Intellectual Property

A Fashion Crime That Could Get You a Year in Jail

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New York City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, whose district includes Chinatown, wants the neighborhood to be known for its museums, restaurants, and "really authentic goods" instead of "fake knockoffs." She questions the moral values of people who demand the instant gratification of a cheap imitation instead of saving up to "buy the real thing." So she wants to put them in jail: A bill she is sponsoring would make it a misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year behind bars, to buy a phony Rolex watch or faux Gucci handbag.

Even someone who is skeptical of intellectual property laws can recognize the legitimacy of trademarks as a protection against fraud. But a person who buys a bogus Burberry scarf, though potentially a victim, has not violated anyone's rights, let alone committed an offense that merits jail time. It is questionable whether even Chinatown's purveyors of "counterfeit" goods deserve to be punished, since their customers generally do not imagine they are getting a surprisingly good deal on the latest fashion accessories. The buyers are in on the con too, and the only people fooled by it are the friends, acquaintances, and random passers-by who think they have better taste and more discretionary income than they really do. Is that a crime? 

Check out Reason.tv's report on the campaign for legal protection of clothing designs (as opposed to trademarks):