Looking For A Steal? Try Urban Outfitters
by Team Bloginity
Bloginity’s purpose is not just to report; it is also to encourage talent. We are not afraid to stand up and criticize when the big guys let us down. Urban Outfitters is certainly no Louis Vuitton, but they do make a lot of money. The chain just reported $609 million in revenue in the last 3 months.
They are also no strangers to accusations of plagiarism, having been hit hard by this story earlier in the year. However, many pointed out that the heart/state necklace (see image to the right) was not a unique one, so despite some bad PR, the company came away mostly unscathed. But today Bloginity is here to nail Urban Outfitters for selling a ripoff so blatant that the artist’s signature is still on the back.
Urban Outfitters has admitted to us that they know the item is a copy but, at the time of writing this article, they are still selling the piece and have yet to apologize to the jewelry designer.
Let’s backtrack a week. Elle Wilson is your normal 14-year-old suburban girl. She runs track, loves going to the mall, and dreams of doing something creative when she gets older. Although young, she has a photo website and Facebook page, as well as a 10,000+ post Tumblr page (http://www.v0guefashion.tumblr.com). While doing some shopping, Elle came across a photo of an ear cuff she loved on a blog and decided to track it down. She found out that the ear cuff was designed by Martha Bobroskie in 2008 and was for sale on her site in silver for $59, after shipping (http://www.martymagic.com/products/Snake-Ear-Cuff.html).
Elle loves Urban Outfitters. She had read the publicity and knew their reputation when it came to original designs, but felt it was perhaps unfair and that the designers may have been copied by coincidence. Her opinion quickly changed.
“I had just seen a picture of a beautiful snake ear cuff circulating around Tumblr with 40,000+ reblogs and likes on it. I found the source of the image was Marty Magic, the site which sells the ear cuffs, and I looked at all of their designs and cuffs. The next day I checked Urban Outfitters’ new arrivals and was pretty shocked to see the exact same cuff.”
When Elle said “exact,” she wasn’t exaggerating. Unlike the ambiguity of state/heart necklace copy, the ear cuff is exact in every detail, down to Marty’s monogram, which could still be seen on the back. The only difference is the Urban Outfitters’ version is cheap metal instead of silver, but they were still charging a whopping $26, after shipping. (see below)
As a Bloginity reader, Elle emailed us with her discovery. Of course, we had to investigate to determine if Urban Outfitters could finally be nailed for so obviously stealing an artist’s work. We got in touch with Marty and she couldn’t believe what was happening. At first she was happy to give them the benefit of doubt, but after reading previous similar cases, doubt left the building with its tail between its legs. Marty is not a casual jewelry designer–she has a BA in Art and has been making jewelry for over 30 years. She counts the musician Prince among her regular clients. She lives and works next to Silicon Valley and has had a website since 1996 (http://www.martymagic.com/) and is well aware of the dangers of artistic theft.
“I have seen photographs of my pieces which have been taken from my website and reappear as items for sale by companies on www.alibaba.com. They don’t even need to make samples anymore because they just steal the photos and copy the original piece if they get an order.” Marty had been perfecting the snake cuff design for several years, because it took a while to perfect a shape that would stay on the ear. The copied design that Urban Outfitters calls a “new arrival” on their site has been for sale on Marty’s website since June 2009. “I have never done trade shows because I worry about being copied,” Marty told me, “and being an artist who signs their work, I presumed that my work would have some kind of protection.”
Bloginity asked Nancy E. Wollf, renowned copyright lawyer and partner at Cowan DeBaets Abrahams & Sheppard, if the law protects designers at all against counterfeiters. Nancy explained the law as follows:
Jewelry, even if it is a useful object, is protected as a sculptural work under the Copyright Act. Since the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Mazur V Stein, artistic jewelry and other aesthetically pleasing articles, are subject to copyright protection. Therefore, any unauthorized reproduction violates the artist’s exclusive rights in the work, entitling that artist to recover damages for infringement. While another artist can design an ear cuff in the shape of a snake, the second artist needs to create an original design and not copy the first artist’s work.
So to clarify that for those of you who are either perpetrators or victims of design theft, it is simple: Copying jewelry design is illegal. Urban Outfitters first claimed to us that they couldn’t respond to our allegations because there was a cease and desist notice preventing them from commenting, even though the snake ear cuff was still for sale on their website. Once we pointed out that there was no writ against them, they offered the explanation below.
Thank you for alerting us to the work of Marty Magic and the similarity of her design to a snake ear cuff we are selling on our site. I can confirm that Urban Outfitters did not design, provide inspiration for, or manufacture the ear cuff in question. The ear cuff was purchased by a member of our Women’s Accessories buying team from one of the many vendors who present their product to us on a regular basis. Our buyer has since reached out to the vendor to apprise them of this matter. Just to give you some background, it is typical practice for us to purchase accessory designs from vendors. The vast majority of our accessories come from national brands, independent designers, and licensed vendors. Creative due diligence between our internal buying teams and external vendors is something we continue to strive for. We are very explicit with all vendors that our brand supports artists and their creativity and we will not tolerate anyone that copies or steals ideas. It saddens us to see such a similar design and we would never knowingly have purchased the item had we been aware of Marty’s work. Unfortunately, snakes are a recurring trend in jewelry and our buyer simply selected items from hundreds of pieces shown by our vendor. We continue to focus as much energy as we can to prevent instances such as the Snake Ear Cuff you have highlighted from slipping through the cracks. We hope you understand that it was never our intention to offend Marty Magic or any other independent designer with the product we offer.
Basically, Urban Outfitters is passing the buck to their supplier for ripping off Marty. They admit to being just resellers of most of the accessories they stock. They also claim to have due diligence in making sure their suppliers do not provide fakes and they “will not tolerate anyone that copies or steals ideas”. But search the words “snake ear cuff” in Google images and Marty’s identical design is all over the page.
Not doing a Google search is not due diligence. If Urban Outfitters “will not tolerate anyone that copies or steals ideas,” why is it they have simply “apprised” their supplier about the issue, rather than issued them a writ or instruction to destroy their molds, taken their product off the website, or even made any kind of apology to Marty? Bloginity is not on a crusade against Urban Outfitters here but this story raises some very important issues. The first is plagiarism. We all know designers talk of “inspiration” and go on their shopping trips or trawl the net to find ideas, while at the same time complaining at those who make counterfeit handbags. Counterfeit is often the same thing as inspiration, just dressed up to sound acceptable, but in both cases it is abusing someone else’s originality. In past cases, Urban Outfitters could fend off criticism by claiming that the disputed objects they sold were just coincidental or too dissimilar. Not this time. This is an exact copy, made by making a mold from the original–signature and all. If a 14-year-old girl can easily spot a copy, it makes sense that a large chain should be able to, especially given the accusations of artistic plagiarizing that they have recently dealt with.
The second issue is a broader one. As the figures today show, America is stuck with over 9% unemployed despite government intervention. It’s time big businesses started helping reduce that number not adding to it. Marty has been supporting her family by producing this metal art for over 30 years. The foundry she uses to cast the pieces of wax she has modeled into beautiful solid silver objects is in Rhode Island. She provides work for Americans who are making a superior product. The Urban Outfitters’ buyer saw a photo or a sample of the cuff and placed an order, undercutting Marty with thousands of cheap foreign copies. Those fakes are unwittingly bought by Americans and make money for the giant retailer and the foreign manufacturer at the expense of Marty and her American workers.
The third issue is how Urban Outfitters can be so short of innovative and creative skills that they choose to order items from a foreign manufacturer, rather than spend the small amount of time creating or refining a unique product. Urban Outfitters have just posted record sales but would rather increase profits by buying the accessories that anyone could source, rather than employing their own designers to create something original. This country cannot compete on manufacturing costs, but it still has a wealth of design talent. Urban Outfitter’s 5th Ave NY store proudly advertises their relationship with Pratt’s fashion students. Is this a genuine attempt to foster originality in the retail giant, or a nice PR piece to make customers believe their products are designed by Americans instead of being bought from a foreign trade catalogue?
Whichever way you look at this sorry tale, Urban Outfitters has been caught peddling knock off goods. They have not apologized, they are still selling the product and they have simply apprised their supplier of the facts. It is very fitting that the cuff is in the form of a snake–a creature with a long association to deceit and dishonesty. We at Bloginity hope that this story goes viral and that they learn that the power of the individual is very strong, whether you are a teenage fashionista or an established jewelry designer, against a giant retail corporation. We urge Urban Outfitters to improve their ethics. They should apologize to Marty and stock her American made cuff in place of their cheap foreign copy. They should destroy their current stock, release the foreign supplier’s name to Marty and use their own legal department to support any case she has against them. Learn from this that millions of eyes are watching you, Urban Outfitters, and that it is economic sense to encourage original design rather than copy it or buy it out of a foreign factory catalog. Don’t just put the onus on suppliers to fight against counterfeiting, but hire an employee who double checks that your suppliers are telling the truth and that you are not selling duplicitous designs. This should be the last time that Urban Outfitters, Anthroplogie and your other brands are found to be selling a cheap counterfeit product.