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The Knockoff Scholarship of Jeannie Suk and Scott Hemphill

July 15, 2011

Today Professor Jeannie Suk will be testifying in Congress in favor of the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act, a bill to impose copyright protection on fashion design. That she’s the IDPPPA’s latest champion only serves to underscore how the whole crusade is just a sham.

Some of us in legal academia know the reason why Suk has no business testifying against copying, but the academic code of silence has kept the secret quiet. Suk and her co-author Scott Hemphill plagiarized their law review article advocating fashion copyright, The Law, Culture and Economics of Fashion. They hypocritically want to deny fashion designers the right to use other people’s work, but they themselves are close copyists.

Here’s a chart with citations for a number of points that Suk and Hemphill took without attribution from the most notorious advocate for the fashion copyright bill, Susan Scafidi. Every one of Suk’s and Hemphill’s major points, and from what I can tell, most of their supporting arguments come from either Scafidi’s testimony in Congress or her other writings.

I asked Scafidi about this at a panel discussion. She told me that she was aware of the plagiarism. Scafidi said that Hemphill had met Scafidi at a faculty workshop and said he wanted to write about fashion too, in part so he could get tickets to fashion shows for his fiancee. He asked Scafidi about a work in progress she had workshopped on fashion copyright, and afterward she started getting emails from Hemphill’s and Suk’s research assistants asking for her article draft and anything else she had that wasn’t publicly available. She thought they would be writing a scholarly response, but instead, they just parroted what she’d said and claimed they’d come up with it all themselves.

Scafidi said she was personally distressed by Suk and Hemphill copying her work, but she didn’t want to start a public controversy that could hurt the IDPPPA’s chances for getting passed. Nevertheless, this act of plagiarism, a common problem with Harvard law professors, calls to mind the problem many of us have with the fashion copyright bill itself. The big fashion companies paying to get their way don’t really care about innovation policy. Most of the big companies are copyists themselves who are just using this anti-copying campaign to cover their tracks.

If Suk and Hemphill think that calling their work plagiarism is unfair and that it is actually just a transformative remix, now they know how it will feel to be a designer unfairly punished for violating the fashion copyright law they support.

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