Sunday, March 26, 2006

IP and Gender: The Unmapped Connections: Susan Scafidi

Panel 3 was about, in various ways, cloth and clothing.

Susan Scafidi began. I’ve seen pieces of her work on fashion before. Here she focused on the important contribution of gender to fashion’s outsider status in IP. In debates over IP rights for fashion, gender is often explicitly invoked. This is important now because the fashion industry is looking for boat-hull type protection, though only for 3 years. There’s not much public reporting on this, but Slate did an article called Copycatfight, proving the point about gender’s centrality. (Other similar uses of the witticism.)

Though men used to be the peacocks of Western culture, high-status women became linked to fashion (and economic superfluity) after the 17th century. (I’m skipping a lot of stuff, which will doubtless be in Scafidi’s next book, making the book well worth reading.) There’s a history of debate over IP protection for fashion; popular opinion often seemed to favor protection against copying in the early to mid-20th century. For example, Superman went after design pirates (follow this link, really), though Lois Lane was the one driving the investigation, since Clark Kent protested he felt out of place in a dress store.

Sixties feminism had plenty to say about fashion and its requirements, and shopping as a woman’s only legitimate way of being in public.

In the debates over IP, there’s a mistaken sense that fashion only trickles down; an idea that women are irrationally chasing newness; and an assumption that women are objects whose dress signals their status and that of their men. The recent association between gay men and fashion adds a wrinkle. Heterosexual men in fashion insist they’re cutting edge and that they don’t know anything about trends, but women out shopping have been joined by gay men with superior fashion sense.

The big point: IP protection is culturally determined; it isn’t self-evident what ought to qualify. Ideas about gender have helped keep fashion outside the IP system.

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