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IS IT REAL, OR IS IT MEMOREX?: As the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama nears, all eyes are on fashion’s new icon, Michelle Obama, and what she will wear to the big event. Every fashion editor and blogger worth their Louboutins has been speculating about Obama’s picks, and a story in WWD that went straight to the designers for their sketches on what she should wear exemplified that fervor.
So much so that eagle-eyed observers might have noted similarities between a Dec. 3 WWD cover story and a feature in the latest Us Weekly. WWD ran a six-page feature with designers’ sketches of what they imagined for Michelle Obama’s inauguration ball look, for the daytime ceremony and for her daughters. The designers, including Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs, Lela Rose, Carolina Herrera, Tracy Reese, Lucy Sykes and Diane von Furstenberg, provided sketches to WWD, which in some cases already existed and in others were commissioned. It received wide attention from other media outlets, including segments on “Entertainment Tonight” and “Good Morning America”; the online slideshow of the piece drew record traffic to WWD.com.
In the Dec. 22 issue, Us Weekly ran a similar piece, “Michelle’s Gown Countdown,” which included the same sketches from a handful of the same designers. Additionally, Us Weekly included quotes with designers explaining their sketches. The magazine did not, however, cite where the images first appeared.
So what are the legal and ethical issues — if any — in this blogging, e-mailing, Twittering and YouTubing era? Fair use, or journalistic larceny?
Us Weekly editor in chief Janice Min declined to comment, as did Jann Wenner, owner of the magazine. But in a statement, Us Weekly said, “The excitement by the fashion community to share their ideas for what Michelle Obama should wear during the inauguration is widespread and certainly not the provenance of any one media outlet.”
Designers, save for a few who declined, provided the sketches to US Weekly. The celebrity title was within its legal rights because the designers own the sketches. “Technically, the designs didn’t belong to [WWD]. [The paper] had the idea — and a great one it was — but ideas can’t be copyrighted. The actual intellectual property was the designs, and they belonged to the designers,” said Charles Whitaker, director of the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
But does it raise ethical questions? “Perhaps, but let’s face it, it happens in magazines all the time. Rarely does it happen with such an original idea. Typically, a magazine would be too embarrassed to rip off an idea that was done in such a high-profile manner in another publication,” said Whitaker. — WWD Staff