Mr Porter’s legal brawl with small business MR SHIRTS over web design

A Sydney-based online shirt retailer has received a strongly worded legal letter from global retail giant Richemont Group over the design of its website, MR SHIRTS.

The start-up business has posted the letter from the luxury company on its website, in which it claims the new site is too similar in design and product offer to its menswear site, Mr Porter. Mr Porter is part of the hugely successful Net-A-Porter business.  

MR SHIRTS owner Chris Buchanan pushed back with a letter to the group, declaring there was no intent to replicate the site, and that the design elements in dispute were largely universal to fashion sites.

In the letter dated February 25, he highlighted that the business was just 12 weeks old, and that “we did not deliberately analyse, study or reproduce your design or website(s) as you assert”.

He disputed Mr Porter’s claims the site had specific similarities, in that it “mimics the front page of a newspaper”, that “both use black fonts on white backgrounds” and that “both use centred heading with sign-in link and search box at top right”, listing a number of sites he felt had the same elements.

Mr Porter’s letter said it was reaching out to give the chance for response, “rather than take immediate formal legal action”.

Buchanan told SmartCompany this morning he was “shocked” to receive the letter, as his site was brand new, it had not done any search engine optimisation and it doesn’t yet rank highly in searches.

“I was also flattered that they thought we were a threat,” he says.

Buchanan says that when he developed his business his core focus was on the shirt range, not the design of his site. He says he commissioned a web designer with the brief to be on trend with design, but focus on best practice when it came to user experience.

He says he didn’t think design in the digital sphere was subject to copyright in the same way as a book or a painting. He says the look is in line with global website trends – “pared back, clean, with black and white… easy on the eye and user friendly”.

Buchanan is waiting to hear back from Mr Porter in response to his letter.

An Australian spokesperson for Mr Porter told SmartCompany this morning that “The Richemont Group and MrPorter.com has no comment to make at this stage”. 

K&L Gates partner and intellectual property expert Jane Owen told SmartCompany the chance to claim a copyright infringement online is “probably a lot more limited than people think”.

“The trick with intellectual property is that there are only so many boxes to tick,” she says.

“With websites, copyright doesn’t protect (just) the look, and using black and white is not a copyright issue in itself.”

“It is about having a substantial part of a whole of another website that could be a problem.”

Owen explains that having the same colours or fonts also doesn’t mean copyright is infringed.

“It has to be a substantial reproduction… it actually has to be copying.”

Owen says as so many businesses are now using the same tool boxes (online design platforms) people can consciously or unconsciously be getting similar designs, as the sites all have a set array of design combinations available.

“It is a fact of a crowded web world we live in,” she says.

Owen says for small businesses hiring a third party to set up a website, they should ensure they have clear and simple terms and conditions and a warrant for indemnity for infringements.

If using internal staff, she says to stress the policy that your business respects the intellectual property rights of others.

Owen says if there is a competitor site in your industry that you admire, try to push the boundaries of creativity to ensure your site is clearly different, and not “me too”.

“Also keep a track record of any intellectual property work created,” she says.

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