In most lines of work, people ripping off your ideas or designs is a bad thing. Illegal, even. But such is not the case in the fashion world, where not only is copying legal, but some say it’s beneficial. As the old cliche goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Turns out it may be the best source of job security as well.

As discussed on the Freakonomics blog last week, the fashion industry has periodically tried to fight copycats. Keep in mind, this discussion is about copying designs. Copying labels — trying to pass the copies off as the real thing — that’s clearly illegal and nobody’s suggesting it should be otherwise. But Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman (both counterfeiting and intellectual property experts) maintain that for the most part, limits are not only unnecessary, but are even harmful to the industry.

…the reason copying is permitted is in part that, in the fashion world, copying has hidden benefits. Styles, as we all know, rise and fall in a ceaseless cycle of trends. That is the nature of fashion. As copies of trendy or noteworthy garments are freely made, fashion-forward consumers recognize that it’s time to jump to the new new thing. The fashion cycle turns even faster.

It’s a unique situation. Using the example of the Oscars, you have millions of home viewers seeing movie stars wearing expensive designer dresses. But at thousands and thousands of dollars, the average person has no chance to ever afford anything they see on the red carpet. Yet the fashions seen on the red carpets and in gossip magazines (where we see more celebrities wearing more fabulous, and fabulously expensive, clothes) do influence what the general public wants to buy. And what they ultimately do buy, thanks to the openness to copying.

So does buying an approximation of, say, Sandra Bullock’s dress, when you never in a million years could have afforded the real thing anyway, harm the original designer? Or does it help the designer, whose work is seen and appreciated and sought after more, once it’s been proven to drive consumer demand?

Then, just when all the prom-going high schoolers are wearing that trendy item, the next hot new thing comes out. And the designer wins again. Not only was their original design a hit, but now there’s demand for their new “hot” item, which will be worn by the rich and famous and eventually trickle down to the masses. Again.

As Raustiala and Sprigman wrote:

The bottom line is that there is no shortage of innovation in the U.S. fashion industry.  Right now, in studios in New York and Los Angeles, uncounted thousands of designers are busy churning out new designs. And they are also busy copying and “interpreting” one another.  And that’s good.

In a previous post on the Freakonomics blog, Raustiala and Sprigman had this to say about what they call “the piracy paradox:”

In sum, it is through copying that the fashion industry creates trends. And it is trends that sell fashion. For this reason, fashion designers’ freedom to copy does not harm the fashion industry, and indeed may be one key to the industry’s continued success.

Think about it. You generally don’t want imitators or competitors stealing your ideas and selling to your customers. In any industry. Yet there are clearly times when getting ripped off can work in your favor. Can you imagine a scenario like that for your business?

Jay Snider
Palo Alto Software