The Knockoff Economy

How Imitation Sparks Innovation

by Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman

Hardcover, 272 pages, Oxford University Press, List Price: $27.95 | purchase

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Title
The Knockoff Economy
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How Imitation Sparks Innovation
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Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman

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In The Knockoff Economy, Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman delve into the role of copying in the modern economy, arguing that creativity can thrive even in its presence.

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Excerpt: The Knockoff Economy

INTRODUCTION

Every spring, millions of viewers around the world tune in to watch the Academy Awards. Ostensibly, the Oscars are about recognizing the year's best movies. But for many people the Oscars are really about fashion. Fans and paparazzi press against the rope line to see Hollywood stars pose on the red carpet in expensive designer gowns. The television cameras are there too, broadcasting the red carpet fashion show (and the inevitable fashion faux pas) across the globe. In the process, careers in both film and fashion are made and unmade.

For years, the designers at Faviana have been watching the Oscars as well — very closely. Faviana is an apparel firm located on Seventh Avenue in New York City. If you go to Faviana's Web site, you will see a link titled "Dress Like a Star." 1 That link leads to a collection of dresses that are direct copies of those worn by actresses on television, in movies, and, most important, at awards shows like the Oscars. In fact, the dresses are identified using photos of stars, such as Angelina Jolie and Sarah Jessica Parker, wearing the original designs.

Knockoff s like these are a significant part of Faviana's business, as its Web site somewhat immodestly makes clear: "For the past 7 years, the company's 'designer magicians' have been interpreting the red carpet looks of Hollywood's most glamorous stars." And the company does not try to hide that it does more than "interpret" these red carpet looks; it copies them. Indeed, Faviana trumpets this fact. "Ten minutes after any big awards telecast, the Faviana design team is already working on our newest 'celebrity look-alike gowns,'" crowed CEO Omid Moradi in an interview. *

Faviana's creations retail for between $200 and $500 — not cheap, but much less expensive than the multi-thousand dollar designer creations they imitate. At these prices, even Faviana's "designer magicians" cannot replicate the expensive materials and workmanship of many of the originals. But for women who could never afford to buy the real thing, that does not matter. For them, a cheap facsimile is better than nothing. The company, which excels at the production of both knockoff s and PR catchphrases, refers to its work as "bling-on-a-budget."

The existence of firms like Faviana (or ABS, Promgirl, or any of a number of similar houses) raises fascinating questions about the relationship between creativity and copying. In most creative industries, copying is illegal. We all have seen this warning as we sit back on the couch to watch our latest Netflix arrival:

FBI ANTI-PIRACY WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

"Reproducing," or copying, a creative work like a film is against the law. Copyright law — and intellectual property law more generally — exist to prevent copying, on the theory that the freedom to copy would ultimately destroy creative industries. If others could simply copy the efforts of creators, few would bother to create in the first place. How then can a firm like Faviana get away with blatantly knocking off a dress that someone else has designed? And, even more important, why doesn't this rampant copying destroy the fashion industry?

Surprisingly, fashion designs are not covered by copyright law. What Faviana does is perfectly legal — and very common. 2 Fashion trademarks are fiercely policed; it is illegal to copy brand names such as Gucci or Marc Jacobs, and expensive lawyers aggressively sue those who try. But the underlying clothing designs can be copied at will. Firms both high and low in the fashion world knock off others' designs. Some merely take inspiration from or "reference" existing designs. Others copy far more blatantly. But all this copying is free and legal.

As a glance at the reliably thick September issue of Vogue will show, however, creativity in fashion has hardly ended. The development of new apparel designs continues every day at a dizzying pace. Indeed, the American fashion industry has never been more creative. All this copying has not killed the fashion industry. In fact, fashion not only survives despite copying; it thrives due to copying . This book is about why — and what the story of fashion, and of football, cuisine, finance, and a host of other unusual industries, can tell us about the future of innovation in a world in which copying is cheaper and easier than ever before.

* No one will be surprised that Faviana and its brethren do not stop at movie stars; detailed knockoffs of Kate Middleton's royal wedding dress, and even sister Pippa Middleton's bridesmaid dress, are available as well.

Excerpted from The Knockoff Economy by Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman. Copyright 2012 by Oxford University Press. Excerpted by permission of Oxford University Press.