Top high street fashion retailers head for High Court over piracy allegation

Fashion retailer River Island has launched legal action against Debenhams over an alleged design infringement, as claims of copying in the retail sector soar.

The claim, lodged at the High Court, concerns one of River Island’s bags.

River Island chief executive Clive Lewis said there have been regular instances of its product designs being copycatted by rivals. ‘We are being copied significantly and it is something that we do not accept,’ he said. ‘This is a problem that has increased over the past 24 months.’

Lewis said River Island has settled more than six design disputes in the past year alone. It also has an ongoing dispute with value retailer Primark. It alleged that Primark infringed its copyright on four products, including a dress, bag and belt.

The retailer has also reached settlements with international retailers. ‘This is significant, because it shows it is possible to get damages for sales outside of the UK,’ said Lewis.

The claim lodged against Debenhams is valued at£50,000. Lewis said that River Island takes design infringements very seriously. ‘If you do not get anywhere through negotiation, the only way to police copyright is to be prepared to litigate,’ he said.

One of the reasons River Island is often the victim of design infringement from other retailers is that its product is highly regarded. River Island notched up profits of£162.3 million last year (Retail Week, August 25).

Campaign group Anti Copying in Design (ACID) agreed with Lewis’s view that piracy is on the rise. ‘We have seen a marked increase in the past year, because there is a general feeling that there is not any value in design,’ said chief executive Dids Macdonald.

ACID has handled more than 200 settlements on behalf of members since 1999, with many involving big high street retailers. The majority of cases are settled out of court.

Design infringement is one small part of a massive copyright problem for the UK economy. In the UK,£10 billion was lost to counterfeiting, piracy and product plagiarism in all industry sectors last year, according to the Alliance Against IP Theft.

Debenhams declined to comment on the claim.