updated 8/8/2007 8:35:36 PM ET 2007-08-09T00:35:36

When does a knockoff become a ripoff?

Designers Nicole Miller and Narciso Rodriguez joined Sen. Charles Schumer and others on Wednesday, pressing for a law to battle cheap fashion imitations, saying their works should be protected by copyright laws just like any other creative art.

“Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s bad for our fashion industry here in New York,” said Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the sponsors of the Design Piracy Prohibition Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate on Aug. 2.

“It’s every bit as much intellectual property as writing a good book or making a good movie,” he said. “And yet the law says, come rip it off.”

The bill, which was introduced in the House of Representatives in April, would allow designers to sue those who copy their creations for up to $250,000 and to appeal for the destruction of pirated goods.

U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who joined Schumer at a news conference at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said current law bans fashion piracy only if a designer’s label is affixed to the fake.

“As long as you don’t claim a knockoff bag is made by Kate Spade you’re in the clear,” said Nadler, D-N.Y. “Even if the counterfeit is an exact replica of the original design.”

Schumer said the legislation would distinguish between knockoffs and garments that are merely similar.

“Copyright law is good at this,” he said. “They’ve done it for a hundred years, they just have never applied it to fashion.”

Rodriguez, who designed the dress that Carolyn Bessette wore at her 1996 wedding to John F. Kennedy Jr., said 8 million copies of that dress flooded the market.

“It’s very harmful to my business,” he said.

Dana Foley, a designer with a chic Lower East Side boutique, said the retailer Forever 21 has copied her twice.

“We don’t even know how they knocked off the last one because it’s not even in stores yet,” she said. “It cuts our legs out from underneath us in terms of building a brand, an identity.”

Foley said her dresses cost $300 to $400, while the Forever 21 version sells for $29.99.

Two dresses adorned the stage as props, one from the hot young designer Zac Posen and a copy from ABS by Allen Schwartz.

The bias-cut halter dresses with fishtail skirts looked almost identical from a distance, but the original draped better and was made of silk, while the knockoff was an acetate-polyester blend.

Susan Posen, the designer’s mother and the president of his company, said the original cost about $1,500 and the copy less than $100.

Spokeswomen for Forever 21 and ABS did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

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