8/31/2015

check yo-self / Urban Outfitters is copping a feel


Copyright issues are at the forefront of the maker revolution, and more now than ever before we're watching as big-box retailers, many of whom we love, navigate the waters. It's so frustrating to watch as our friends and colleagues end up on the bum end of the deal with these businesses, like our friend Chelsey Dyer.

Chelsey is a badass designer (and my former roommate, as well as the reason that Billy and I met---so she's also sort of responsible for Son of a Sailor's existence!) but just discovered this Urban Outfitters calendar that is inescapably a derivative of her work. Not to mention that Chelsey has open communication with their parent company, as she has previously sold with Free People. So she is one of their vendors, and clearly on their radar. Alas, her beautiful calendar was not purchased by UO from her, but rather a chintzy knockoff is being peddled at the same price as her gorgeous gold-foiled letterpress calendars. This is not OK.

It's too often that we see large retailers come out with "original designs" that are shades away from work produced by small, independent brands. The argument is always flung out there that they may not know that they're ripping someone off, or that the design is just influenced by the popular zeitgeist. But as much of a Libra as I can be, weighing both sides of the argument, there's one thing that I can never get past.

As a maker, when we come out with a new design, we do product research. We do thorough searches across the internet as a whole, as well as specific outlets for designers, like Etsy. We make it a part of our research and development to try to ensure that our items are not the same as someone else's. We have conversations when we identify anything that might be a conflict. We're not perfect at it, but it's a part of our responsibility when we put designs into the world that we claim as our own. And we're the small guy. Stores like Urban Outfitters and Forever 21, who have earned themselves a reputation for copycatting the designs of independent artists, should be able to do this as well. They can afford to have a whole damned department dedicated to it, if they wanted!

The resources that these huge conglomerate corporations have easily cover the cross-checking necessary to prevent blatant rip-offs or "accidentally-too-similar" copycats from hitting their shelves and ecommerce sites. When we see these companies introduce products like this calendar, it's less believable to imagine that they "just didn't know" rather than that they "just don't care." By now, the "just didn't know" excuse doesn't fly. There has been far and away enough time and exposure of these instances to merit a process. It's time to create a system of checks and balances for your company rather than continuing to profit on the backs of independent designers.

I know that many of these companies have begun working along with designers -- we have relationships with some of the other stores also owned by URBN, and have done business with them in meaningful and respectful ways. So that's why it's time for companies like this to help protect the small makers they profit from as well as themselves -- if they truly aren't trying to get away with copycatting, then get a better system in place to prevent this from happening.

I am hopeful that Urban Outfitters will respond quickly to Chelsey's communication and rectify the situation. And I hope that we can all find better ways to protect the sanctity of design -- as designers and as retailers.

UPDATE: We are happy to report that Urban Outfitters has removed the infringing item, and it is no longer for sale. I don't have any details of the communication between Chelsey and UO, but hopefully it was an amicable decision.

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