Is Fashion a Bad?
I'll start by making a partly-facetious, partly-serious point about this very interesting paper. The authors pitch it primarily as an analysis of why fashion has a low-IP regime, rather than whether that regime is optimal. Many of their arguments do in fact amount to a claim that many players in the industry (if not necessarily the industry as a whole) benefits from a regime in which imitation is largely unconstrained by IP law. But they avoid--almost deliberately, it seems--any discussion of whether society in general is better or worse off because copyright doesn't seriously protect fashion designs.
That strikes me as a bit of a shame, because their analysis of induced obsolecense seems to fit nicely into another classic theme in political economy: how an industry can sometimes arrange its market to its own benefit but to the detriment of society. The fashion cycle is perhaps the classic example of wasteful social behavior. We spend enormous amounts of money, time, and grief on things we'll throw away the instant they start to go out of fashion a few months (or even days) from now. Raustiala and Sprigman are hip to this set of arguments; they have the cites to Thorstein Veblen and his "norm of conspicuous waste" to prove it.
That is, reading the paper, I kept on asking myself, sure, the fashion cycle may work for the fashion industry, but is that really something we should be glad about? This question suggests a certain perverse extension of the Piracy Paradox. If low IP protection is good for the fashion industry because it enables rapid copying and a quick cycle of obsolescence, and if that cycle involves waste induced by conspicuous consumption, then isn't a low IP regime a bad thing?
We could raise the level of IP protection for fashion. This would inhibit copying, which would disrupt the fashion cycle and slow it down. The industry would become less creative and less profitable. But society as a whole would benefit, because we'd all be a little less enslaved by current fashions. This suggestion takes one standard trope in the ecnonomic analysis of IP--that IP protection have a creativity-inhibiting effect because they raise the price of inputs to the creative process--and runs with it in an unexpected direction. Sometimes, creativity is bad! We may no longer regard sumptuary laws as reasonable options, but what if we could achieve the same effect just by tinkering with the IP system?
Or, we could take a slightly different tack about what kinds of waste are and are not caught up in the fashion cycle. From Raustiala and Sprigman's descriptions of the social dynamics driving the adoption and discarding of fashions, it seems fairly unlikely that we can get people to stop being faddish. Rather, the goal is divert valuable resources away from feeding the process. We may not be able to keep Sneetches from strutting about and showing off pointless external characteristics, but we should at least stop spending money inventing Star-On and Star-Off Machines. People will still buy expensive clothes, but if we could encourage designers to be less creative, the resources poured into (soon-to-be out of fashion) creativity could be used elsewhere. Society would be less marvelous, but better in other ways.
But then again, there are always counter-stories. If we forbade copying of fashions, perhaps designers would need to be _even more crazily creative_. Fashions would become ever more outré, not less. It seems hard to predict the likely result _ex ante_ without some more detailed analysis of how people make fashion buying decisions. And that analysis will be unfortunately quite complex, because some people buy clothes to look distinctive, whereas others buy clothes to blend in. (This is the concept of fashion as a "positional good" that the paper discusses.)
And this is where my point turns from half-silly to half-serious. The psychology of fashion is so strange and complexly social that I'm not wholly confident that Raustiala and Sprigman have nailed it. Their story is plausible. But so are a lot of other stories. Is the speed of fashion evolution really under the control of the fashion industry at all? Have fashions evolved at different rates in different times and places? How would we quantify such a question? Do more individualistic societies seek different structures of fashion development? What is the relationship between particular subcultures and the larger society's fashion tastes? Are the members of cosmopolitan socities more tolerant of lots of different looks (diverse fashions, with slow evolotion), or are they marked by successive waves of fashion influence from different communities (more monolithic fashion trends, but moving more rapidly)? I have no idea.
In other words, the fashion industry is so taste-dependent, and tastes are such a strange matter, that any analysis that focuses mostly on the industry itself is bound to leave these kinds of questions hanging. Again, the authors' account is plausible, and seems fair enough when it comes to how the industry works. But is it really an accounting for tastes? I'm less sure.
I think they've given us a very interesting platform for further explorations in the fashion-IP space. It would be interesting to see economic treatments of the structure of the fashion industry (and of the evolution of fashion) under different cultural and historical conditions. The history of partial cartelization of American fashion provides one interesting comparison (and one I'd never heard of until reading this paper); I bet there are others lukring out there.
I see now that Wendy Gordon has come at some of the same issues I've been going on about, but from a trademark direction. I take this as a heartening sign that I'm not being completely goofy in wondering about the normative implications of this IP analysis of a status-conferring good.