Tonight’s fashions on the Oscar runway will become next month’s featured dresses in mass-market haute couture stores, and eventually will wind up hanging on racks at discount stores and swap meets.  One designer, Diane Von Furstenberg, wants Congress to put an end to the decades-long cycle in the clothing industry by declaring that original designs have a three-year exclusive with the designer.  But what exactly qualifies as “original,” and does this new proposal protect innovation in the fashion industry — or in the lawsuit industry?  Ted Balaker looks at the question for Reason TV:

The whole point of intellectual property is to spur innovation, and that, according to supporters, is exactly why the fashion industry needs such a bill. Without tougher protections, they say designers will have less incentive to create new looks.

But is the fashion industry really hurting for innovation? And are top-tier designers like Von Furstenberg really getting ripped off by bargain hunters? And even if they were, who’s to say whose look is truly original?

Johanna Blakely of USC’s Norman Lear Center worries that the relentless push for more intellectual property protection could lead to a situation where big design houses lawyer up and sue young designers. Designer Galina Sobolov, head designer and owner of Single by Galina Sobolov, agrees.

“If this bill was in effect as we grew our company, we would have faced probably millions of lawsuits,” says Sobolov, whose designs have been worn by celebs such as Katy Perry and Rachel Hunter. “And we would have never actually had a company.”

In one sense, I sympathize with Von Furstenberg and other designers whose work gets ripped off by those attempting to pass off counterfeits as originals.  American law already bars that practice, though it is hard to enforce.  This would be even more difficult, especially given the ambiguous nature of fashion.  Who gets credit for the wrap dress, as Balaker asks — the industry titan Von Furstenberg, or the woman who designed and successfully marketed one thirty years earlier?  Or should the credit go to the Greeks?

In theory, the law may sound beneficial by protecting intellectual property.  In practice, though, it will become a tool for those with deep pockets to attack those without the means to defend themselves from predatory lawsuits.  It will allow big design houses like Von Furstenberg to eventually keep competitors from arising in the market, and will serve to entrench the existing power structure in the industry from serious challenge. That doesn’t sound like an environment for innovation, except for trial attorneys.