Home » Copyright/Intellectual Property » Cultural and Intellectual Property Appropriation: Disputes Over Culturally-Inspired Fashions

Cultural and Intellectual Property Appropriation: Disputes Over Culturally-Inspired Fashions

11 February 2019

From Trademark and Copyright Law:

If you haven’t heard already, New York Fashion Week is here! As usual, a lineup of awe-inspiring shows is expected to roll out over the next several days, as it does every September and February, highlighting the latest fashion trends of some of world’s most famous designers.  One of the big stories surrounding New York Fashion Week this year is the amount of cultural diversity expected to appear on the runway.  The Council of Fashion Designers of America recently penned a letter to New York Fashion Week designers, stating “[a]s you cast your New York Fashion Week shows, please remember to promote diversity and inclusion, on and off the runway.”  The Council also released a diversity report making the case for cultural diversity in fashion.  Designers are expected to take heed. In fact, they did just that for the September New York Fashion Week shows, where over 40 percent of New York’s runway models were reported to be models of color.

Although casting for runway shows appears to be moving in the direction of cultural diversity, some believe the fashion industry itself is facing a crisis with cultural appropriation.  Cultural appropriation is the co-opting of intellectual property, cultural expressions, traditional knowledge or artifacts from another’s culture (usually a minority or indigenous group) without their input, consent, credit, or compensation.  Many of us are familiar with claims of cultural appropriation in the entertainment world (for example, Elvis appropriating black music or the Kardashian sisters co-opting hairstyles traditionally worn by women of African descent).

In the fashion world, claims of cultural appropriation are nothing new. Critics argue that western designers steal traditional design elements from marginalized people, which equates to intellectual property infringement, while defenders respond that it’s not cultural appropriation at all, but instead cultural appreciation or inspiration. Sometimes these disputes lead to lawsuits and, unfortunately for brands accused of appropriation, they often play out in the media as well.

. . . .

French designer Isabel Marant, known for her bohemian aesthetics, came under fire when an indigenous Mixe community of Oaxaca, Mexico, accused Marant of copying its traditional embroidery design. The Mixe community alleged that Marant engaged in “plagiarism” by using its 600 year old cultural expression and claiming it as her own novel creation.  This led to a Twitter storm, with posts comparing Marant’s design with the Mixe design, and discussions concerning cultural appropriation in the fashion industry.

. . . .

MAC Cosmetics was called out for cultural appropriation after it debuted its VIBE TRIBE line of cosmetics in May 2016.  To market its product, the company used the trademark VIBE TRIBE, together with a trade dress (i.e., product packaging) that many believed looked like Native American prints from the American southwest. MAC also allegedly adopted an ad campaign featuring “ethnic-looking” models wearing feather hair accessories and tribal attire.  Despite product names such as “Arrowhead” for lipstick, “Adobe Brick” for blush, and “Wild Horses” for eyeshadow, MAC stated that its collection “has absolutely no connection to nor was it inspired by the Native American cultures.”  Although no lawsuits were filed by Native American tribes, MAC faced a backlash in social media, with complaints from consumers and others, who felt that MAC was engaging in cultural appropriation.

Link to the rest at Trademark and Copyright Law

Copyright/Intellectual Property

20 Comments to “Cultural and Intellectual Property Appropriation: Disputes Over Culturally-Inspired Fashions”

  1. “Cultural and Intellectual Property Appropriation”

    Another meme that can’t die soon enough.

    Everything we think, say and do is a collection of what we’ve seen, heard and learned throughout our lives, if you don’t want me(or anyone else) considering/using what we learn of other cultures then you need to remove them from being seen, heard or learned of. (Which means no one else can talk or sell books about them either …)

    Bloody hell – oh wait – I can’t be allowed to use that because I’m not a Brit! 😛

    • As a Brit I officially authorise you to appropriate any of our culture that’s not nailed down by copyright or trade mark. Try not to choose the worst bits.

      • So… no food then.

        • I’ll take English muffins!

          Oddly I’ve only had vacuum packed English Muffins on a trip to New York. Delicious though.

        • Cottage pie is pretty good.
          Of course, I’ll now have to tell my mother she’s not allowed to make it. Worse, I’ll have to tell my sister the chef she can’t make her signature mixed meats lasagna.

          It’s soooo tough keeping up with all the new cultural rules.
          HI just hope nobody shows up demanding cultural ownership of beer.

  2. we were at the native american fashion show in santa fe at indian market a few months ago. Most of the native designers were selling left and right tribal designs on their clothing, all the way from Tlinkit to the 19 pueblos. And Plains and Atlantic and SE tribes’ symbols.

    This, aside from being repetitive, brought along pushback from traditionals in the tribes saying native people shouldnt commercialize or sell sacred symbols. But. Many who are native do so anyway.

    • Those folks selling jewelry in the Plaza sure don’t limit sales to indians.

    • This is the crux of what concerns me about the cultural appropriation arguments. It basically treats a cultural group as a monolith and purports to speak for everyone, when each person in each cultural group has different opinions and perspectives on what is acceptable and what is not.

      The same thing happened with the movie Moana when it was coming out. Disney was really intentional about including Polynesians and other Pacific Island people in all levels of the production, from script to animation to voice acting, and as it was being released there were some people who got really upset about cultural appropriation and said Disney had no right to make it without the blessing of the culture the story came from. But they did everything they could, they got input, they included people of that culture, and the people complaining basically said that those who did approve of the result didn’t matter because they didn’t have the “right” opinion.

      It made me really sad to see.

      • They did all that, then had a gay black man right the music. That was what made a lot of people mad, is that music wasn’t even remotely culturally appropriate. Not that I think it has to be, I quite enjoyed the music and the movie.

        At this point in the game, all these people are doing, is ensuring no one writes or films anything other than racially ambiguous characters with no ethnicity.

        Which, if you’re paying attention, is irony. Because they are getting the opposite of the result they want 😀

  3. The truth is that the people buying the artwork don’t care whether it was made by Native Americans or whether it was mass produced in China.
    This is because, most people don’t actually care about the various North American civilisations, after all they were unable to invent the wheel, let alone anything else.
    I expect all traces of them will be gone in the next 50 years.

    • This is because, most people don’t actually care about the various North American civilisations

      Few care about any civilization other than their own.

      • Few care about civilization. Period.
        Most folks only care about the next meal or if they’re affluent enough, the next high. If the latter, they soon join the former.

  4. My latest book is heavily inspired by Punisher, Batman, and John Wick. During an interview I was asked if I was worried about copying those characters, Batman specifically, and where the line was.

    My response is what these people should say.

    “The line is, she’s not wearing a bat symbol, no one is calling her Batman or any derivative and she doesn’t operate in a Batcave. You can’t copyright ideas, only the execution of them.”

    Having told them that, I should point out that if you read my book you might think the character ‘feels’ like Batman, but there isn’t anything recognizable in the execution as, “Oh that’s from Batman.”

    This whole nonsense about how you’re not allowed to be inspired by another culture unless you’re from that culture is just that, nonsense. There is not one culture on the whole of the Earth, that didn’t steal something from someone else at one time.

    But fine, if you want to talk about cultural appropriation… NO airplanes, no cars, no electricity, no phones, no TV, Radio, radar, water purification, pasteurizing milk, and the MILLIONS of other things the west has created.

    Or, we can be inspired by your clothes and you can have all the other things.

    • No Lamar Cranston?
      Mr Gibson would be sad.
      Moon Knight and Red Hood say “Hi!” , btw. 😉

      • I like Moon Knight, the Red Hood is stupid. Just because those particular characters are the inspiration doesn’t mean there aren’t others. In the world that does the same thing. I make no claims of originality.

        • Originality is overrated, anyway.
          Execution is where the fun lies. 😀

          Besides, that is well trod territory and not even the Shadow or Zorro can claim to be first.

  5. Did non-literate cultures appropriate literacy?

    • Yes.
      They also appropriated clothes, jewelry, food…
      …anytging even halfway marketable…
      …and burned what they couldn’t carry off.

      The survivors usually had bigger things to worry about by the time the non-literates were done.

      • Felix, you’ve just pinned down the primary case where cultural appropriation is wrong: namely when you appropriate someone else’s physical possessions. Of course, cultural is redundant here as it’s just as bad if the appropriator is part of your culture rather than a foreign barbarian horde.

        Where I think it is valid to talk of cultural appropriation – or anyway to object to what’s being done – is if someone tries to use copyright to lock down traditional designs; I recall a US university tried to do this for the image rights to the designs on native pottery in its collection.

        • That would be Harvard, back in 2016.


          As for pillaging hordes it’s not just something barbarians from the old days did. The nazis did it, Saddam did it in Kuwait, everybody did it after the collapse of Yugoslavia, ISIS did it, and that’s just the obvious old school lootings. There is also the more modern ways like in Venezuela or the ever popular ponzi schemes.

          Everybody aspires to economic security, especially those unwilling to work for it.

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