The Sincerest Form of Flattery

It takes a lot of work to make a map, and precious little to copy it. And since map makers, unlike novelists or painters, are all trying to tell the same story, it’s almost impossible to prove whether a competitor has stolen your work or achieved the same results on their own.

This was the problem that Otto Lindberg and Ernest Alpers of the General Drafting Corporation set out to solve in the 1930s with a novel addition to their road map of New York State. They invented a fictional hamlet in the Catskills, called Agloe (an anagram of their initials), intended to catch plagiarists in the act. Since the GDC map was the only source for Agloe, any maps featuring the settlement had clearly stolen their work.

Until some enterprising soul opened a general store. The store, and later the “settlement” itself, took on the name Agloe in county records, and so when Rand McNally included Agloe in their own map in the 1950s, they defended themselves by arguing that the location was, in fact, real.

To make matters worse, in 2008 the novelist John Green used Agloe as a setting for his novel Paper Towns, creating a steady stream of interest in a place that was fiction, made real, made fiction again. Agloe worked as a copyright trap until it existed for real, at which point its real purpose ceased to exist. Inverting Plato’s old complaint about poetry, a copy of a copy turned out to be more real than the original. A lie repeated often enough becomes a gas station.

In fashion there is scant protection for design. Logos can be trademarked, and manufacturing techniques patented, but the fine art of cutting a pattern is without defense. A series of bills put before the U.S. Senate in recent years, such as the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention act, attempted to extend copyright protection to fashion design, but none have made their way into law. Opponents argue that there’s a huge grey area between direct plagiarism and a general trend (are we really going to declare one brand the owner of the camp collar shirt?), that there are no truly new ideas in fashion, and that the copying economy drives innovation.

Absent legal protection, these disputes often come down to power. In 2016, heritage shoemaker Alden agreed to stop making a bit loafer under pressure from Gucci, backed by its multibillion-euro parent, the Kering group. Yet fast fashion giants, who are constantly accusedof replicating both catwalk designs and individual designers, back down only when the case looks so bad that it might cost them more than a few days of twitter outrage. With craft clothing, copying seems especially egregious, since a fast fashion replica of a Neapolitan suit or Belgian loafer doesn’t just steal an idea but divorces it from the traditional techniques which constitute its soul. Linguists joke that the difference between a language and a dialect is having an army and navy. The difference between inspiration and infringement is not far off.

At the same time, it’s undeniable that imitation can lead to creativity, from winking homages to Levi’s jeans to Dapper Dan’s tireless recreations of iconic brands. The difference, in the end, is about spirit. Cynical copying starts and ends in the accounting department; it’s aesthetic arbitrage, utterly indifferent to the product itself. But sincere imitation is real praise; it replicates imperfectly, and all its deviations are attempts to improve, adapt, or just have fun. Japanese Ivy imitated American prep, which in turn imitated English heritage design. Paradoxically, the best kind of imitation misses the mark, and like Agloe, NY, creates something new.

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