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Harvard Law School Professor Advises Schumer on Fashion

By Tyler G. Hale, Contributing Writer

Harvard Law School professor Jeannie C. Y. Suk is helping Sen. Charles E. Schumer ’71 (D-N.Y.) design a new standard that would protect fashion designers against knockoffs.

Suk, who co-authored an article published in the Stanford Law Review advocating copyright laws for fashion designers, is now advising Schumer in his efforts to draft legislation expanding the reach of federal copyright laws to protect fashion.

“Fashion is an area of culture that is everywhere around us,” Suk said in an interview yesterday. “It is an area where there is a constant outpouring of creativity.”

Fashion is currently unprotected by federal law, as it falls under the category of “useful articles,” which, like furniture, are excluded from copyright protection in spite of any artistic value.

Copyright protection, Suk argues, would benefit emerging fashion designers with limited budgets, as they are often unable to compete with knockoffs that purveyors like Forever 21 advertise at significantly reduced prices.

Heba el Habashy ’10­—who recently launched TheCultivate.com, a Web-based service which aims to connect new designers with trend-conscious wholesalers and buyers to bolster local markets—expressed her support for protecting fledgling designers.

“I can get over people copying the work of established fashion houses,” Habashy wrote in an e-mail. “But emerging designers are barely scraping by, and to have the tenacity to cut them out of this competitive retail market is just wrong.”

But even prominent fashion designers such as the late Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga, who are able to file lawsuits against companies for copying their designs, run into difficulties because there are no current legal standards in place.

Because fashion designs tend to follow existing trends, Suk said that the “substantially similar” copyright standards for film, music, and literature, cannot be applied to fashion designs.

Fashion designs, Suk said, can be “substantially similar”—just not “substantially identical.”

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