Homage or Plagiarism?

Exploring themes from last week’s entry on the proposed design piracy law, do you think copying is ever permissible? I don’t mean that in a legal sense but an ethical one. I don’t intend to be judgmental but I tend to frown on it. However, Grace poses the question in such light I wonder if I’m a hypocrite. She asked me if I thought this was homage or plagiarism:

Stylish leather is as much a part of the rock ‘n’ roll image as groupies and smoke-filled tour buses. And these days, nobody is doing it better than South Paradiso, the hippie glam, art leather label following in the grand tradition of such music world haberdashers as Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors, Granny Takes a Trip and East West Musical Instruments Co. South Paradiso is less aggressive and more fantastical, paying homage to the colorful Bay Area art-to-wear movement of the 1960s and ’70s and L.A.’s folksy canyon culture, which after all these years still influences style here, particularly when the weather starts to turn hot.

As a refresher, I wrote about East West before in Pattern puzzle: Parrot Jacket (part two), go look, both entries have great photos. Oh what the heck, I’ll rerun one above (larger image).  [Photo courtesy of Goodbye Heart. More great styles are on their site.] The styling is definitely unique.

My first response is why couldn’t South Paradiso be both homage and plagiarism? If it is plagiarism, does that necessarily mean it is unethical considering the age of the original East West Musical Company styles? Is it homage if you;re open about it and readily credit the creator? Some of these jackets are nearly forty years old. At which age is it acceptable to copy something? Or is it at all?

Lacking the reasons to articulate it, I think it is okay to reintroduce these styles but then I kind of, sort of, have a vested interest. By interest, I don’t work for anybody making these but I would if the opportunity presented itself. I’ve thought of producing styles with the same themes, nowhere near exact copies. Riffing -not ripping- off the genre I suppose. I don’t like the painted or appliqued styles. I prefer designs with insets exclusively, a larger test of skill (sample I made). These are a lot of fun to make too. OT: Do you think patterns like these would sell?

East West is long defunct; the original designs aren’t readily available for purchase and ones that are, aren’t in the best shape. Even former employees say the jackets weren’t the best fitting and many were unlined. The designs were exemplary but the execution was not. I’m not suggesting that poor execution is a justifiable reason to knock someone off but poor execution as compared to the quality of design is usually the reason it happens.

So, am I a hypocrite? Is copying ever ethical and how big of a karmic crime is it?

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  1. Copying isn’t ethical if you are using your position in the marketplace to deny someone else the opportunity to profit from their work.

    If East West is defunct, and you are making your pattern from scratch (haven’t stolen their dies), then I don’t see an issue. If you’re making such a distinctive garment it would be kind of slimy not to reference them in your material anywhere, because then you would be trying to pass of the design as your own. But for such a distinctive garment, people who cared would recognize it anyway and know what you were doing.

  2. Esther says:

    I am just going to throw this out there. I don’t think copying in and of itself is wrong, ethically. It has become so ingrained in our society to equate copying with something illegal or evil because of current copyright laws which continue to evolve and become more restrictive. There has to be much more to the act of copying to make it unethical or wrong. Copying should have some form of attribution and respect. I am not sure where the line is drawn in a business sense, but certainly there needs a healthy dose of common sense. In the case of this jacket, if nothing is done to try and replicate the pattern or process, there will be a great intellectual loss. We would gain nothing by continuing to respect the author’s original work and lose a great deal. They say that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. In this day and age you face fines and even jail time if you truly believe that. But how does one learn from a master? This is one of those long standing debates in which one side will continue to assert total “moral” rights and the other asking for common sense. You can probably guess which side I’m on.

  3. Dawn B says:

    This is such an amazing-looking jacket, it deserves to be paid homage. A hangtag that talked about “bringing back the style of…” would give credit where it was due. I agree with Esther’s point of view.

  4. I will have to say imitate, not replicate.

    I think that replicating someone elses design is just plain lame. Imitation, taking a little from here and adding a little of your own to make something new is the way fashion evolves and shows us just how great the original design is/was.

    I am in a situation now where someone is copying my product, using similar hang tags and, at one point, used the name “Oh, Baby Bling” Really?! Where is the creativity in that? That is just riding my coat tails and all of the work I have put into my business. Needless to say I am not flattered by the imitation. How much pride in your business and respect can you really gain if nothing of it was your own?

  5. I totally get what Esther is saying and agree.

    Speaking of East West Musical jackets…I have a BEAUTIFUL one here that I wore as teenager. It was given to me by my childhood housekeeper who got it from Johnny Winter (Albino rock n’ roller…brother to Edgar Winter). I will take pics and show you later!

  6. I think you need to take a common sense approach as Esther suggests. I’m not sure there can be hard and fast rules that will apply in every situation. In this case the original company is gone and creating replica jackets won’t interfere with sales. I would say this really is a homage and does no one any harm.

    In other cases, where the original company is still in business and exists, it might be a different story. If what you’re doing is interfering in the profits and business of the original designer or manufacturer, then you might have to consider that you’re infringing.

  7. Dave says:

    Fashion by its nature evolves and repeats itself.

    I think the real trap and howling will begin AFTER the the design piracy law is passed and immediately turned against the bigger fashion houses and they’ll howl the loudest. The large houses are going to find that owners of designs done prior to their designs going to assert their design is being copied. The owners may be people who bought those rights cheaply just to assert them. Big firms may be able to crush the small DE due to cost, but the hungry horde of contingency fee based attorneys are going to swarm the larger houses because they are where the money is.

    This is going to be a ligitgation nightmare.

  8. Amanda says:

    You know, I’m doing a lot of children’s playwear (not the WOTS kind, but pretty straightforward designs) and maybe this is a dumb question, but how much parallel design is imitation, and how much is “form follows function”? And how are those going to be teased out with design piracy laws where decisions are not made by people who know clothes? I love designing kids’ clothes, and I usually feel like I’m designing them in a vacuum, but when I go out and see similar things walking around, I know I didn’t “copy” them, and in all likelihood, they didn’t “copy” mine, we just solved parallel riddles in parallel ways, using a similar knowledge base.

    I know this doesn’t apply to the canal street knockoff trade, but aren’t logos/brand-identifying marks already protected? And when you take something apart seam-for-seam, wouldn’t a direct ruboff be relatively easy to identify and fight over–like the Darwin/Wallace debate? Anything other than that might reasonably (legally, anyway, if not from the original designer’s point of view) be said to be a “riff” rather than a “repeat”.

    Is all this beside the point?

  9. Alicia Isdes says:

    I must respectfully agree that imitation is integral to human creativity. And even when you think you are doing something unique you may well end up with something very, very similar to another product or craft or song or whatever! Our culture seems so addicted to innovation, having something new, unique, individual, and people can get so emotionally invested in ‘their’ creations without respect to the influences and classics that are just part of the lexicon of today. It is nearly impossible to create something totally ‘new’. If you did, it’d go in a hi-fashion magazine and then nobody would actually wear it, it’d be too weird. Of course, I’m of the gen x and I pirate others’s intellectual property all the time, thru music, videos, free ideas on the internet, etc. If you are so worried about someone pirating your ideas you have to stay 2 steps ahead of them in research & development of new styles, or just not worry about being one of the crowd.

    Maybe it’s not about the clothes or the fashion or the product itself- some of my favorite fashion lines get it right but are supporting a ‘lifestyle’ brand or sponsoring a lifestyle for people- such as young surfers or skaters or musicians or maybe just for the d/e themselves! Really, people buy stuff that makes them feel good whether its a rip-off or a knock-off or totally original.

  10. Denise S says:

    I guess I’m just preaching to the choir: in this case it’s right to give credit where credit it due. And, something this unique is worthy of homage. In cases where someone is blatantly knocking off a currently hot item and reaping the profits rather than the originator is when it’s unfair, frustrating, and blood-boiling. It’s an interesting debate in this digital age where it’s so easy to copy and paste electronic media; something that distributors are having difficulty getting a handle on, but it’s also creating new methods of distribution (which in the past 30 years have been only relegated to a handful of conglomerates).

    I think digital media has also given us a culture of copy and paste, creating new interpretations, like mash-ups and so on. I think of the artist Chuck Close. It’s amazing to me how powerful different presentations and representations of portraits can be. Plus, multimedia software has given many, many more people access to developing all kinds of media; however, good, bad or ugly. I think fashion follows suit with unique prints and fabrics to cheap, disposable clothing.

    On that note, like the Matisse inspired pillows–they were good, not bad or ugly. Of course, no one thinks it’s Matisse and it doesn’t credit Matisse, but those likely to purchase something like this would buy it because it’s inspired by the artist.

  11. Andrea says:

    Inspiration not duplication ! On one hand I think there are items that are universal — jeans, for example. However — it is the particulars of how a company’s pattern fits, the unique construction details, embellishment, finishing, the quality and particulars of material used to make that item that distinguish a design. I think the problem begins when individual or company “B” shamelessly mines an existing item (lets say pioneered and sold by designer “Z”)and represents it as their own. This can become a real shades of grey argument. Where does inspiration end and replication begin ? At 50% ? 51% ? On one hand I don’t think that anyone could be angry that many companies are producing jeans made from blue denim, with two legs and a fly opening — these are givens (though perhaps Levi Strauss was incensed when others began imitating and selling their version of his first product).

    I think this area can get even murkier when we are talking about an item that is a “homage” or a “historical reproduction”. If the company that made the original item is out of business, is it acceptable to make a 100% reproduction ? Is it acceptable if this is represented as a reproduction, and credited to the original (defunct) maker ? If it is plausible, should the original designer be tracked down and offered a share of the ?royalties?or licensing ? Is the replication an homage with intent(ie as a strong reference to a well known original item of clothing or overall look or work of art)? I think that EastWest Parrot jacket shown above is a interesting example to argue about. In this design I see late Victorian/Art Nouveau elements that may have been taken from wallpaper or a poster (or something else). EastWest took those elements and reinterpreted the swirling lines and use of color into a complex and flattering jacket. I think that is really great ! I think that is the way that interesting design works — it takes you further down the line and makes something engaging. But what if designer “B” saw this jacket(designer “B”, who is operating in the same time frame/same market), and decided to make their own “version”, meaning that it was identical except that a couple of minor design elements were omitted, or that it was identical except in a different color ? Is this ethical ? If this person or company has the skills/labor to draft the pattern without losing the distinctive details, and can have it produced in a professional manner doesn’t it beg the question why they can’t/won’t hire a designer to DESIGN as opposed to imitate ? This is the slippery slope of the endless cheapening of design — like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy starts to lose detail and focus and pretty soon it’s hard to tell what it started out as. The real sin is that it makes the world of people wearing clothes look uninteresting, by the lack of originality and diversity !

    I think existing items of clothing can be very inspirational, or educational, and are excellent tools for learning and analysis — but I also think careful and individual concern for design integrity should be examined.

  12. Renee says:

    What a fabulous debate! Have to say, I think the example of the new-taken-from-vintage should be paying royalties to the former manufacturers if possible, because really it is still theft. That brings it back to ethics, doesn’t it? Because if I were the manufacturer looking to bring that jacket to market, I would be trying to get the permission of the original manufacturer ahead of time. If I failed to find the owners to procure their permission, however, I would likely still produce the style if my market research indicated it would be sufficiently profitable to do so, and set aside a percentage of the product’s revenue to cover back royalties just in case they eventually found me instead of the other way around.

  13. Nina says:

    The legal threshold for copying is “confusingly similar.” In other words, will a reasonable person think your copy is made by the original company? That would be infringing (or diluting) the original company’s brand.

    The problem with trying to pay royalties to a company that is long gone is to whom do you send the money? Legally, a company is a separate entity. Do you pay the ex-president? The designer? You would have to pay the person to whom the design is registered, which brings us to the Design Piracy Prohibition Act.

    This sort of reminds me of an article I read recently. The song “Louie Louie” is played several times, every single day, on radio stations across the US. The writer gets five-digit royalty checks every month; the singer gets nothing. I don’t think that fits with most people’s definition of “fairness,” which is usually the alleged reason for creating these types of laws.

    Dave is right; this will be a litigation nightmare! Ironically, it will be the bigger names—the very ones that are pushing this idiotic legislation—that will get burned; attorneys (and the media) will go where the money is. It will be interesting on two levels for me (as a legal assistant in real life and a wanna-be DE). However, the entertainment industry has already been dealing with this for quite some time, so we can sort of predict how this will play out.

    IMHO, any attempt to stop several people from having the same idea at the same time is going to end in ridiculousness; it’s like trying to trace the origin of an urban legend.

    PS Summer, I hope you’re going to slaughter those idiots.

  14. Lisa B. in Portland says:

    Those of us who are in re-enactment groups (they range from ancient Rome to Civil War and probably beyond) and who make and buy historical costumes for whatever reason (fun or educational or ?) always copy from pictures and extant clothing of the time period in question. Many people want something as authentic as possible. In this case, I don’t think exactly copying a garment or copying it but using a different color and sleeves/bodice/skirt/whatever from different pictures is unethical.

  15. Eddie says:

    Kathleen, I’m a student of Trish’s reading up on your latest pattern puzzle blog, and I noticed you posted this about East West, and about Nicolas Ghesquiere, if you look at his works further, you can see that he stole designs stitch for stitch from a designer named Kaisik Wong in 2002, and remade a shirt that Raf Simons designed for men in 2007, in 2010. In my opinion and in a lot of others, he is one of the greatest designers we have right now, but he tends to slip up and copy styles, which I find interesting, since he has unlimited resources at his desposal. I’m a HUGE Balenciaga fan, and have been watching his career, and Cristobal Balenciaga’s for the last 5 years. Huge fan of yours as well, Trish speaks highly of you.

    I just thought this was some interesting information you might be interested in.

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