Here’s How Brands Legally Get Away With Ripping Off Other Designers

Here's How Brands Legally Get Away With Ripping Off Other Designers
Flickr/Gabriela Pinto

In most industries, copying someone else’s work could result in steep penalties and major consequences. But in fashion, copycats abound, ripping off hardworking designers’ pieces like doing so was going out of style. 

And it’s totally legal.

Fast fashion is a major culprit when it comes to the copycat game, and some of the world’s largest fast fashion retailers are known for eagerly replicating the designs of others.

Brands copying designs is nothing new. It doesn’t take long after a runway debut that knock-off creations emerge – just weeks in some cases – offering the same look at a fraction of the cost for fashion-lovers on a budget.

How are brands able to get away with it?

Thanks to extremely dated, red tape-ridden copyright laws in the United States that set the criteria for patent-protecting a fashion design extremely high, copying someone’s design is pretty simple to get away with. As Vox highlights, a set of rules outlined a “mere” four decades ago essentially views fashion as a manufacturing industry instead of a creative one like film, literature, or music. Unless designers have incredibly unique and specific design details or patented or trademarked logos, they are pretty much out of luck in the U.S. when it comes to protecting their unique creations.


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That isn’t to say that designers haven’t called out bigger, design-stealing companies before – and very publicly. Everyone from Forever 21 and Zara to Urban Outfitters has been slammed for copying designs from small producers.

Last year, Old Navy found itself in hot water (especially on social media) when British designer Carrie Anne Roberts called out the retailer for blatantly stealing the design of her graphic t-shirts. Old Navy was selling the attention-grabbing tees – which read “Raising the Future” (adult) and “The Future” (child) – for half of the original price. In response to a barrage of social media backlash, Old Navy pulled the shirts from its online shop – but not before claiming that they did nothing wrong legally because Roberts didn’t trademark the phrases or the font and graphic design of the shirts.

brands copying designs

The thing is, even if a total knock-off was completely questionable and offside, few smaller designers have the cash to take legal action.

Unless funded by the bank of mom and dad, the reality is that any barely have enough money to create their next collection, let alone the funds for a lawyer and the time taken away from the business to spend in court. What designers can do to protect themselves is trademark things like company names and logos and patent-protect some technical design elements.

So, while getting an affordable, trend-forward item of clothing may help the wardrobe cause of the savvy shopper, it’s pretty much a slap in the face to hard working designers who have pounded the pavement for years in an incredibly competitive and passion-driven sphere.

Furthermore, the cheaper recreations are often made with subpar materials in subpar conditions, often unethically.

Tight regulations and absence of proper copyright laws aside, fast fashion retailers can also get away with replicating other designs by pointing fingers at their vendors and suppliers if they don’t design all of their merchandise in-house. Although private labeling between brands and suppliers is a massive market, the issue is that big brands often have little control of the happenings in countries around the world – from business practices to design inspiration and replication.

The victims of design stealing in the fashion world aren’t just the smaller indie designers. Zara had no shame in bigging up its footwear game by copying both Kanye West’s Yeezys and a pair of Balenciaga sneakers. Furthermore, it’s not just the fast fashion brands who are the copycats. High-end fashion houses like Gucci and Chanel have been accused of ripping of designs.

Until copyright laws change, there is little that can be done to prevent copycats from happening.

While they may be asked to credit the original creators or pull certain pieces from stores, the absence of legal regulations means that the problem will likely persist. And, while they may not always see the inside of a courtroom, the trial by social media is a whole other issue – and that’s a lot more ruthless than a typical jury would ever be. 

Featured image: Flickr/Gabriela Pinto 

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