Protection of Clothing IP

A number of businesses in South Africa are related, directly or indirectly, to the design and manufacture of clothing, garments, apparel and fashion accessories. For these companies the issue of protection of Intellectual Property presents a number of challenges that other manufacturing sectors do not face.

Clothing design and manufacture is a rapid process, with even small labels being expected to launch relatively large product ranges on a seasonal basis. This makes blanket protection of products prohibitively expensive and places severe constraints on the forms of IP which can be used. For instance, clothing design generally occurs in a space where mass manufacture limits the available copyright that can be applied. The clothing industry is also a relatively mature technological space, which significantly limits the scope of protection which can be obtained. By the same token, however, a small difference from the prior art (such as a single distinguishing feature) can form the basis for a successful application.

With these issues in mind, there are still a number of avenues open for protection of IP in the clothing and fashion industries. Where a technological innovation is present that sufficiently differentiates an invention from the prior art, protection by means of patent may be used. Designers or manufacturers seeking to protect only the visual aspects of their products may instead rely on registered designs and trademarks.

Registered designs, like patents, are territorial in nature and require novelty. Here this means that the design itself must not form part of the state of the art prior to registration or release. Registered designs are also required to be original or not commonplace in the art, both of which can be broadly understood as meaning that the design must be the original work of the applicant.

Once granted, registered designs can provide a number of advantages for designers seeking to protect a product; as they are relatively cheap to lodge and can be rapidly used to provide protection. In addition, an applicant can register a design up to six months after it is released to the public. Registered designs can also be applied for a number of products common to the clothing industry; including the garments themselves, fabric patterns, and logos or visual designs applied to garments. Finally, registered designs can be applied to sets of items in certain circumstances.

While registered designs can protect the product itself, trademarks allow a designer or manufacturer to protect their brand. Here the purpose of a trademark is to protect a ‘mark’ (defined as any sign capable of graphical representation) for the purpose of distinguishing goods and services from one another. Trademarks are therefore required to be distinctive in relation to similar goods and services, and must be either in use or intended for use as a trademark.

Trademarks, once registered, have significant advantages over other forms of IP protection. They apply to the brand rather than a given product, and can serve to ward off competing services which would seek to capitalise on the brand’s reputation by means of mimicry or misrepresentation. A trademark, once filed, can also (theoretically) last for as long as it is renewed. Finally, trademarks may be applied concurrently with registered designs where logos are concerned. However, the registration of trademarks has significant time and cost implications.

Given the short lifespan of individual clothing designs when compared to the long lifespan of a brand or label, many existing fashion houses have chosen to simply forgo design protection in favour of trademarks. A careful mixture of approaches may still, however, yield the best results when judiciously applied. Patents may be considered for specific cases where critical technology is concerned, while registered designs may be applied more broadly to individual designs or sets of similar designs. Trademarks, in turn, may be used to protect the brand the products reside in, and may be augmented by other measures such as defensive company name registration.

In deciding the right mix of protection to use, the designer or owner should carefully weigh the time and cost of protection against the benefits it provides on a case-by-case basis.