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Year in Review III: Counterfeit Conversations

There may be neither societal consensus nor legal clarity regarding copying, but that doesn't prevent it from being an ongoing topic of discussion within the luxury goods industry.

From a January 2005 feature in Harper's Bazaar magazine and accompanying Anticounterfeiting Summit in New York to a November/December 2005 WIPO symposium in Italy -- and many events in between -- concerned parties have come together to knock knockoffs.  And they hope you're listening.

Police raids and lawsuits have some effect on the distribution of counterfeits, but where there's consumer demand, there will be supply -- witness the "world's oldest profession."  If people stop buying illegal fakes, however, manufacturers will no longer bother to produce them. 

But how to reach the fashion-savvy but impecunious or price-resistant consumer?  The quality argument is often unpersuasive, especially to the person just seeking a disposable fashion fix.  Appeal to the rights of designers generates little sympathy when they are charging $15,000 or $20,000 for a handbag.  Laws aimed at punishing consumers, like the new legislation in Europe, are unpopular and difficult to enforce.  Attaching social stigma to counterfeits, however, is a relatively new approach.

So, let's talk.  What's wrong with counterfeits?

The sale of counterfeits is controlled by organized crime?  This one is too easy.  Prohibition, bootlegging, Al Capone, remember?  If you declare alcohol, counterfeits, or anything else illegal, it won't be sold at a PTA bake sale. 

Counterfeits fund terrorism?  Could be.  But didn't they (whoever They are) just say the same thing about drugs?  And fear of terrorism as a justification for government action doesn't have quite the same rhetorical value as it did a few years ago.

Counterfeits are manufactured using child labor?  Well, major corporations like Nike have been accused of the same thing.  Yet this claim tugs directly at the heartstrings of consumers, particularly women, and it is elaborated in the current issue of Harper's Bazaar in "The Human Cost of Fakes."  As the poet Margaret Widdemer wrote nearly a century ago, "I have shut my little sister in from life and light/(For a rose, for a ribbon, for a wreath across my hair.)"  Buyer's remorse, anyone?

Whether all of this reflects a desperate/manipulative effort by manufactuers to protect profit margins, a genuine desire to eliminate a social evil, or perhaps both, I leave for you to decide.  One thing is certain, though:  this conversation will continue into the new year and beyond.

Happy 2006!

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