Why consumer conscience should help battle IP infringements

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This month Tanya Weaver considers intellectual property infringement — from the world of advertising to the blatant copying of products — and thinks that more consumers should have a conscience
I’m a huge champion of female engineers. One who caught my eye over the past year is Stanford University engineering graduate Debbie Sterling who founded the toy construction company Goldieblox. Her motto is to “disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.” Hooray!

On 18th November she uploaded a catchy video onto the Goldieblox website staring three young girls who, bored with watching flouncing princesses on TV, set about turning their home into a huge Rube Goldberg or Heath Robinson type machine using their toys all to the tune of ‘Girls’ by American hip hop band Beastie Boys.

The video went viral and in just five days it had been viewed more than seven million times. I for one loved the alternative lyrics to the song and the message it was relaying. I blogged about it on develop3d.com and even posted it on Facebook encouraging my friends not to buy ‘pink’ toys this christmas.

But Debbie and her crew forgot to do one teeny tiny thing — ask for Beastie Boys’ permission to use their song. I’ve been quite captivated by the way this spat has played out.

On 21st November, in a reaction to Beastie Boys’ lawyers contacting the company, Goldieblox preemptively sued the band defending its right to use the song, arguing that no copyright had been infringed as the song is a parody and therefore available for free use.

On 25th November, Beastie Boys sent an open letter to Goldieblox stating that they fully supported the message it was conveying but in their eyes the video is an advertisement and when they tried to ask Goldieblox why the song had been used without permission “YOU sued US”.

On 27th November, GoldieBlox responded with its open letter that flattered and apologised. It even said that they were unaware that the late Beastie Boys’ member Adam Yauch had requested in his will that none of the band’s songs were ever used in advertising. Ouch. Goldieblox then reposted the video on its website with new music.

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On 10th December, Beastie Boys filed a countersuit for copyright and trademark infringement stating that “GoldieBlox has acted intentionally and despicably with oppression, fraud and malice toward the Beastie Boys”.

Although I do feel for this start-up I can’t help thinking that it was a really stupid thing to do. You can’t just use something that doesn’t belong to you without seeking permission. But people do and in the world of product design it happens all the time.

Intellectual property is constantly being infringed. Let’s take the world of fakes and lookalikes.

My husband bought a fake Barcelona chair a few years ago. Originally designed by German designer Mies van der Rohe in 1929, furniture manufacturer Knoll owns the trademark now.

Buying the original will set you back $6,906 compared to a couple of hundred quid for a replica. You can hardly tell but my husband could and he soon sold it. His conscience got the better of him.

But not all consumers have this conscience and they are the ones who fuel this fake industry. During a press trip to Bangkok in August I had an absolutely astonishing visit to the Patpong night market that only sold fake goods. Everything you can imagine. Nothing was original.

One of the guys I was with bought a fake Burberry handbag for his fiancée. The original is a staggering £1,000 but the fake cost him £60. That’s still a lot for a bag that probably costs less than a tenner to manufacture but I guess it’s the fake badge you are buying.

I don’t buy fakes, or knowingly do anyway, because being a design journalist I’ve written about the development process often enough to know the blood, sweat and tears that goes into bringing a product to market. How galling it must be to see a copy of your hard work.

But surely that’s what IP protection is all than the whole creation process.

London-based ACID (Anti Copying in Design) has been tirelessly fighting the cause of individual designers or small design companies for 18 years.

As its CEO, Dids Macdonald, says, “Imitation is not flattery if it costs you your business — as a product designer it nearly cost me mine and that is why I started ACID, a campaigning group and membership organisation.”

Each year ACID receives approximately 25,000 unregistered designs to be logged onto its Design Databank. This provides a design audit trail from the seed of an idea to market place and acts as ammunition if IP is infringed.

One of its member companies that has made use of this in its constant battle with high street retailers is London design consultancy and producer of homeware goods Black+Blum. Its view is that IP infringement and the current culture of retail lookalikes impedes growth and innovation.

ACID has recently been campaigning for a change to the new IP Bill, which will imminently be heard in the House of Commons.

The Bill includes Clause 13 — criminal provisions for deliberate register infringement. ACID wants unregistered designs to be included too arguing that the majority of the UK’s 350,000 designers rely
on unregistered rights.

At a recent debate to rally support for this campaign, Macdonald stated that design spend in general in the UK amounts to £33.5 billion and one of the significant threats to job certainty is through blatant and deliberate IP infringement.

Fingers crossed this goes through and designers have more armour to protect themselves. But in my view we need to educate consumers too and encourage them to buy original design. If it comes down to it, buy less but buy right. Have a conscience.

As for Goldieblox vs Beastie Boys, it will be interesting to see how that all plays out.

Tanya Weaver contemplates how consumers can help fight blatant product copying
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