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May 19, 1994


COMPANY NEWS; A Ruling by French Court Finds Copyright in a Design


In a French court ruling that may give fashion the same sort of copyright protection offered to software and art in America, Yves Saint Laurent won a total of $395,090 from Ralph Lauren yesterday, for "counterfeiting and disloyal competition."

Yves Saint Laurent had sued Ralph Lauren, accusing the company of copying a black tuxedo dress that Mr. Saint Laurent first created in 1966 and showed again during the haute couture fall collections for 1991-92.

The Paris Tribunal de Commerce, a French commercial court, also awarded Mr. Lauren $87,720 in damages for a defamation lawsuit he brought against Pierre Berge, the chairman of Yves Saint Laurent, for comments about Mr. Lauren in Women's Wear Daily, a fashion trade newspaper.

In the April 11 issue of the paper, Mr. Berge was quoted as saying, "It's one thing to draw inspiration from another designer; it's quite another to rip off a design, line for line, cut for cut, which is what Ralph Lauren did."

Both Mr. Lauren and Mr. Berge were ordered to publish apologies.

The decision may be appealed. Victor Cohen, vice president of corporate and legal affairs at the Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation, said, "We understand that the full written decision will be available tomorrow at which point we will study it and consider whether to appeal the case." 'Its Value Diminishes'

Yves Saint Laurent's lawyer, Francine Summa, told the Reuters news agency: "Berge would have been better off keeping his mouth shut. But each time a piece is copied, its value diminishes. From the moment the clientele sees a dress everywhere, they lose interest."

Mr. Lauren had sold 123 of the tuxedo dresses, the details of which differed from the St. Laurent version, at his Paris boutique for about $1,000. The dresses that remained were seized and impounded in December, when Yves Saint Laurent brought the lawsuit.

The case may be the first time that a tactic used against counterfeiters of fashion goods -- impounding of merchandise -- has been used by one designer against another.

The case has riveted the French fashion community, not only because of the famous personalities involved, but because it is the first time a designer has been able to protect a dress as "intellectual property."

Anthony Keats, an outside counsel for Ralph Lauren and a partner in Baker & Hostetler, said: "It certainly raises a flag for the American apparel industry. What it will say is they need to do some research ahead of time if they're going to introduce designs which they believe are similar to those they've seen in the European markets."

Photo: The black tuxedo dress designed by Yves Saint Laurent that Ralph Lauren was accused of copying. (Agence France-Presse)