation!