Doctoral dissertation: Stronger copyright protection for fashion designs contributes to sustainable development of the fashion industry


Protecting fashion designs by copyright has been challenging. This has enabled large-scale copying of designs, which in turn has contributed to 'fast fashion' – a phenomenon that causes damage to the environment, human rights and cultural values. In her doctoral dissertation in the field of law, Heidi Härkönen states that copyright is one of the several legal means at our disposal to foster sustainable development of fashion.

The global fashion and textile industry has long been in crisis. It is one of the most polluting industries in the world, and fashion has also been struggling with challenges related to human rights and cultural values. In addition, the legal position of fashion regarding copyright protection is challenging, because fashion is simultaneously based on uniqueness and partial similarity; innovation and imitation; aesthetic value and functional purpose. However, until now, fashion law research has remained scarce.

In her highly topical dissertation, Heidi Härkönen, LL.M. with court training, critically examines contemporary fashion industry from the perspective of law. The study shows that copyright protection of fashion is linked to sustainable development of the fashion industry.

"Strong copyright protection is a legal means of preventing copying. It is important to prevent copying, because it has a mainly negative effect on sustainable development," says Härkönen.

Putting an end to fast-fashion copying

Copying is particularly harmful when copies are mass produced industrially using materials of low quality in poor production conditions. An example of this is the global low-cost garment industry, referred to as fast fashion, which relies heavily on imitation. The fast fashion industry produces – at a fast pace and in high quantities – low-cost versions of fashion designs created by e.g. the top fashion designers, luxury fashion houses, and popular indie brands, making them available to customers at remarkably low prices.

Fast fashion has resulted in today's extremely fast life cycle of fashion trends, and the ever-lower clothing prices have led to overconsumption of garments and the ever-growing pressure for clothing brands to push to maintain low consumer prices. This, in turn, manifests itself in the form of low garment quality, poor – and even life-threatening – conditions of production, and overproduction of garments.

Copyright protection of fashion designs has remained a highly problematic copyright issue for decades. Härkönen's research indicates that it has been extremely challenging to receive copyright protection for garments and accessories. The fact that the copyright system has long turned a blind eye to fashion copying has, for its part, contributed to the emergence of the fast fashion industry and its establishment as part of the Western consumer culture.

"Fast fashion copying can, however, be made more difficult by copyright. When a unique fashion design receives copyright protection, the low-cost garment industry cannot copy the design without concern about the copyright. Hindering copying by legal means would slow down the life cycle of fashion trends," Härkönen estimates.

The crisis in the fashion industry calls for urgent efforts to find legal solutions

In her research, Härkönen has analysed, for example, the significance of the recent case-law of the Court of Justice of the European Union to fashion. From the perspective of sustainable development of fashion, EU copyright development seems promising: currently the EU member states have the obligation to issue copyright protection to fashion designs on the same basis as to other works of art. However, further development is needed in the field of copyright in the context of fashion.

"For example, so far, no legal solution has been found to respond to the phenomenon referred to as cultural appropriation, which manifests itself in the fashion industry. In order to improve the cultural sustainability of fashion, efforts should be made to prevent this kind of copying, too," says Härkönen.

Copyright is one of the several legal instruments at our disposal to foster sustainable development of fashion. However, according to Härkönen, it is not the only or even the strongest of the legal means available to promote sustainable development.

"We also need provisions of tax law, market law, environmental law, and labour law, as well as strict corporate responsibility legislation," states Härkönen.

Härkönen's research results are applicable to development of legislation on the fashion and textile industry and when seeking solutions to redress the current unsustainable state of the industry.

Information on the public defence

LL.M. Heidi Härkönen's doctoral dissertation "Fashion and Copyright: Protection as a Tool to Foster Sustainable Development" will be publicly examined by permission of the Faculty of Law of the University of Lapland, on Friday 10 September 2021 at 12:00 in Lecture Hall 19 (Eeli Hall, the University of Lapland main building, A-wing, Yliopistonkatu 8, Rovaniemi).

Professor Katja Weckström from the University of Eastern Finland and Professor Eleonora Rosati from Stockholm University will act as opponents. Professor Rosa Maria Ballardini from the University of Lapland will act as the custos. The public defence will be held in English.

The public defence can be followed online at:

Information on the Doctoral Candidate

Heidi Härkönen completed her Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree at the University of Lapland in 2013. After her graduation, she did research for her dissertation at the University of Lapland and worked as a lawyer in a consulting firm; as a Trainee District Judge in the Hyvinkää District Court; as a researcher in the Hanken School of Economics; and as a visiting scholar at the Aalto University. Härkönen has also passed the bar examination, and been granted the title of LL.M. with court training. Currently she works as a Senior Researcher at the Faculty of Law of the University of Turku. Prior to her transition to the field of law, Härkönen was studying fashion and clothing design at the University of Lapland, and today she produces almost all of her clothes by herself according to the principles of the slow fashion philosophy.

Additional information

Heidi Härkönen
heidi (dot) harkonen (at)

Information about the publication

Heidi Härkönen: Fashion and Copyright: Protection as a Tool to Foster Sustainable Development. Acta electronica Universitatis Lapponiensis 311, ISSN 1796-6310, ISBN 978-952-337-265-8.

Permanent link to the dissertation: