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Planet Money Steals A T-Shirt

A rack of t-shirts.
Flickr/pureandapplied

The Planet Money team is going to make a t-shirt to sell to our listeners. We hope it will be the most thoroughly explained t-shirt in the history of the universe.

We'll visit cotton growers in Brazil, garment factories in China and fabric mills in North Carolina. And we'll explain the global economic forces that drive every step of the process.

But before we get to all that, we have to figure out what the shirt looks like — which turns out to be a much more complicated task than we expected.

Red is not objectively better than blue. Crew neck isn't objectively better than v-neck. So how do we decide? This is a high-stakes problem.

"You see great big sales in the store, and you're like, 'Oh my God this is great, because it's 80 percent off," Sofia Wacksman, a Macy's executive says.

But for people in the industry, a piece of clothing that's 80 percent off is bad news, according to Wacksman. It means somebody chose a design that customers didn't want.

"Somebody's fired," she says. "We're in trouble for those kind of things."

The solution: Figure out what everybody else is doing, and copy that.

Fortunately for us, an odd wrinkle in the law means that copying is perfectly legal in fashion. We could copy the Gap, or Banana Republic.

We could even forget the t-shirt idea, and decide to sell a stitch-for-stitch knock-off of Chelsea Clinton's wedding dress. But someone beat us to that idea.

"Just the next day after the wedding on television, you have somebody who is peddling knock-offs of the exact same dress for a couple of hundred dollars," says Alain Coblence, an attorney for the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

The CDFA has proposed legislation that would, for the first time in history, allow designers to take legal action against copycats. And the group includes some big names — Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Diane von Furstenberg.

The bill has actually been introduced in Congress by Charles Schumer, senator from New York, and seems to have a good chance of passing.

But the bill is controversial.

Some legal experts argue that, in the case of fashion, allowing copying actually fosters innovation and creativity.

Copying, they suggest, helps ideas spread and evolve. What's more, stylish people don't want to sport a look that anyone can copy with a cheap knock-off. So the more copies, the more work there is for original designers to come up with the next new thing.

In short: We've decided that our t-shirt design will be a copy. For the cut of the shirt, we'll borrow a pattern that's already out there.

And we'll copy a new trend in graphic design: We're going to incorporate QR codes. Those are those new, square codes you see popping up in ads and on products. They're basically a barcode you can scan with a smart phone that will take you to a Web site.

We're hoping that our shirt, with the aid of technology, will literally be able to tell you the story of how it was created.

We're even copying the colors. Every designer we talked to said that in the fall of 2011, when our t-shirt will go on sale, everything's going to be green or gray.

Our t-shirts will be no exception.

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