Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” Yekutiel Sherman reminds himself, as he discusses the huge losses he’s suffered thanks to the plagiarising practices of Chinese factories.
Sherman is the inventor of Stikbox – a phone case which can be extended into a selfie-stick, or bent into a stand. In December last year he launched his product on Kickstarter, hoping to raise $40,000 from the crowdfunding website so that he could mass-produce his brain child, which he planned to sell for around $39 a piece. But a week after launching, Sherman found a ripped-off version of his own design for sale on the English-language version of Alibaba’s website.
The suggestion is that Chinese copycats found his product on Kickstarter, deduced its dynamics and pushed the concept through to production within just a week: a timeframe that seems incredibly short. But speaking to tech blog Cult of Mac, a representative for Alibaba said he couldn’t say whether this outcome was even exceptional these days for China’s cloners.
Chinese counterfeiting (known locally as shanzhai, see WiC326) has plagued inventors for years, but in more recent times it has grown beyond fake handbags and such like and evolved into a business ecosystem. Shanzhai is now so established as a practice that there is no longer sympathy for creators like Sherman, Quartz surmises.
“It’s understood [in China] that reiterating or copying is part of the culture, and whoever is better and faster is going to make the deal,” Silvia Lindtner, a researcher into Chinese entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan, told the news site (it’s a theme we also picked up on our guide to the Pearl River Delta earlier this year – which is available to download on our website).
This shanzhai culture has long caused friction where fakes are concerned – particularly annoying foreign luxury goods firms – but increasingly product designers are accepting that a great but simple idea will be imitated (and not just in China – Android’s interface was inspired by the Apple iOS to the famed fury of Steve Jobs).
Copyright laws offer little protection against shanzhai: the promotional video Stikbox released to coincide with its Kickstarter campaign ended with a now ironic note that it had patents pending in China.
Shanzhai is evidently consumer-driven too, with Sherman’s customers seeming to value his efforts as little as his impersonators do. Demands for refunds have stacked up under the comments section of the company’s Kickstarter page. It seems that the company has struggled to deliver the products in the promised timeframe (perhaps Sherman is struggling to find a Chinese factory not producing a shanzhai version) and some customers are wavering in their support on cost concerns.
“You are charging double the price for what the copycats are charging, yet I seriously doubt the final product will be any better than the copycats,” accused one.
Perusing the Stikbox imitations for sale on Alibaba and its consumer site Tmall, it is evident that they are both cheaper and more diverse than the original. Whereas the Stikbox offers a variety of colours, some of the shanzhai versions are printed with popular cartoons on the back, or with the option to add a company’s logo.
In June, having suffered expulsion from the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition (IAAC) for not doing enough to tackle fraudulent sellers on its platforms, Alibaba founder Jack Ma claimed that many shanzhai products are in fact better than the originals, and this is why they are hard to eliminate (see WiC327).
But the real issue is that many Chinese manufacturers and many consumers just don’t see intellectual property theft as an issue. Offering a striking illustration of the Chinese counterfeiters’ blasé attitude, many of the Tmall and Alibaba listings include stills from the Stikbox’s promotional video; one listing even leads with a photo of the Israeli inventor holding his work.
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