The culture of copying: “What is the kind of ownership model in a digital world that’s gonna lead to the most innovation?”

While a musician can be sued for stealing a hook, fashion designers are praised for knocking off the right vintage look. What gives?

More than any other industry, fashion treats a far larger portion of its creative output as a commons – shared resources that can be freely reused and transformed by other creators. In some ways, the history of fashion is the simultaneously whimsical and serious story of an industry that continues to grow and prosper via Sir Isaac Newton’s maxim, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” If innovation, regardless of the sector, is driven by previous innovation, then extrapolation to the fashion industry should apply. It can be postulated that the unrestricted access to previous works – the rip-off, knock-off and outright copying of garments – are exactly what has propelled design through the ages. Led by Lear Center Senior Fellows David Bollier and Laurie Racine, this project explores the creative process in the fashion industry, the effects of copyright and trademark law and the relationship between fashion and entertainment.

Two of the most prodigious and prolific sectors of global culture – music and film – are ensnarled in very public, long-term conflicts over the control of creativity. Much of the controversy revolves around the scope of legal protection that creative works should enjoy and whether prior works may be freely re-used. It is striking that the fashion industry, which is a $298 billion dollar market in the United States alone, is driven by similar market forces and yet manages its creative output so very differently. Rather than rejecting derivation and appropriation outright, the fashion industry has found a way to incorporate these practices into the core of the industry while continuing to be competitive and innovative.

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