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What the Hell Happened: Big Retailers Plagiarizing

At the end of November, the Navajo Nation finally settled its 2012 lawsuit against Urban Outfitters, Inc. The tribe took issue with the fact that Urban, a multinational clothing corporation, had been using the “Navajo” name to brand lines of products. Flasks, panties, and socks with tribal patterns were, in fact, sold with the term “Navajo” at Urban Outfitters and some of its subsidiaries, such as Free People and Anthropologie.

The case for copyright infringement extended beyond just a name. The Navajo Nation holds dozens of trademarks for its name, clothing, footwear, textiles, and more. By appropriating the tribe’s name, Urban Outfitters put Navajo artisans and crafters at risk. While the terms of the resulting settlement are confidential, statements released spoke of future collaborations between the retailer and the Navajo Nation.

Urban was far from the first major corporation to step on the toes of smaller artisans. In July, Los Angeles designer Tuesday Bassen realized that Spanish retailer Zara and its subsidiaries were using replicas of her hand-designed patches. After hiring a lawyer, Zara’s legal team reportedly responded to her cease-and-desist letter: “The lack of distinctiveness of your client’s purported designs makes it very hard to see how a significant part of the population anywhere in the world would associate the signs with Tuesday Bassen.” In other words, Zara’s legal team was attempting to argue that Bassen’s designs weren’t recognizable enough to count as legitimate infringement.

Bassen took to Instagram to post a note about her grievances, which caught the attention of her friend Adam J. Kurtz, another designer. Kurtz had previously noticed a knockoff of his designs on one of Zara’s subsidiary brands and got the item removed after complaining. But seeing Bassen’s post, he realized the problem was more than a one-time occurrence. He and Bassen researched other artists that Zara had copied and displayed them on a website, shoparttheft.com.

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The size features dozens of original designs from independent artists that are strikingly similar to Zara’s. Nor is Zara alone in receiving accusations from small designers. In October, Kohl’s became embroiled in a similar case. Topshop, Versace, and Forever 21 have all previously had to deal with comparable allegations. One possible theory for the recent uptick in these types of cases is the wide availability of designs on social media. Big retailers may (intentionally or not) find themselves consulting Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest posts or reposts from artists advertising their products—not offering up designs for free. But as of now, this harmful practice does not seem to be widely recognized. Shoppers keeping up to date on the latest legal action may realize that the creative work they enjoy wearing does not, in fact, originate in the places they purchase it.

—Staff writer Rebecca H. Dolan can be reached at rebecca.dolan@thecrimson.com.

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