Getting real about fake designer goods
Counterfeit merchandise is nothing
new. If something gets hot, and expensive, cheaper copycat versions
are likely to follow.
But these days, the desire for designer handbags,
shoes and jewelry -- and the demand for their counterfeit counterparts
-- has reached new heights. Is there any harm in saving money by
buying a knock-off wallet or watch? The companies and organizations
fighting it think so. They say buyers are unwittingly underwriting
organized crime, not to mention compromising the sanctity of intellectual
Still, imitations are selling, and at a fraction of
the cost of the originals. Can consumers be blamed for this mass
flocking to fakes? One woman, who wished to remain anonymous, justified
the purchase of knockoff designer items by saying, "Who can
afford $2,000 for a Rolex watch, or $500 for a Louis Vuitton purse?
If the companies didn't charge so much, people wouldn't have to
Her stylish friend added, "People want to be
like their favorite celebrities. Carrying a Louis purse or wearing
a Tiffany necklace is a status symbol ... as long as no one else
knows it isn't real."
Luxury apparel companies argue that the sale of illegal
product has driven up the price for legitimate consumers. Counterfeit
replicas also are usually lower in quality than the originals, and
are likely to break, rip or fade long before the original does.
Anti-counterfeiting advocates say buying fakes is
not a victimless crime. Barbara Kolsun, general council for Kate
Spade Inc., a leader in designer handbags and accessories, is head
of their anti-counterfeiting program.
"It goes way beyond knockoff bags and watches,"
she says. "People buy counterfeit pharmaceutical drugs, such
as Viagra, Lipitor and birth control pills. There is everything
from counterfeit baby food to airplane parts. These products are
not regulated. People have become sick and have been killed as a
result of using these products."
Timothy Trainer, president of the International Anti-Counterfeiting
Coalition Inc., points out another negative aspect: "Many of
the people involved in the sale of counterfeit merchandise have
also been linked to other illegal activities, including cocaine
trafficking, prostitution and violation of child labor laws,"
The designer industry, in conjunction with federal
and state law enforcement and anti-counterfeiting organizations,
is cracking down on the sale and purchase of illegal merchandise.
Trainer says that law enforcement's approach to fighting counterfeiters
is similar to a drug dealing situation. "You have to go after
the counterfeit infrastructure. You can arrest one dealer off the
street, but the key is to shut it down at the manufacturing level."
It's a fake world we live in
They've got their work cut out for them. A recent Internet
search for "fake designer handbags" turned up almost 5,000
"The counterfeiting industry comprises 5 percent
to 7 percent of global trade, generating half-a-trillion dollars
globally," Trainer says. "One can't help but think there
is a significant amount of organized crime going on, beyond the
mom-and-pop level, simply by sheer volume."
Just hit the downtown area of any major city. Wherever
there are street vendors, you're likely to find knockoffs.
On a recent walk along Canal Street in Chinatown,
New York City, an awesome amount of counterfeit products was on
display. Four blocks overflowing with fake designer purses, hats,
scarves, watches, rings and necklaces. The labels were a who's who
of fashion's most in-demand brands: Kate Spade, Prada, Fendi, Gucci,
Dooney & Bourke, Coach, Louis Vuitton and Burberry. Need jewelry?
How about Rolex, Movado, Tag Heuer, Tiffany or David Yurman. And
for the teeny TRL crowd, racks of rip-off Von Dutch T-shirts and
The vendors were organized and technologically prepared.
Merchants communicated on walkie-talkie phones, calling in orders
for product to some hidden stock room. They also alert each other
of suspicious customers or police in the area. The system worked.
When police raided, the tip-off arrived before the cops. Gates slammed
shut, doors locked and merchandise flew off tables within seconds.
Sorry, closed for the day. See you later somewhere else.
Merchants and manufacturers aren't the only ones risking fines
and jail time. Many otherwise law-abiding people have begun selling
counterfeits out of car trunks or at home purse parties (think Tupperware,
but with knockoff handbags). While it is unlikely a person would
get arrested for purchasing an individual fake bag or watch, legal
vulnerability increases if a person is found selling -- or even
with the intent to sell -- counterfeit products. At that point,
a person is considered a distributor, and is subject to state and
federal criminal penalties, including fines and prison terms.
Kolsun works with federal and state law enforcement
"Together, we approach mall kiosks, flea markets
and street vendors to ensure they are selling legitimate product,"
Kolsun says. "We also work with eBay's Vero program, which
closes down auction sites that are selling illegal product."
Asked if people are going to jail for selling knockoff
bags, Kolsun says, "Absolutely. Every week."
The international, multibillion dollar counterfeit
industry has a negative impact on our economy, Kolsun says, "Counterfeiters
are not paying taxes or trademark fees. It should be disturbing
to people that when they buy a fake bag, they're supporting a foreign
underground economy and criminals with an all-cash lifestyle."
How close is too close?
Some companies manufacture bags that are "inspired by"
and closely resemble a famous brand's pattern. For example, Louis
Vuitton, maker of some of fashion's most recognizable designs, has
a white leather bag with multicolor LV's all over it. There is a
less-expensive look-alike on the market with a similar design. Instead
of L's and V's, the bag is covered with X's and O's.
Copyright infringement? Could be. Even if a bag does
not have a famous designer's label on it, if it can be mistaken
for something it isn't, it is copyright infringement, Kolsun says.
"With so much manufacturing done outside of the
United States, intellectual property really is the brick and mortar
of our society. If we do not protect and understand this, we're
in big trouble."
Adds Trainer of IACC, "What I want to impress
on people is that when they purchase counterfeit goods, they are
funding and underwriting a large illegal, non-tax paying money-making
endeavor -- and a lot of horrible illegal activity."
For more information about laws related to trademark
and copyright infringement, visit the International