The PNG Fashion Designer’s Battle On Copyright

Susan is an up and coming fashion designer in Papua New Guinea.  She’s been in the industry for a couple of years now but still considers herself an “amateur”.  About a year ago while shopping at one of the local retailers, she saw a skirt displayed at the storefront. She immediately noticed a familiar design printed on it and took a closer look.  It didn’t take long before concluding that the design looked substantially similar, if not, identical to a design she had done earlier and posted it on Facebook for a friends to see.  She was disappointed and furious to say the least largely because she later found out that the “designer” of the skirt in question was known to her.

So what did Susan do next?

Naturally, she consulted her family and close friends and all of them pushed her to “consult a lawyer“, “sue them” and other more vicious statements best left to the imagination.

Eventually, Susan took no further action and there’s two main reasons for this.

Firstly, her lack knowledge about her intellectual property rights.  And secondly and the more obvious is money.  Money to take the issue further and enforce her rights.

Now, I want to provide fashion designers, artists and other creative individuals a more logical way on how to approach or understand intellectual property issues in their respective industries.  It’s imperative that creatives start paying attention to these issues because creatives works whether it be in fashion or art go hand in hand in this fast growing global economy.

Papua New Guinea, whilst still at an infant stage in the fashion designing business, is, as we have seen, susceptible to copyright infringement and my personal opinion is that a greater awareness and understanding of intellectual property issues is fundamental to not only protecting one’s creative works but also being successful in the monetizing from it.

There are several contributing factors as to why there is a genuine risk that the situation outlined in Susan’s case will continue:

  • >> Like Susan, there are many designers and generally creative individuals who have little understanding of basic intellectual property rights.  Those who copy other people’s work often take advantage of this lack of knowledge because they know that by “stealing” one’s work, they will get away with it.
    >> There is a growing trend in PNG on fashion shows.  This is a positive sign for a growing industry and one that benefits designers significantly to showcase their work.  But fashion shows aren’t just for potential customers, manufacturers, suppliers and distributors to see your unique designs. There are also competing designers too all looking for inspiration for their next line of clothing. And as mentioned above, not knowing your intellectual property rights and what approach to take should a possible infringement happen opens you up for even more risk in a fashion show.
  • >> The greater accessibility of the internet to many Papua New Guineans also presents opportunities to designers as well as risks.  In actual fact, the opportunities and risks aren’t limited to geographical boundaries anymore because the internet opens up new markets for designers to showcase their products and likewise provides opportunities to manufacturers and suppliers of fake products in other foreign markets.
    >> There is a misconception by many designers and creative artists I’ve come across that the Intellectual Property Office in PNG will help them should they come across a possible infringement.  The PNGIPO is a statutory body whose responsibility, amongst other things, is to register your IP for legal protection.  They are not responsible for the actual enforcement of an IP right, that lays squarely with the owner/designer.
  • >> But perhaps the most important factor taking into account the above is that PNG designers are truly unique and quite simply untouched.  This rarity, inspired by our own cultural heritage, gives a sense of fresh air to existing and potential designers too.  This “freshness”, uniqueness and rarity paves way for other designers to use in their own designs.

The above list is non-exclusive and there could be many other reasons.  But whatever the reasons, my advice to following designers in terms of the approach to take in order to ensure that your intellectual property is protected is as follows:

  1. 1. Understand It – Read about intellectual property, particularly, copyright and trademarks that are more relevant to the fashion industry.  The Intellectual Property Office of PNG has easy to read pamphlets available at their front office so do pay them a visit and ask for the pamphlets
  2. 2. Evaluate It – Take a look at your designs and business in general and work out what intellectual property assets you have.  You cannot protect an intellectual property in your business if you don’t know the precise features of your business and designs that are valuable intellectual property assets.
  3. 3. Protect It – Once you have identified your assets, you must protect them.  In the case of trade marks, patents and industrial designs, you can protect them through registration with the PNG IPO.  For copyright, there is no registration procedure in PNG but rather protection is automatic if it meets the requirements of the PNG Copyright legislation.
  4. 4. Monitor It – it’s important to keep an eye not only on your fashion designs but also designs of others.  Other than being inspired by others work, it’s equally important that you ensure others don’t infringe your rights.
  5. 5. Enforce It – If you become aware if a potential infringement, do something about it.  Yes, it can be expensive seeking legal redress but if you don’t do anything about it, you’ll be trodden on, people will make money from your hard work, from your intellectual property.  Every alleged different doesn’t need to end up in Court.  Getting in contact with the other party, raising awareness and many other strategies can work for you if you are serious about protecting your assets.  There is a misconception that reporting an infringement with IPO PNG will result in the IPO PNG taking action against the other party. Truth is, they won’t.  They’ll tell you to see a lawyer.

I enjoy working with local designers and artists.  Not only because their talent and work is truly unique, they deserve to be monetized fairly based on the value of their intellectual property assets under current market conditions.

About the Author

Mea Vai, is a lawyer with close to 20 years practicing experience predominantly in intellectual property and general commercial law.  Mea is admitted to practice law in Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and Australia (Queensland) and is the Principal of Vai IP, a law firm specializing in intellectual property law and consultancy. Mea has acted for both local companies and major multi-national companies protecting their intellectual property assets both in PNG and abroad. Email: mea@meavaiip.com