Mid-size entertainment law firm Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp created a fashion industry practice group this month, and the three lawyers leading the effort in Washington play a key role in that venture — handling the copyright, trademark and international trade issues that clothing, footwear and jewelry retailers face.
Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp has deep roots in Los Angeles, and the 125-lawyer firm has represented major entertainment industry players including Columbia Pictures and Paramount Pictures, as well as administering the estate of Marilyn Monroe. The firm opened its D.C. office in 2002. Capital Business caught up with Michael Schlesinger, Amanda Wilson Denton and Eric Schwartz, the three D.C. attorneys in the new practice group. Below is an edited transcript of an interview with Schlesinger and Denton.
What exactly does the fashion industry group do, and why did the firm create this practice?
Schlesinger: [The firm] has for many years been representing clients associated with the fashion industry. That includes well-known clothing designers, suppliers, manufacturers and retailers of fashion apparel and footwear, eyeware, sportswear, menswear, jewelry, accessories, fragrances and cosmetics. In D.C., we have a small hair and beauty company as well. Because those clients have been scattered across various practice groups of our firm, we decided it might be a good idea to bring them under one practice since many of them face similar legal issues. That allows us to bring expertise from our litigation, corporate, real estate, tax, bankruptcy, labor and employment, immigration and — for the D.C. office — the intellectual property and international trade aspects. The purpose is to bring under one umbrella the various practice groups that relate to this very complicated and multifaceted industry.
What will you, as the D.C. arm of the practice group, be doing?
Schlesinger: It’s an intellectual property and international trade expertise, and [taking] the pulse of the global legislative and government activities that affect the fashion industry that we bring to bear. We’ve been working on amending intellectual property laws and driving the creation of norms [or standards and laws] in Asia, especially China and Southeast Asia. We monitor Chinese trade laws — intellectual property laws or measures that create barriers or protectionist measures related to fashion industry. Norm-setting [in other countries] is going to have effects on the way the companies we represent in the U.S. are able to do business.
Denton: One of our strongest talents in our D.C. office is helping clients navigate when these market barriers are happening in foreign countries. We help them work with foreign governments and partners in other countries to understand what barriers are coming about, how to communicate their comments and how to communicate with the government about those changes.
Schlesinger: It’s important for companies that will be launching a fashion brand, or that have an existing brand, to file and register their trademarks in markets in China where they plan to go in and market their brands or, as a defense mechanism, to ensure a third party doesn’t use their trademark without their permission. In China, it’s complicated by the fact that there’s not only the English language trademark, but the trademark exists in Chinese characters. [Companies] have to carefully manage their brands in China, that’s something we’ve done.
Are you tracking any specific laws, regulations or other changes that may impact the fashion industry?
Schlesinger: Different countries have different norms in the area of fashion design. Things like tariff reductions, rules of origin, intellectual property rights ... We’re seeing a lot of developments in international norm-setting that are affecting the fashion industry. There are [also] various attempts in other countries to provide greater or less protection for things like designs and textiles.
Denton: Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s Innovative Design Protection Act of 2012 [which would provide copyright protection for original fashion designs, allow owners of those designs to enforce against infringers, and increase penalties against infringers] has been sent to the Senate floor. In lame duck, it’s hard to tell whether that is going to go forward or if something new will have to be introduced in the next [Congress] since it didn’t go to the House floor. We’ll keep an eye on that.
How did you become interested in fashion as an area of the law?
Schlesinger: For me, it was a natural progression from the intellectual property practice that I’ve had since 1996. I’ve come into contact with fashion industry clients and started representing them through the work I’ve done on international copyright and international trademark policy.
Denton: I came to the firm from the government — I was at the Copyright Office and the Commerce Department. In both of those capacities, I worked frequently with embassies here in D.C. and with my counterparts in Europe. For them, the fashion industry is just one more important element of the creative sectors. It seemed natural for me to work on that because it’s something Europeans are very focused on.