Copyright abuses rampant at fashion shows

Susan Scafidi in Crain's New York, February 10, 2012

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While the music was thumping and the models were strutting at the tents at New York Fashion Week Friday, a group of industry insiders discussed the legal pitfalls associated with the use of copyrighted material like music and model's images.

The Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University School of Law hosted a morning event with representatives from design house Tory Burch, event venue Milk Studios and modeling agency Wilhemina International Inc. to examine the evolving legal issues that arise—and the corresponding costs—from producing fashion shows.

The big game changer today is the Internet, which makes music and images much easier to disseminate. But paying licensing fees can make it much more expensive to produce shows and promote the fashion lines afterward.

"In the last few years, we've seen a big change in releases [for models,]" said Ali Grace, associate director of business and legal affairs at Wilhemina, noting that before, designers just wanted models for lookbooks of their clothes. Today, designers often require perpetual usage of a model's image, especially for advertising purposes, but they don't include such language in contracts and rarely pay royalties.

"It's a big concern," Ms. Grace said. She added that another concern comes from the rise in online retailers, such as or Net-a-Porter which also prefer to use runway images because of their prestige, but rarely pay the model for it.

To address the issue, Model Alliance launched earlier this week. The group focuses on the minimum age of models, their financial rights, and sexual abuse among other issues.

Music usage is also a growing industry concern, thanks to sites like YouTube. Designers now have to factor into their licensing costs the number of songs used at a fashion show, where the show will play, and if the show will live-stream, which is becoming more popular, said Steve Gordon, an entertainment lawyer and author of The Future of the Music Business. If a runway show airs on TV, for example, one year of streaming a single song could cost up to $1,000.

Music costs tend to be even heftier for designers who showcase their wares independently. At the tents at Lincoln Center, IMG Fashion produces all the shows and pays for music licenses, costs that are included when a designer signs on to one of IMG's four venues. But if designer opts to show at an art gallery, for example, it's his or her burden to cover the music licensing costs, noted Susan Scafidi, academic director of the Fashion Law Institute.

In addition, designers must to be careful when hiring interns, as evidenced by the lawsuit launched this month by a former Hearst intern who claims that company violated labor laws by not paying her. Daniel Schulman, finance director at Milk Studios, said that his company typically hires 150 interns for the dozens of shows it produces during Fashion Week. But he noted that such interns, who are learning for school, always sign releases.