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Karen Millen, Dunnes Stores and the Pirate Paradox

It is far from our wish to add to the general hint of ridicule which has accompanied the reports of the former Minister for Justice Michael McDowell SC and Richard Nesbitt SC, chairman of Arnotts, as they argued over the finer points of knitwear on behalf of Karen Millen and Dunnes Stores respectively.

However, this case, in which judgement has been reserved, is the first major test of the application of a 2002 European Union Directive to the fashion industry. Other, similar, cases are pending its outcome. If the Directive is found to protect Karen Millen’s knitwear design then other retailers at the budget end of the fashion spectrum (Penneys springs immediately to mind) may find themselves and their business model in hot water.

It is worth considering for a moment the broader question as to whether the implementation of intellectual property protections for clothing designs is in the interests of the public or even the fashion industry as a whole.

The New York Times reported in April on a study by two law professors, Kal Raustiala of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Chris Sprigman of the University of Virginia. In it they consider the “pirate paradoxâ€?. The key to this paradox is that there are very weak IP protections for fashion designs. Yet the industry thrives, and continually produces new and innovative designs.

The authors argue that copying may well be one of the engines of innovation in the fashion business- that each spot on the fashion foodchain (crudely, from designer to high-street to budget) looks down on the next and that people will abandon clothes sooner than would otherwise be the case if they see the next layer down starting to wear them.

Thus, in seeking to freeze copying (or ‘homages’ as the industry frequently seems to prefer terming it) for three years the EU Directive may have the unintended consequence of stifling innovation in European fashion.

One final thought occurs. During the course of the hearing it was suggested that Karen Millen’s designers themselves may have been inspired by others further up the foodchain. It is possible that, even if successful, High Street chains may rue setting a precedent which could come back to bite them.

One Comment

  1. William Chessborough wrote a very interesting book a while back called “Open Innovation” which discussed the restrictive effect of IP on innovation and how many companies have begun to loosen the reins a little to try to spur innovation through licencing of IP rights to smaller innovators.

    The development of the Open Source software movement and the culture of ‘mashups’ where technologies are mixed and merged in innovative ways are also examples of this opening up of innovation. Lego’s Mindstorm toys are another – from a totally proprietary product they were opened up to allow hobbyists to extend the capability of the products by creating additional software components to run the robots.

    People hail much of our modern technology as arising from the Space Race of the 1960s and early 1970s. From what I recall, during the Apollo programme NASA patented less than 100 of its innovations, allowing for freedom of innovation by others, which in turn benefited later space travel developments and the wider community.

    A recent advert for a german luxury car boasted of the 6500+ new patents that were registered during the design of the vehicle. That’s just 6500 fewer opportunities now for others to innovate (in my view). Unless of course this company is willing to licence out their technik on an open basis that allows others to innovate further advances based on their root ideas.

    Perhaps this milinery litigation is a case of caveat creator?