Why Do Brands Keep Stealing Artists’ Designs?

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For a lot of artists, it can be really hard to protect their original designs in the fashion industry.

The industry is full of copy-cat brands and complete knock-off items and because of social media, these replicas are popping up more and more.

But how is this happening? And what are the laws around holding big brands accountable for this type of stealing?

Aretha Brown is an Indigenous artist who recently called out Australian brand Gorman, for allegedly ripping off her artwork by using it in their clothing line.

This isn’t the first time Gorman has been accused of copying designs, even though they continue to deny all claims.

But since Brown’s call-out, the company’s Instagram has been flooded with comments urging them to pay Indigenous artists and to stop stealing designs.

And it’s raised a lot of ethical questions around why artists’ designs or artworks aren’t properly protected in the first place.

What Are The Laws Around Artists’ Designs?

According to Australia’s current intellectual property legislation, there are ways to safeguard artists from this type of stuff.

One of them involves registering specific artistic designs, which is quite laborious and actually really expensive.

The application fee can be anywhere between $250 to $450 and that’s for just one design.

Given the fast turnover of products, some smaller clothing labels don’t even consider the option because they don’t want to invest in a design that might not even be popular once it hits the market.

Meaning really only well established brands with lots of money tend to invest in design registration.

The free option is copyright protection that automatically exists around artists’ works like sketches and patterns, but as soon as they are printed on an actual product, that protection is lost.

Why The Laws Are Kind Of Outdated

The laws surrounding artistic copyright could be seen as kind of outdated now because of the internet.

These days, artists are expected to upload really high-res images of their designs when selling them to buyers or when promoting their work on social media. And once the designs are circulating on the internet, there’s a real risk of them being stolen or sold off to cheaper brands.

Is There A Solution?

So, what’s the solution? Because some of the artists I spoke to told me that trying to take a copy-cat brand to court, is so damn expensive that they just don’t bother.

Emma Peters: “The issue is systemic and ongoing, It has such a history of you know, commercial designers seeing art as free for the taking. So today we really need to completely overhaul the system and it needs to happen at all levels.”

One solution that’s been suggested is setting up a tribunal to resolve disputes independently, which would avoid both the hassle and expenses of court cases.

Even cutting costs for the designer registration or allowing artists to test their products in the market before locking them in with a specific brand, would be a big incentive for artists to register their designs in the first place.

But designer Emma Peters also told me that consumers play a really important role too.

EP: “Social media is a really powerful tool for consumers to voice their problems with brands. And more and more we’re seeing consumers really decide where their money goes and who they want to support, and using that platform to call out people that aren’t doing the right thing.”

The Takeaway

Emma is hopeful that changes to the current system will eventually happen if we keep being loud about the issue.

But designs are still being stolen. And it shouldn’t totally fall on the artist or consumer to always call out crappy behaviour. For that shift to actually happen, there also needs to be more of an understanding from brands themselves on the ethics and impacts of their practices.