Fashion designers look to patents to fight knockoffs

Thu Sep 12, 2013 7:33am EDT
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By Erin Geiger Smith

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Design companies tending to the details of fashion shows have more to think about than skirt lengths and handbag clasps - they must decide whether to seek U.S. patent protection for their looks.

Diane von Furstenberg, famous for her wrap dresses, has a design patent on a chain mail-style bag. The popular French line Celine has one on the envelope-style handbag sported by countless fashion experts at New York Fashion Week.

This summer alone, brands including Alexander Wang, Balenciaga and Tod's all were granted design patents by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on accessory designs, records show.

Because U.S. copyright and trademark laws often do not apply to new, logo-free designs, designers are applying for design patents to protect clothing and accessories from being targets for knock-offs, industry attorneys said.

While some brands, such as Gucci, have been obtaining design patents for decades, it is becoming more the norm for fashion companies to do the same, said intellectual property attorney Steve Nataupsky.

Design patents protect the way something looks, as opposed to more commonly known utility patents, which protect the way something is used and works.

Design patents have garnered attention in recent years due to the high-profile, high-stakes legal battles between Apple Inc and Samsung Electronics Co over smartphones and tablets.

A jury awarded Apple more than $1 billion last year, although a federal judge eventually cut the award by 40 percent and ordered a retrial on some of the damages.   Continued...