Over the past year, I've become aware of mass market manufacturers overtly copying craft work of American artists and makers. I've even seen examples of the copycat manufacturer actually using a picture copied from the artist/maker's website or Etsy shop, and promoting the same image on Alibaba.com.
According to Wikipedia, Alibaba is an exchange website performing a business to business service similar to eBay or Amazon. Manufacturers can list their products online to a global market. In 2012, "Alibaba handled $170 billion in sales, more than competitors eBay and Amazon.com combined." Quote cited from "E-commerce in China: The Alibaba phenomenon". The Economist. 23 March 2013.
That is really an astonishing number, don't you think?
The Alibaba network can be used by copycats in two ways:
1) A copycat manufacturer can post on Alibaba.com with explicit offers to make 100's or 1,000s of identical copies of craft work at a fraction of the original retail price.
2) An unscrupulous retailer can initiate requests on Alibaba seeking a manufacturer to fabricate copies based on art or craft images and then the manufacturers (whether consciously or unwittingly) bid for the business.
Unfortunately, with access to a global marketplace through web exchanges like Alibaba, unscrupulous international manufacturers and retailers can offer to reproduce almost anything -- including copies of creative people's craft and artwork.
The mass copying of original works without permission is an insidious rip off of artists and makers. Money is being made by all parties – except the original artists and makers.
Further aiding the copycat trend are countries like China that do not culturally or legally have the same concept of original art, craft, intellectual property or copyright laws that have been important ethical and legal concepts in western society.
Although China has a growing body of copyright laws, they are still widely ignored. The very concept of protecting intellectual property is often marginalized. Export manufacturing in economies like China is highly competitive -- often live or die, regardless of ethics. Bribery and who you know often prevail as business practices.
The issues surrounding protection of intellectual property is a huge problem for many western technologies and businesses. We hear about this all the time on the news. Even large corporations with professional expertise and a cadre of lawyers at their disposal are concerned about protecting their intellectual property in overseas markets.
So what can artists and makers do to protect their work?
Lots, but every option that I can think of requires vigilance and action on your part. No one is more responsible for the future of your work than you.
- Reverse Image Search -LOOK for copies of your work.
- Speak publicly and raise awareness about copycats to embarrass distribution channels, stores and business in the U.S. that market copycat work. This will be your most effective tool as companies do not like bad press about ripping off artists and crafts people.
- Support fellow artists and makers when their work is copied. The ethical and legal issues surrounding copycat work are not based on whether you define the work as "original." This is about creating visibility and awareness for copyright infringement.
- Design your work so it is difficult to copy. This is easier said than done.
- File a DMCA
ETSY: A Home for Copyright Infringers