Forever 21 Inc. is trying to retailor its approach to intellectual property.

While the fast-fashion industry, which makes runway designs available to consumers in a short period of time, is often accused of making knockoffs, Forever 21 in particular has a history of being on the receiving end of copyright infringement lawsuits.

The privately held Montecito Heights company, which generated a reported $4.4 billion in revenue in 2015, is now going on the offensive.

It filed a lawsuit Jan. 23 in federal court accusing Fashion District wholesaler C Luce Inc. and Commerce retailer Papaya Clothing of stealing its copyrighted ikat pattern, a textile design that originated in Asia. Forever 21 is asking for undetermined damages and that any remaining inventory with the design be destroyed.

Representatives of the three companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Forever 21 also sued Brandy Melville USA in August alleging that the Santa Monica retailer copied a medallion design in a dress.

The legal moves could be meant to deter others from copying its designs or evidence that the company is cleaning up its act, analysts said.

Just because Forever 21 might take the risk of infringing on others’ designs doesn’t mean it wants anyone else to profit off its own, said Christiane Schuman Campbell, a partner at Duane Morris in Philadelphia who specializes in intellectual property law.

“As much as Forever 21 is risk tolerant, that’s not at odds with being protective of their own intellectual property and making an example of companies that may copy them,” she said.

Forever 21’s lawsuits could mean that the company is making changes internally to crack down on infringement, said Staci Riordan, a fashion law expert and partner at downtown’s Nixon Peabody. That could include educating its designers, using software to search online for possible infringement, or hiring new attorneys.

“I don’t think any company knowingly infringes on someone else’s product,” said Riordan. “In most cases, a retailer is just buying garments from someone else. The fast-fashion supply chain is moving so quickly that (retailers) get a bad reputation. People say they’re just copying. It’s not possible to strictly scrutinize every (supplier).”

Campbell questioned whether the Forever 21 ikat copyright would hold up in court. In order to be copyrightable, a design has to be able to be separated from the garment it’s on.

“The pattern’s name is pretty popular,” said Campbell. “I would say it lacks the creativity required for a copyright.”

– Caroline Anderson

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