Every manufacturer of quality shoes has their versions of the classic models – plain cap toe oxford, semi brogues, adelaides, and so on – but also when someone launches a slightly different design you will soon see more or less copies of these from other manufacturers. Here is the explanation for why it is this way.
We who closely follow the classic shoe industry know that this happens quite often. A bespoke shoemaker or RTW manufacturer shows pictures of a shoe model that stands out, something that you haven’t seen before, at least that’s your experience. A few months pass and another manufacturer has made a very similar version of the same shoe. A year or two later, you see more or less exactly that shoe model from a bunch of different brands, both RTW and bespoke. In the same way customers can take any shoe and tell their bespoke shoemaker or MTO supplier that they want a copy of this specific shoe, without any problems with that.
In this article, I will not add any value to this, just go into the facts, and explain why it is as it is. For many people it is difficult to understand why it is okay to “copy” other people’s shoe models in this way. Since this is about copyright, design protection (or pattern protection) and international variations within this, it’s a total jungle to go into it in detail, so this will be a generalising overview (as good as I can do it, legal distinctions are not my specialty).
As a start, in general, shoes and clothing are considered to be mainly utilitarian, (unlike, for example, a logo or artistic work), and for something functional you usually cannot obtain copyright (or for that matter seek patent or trademark protection). For something to be copyrighted, it must also be completely new and unique. It goes without saying that even if you make variants of designs, if they fall under the framework of classic shoes it’s not something that in a functional sense is new or unique. It’s still a shoe in leather that is fastened with laces, buckles or elastic bands, sort of.
For design protection/pattern protection in areas such as clothing and shoes, the requirements are still that it must be new and unique, but the bar is set a bit lower. However, the difference here is that, unlike with copyright, you must apply to have your design protected. A rather complicated procedure in itself, and expensive, especially if you are going to have it at, say, on EU level and not just in your home country. And then if you succeed in getting your design protected, technically anyone in Asia or the United States could still come and do the same variation of shoe without problems, or the other way around. Plus, it can be enough to just change some small detail on the shoe, and you can still do something very similar without being considered to infringe on a design protection. In addition, you also only have a design protection for a shorter period of a few years, before it has to be renewed and then often does not receive new protection and the design is free.
To summarise the relatively theoretical paragraphs above, one can say that new designs of shoes in general would never be considered for copyright protection, and in cases where they are sufficiently special for a potential design protection, it’s still not worth the hassle. Ergo: free for all to be inspired by/copy new models that emerge.
Another thing to be aware of is that many of the new models that shows up on the classic shoe arena are often also inspired by or more or less copies of shoes from far back in time. And there are also obvious difficulties for anyone to prove that you are the originator of a new design idea.
Legislation suggestions has been prestende in for exapmple the USA, where they want to make it easier to protect also designs within fashion (mainly since large design brands want to stop their products from being copied), where shoes would obviously be included, but they are considered to bring so many different new hassles with them that they will likely never become reality. In other words, we will continue to see shoe manufacturers be inspired by or even copy good new designs from each other. And if this wouldn’t be the case, we might have just seen the double monk strap shoe available at John Lobb, or tassel loafers only from Alden, and one might wonder how fun that would have been.