Branded Blues

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Beijing has many charms for visitors: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, weird and wonderful new architecture, a slew of museums celebrating China’s millennia of culture and history. The list is long. But I’ve noticed that even the most academically-inclined out of town visitor invariably ends up asking –somewhat sheepishly– whether I can give them directions to the “Fakes Market.’ There are actually several of these, each a four or five story building jammed with stalls selling everything from shoes to toys, handbags, DVD players, watches, pearls, electronics, sports equipment etc etc. Almost everything in these establishments bears a famous name brand, often with voluminous supporting literature. For example, there are Rossignol ski jackets complete with authentic looking glossy printed cards that explain the virtues of their superior Gore Tex weather proof exterior and Thermic Comfort insulation that uses technology first developed for the Space Shuttle or whatever, all set off with detailed cutaway diagrams.

It’s all very convincing, and the stall holders will try and tell you that, seeing as how all this stuff is actually manufactured in China anyway, what you are getting is the real thing that happened to be ‘diverted’ from an overseas shipment. That way, when they ask for, say, $100 for a pair of Timberland boots, it might seem fairly reasonable considering that in the U.S. the same boots would set you back twice that. In fact though, almost all of the goods sold in these markets are knockoffs that have no relation to the original. Your ‘Rolex’ might keep ticking for a year or two, but then again it might stop after a few days. And those boots? Well, I needed a pair to get through Beijing’s fearsome winter so I went down to an establishment called the Silk Market. Eventually, after a lot of theatrics from both buyer and seller, I got a pair of solid looking work boots labeled ‘Timberland.’ I paid about $15. A few months later I am still wearing the boots. Much to the amusement of my children, though, where once they were a uniform tan, one has now metamorphosed to a sickly orange while the other is a kind of weak coffee. When I went back to the Silk Market to complain, the person who sold me the boots was nowhere to be seen and the new proprietor, needless to say, said there was no way he was being held responsible. How do you say caveat emptor in Chinese?

On my way out, walking past the hundreds of booths and brushing off the clutching hands and pleas to “come inside, mister, just looking,” I noticed a series of very serious, official- looking documents pasted up prominently on the wall near the exit. Scanning them, I realized they were the announcement of an earlier court judgment in which 23 prominent brand manufacturers sued the Silk Market for counterfeiting. On January 17th the Chaoyang district court in Beijing had apparently weighed in with the head-snapping pronouncement that there was not enough evidence of counterfeiting at the Silk Market to convict. It dismissed the case and awarded three yuan as damages to the Silk Market. As I stood there, a young lady from the stall nearest me, pulled at my sleeve, trying to get me to come over and view a rack of t-shirts, many of them emblazoned with the names of the very companies who had sued, Versace, Louis Vuitton, Prada and Levis. What’s wrong with this picture?

All this may sound ridiculous, even amusing, but as intellectual property lawyer Joe Simone, who handled the litigation for the companies suing the Silk Market, points out, it represents a deeper malaise that could have serious consequences. “It’s a microcosm of what’s wrong in China in general, he says, that even with the strongly likelihood that the U.S. will soon lodge a suit with the World Trade Organization claiming copyright infringement and counterfeiting, Beijing can’t or won’t take action.

(Incidentally, for those interested in the gory details, there’s an excellent description of the convoluted history of the case(s) by IP lawyer Maya Alexandri on the equally excellent danwei blog.)