News & Cues: Dior plagiarises… or not?

by Koka Tarini Siddhartha

It has come to our attention that Dior has gotten itself into a pickle. Indian artist and graphic designer, Orijit Sen, shared photos of the January issue of Elle India magazine featuring Sonam Kapoor in a dress with the same print as his Delhi-based studio, People Tree’s yoga print, created nearly eighteen years ago.

People Tree is a design studio created by Orijit Sen and his wife, Gurpreet Sidhu, in 1990, as a collaborative design venture with a community of natural dye and block-printing artisans from Rajasthan called Kaladera. As reported by Firstpost, along with the Kaladera artisans, Sen and Sidhu have created several garments and fabrics using these natural dyes and hand carved wooden blocks.

Is Dior guilty of plagiarism?

From the news reports we’ve come across so far, there has been a uniform allegation that Dior is guilty of plagiarism. But is it really? Let’s take a look at what the law says:

Fashion and intellectual property laws have been at loggerheads since… always! Fashion designers are constantly trying to find ways to protect their couture, but are more often than not faced with obstacles.

They cannot be protected by patents because they will not fulfil all the basic ingredients to be patentable. They could resort to either copyright or design protection but that comes with its own set of limitations.

Fashion and the Law:

Before we jump into which Act, what section, we must go back to the basics of design protection. What is protected by the Designs Act, 2000? The law protects the aesthetic aspect of any product created through an industrial process. It could be the shape, pattern, or colour combination which can be two or three dimensional in form.

Simply put, only the visual elements of a product can be protected by the Design Act. Since the fashion industry creates garments that are useful/functional in nature, it will not fall within the general protection umbrella offered by the Design Act.  

However, there is a catch to this. The Copyright Act, 1957, has a special provision whereby a design can be protected by the Copyright Act, provided it has not been reproduced more than fifty times by an industrial process.

So, can People Tree claim copyright protection?

Short answer, no. There is a strict requirement for the number of copies to be below fifty to claim copyright protection (Section 15). In this Quartz report, Gurpreet Sidhu disclosed that People Tree produced 100-200 yoga print pieces every year for the past fifteen years. You do the math.

We’ve eliminated copyright and design infringement, but there is another angle to this case in the form of cultural appropriation. We’ve discussed this at length here, when Beyoncé went desi in the music video for Hymn for the Weekend (Sonam Kapoor was in this video as well!).

Cultural appropriation has been a rampant problem in the creative industry whether it is folk music or as is in this case, traditional cultural heritage of a community that is unlawfully appropriated by a fashion giant. While People Tree per se is unlikely to be compensated, hopefully the Kaladera community are rightfully credited and compensated.

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