Plagiarism is so hot right now. (Just ask Melania!) It’s also not new. As long as people have been coming up with good ideas, other people have been passing those ideas off as their own, then shamelessly defending their right to do so. And in the world of independent design–where artists like Tuesday Bassen make their living selling shirts, patches, pins, and other clothing and accessories based on their work–there’s a longstanding tradition of big companies (including Urban Outfitters and “design pirate” firms like Cody Foster & Co) ripping off the work of indie creators, then selling knock-offs without offering royalties or attribution.
Bassen learned this recently after fans of her work pointed out that Spanish fast-fashion chain Zara was selling a series of items that were almost exact duplicates of her own designs. “The first copy felt like a violation, and by the fifth item being reproduced, it was like, ‘Of course,'” Bassen tells Co.Create. Bassen ponied up for a lawyer, who sent a letter to Zara to assert her rights over the work. Zara’s response, though, was surprising.
Bassen’s letter indicated, among other things, that a number of her fans had sent messages noting the similarities between the designs, which include a pins shaped like a pencil eraser with the words “erase you” on it; a red, heart-shaped lollipop design on a white stick with three white stripes; a pink pennant that reads “girls”; and a small turquoise diary with a heart-shaped lock that reads “keep out” on the front. Zara’s response claimed that “the lack of distinctiveness in your client’s purported designs make it very hard to see how a significant part of the population anywhere in the world would associate the signs with Tuesday Bassen.”
That alone is an unusual thing to say about designs who are so “indistinct” that Zara’s feature the same distinctive colors, design flourishes, and text. But the part of the letter that was most galling to Bassen was the implication that, because Bassen is significantly less well-known than Zara is, she has less claim to ownership of her designs. When her lawyer’s letter pointed out that Bassen’s fans had pointed out the similarity, though, Zara’s response was that “such notifications amount to a handful of complaints only,” which pale in comparison to the 98,000,000 visitors a month who shop at Zara’s website.
“Zara said that messages from hundreds of my fans only amounted to a ‘handful,’ and should therefore be dismissed because I have less recognition than them,” Bassen explains. That’s a gross claim–it essentially says that whoever the most famous person to claim a design or an idea is the legal owner of it. And combatting that idea is part of why Bassen has decided to go public in fighting this battle (she posted the letter from Zara to her Instagram page yesterday): “This happens all the time, and most artists don’t have the ‘luxury’ of being able to pursue legal action,” she says. “I’d like to raise awareness of this and help people feel comfortable speaking up. I would, of course, also love to be compensated for my work.”
She’s right, of course, that this isn’t the first time Zara (or other companies) have been accused of stealing from independent artists. With the renewed attention on Zara (who didn’t respond to a request for comment) as a result of Bassen’s issue, other designers have taken to social media to point out their own struggles in this regard:
For her part, Bassen says that she intends to continue the fight–publicly, and in the legal arena–for her work. “I’m absolutely seeking further legal action,” she says. “I plan to pursue this.” It’s likely to be a costly fight against a well-funded opponent, but if the fierceness of Bassen’s designs are any indication of her determination, Zara should be the one who’s intimidated.