When someone may steal your design ideas

Contrary to my usual protests, there are rare occasions when you should worry that an idea you have will be “borrowed”. I have a customer with a product idea that lends itself to being copied and frankly, I’m not sure how to have the conversation. The issue of possible design theft never came up because she’s not paranoid. I’m hoping you have some ideas and suggestions to offer.

[First a short reminder for those new to this site; you have little to worry about from pattern makers, fabric salesmen and sewing contractors. Most of the people who will copy you are other people on your same level.]

I struggle to describe the product without giving it away so let’s describe it as a functional change that could potentially be used on any shirt cuff. The market could be defined as 25%-50% of the population (in North America -for starters) that buys shirts with cuffs.

The idea is solid and useful but it hasn’t gotten any traction either. By traction I mean that no one is doing it commercially. I think it is very educational to explain why it is that the concept hasn’t become common from a manufacturing standpoint in the event you face a similar dilemma.

In the big picture, button down shirts are largely a commodity that span a broad range of pricing. There isn’t much new about shirts; factories that make them have a lot of specialized equipment and established operations to do it. The margins are pretty small but still profitable because it is steady business -men mostly buy them and will need to constantly replenish their wardrobes. The problem with implementing this new cuff style is that in order for it to become widely adopted, it will force a retooling of all the equipment and dies in factories all over the globe. Now, since manufacturers are reluctant to retool with new equipment for the demands of new cuff design -for which there are no demonstrated sales- this new cuff design is not likely to be adopted overnight. This means my customer will need to have the shirts produced manually, without the automated equipment.

Having to produce the shirts manually presents two problems. First is that the costs of production will be higher and of course, so will retail prices. Second is the chicken and egg problem of scale; since the shirts can’t be produced by a larger factory, it will take longer for the particular design feature of the shirts to become known or popular and of course, for the shirts to be sold in the typical sort of retail outlets that sell them. And this is beside the point of my customer being a very tiny operation and not prepared to manufacture 100 shirts much less being prepared to fill an order from the likes of LLBean.

There is still a third problem -styling. The new cuff design is not such a game changer that a man (or woman) will buy and or wear a shirt they think is ugly. This means that my customer will have to design a broader range of styles to entice consumers than a start up would normally want to.

I should mention that I haven’t overlooked the possibility of a patent. I don’t think it is advisable because it would become nearly impossible to enforce. If the concept became popular, my customer wouldn’t have time to manufacture anymore because all of her time would be spent running after infringers and she’d need a very big pot of money to do it. Reason is, it would be an idea whose time has come -not an idea so pivotal it would change economic forces (like the cotton gin) and also, not destined to be as ubiquitous as the elimination of beverage can pull tabs. One can have a patent but if you don’t have the money to enforce it, the patent is close to worthless. And sure, a larger firm could license the patent from my customer but then the larger firm would then spend all of their time policing the marketplace instead of making stuff themselves -because it is that sort of idea. The cycle of adoption would be akin to the new type condiment bottles that squirt from the bottom. Customers begin to expect that and won’t want to pay extra for it.

So,  I think the most likely outcome for my customer in this situation is that she makes and sells some shirts. Maybe she makes a little money and enjoys it but her business will really become that of a shirt maker, not a nifty cuff design producer.

If she is successful, other shirt companies will do a cost benefit analysis for the cost of retooling the shirt manufacturing process to incorporate the cuff feature into some of their styles. However, being that they are so much larger, will be able to supplant my customer’s advantage. Which is why I say that to retain a portion of the market potential, she must develop a very sophisticated shirt making operation in a relatively short period of time.

I think my customer could make a go of this as long as she realized that it would be inevitable that her cuff design is adopted by other manufacturers and of course, that she retained a sense of humor about it. Ideally her branding would say that she is the original designer of XYZ cuff feature and if she made good shirts with styling people liked and at a price they were willing to pay, she’d have a nice business for herself.

So hopefully I’ve laid this out properly -namely that although a person can have a great idea that affects a large segment, it doesn’t mean that the idea is a guaranteed money maker. So what do you say?

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  1. Your post Kathleen, has allowed me to exhale. Your last 3 paragraphs point to an emotional maturity and grasp of reality that, in our online, Pintrest, Instagram, Facebook, and Design Celebrity society, is either not facing, or has become way too paranoid about. I have friends who won’t even talk about what they’re making anymore.

    While it’s great to have a sense of humor about it, humor becomes difficult when said larger company DOES supplant your advantage and reap a sizeable profit. This was the case leveled at Alibaba. In that sense, the sale of your idea for a tidy profit – the way apps are sold, for example – can at least put a smile on your face, while helping you move forward.

    Another way of looking at it, is to define what personal success means to you. I’m in the camp of having a nice business for oneself, that allows you to live well and continue to create and produce, grounded in a loyal and steadily growing customer base. Fame creates paranoia.

  2. Kathleen says:

    It’s not the same thing as an app tho because with this, there is no central distribution point that someone has to go to (to copy, to pirate, to reverse engineer source code). Many app users are savvy enough to get the real thing or buy it via the appstore which won’t sell pirated versions. Plus, it is a subset of the population. By way of example, my mom would never download an app, ever, but she’d maybe buy a shirt with this cuff in the store and not even think whether the manufacturer had the rights to its design. This concept is obvious with a visual. You don’t even need to see the product in real life.

    Speaking of it being obvious, this is the reason a manufacturer wouldn’t buy the rights to it. They know they couldn’t possibly police the marketplace. There is no gain to buying something that anyone could copy so easily.

  3. Kay says:

    Wow! So easy to be copied… I hope there’s a do-it-yourself patent and maybe she can sell the idea to a big fashion house?? but then, the moment they see it, you can consider it copied, I guess.

    What I hope she also does is – start teaching the technique on a DVD or a craftsy class where “She” can make money out of her technique.

  4. Stephanie says:

    The Craftsy class/pattern combo makes the most sense. Sewists will go mad for the idea (I’m salivating a bit), and designers will pick it up. Demo and pattern prove a clear ownership track. They have been very aggressive about expanding their market, so this could mean some business.

    Recently, my family and I watched an episode of “SharkTank”, with the gentleman (term used loosely) who has a “patent” on holes in jackets for ear buds. Yup. And he was shopping for someone to go in on the patent trolling end of his business. Not the manufacture of the products, but just ‘enforcing’ (shaking down) his patent. Pleased to see Mark Cuban cut him down to size.

    Do you want a thing to be made or do you want to own an idea? Either choice takes a lot of work.

    Pick one. Just one.

  5. Sandra says:

    Kathleen, your response to this designer’s dilemma is very considered and thoughtful.

    I would suggest that the designer needs to ask herself what she wants out of this experience. Is she the sort of person that just wants the satisfaction of seeing the design brought to market and make some money, or is she seeking external validation in being the originator of the design.

    If she was determined to be recognised as the original designer, then she could harness the power of social media and launch a media campaign at the same time that the product is available to the public. If it is truly unique, than chat shows, bloggers, journos etc would be more than willing to follow the story.

    It would not necessarily make her more money, and the design may be even more likely to be copied, but she could then sit back knowing that the public knows that she was the first.

    If public recognition is not her thing though, then I think your advice is spot on.

    The one thing about designers is that they are not usually one hit wonders. If she is clever enough to come up with one original idea then I am sure there will be more. I know some designers would be loath to just create one unique product and then have to sell it for the rest of their careers. They are already thinking about the next idea before the last gets cold!

  6. JustGail says:

    I’d make sure she and anyone working with her on the cuff alway refers to her method/result as a ” Cuff”. It sounds like if (when?) it’s copied, that might be all she gets out of it – a cuff named after her.

    I’d consider the patent, if for no other reason, if she doesn’t get one, she has no options. Is there anything to stop the copier from getting a patent if she doesn’t? Depending on how it sells, she at least has the option of selling it, or going after infringers, or doing nothing.

  7. Liz W. says:

    Totally different tack: in addition to manufacturing the “cuff” at her level, could she take a look at creating the piece of equipment/die that would allow a large sewing manufacturer to implement the style?

  8. Jay Arbetman says:

    Interesting. I have a customer that has a great idea and in fact, it has now been produced and is in the marketplace. I must have seen a dozen people over the years (including a couple of forum members) that had a similar idea but this is the first person to execute the idea and really pay attention to the details. They are doing extremely well having sold nearly 1/2 of there inventory (they made over 1,000 pieces) in about six weeks.

    Executing an idea and then being able to sell the item profitably is difficult no matter whose idea it is.

    I know about two incidents like this here in Chicago. One was a designer clearly stealing the designs of another designer (the person doing the stealing is thankfully no longer a DE) and the other was a contractor stealing designs and more from a DE. Neither was able to cash in on there thievery.

  9. Dia in MA says:

    Thieving by designers is a commonplace problem. I have a friend who entered and took ribbons at the Rhinebeck Fair in New York twice. Both times she’s seen copycats on the runways a few months later. I also met a craft woman vendor who said she’d come up with the original idea for briefcase saddlebags (can’t verify this, so it’s hearsay). She said they’d photographed and measured her design right in front of her, didn’t even have the decency to buy one when they stole the design. It was out in leather in a major mail order catalog a few months later.

  10. Ruby says:

    I’m new to the group and work with lots of small businesses and this is a common question.
    Isn’t true that clothing cannot be trademarked or patented? If someone is adding a functional element to the shirt–maybe a functional patent I think it’s called would be in order.
    But maybe that wouldn’t work either, because you’re not re-inventing the shirt, the designer is adding a design element but not adding a new function?
    Here’s where a patent attorney would be in order–and in this case a lot of money unless of course the person wants to put in the patent research themselves both US and International..my question would be; would bringing this idea to market pay for all the up-front cost? and would the designer be willing to defend the patent in court if need be–costly litigation.

  11. Samina Mirza says:

    I’m an enthusiast and am always interested in reading about issues in the garment industry. Thanks for the perspective, Kathleen. Best of luck to the innovators in the garment design industry!
    Would having one’s innovative design published in a sewing magazine be beneficial? At least the name and technique would be linked in the minds of that population segment.

  12. Dara says:

    If it’s a design element instead of new design, why not just trademark the aspect of hers which would be unique? She’s not making a new shirt, she’s improving an aspect of it to leave her mark. Like Levi’s back-pockets, Christian Louboutin’s red soled shoes, etc. Also, I agree with the others that the devil is in the details. Coming up with a good idea on paper is COMPLETELY different from executing the shirt in question. She would need to hire those services for an initial run and/or learn them herself to get the trademark in the first place. However, if she decides to go ahead and make “shirts” with this particular aspect to them, then having a trademark would provide her protection from other larger companies looking to capture her niche market share later.


  13. Kathleen says:

    With respect to these comments

    What I hope she also does is – start teaching the technique on a DVD or a craftsy class where “She” can make money out of her technique.

    The Craftsy class/pattern combo makes the most sense. Sewists will go mad for the idea (I’m salivating a bit), and designers will pick it up. Demo and pattern prove a clear ownership track.

    It isn’t a technique and like many designers, this designer doesn’t sew.

    Even if it were a technique, the “clear ownership track” doesn’t mean people won’t copy you and imply or even claim it is their own work. At best, copyists “conveniently forget” to mention or link to their source. Happens to me everyday.

    Thieving by designers is a commonplace problem.

    That’s how it happens. One designer sees something from another and it ends up in their line. That’s why it is erroneous to imagine that copyists are corporate stuffed shirts.

  14. Amanda-Leigh says:

    I’ve always thought that a ‘good’ idea is only a good idea if you can execute it successfully. Ideas that are beyond your scope from a resource perspective should be gifted to the universe. Ideas are plentiful, execution is everything. So move on to the next one!

  15. Michael777 says:

    First of all, trademarks are for logos and brands, copyrights are for books, film, publishing etc.

    The utility patent is the only way to gain some intellectual property rights. However, the improvement must serve a specific purpose. For instance you could invent a shoulder bag (purse) that has a specific design that is proven to be less stressful on the shoulder for instance. If the cuff can be made to hold a flashlight or improve ones handwriting angle or something else as far fetched you can apply and receive a utility patent. The process takes years and is expensive even if you file yourself. The easy way in is with the provisional utility patent and when completed by and attorney and the uspto fees one is looking at about $750. I have had 2 of these in the past and I hold 2 new ones now. They are only good for 1 year but give you time to attempt to take your idea to market. If the cuff just looks different, you cannot protect it.

    For the record, I was forced to read your book by someone I was trying to hire 4 years ago. I disagree with not keeping secrets. I keep everything secret. I blind ship materials, I take stamped names off production markers. I don’t fool around. I’ve got hundreds of thousands of dollars invested and have to sell to earn that money back every day. I am not giving anyone a leg up on my dime. Nearly every week I am pinged through my website by some neer do well who wishes to get into the same business I am in and they are looking for a “how to” instructions with supplier and contract sew operations. It is called TRADE SECRETS. Don’t share. If this is a HIB or a side line hobby , who cares? GIve it all away.

    I will say this…by practicing the above I have gone from scrapping together some pretty amateur garments to having been awarded a 5 year contract to supply an international television organization with clothes that will be worn on air with my logo 24/7. And, this ain’t corporate identity promotional wear. These are real garments I designed in the field and brought to market from nothing. So, practice whatever you want, but my experience has been keep the cards close to the vest. Your contract cut and sew op doesn’t need to know your business. All they need are the materials, a spec sheet and your money. The rest…they’re jus being nosey.

  16. M-C says:

    Thanks for your level-headed explanation of the issues Kathleen. I do want to second the idea to sell the design to the home sewing community though, I think there’s real potential there. It wouldn’t be work for her beyond the setup, and she’d get at least some credit and some money. Nothing keeps her from teaming up with a seamstress to writeup and photograph one iteration of the cuff, it’d be a matter of roughly an afternoon for her.. I’d be happy to help with the general setup for that matter :-).

  17. Michael777 says:

    First I would like to openly apologize for my tone and brashness in my previous post. Bad day, bad timing, and being stolen from was fresh on my mind. The post hit a nerve.

    I would also like to apologize to Kathleen for saying someone forced me to read her book. It was suggested reading , I researched , read reviews, and decided to read it on my own. I am glad I did. I appreciate Kathleen taking her time and expertise to put something together that helps people entering the business. I found the book to have a wealth of information obviously put together by a pro (her). On the note of being secretive: If you are starting a new business, it is less important to be all stealth mode. If you are already in business I personally think protecting certain aspects of your supply chain is mandatory.

    On to business:

    One of the new laws that took effect earlier this year with regard to patents ended the “first use” protections and designations that had previously helped many small business people without the costly process of filing a utility patent. It forced them to file or potentially lose their status as inventor. I understand that the cuff may not be construed in a way to make it qualify for a utility patent award. Here is my opinion on how someone can at the least be credited for having the idea…maybe even make a few dollars.

    Read publications and or articles on how the public relations business works. How to write a press release and how to submit to the various publications and sources for dissemination. Take high quality photos of finished cuff (or hire a professional photographer). And then submit to all potentially interested media mediums. Name the cuff. Create a logo Trademark the name and logo. ( Within the press release make sure that the creators name and contact information is clear and easy. If digitally submitting include artwork for logo and picture of cuff. Make a “kit” that facilitates sewing the cuff package with the trademarked name and logo. Perhaps it would include a template or even a sample overlay block pattern (for cuff only) that can be used with a shirt pattern (include various grading renditions). Adding instructional verbiage and diagrams even would be better. Someone mentioned a video. Great idea. Sell the kit.

  18. Michael777 says:

    One last part of my apology…the comment about investing hundreds of thousands…that is pompous as all get out…. I started with nothing. Mid 90s Subaru with XXX,XXX miles (junker). There was something missing in one of my passions. I created it. I learned to sew. I bought a plastic machine from Target and sewed my little webbing products one at a time. Demand grew, I placed an ad in local paper for some help. I grew. I worked. Customers asked for other products. I worked, I grew. I had and still have to till this day sell as well as create. Those dollars did not come from a private equity investor or a rich uncle. They came from making and selling, making and selling, over and over and over. I never let anyone discourage me even though those moments were there. Set backs were tough, but I worked at this business every single day and most hours. I love it, I feel blessed. I apologize again for the tone, delivery , content et al earlier.

  19. Kathleen says:

    It’s all good Michael, no worries and I do appreciate your explanations etc. You’ve done it exactly the way I wish others would.

    I still drive a 1995 subaru clunker!

  20. Oh wait, not exactly, not all the NDA stuff. I meant I wish others would also teach themselves to put their products together, grow it slowly through ever increasing order delivery, not taking on outside debt etc.

  21. Michael777 says:

    ^ I totally owed an apology no question. Thanks on the other notes. Eh, I still have a semi-clunker Roo in the stable. A couple of years newer but putting on the miles like crazy for the business back n forth. I think the newer one has almost gained clunker status.

    I think I am going to try out the forum. Seems like lots of interesting people and conversations. I’m still learning as always, so seems like a great place to be !

  22. It’s an interesting tension here between protecting hard-earned intellectual capital and collaborating with peers. Kathleen and Miracle (and other folks on the forum) do regularly rant about people who expect to be handed everything: “Oh, hello, I see you are a professional, prize-winning corset-maker. Can you please tell me how you run your business and where you buy your supplies, and anything else I should know so that I can do that too?”

    They aren’t secretive though. Peers, colleagues and mentees have earned their place and they happilly collaborate with them. Kathleen posts regularly about what new DEs will be expected to demonstrate in order to be taken seriously by people who know the business better than they do.

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