McQueen and the Useful Article Doctrine

This past summer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute housed "Savage Beauty", an exhibition featuring both clothing and accessories created by late fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen. The exhibition contained six galleries, all of which displayed works created by McQueen either at his own label, during his tenure at Givenchy, or in connection with his studies at Central St. Martins. The exhibition brought in over 650,000 visitors in its three-month limited run, making it one of the Met's most successful exhibitions to date. What utility, if any, did more than half a million visitors enjoy from the clothing displayed as part of "Savage Beauty"? After all, the utilitarian nature of clothing precludes it from copyright protection. The Copyright Act of 1976 defines a "useful article" as "an article having an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information". Under the useful article doctrine, copyright protection is granted "only if…such design incorporates pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article." Fashion design, therefore, is rarely afforded copyright protection, because clothing is more often than not regarded as utilitarian. Surely, those museumgoers were not wearing the exhibition's clothing. I have read no interviews with visitors commenting on the warmth of McQueen's sweaters, nor the comfort of his dresses, or even the difficulty of walking in McQueen's shoes. In fact, visitors were prohibited from touching the clothes. Rather, most visitors interviewed lauded McQueen's artistry, focusing either on the thematic "expression of love and darkness"[1] for which McQueen's work is famous, or the sculptural elements of his work, noting, "he knows how to cut it and gather [the fabric]. Just the way it ends up in the right place…"[2] The popularity of this exhibition, where such a substantial number of visitors queued for up to five hours at a time for no purpose but to to marvel at McQueen's designs, demonstrates fashion's capability of incorporating elements outside of clothing's "intrinsic utilitarian function". Where the design focuses more heavily on the pictorial or sculptural elements of the piece, the garment becomes as much a piece of artwork as a useful article of clothing. McQueen's designs therefore exemplify the forward thinking artistry, both pictorially and sculpturally, that copyright is meant to protect. The overwhelming response to the Met's exhibition on McQueen's clothing delineates the public's appreciation for fashion design from a purely artistic standpoint, where clothing serves as much as a canvas for elements of original design as it does in its capacity as useful articles. [1] Beja, M. (2011, August 07). Thousands show up for last day of met's mcqueen exhibit. Retrieved from http://www.amny.com/urbanite-1.812039/thousands-show-up-for-last-day-of-met-s-mcqueen-exhibit-1.3081405 [2] Cardwell, D. (2011, August 07). Alexander mcqueen exhibition at metropolitan museum of art draws thousands. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/08/nyregion/alexander-mcqueen-exhibition-at-metropolitan-museum-of-art-draws-thousands.html

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