The New York Times had a fascinating piece recently on the problems small business are having with knockoffs on Chinese e-commerce sites run by Alibaba. The story presented three case studies of companies making custom products: Vintage Industrial, a 25-person furniture maker based in Phoenix, All Earz Jewelry, a 1-person online jewelry shop based in Atlanta, and Reignland Concept, a 2-person online clothing store based in Los Angeles.
These companies all discovered multiple Alibaba listings for products that had been reverse engineered based on photographs on the companies’ own websites. Finding the counterfeit listings was the easy part, not least because the infringing listings use photos from the companies’ own websites. Removing those listings, and keeping new ones from cropping back up, has proven to be difficult and time-consuming, so much so that the small business owners are at their wits’ end.
I don’t blame them. Alibaba has a platform where IP owners can request removal of infringing listings, but it’s far from user-friendly. Our firm has never failed to remove an infringing listing, but we’ve been doing it for years and we have a team of Chinese-speaking lawyers and paralegals who understand China’s laws on intellectual property.
The best strategy, of course, would be to design a product that cannot be reverse engineered from a photo. But only a few products can be designed and marketed this way. For everyone else, protecting against infringement starts with registering your IP in China, and in particular any relevant trademarks, design patents, and copyrights. Without China registered IP, asking Alibaba to take down infringing listings will usually be an exercise in frustration.
Trademarks are the easiest to understand and the most important, because as we’ve discussed ad nauseam, China is a first to file country and once your brand gains notice in China, if you haven’t already filed for it someone else will. None of the products in the Times article were even remotely famous, which just goes to show how low the bar is in terms of gaining notice in China. A brand does not need to be famous to be profitable. And here’s the thing: a canny Alibaba seller will not only use the name of the brand but also register it himself, and thereby prevent not only the “true” brand owner but also other infringers from using that brand in China.
Are you listening, startups? I ask this because it is the smaller companies that so often have the problems described in the New York Times article, not because they are small, but because they did not do the registrations necessary to help prevent such problems or to be in a position to solve them if and when they occur. Our China IP team does a lot of work for big companies as well but much of that work is like shooting fish in a barrel. We send Alibaba the proof of our client having registered its trademark or its copyright in China and the offending product comes down, almost always within a few days.
Design patents protect product designs or aesthetic appearance. In the Times article, both the furniture and jewelry could maybe be protected by a design patent. But a design patent has an absolute novelty requirement: if a product isn’t new, it isn’t eligible for patent protection. And patent protection is country-by-country, so even if the products were protected by patents in the U.S. they wouldn’t be protected in China unless the owner had also filed in China. For companies that can easily tweak their product, this problem can be easily sidestepped; make a new version and it’s eligible for a design patent.
Copyrights protect original creative works in a fixed medium. In the Times piece, the furniture and jewelry could probably also be protected by copyright. China recognizes the validity of copyrights from any WTO signatory country, but if you are serious about taking down infringing listings on Alibaba, you’ll want to register your copyright in China. It just makes the process more smoothly and it increases your chances in making the process go at all.
Unfortunately for Reignland Concept, clothing designs can be difficult to protect under IP laws. Sometimes a clothing pattern can be protected by a copyright and/or trademark (e.g., the Burberry plaid) but that is more the exception than the rule. So although Reignland Concept may legitimately feel that its clothing is being knocked off by an Alibaba, that may just be the way fashion works.
However, Reignland could almost certainly use the protection of copyright infringement in one way: when the infringing listings use the exact photographs from Reignland’s website. The clothing may not be protected by copyright, but the photographs of the clothing are. This takedown approach works when Alibaba sellers are too lazy to take their own photographs, which is shockingly often.
Small business owners should take the Times article as a shot across the bow: no one is too small to need a China IP strategy.