Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The morality of vintage reproduction: where do you draw the line?

You see a beautiful vintage dress. Maybe it is in a museum, maybe on Pinterest, maybe in an Etsy shop or Ebay auction - but way outside your price range, or you miss out. But you want that dress. Exactly that dress.

You sew it yourself, or commission a seamstress to make it for you. Is this ok? What if you make the dress multiple times and sell it commercially? What if it wasn't 20th century vintage, but a Victorian ball gown from a museum, or a 16th century costume based on a painting? What if it was a modern designers work from a period movie? Where do you draw the line?

Ok, so this is something I have been thinking about on and off ever since I started selling my hats, and especially since I began to focus on vintage styles. And I don't yet have an answer to the many questions that roll through my head.


 What if it is just so generic that there is no real intellectual property there? I mean, how many ways are there to make a boater hat? What if I'm using a vintage block - I kind of have to make that exact shape, right? What if I'm basing it on an illustration, so the design is someone else's, but the hat never actually existed? What about taking a pattern from an existing hat? What about drafting my own pattern to achieve a certain shape? What about selling hats made from vintage patterns?


I know that I am definitely happy to take inspiration from vintage images and items and interpret them in my own way, or combine design elements from different places into my own design. (And if the inspiration is only general, I am ok with this for modern work too.) I am definitely happy to attempt a "vague reproduction" of a vintage item, in the knowledge that it will end up different anyway as the making process goes on. I can usually rely on nothing ever turning out exactly how I imagined it!

I also know that I am definitely not ok with exactly copying exactly a recent design, but I'm not sure how recent it has to be for me to not be ok with it. 70s? 80s? 90s? 2000s?


Legally, I don't think there is an issue, although intellectual property is a very confusing legal space, and my brief education on the matter related to engineering, not fashion. I want, however, to find my own comfortable moral position.

There are clearly a lot of factors in the spectrum of this morality, in my mind. How recent is the design? How special and unique is it? How directly am I drawing inspiration from it, or am I copying it outright?


I don't have an answer. I've just completed a custom order to reproduce a vintage hat as exactly as possible, and I have to say that I (mostly) loved the process, despite occasional frustrations. I liked the challenge of studying the photos, trying to work out what had been done and recreate it myself. I do have nagging doubts about it, but I want it to be ok.

Anyway, here it is, in all it's glory.


One way I am thinking of it is that while I would be upset and angry if someone copied my own designs now, I would be flattered if they did so in fifty years.

What are your personal feelings on the intellectual property of vintage designs?

19 comments:

  1. I've written two comments, both of which got lost when N grabbed the phone and made the page go back. Sigh. Third time lucky.

    Ignoring legalities for the moment, and just going with gut, moral feelings: could anyone suffer loss as a direct result of your copy?
    Could the creator still lose money or reputation etc if your copy exists? Was the design assigned to a creative or corporate estate which could lose out because of the copy?
    The answer will rarely be yes for vintage images and patterns.

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  2. The conclusion was meant to be:
    Because if your actions can't hurt or inconvenience or cause financial loss to anyone, then there shouldn't be a moral problem. In my world view.

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    1. That is a good and straightforward way of looking at it, and I think very sensible. Thank you!

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  3. I've got to say, I kind of have to agree with Rhiannon here ~ if no one's losing out, surely it's a good thing to be keeping these gorgeous vintage items around in the flesh and not just in photographs? Plus, I think the whole fifty years later is really the point. It's not now, and these items are often lost in the past unless we {or you} bring them to life. Speaking from a sewing point of view... Just a thought anyway, I'd love to hear any other points on this. :) ❤

    xox,
    bonita of Lavender & Twill

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    1. This is a great perspective! I hadn't really thought of the fact that without reproductions being made, most of the objects are lost to time. I love this angle! Thank you :)

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  4. I agree with Rhi as well. Your comment about designing from an illustration especially got me thinking: Is anyone else likely to be creating this hat if you don't? In situations like that one especially, I find it very difficult to argue against the urge to bring something beautiful into the world that would not exist otherwise.

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    1. Thank you Leigh! That is a good point. In the case of an illustration, I guess I am creating something that is in a completely new form, as well. Another interesting point for me to ponder.

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  5. Dear Tanith, (first sorry for my bad english, I hope you understand me) I think that you put your own performance as too low by rating them below. You must indeed think about how a design works, so that is a portable hat from a flat image and the challenge you are up very well.

    The designs are also very old and the designer has certainly no disadvantage in your work. Rather, I believe that designers are thrilled when their idea is loved and implemented even after decades. :)

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    1. I know I would be thrilled!

      I think I understand what you mean, that the act of making a hat from images is a creative act itself, and that is my own design input. Sometimes that is more true than at others, especially when there is only one image and I am making my own decisions about how it looks from other views. Thank you for your comment!

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  6. Really interesting subject to discuss. I think there is nothing wrong with making items from original vintage patterns and selling them. The patterns were made to be sold commercially after all. I would never make something from a modern pattern to sell unless the designer had said it was ok to do so. I think there is a huge difference between taking inspiration from something and copying it outright and I guess everyone has a place where the crossover from one to another would start for them.

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    1. I have been reading a bit today about restrictions on modern patterns and it seems complicated legally, but I would definitely rather do what the designer is happy with, regardless of whether they could enforce it. When it comes to vintage, it does have a very different feel. I guess with knitting, you wouldn't often do anything without a pattern, so you would be a bit stuck without being able to sell the things you made!

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  7. Excellent topic to raise, dear Tanith. I'm with Rhiannon on this one big time and think that she said things so eloquently and succinctly. Just as very few recipes are 100% owned and barred from being copied outright, so too is fashion a very broad spectrum that one is often, especially when decades of time are factored in, open to being borrowed from or even reproduced outright. So many of the best chefs are still trained on the work of masters like Escoffier and Dumaine, why can't we in the fashion world do the same with the creations of great names and everyday stylish folks alike (assuming we're not breaking any copyright laws and such in the process).

    ♥ Jessica

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    1. Thank you Jessica. As something I have been thinking about a lot, I thought it would be good to raise the question publicly. The comparison to recipes is a fascinating one, and brings up a lot of different angles to consider it from!

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  8. The thing I like about fashion design is that it's virtually impossible to copyright any actual design -- unless you pioneered a process or a fabric. I wouldn't want anything to be copyrighted/patented anyway as I believe that stifles creativity. Even if someone were to pretty much rip off an exact design of mine, I can't stop them. I can bitch about it but last I checked a design only has to be changed 30% in order to not get in trouble.

    I believe if you did the work as a custom designer, your get paid for it even if you didn't come up with said original design. I think where it gets really hairy is probably when you're mass producing, but I could be wrong.

    I think you're totally fine as the people who designed the hats you're taking inspiration from are probably long gone and you always have your own spin on it. :)

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    1. Thanks for the input Nicole. It is a very confusing area but I think I like the approach that encourages creativity. Copying a design exactly is a challenge, but not very creative, but taking inspiration from one can be a wonderful jumping off point.

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  9. I will come back to read this post closely in november, when my hubby is gone to the states to visit his mum .... I just don't have enough time left right now ...
    I think, you really do agreat job in coping/redoing these vitnage styles. One hand it is a good way to learn techniques on the other hand ... you can create something that's probably already gone.
    As I said, I will be back. ;)

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    1. I look forward to hearing more from you :) It is definitely a good learning process, especially when modern techniques have changed since the hats were made.

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  10. Here in the UK there's a shelf-life on fashion copyright (I can't remember how long, maybe 30 years?) so it's expected that designs will be rehashed, unless it's a protected print (like a Liberty print) or something. It must be very frustrating for some designers to have their work copied in the modern day, but in recreating old designs you are surely helping to keep the past alive? And no-one is losing out, as the others have stated. x

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    1. The different intellectual property laws around the world certainly make for a confusing landscape around the issue. Thanks for the input!

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