Designers hit back at copyright pirates

Trade protection: Angry young artists have shaken the fashion industry by resorting to the courts over theft of their ideas
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The Independent Online
Young designers angry at the increasingly widespread theft of their ideas are hitting back with legal action.

One firm of City lawyers specialising in copyright, Stephens Innocent, is taking up to two or three calls a day from artists furious over alleged abuses.

The British fashion designers Antoni and Alison began the trend two years ago when they accused Giorgio Armani of copying their work. They settled out of court.

Now more and more British artists are turning to the law after finding their exclusive ideas in the high street thanks to clever copying by factories in the Philippines, Portugal and Italy, and bargain fabrics widely available from markets in the East.

Last week, Kate Byrne, a ceramics artist from south London, was celebrating after a criminal prosecution was taken against the up-market tea and coffee company, Whittard of Chelsea, over a mug design.

Other leading stores, including Marks and Spencer, are being challenged by young designers who claim their work has been misappropriated.

Robin Fry, a copyright expert with Stephens Innocent, said: "Young designers and other creative people are realising that when someone takes one of your copyright designs, it is a form of dishonesty."

Furthermore, a criminal case can be heard within four or five months of proceedings being issued rather than the years that civil action can take.

Whittard was fined pounds 3,000, ordered to pay pounds 3,000 compensation and pounds 10,000 costs for distributing a mug which the company "knew or had reason to believe was an infringing copy of a copyright work".

The action was possible following a change in the law in 1988 to permit criminal action against copyright piracy.

Geoffrey Adams, design protection advisor for the Chartered Society of Designers and secretary of the British Copyright Council, said: "In the old days, there was a tendency in the fashion business to say that you just had to put up with it. There is less of an inclination to take it lying down now."

Companies appeared more willing to flout copyright laws to save themselves money during the recession, he said, although some did not know they were flouting copyright until it was pointed out to them.

Mr Fry said of hundreds of ideas, only a handful might be used in a final product. If that design was then reproduced in every high street store, it made the designer look unoriginal.

Annie Doherty, 32, who makes hand-painted china and designs for industry in north London, achieved an out-of-court settlement after challenging a shop on the King's Road, Chelsea, she found to be selling imported versions of her work at a quarter of the price.

"It was very scary. They really try to bully you not to do anything," she said. "It doesn't occur to people that designers are trained to come up with ideas and that ideas are their living. If you steal them, it's the same as shoplifting merchandise."