In 2001, Douglas Young, founder of local lifestyle retailer Goods of Desire (G.O.D.), designed a set of three stackable shelves incorporating curved corners. He was the first retailer in the world to have such a design. It was soon copied globally.
This was not the first time the Hong Kong-based entrepreneur had seen his designs and products copied. Young has been struggling with the issue since the day his business launched. And it is not only street hawkers trying to make a fast dollar – major brands are engaged in copying designs.
Young was unable to patent the design of the stackable shelves as it was seen as “a generic shape”, he said.
“Ever since that happened I felt that it was necessary for our company to do designs that are more specific,” he said. “So if someone were to copy it we could claim that it was not generic.”
The founder and CEO of Native Union, Igor Duc, lamented how counterfeits of his products almost put him out of business four years ago, after the design of a popular home telephone was copied.
“Our customers were being sold much cheaper products and thought they were ours. We had to start taking legal action, and with legal action it’s very expensive and time consuming,” he said.
“We didn’t manage to get anything positive out of it.”
As with G.O.D., Duc decided to design products that were less generic and more specific to his company’s style.
Young believes there is “very little understanding of what design is about” in society, especially in Asia, and that this is contributing to acceptance of counterfeit products, or products of a similar design rebranded.
While Young believes Hong Kong is more advanced than other cities on intellectual property and appreciation of design, it is still lagging cities such as London and New York.
Arnault Castel, owner of lifestyle shop Kapok in Wan Chai, believes design is taken for granted by consumers. “I feel design is not really valued [in Hong Kong],” he said.
Castel has experienced the problem himself. He recently accused lifestyle store Bauhaus of stealing his interior design for their new store in Causeway Bay.
He added that people felt that design was just a gimmick, perhaps to cover for an inferior product, when he it was really important in business and daily life.
“I think a lot of people don’t realise that to create a product or design it takes a lot of sweat and tears and experimentation and failure,” Young said. A person could then take that design and copy it, bypassing the cost of design and research, which Young said “is terribly unfair to the original creator.”
Castel said some of the blame lies with designers who see images from other designs placed on a mood board and come up with ideas very similar to what is on the board.
But even as Young began to make more products specific to his company’s style, it has not stopped other designers from making similar products.
Young designed a handbag with a Chinese newspaper print exterior. Years later, snowboard manufacturer Burton designed snowboard pants with the same newspaper print design.
Young’s company approached Burton for compensation but was initially rebuffed, saying the newspaper print design was generic.
However, Burton had failed to remove the telephone numbers – which were of G.O.D. stores – from the design.
Because of this oversight, G.O.D. was able to claim compensation for copyright infringement. But by the time the case ended, the fashion season for the pants design had ended, allowing Burton to keep the revenue and profits from the sales.
Applying for trademarks and copyrights is a cumbersome and lengthy process, according to designers. However, those in the intellectual property industry contradict that belief and stress that it’s better to be safe than sorry, as any future litigation can be extremely costly.
“More often than not, [designers] are too focused on the business development side and never think this is that important,” Helen Tang, director of Simone Intellectual Property Services Asia, said.
“In the end, when they get into trouble it’s a lot more costly and it’s also valuable time being diverted from time that they should be spending on the business side.”
Tang said it took six to eight months to have a trademark registered in Hong Kong and costs a few thousand dollars. On mainland China, registration can take 12 to 18 months.
Alan Lo Yeung-kit, co-founder of real estate investment firm Blake’s, said the power of media and social media pressure can be an effective tool in fighting back against design copiers.
After his wife opened a Thai restaurant in Hong Kong, an exact copy was subsequently opened in Shanghai.
“You can’t really do much from a legal standpoint as a foreign company [on the mainland]. They decided to make a statement on social media. Eventually a local magazine wrote the story, and CNN picked it up,” he said.
“In the end the owners in Shanghai decided to change the name.”
Both Young and Castel believe the most effective way of getting consumers to appreciate design is through education – by letting customers know what goes in to creating a design.
Castel said he was optimistic about younger consumers who he felt appreciated design more and would continue that appreciation as they get older.