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Anatomy of an I.P. Controversy: Urban Outfitters Feels the Weight of Design Theft Allegations

For fashion retailer Urban Outfitters, this long weekend past couldn’t come quickly enough. Just before everyone left the office for barbecues, road trips, and hopefully some memorializing along the way, an accusation was leveled against the company by Chicago designer Stevie Koerner, who claimed the company had stolen the concept behind a popular set of necklaces she’d been making for her Etsy-based shop and were now selling them in stores and on their website. “My heart sank a little bit,” she wrote, “The World/United States of Love line that I created is one of the reasons that I was able to quit my full-time job. They even stole the item name as well as some of my copy.” While the retailer is no stranger to these sorts of accusations, something about this allegation took hold and by the end of the week, was everywhere, swamping Twitter and landing mentions in surprising places, like on the Apple-focused Daring Fireball. By the time pop star Miley Cyrus tweeted, “Not only do they steal from artists but every time you give them money you help finance a campaign against gay equality,” a reference to the company’s founder’s contributions to the campaign of Rick Santorum, it was all over. Originally remaining silent during the early days of the controversy, Urban Outfitters eventually issued a statement, saying that a) they did steal the idea and b) that Koerner’s idea wasn’t original to begin with, and even vaguely accused her of copying the idea from others. “…We believe the media response to her campaign is threatening to impact the dozens of independent designers we work with on a daily basis,” the company wrote on their blog. “For many of them, having their work sold at Urban Outfitters is a very positive turning point in their careers, and we will not allow their hard work and commitment, or ours, to be undermined by these false allegations.” Fortunately for the company, following that burst of negative press, the weekend came and the fires seemed to die out a bit (until, of course, people like us decided to do a wrap-up post about it). Between then and now, they also apparently decided to pull the offending product from both the site (now just a blank page) and from their stores as well. And meanwhile, Ms. Koerner received a flood of support and what sounds like more orders than she’d ever expected in record time.

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