Tag Archives: Copyright Infringement

A Landmark Lawsuit

Trovata, a designer clothing brand based in Newport Beach, was the first to take Forever 21 into the courtroom for “copying” their designs. After a two-year out-of-court legal battle, the case was heard in the U.S. District Court right here in our neighborhood, in Santa Ana.

Below are designs from the Forever 21 and Trovata case. The top row is Forever 21’s and the bottom row is Trovata’s.

The case involved seven garments Forever 21 sold in its stores in 2007, claimed by Trovota to look identical to the designs it featured on the runway and in magazines. Although U.S. copyright laws do not protect a garment’s basic design, legislation is pending in Congress — supported by the Council of Fashion Designers of America — to expand copyright laws to the “the appearance as a whole of an article of apparel, including its ornamentation.” The Design Piracy Prohibition Act, introduced on March 30, 2006 by Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, is still stuck in committee. Critics believe that if passed, the bill would stifle competition and commerce in the apparel industry.

The Trovata case had the potential to clarify intellectual property rights regarding fashion design and the piracy of existing apparel. You see, unlike the prior cases against Forever 21, Trovata wasn’t suing for copyright infringement. Trovata was suing for the similar use of ornamentation: the distinct button patterns, decorative stitching and similar patterns. If Trovata had won the case, the ruling would have had the same effect on the industry as the Design Piracy Prohibition Act.

In court, Forever 21’s lawyer defended this claim:

“Trovata is claiming that certain button patterns and stripes on a sweater would cause consumers to associate the garments with its brand, but there is no evidence to suggest that consumers would be confused,” said Bruce Brunda, an attorney for Forever 21. “Forever 21’s products are only sold in Forever 21 stores and are labeled with Forever 21’s brand. The design features on the Trovata designs are rather generic and are not protected by copyrights.”

The juror, Stephen Sharp, that stopped Trovata from winning said design elements in Trovata garments weren’t widely known and, therefore, any similar merchandise in Forever 21 stores didn’t confuse the public about the brand.

According to Women’s Wear Daily, the leading fashion newspaper, Jin Sook Chang, Don Won Chang’s wife, who has lived in the U.S. almost 25 years, said she spoke little English and used a Korean interpreter during the trial. Chang stated she didn’t know Forever 21 had profits exceeding $1.7 billion, that she didn’t know the top executives of the company, and that she hadn’t heard of Trovata until the lawsuit.

Despite the mistrial, Trovata is continuing allegations against Forever 21.

If Trovata is to win, then Forever 21 (and other companies using the fast-production business model) would be greatly limited in their ability to copy designs fresh off the runway. The implications of this would be a longer turnover rate, which would decrease the high pressure level placed on the factories to produce high quantities at fast rates, which would decrease the likelihood of sweatshop use.

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Spotlight on Cases

In April of 2007, designer Anna Sui sued Forever 21. According to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Southern New York:

“It was brought to the attention of Sui that Defendants [Forever 21] were selling and offering for sale in their stores numerous women’s clothing items bearing a striking similarity to the Sui Products features at the most recent New York Fashion Week shows. Indeed, much of the collection displayed by Sui at the shows had itself not yet been finally manufactured and Sui’s own distribution of some of its newest Sui products not yet released.”

Sui’s designs are on the right, and Forever 21’s are on the left. I’ll let you be the judge of whether or not you think Forever 21 copied Sui.


In addition to filing the lawsuit, Sui designed a shirt in the style of the “wild wild west” wanted photos with a quote from Exodus, referencing Forever 21’s usage of “John 3:16″ on every one of their yellow shopping bags.

In order to truly appreciate the fast-production business model that Forever 21 follows, it is necessary to see some more of the designs that Forever 21 “took inspiration from.”

Foley + Corinna launched this look (right) in 2007 and found Forever 21’s version (left) in stores within two weeks.

Also in 2007, Gwen Stefani filed suit against Forever 21 for allegedly copying her Harajuku Lovers line. The originals are on the left, Forever 21’s are on the right.

There are countless more cases I could cite and examples I could show, but I don’t want to stray too far from the main topic at hand. As I stated in my prior post, Forever 21’s business model revolves around putting their own spin on designs they spot on the runway and getting those designs into stores as soon as possible, often before the originals are out. As long as Forever 21 continues to use this copyright-infringing method, factories will be pressured to maximize output at a fast rate and sweatshop conditions will continue to arise.

After a company has been cited for sweatshop use, they take every precaution possible to not be indicted again, even if their practices haven’t changed. Unfortunately, Forever 21 has become very resistant to releasing the sites of their factories which makes it difficult to investigate charges of unfair labor practices. However, Forever 21 continues to use the fast-production business model, so it is safe to assume that the garment workers are still feeling immense pressure to produce. In my opinion, once a sweatshop, always a sweatshop.

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Copyright Infringement leads to Sweatshop Conditions

In the past five years, Forever 21 faced over 150 lawsuits dealing with copyright or trademark infringement issues. Diane Von Furstenburg, Bebe, Marc Jacobs, Anthropoligie and Gwen Stefani are among the many clothing lines that have filed copyright or trademark infringement lawsuits against Forever 21. For more information about each of the cases, please follow the links.

Copyright/trademark infringement violations and the fast-chain production model of stores like Forever 21 are causing a decrease in creativity and quality, are causing renowned designer labels to declare bankruptcy and due to the high production and turnover rate, the fast-chain model is causing a rise in sweatshops.

Basically, what Forever 21 does is spot emerging trends on the major runways and manufacture their own versions of the trends. Sometimes, Forever 21’s designs are too spot-on for comfort and could be called copies. When this occurs, it is considered copyright or trademark infringement.

Copyright infringement has many negative repercussions, the most obvious and immediate of which being that designer lines suffer. More and more of the renowned lines are declaring bankruptcy. Those that are still in business are no longer creating amazing, creative pieces, but have reverted to showcasing and producing ready-to-wear garments that are more street-style than fashion-forward (something I witnessed firsthand when working as a fashion writer in New York Spring 2009 fashion week). Cheap reproductions found in the fast-production chain stores such as Forever 21 are causing a decline in the creativity of the industry.

This is bad, however, on top of that, the high demand and fast turnover rate places increased pressure on the factories that actually manufacture the clothes to meet higher-than-normal demands at a faster-than-normal rate. To meet these demands and deadlines, factories often pay their workers by “piece rate,” force them to work unpaid overtime, or force them to take unfinished work home with them, all of which are sweatshop conditions.

Forever 21 has the highest turnover rate in the industry. Most stores receive new shipments of fresh designs about once every month. Forever 21 re-stocks its shelves and clothes racks with new designs every two weeks. This is one of Forever 21’s main selling points: they stay on the curve of the changing Fashion trends.

Imagine: two weeks to design, manufacture and ship a full line of new designs to hundreds of stores nationwide. What kind of working conditions do you think this creates?

In Forever 21’s sweatshop case, this created mandatory unpaid overtime and also forced workers to take work home with them.

So you see, everything is related. Forever 21’s business model is based on “re-making” the designer trends, often with Forever 21’s knockoff versions hitting stores before the originals. This high turnover rate increases the pressure on the factories, which in turn increase the pressure on the garment workers and often impose sweatshop conditions to fulfill demand.

That cheap price tag really has more to it. Forever 21 is able to do this at the expense of the designers it copies and the garment workers who are forced to work unpaid overtime to meet the demands.

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