Crowdfunding sites are a bit of a special case when it comes to counterfeit and knock-off goods. They allow entrepreneurs and inventors to collect startup cash based on little more than a bit of video and a sketch or two. But those product details are then available for quick cloning.
In January, the Globe and Mail reported on the case of Canadian inventor Ryann Aoukar, who saw his clever design for the asymmetrical Anton strainer bowl cloned by someone listing on Alibaba's Taobao site following his campaign on Kickstarter. Fortunately, this doesn't seem to be a widespread problem as yet.
"Intellectual property theft comes up in conversation pretty regularly," says Steve Tam, in charge of Technology, Hardware & Design for Canada with crowdfunding site Indiegogo Inc. However, he notes that most projects don't depend for their value on sheer technical innovation. They derive adequate protection on their product concepts simply by being quick to market.
At right is a photo of the real Anton strainer bowl; and at left is a knock-off that appeared on Taobao.
That's not to say that ideas don't get swiped, or duplicated by whatever accident. "There are clones on Alibaba for every product imaginable," observes Tam.
Indiegogo takes a hands-off approach, partly because it hosts campaigns from 200 countries. "We don't give any legal advice to any campaign at all," says Tam. "There's so much variation, country to country, state to state, province to province. It's just impossible to manage across all the jurisdictions."
Projects can seek patent protection, of course, but Tam cautions that this is probably not for everyone.
"The patent process is expensive and time consuming," he points out. Of the 250,000 projects to date on Indiegogo, he estimates that under 10% have been "high impact" and have probably filed for patents. Most of the rest probably have not.
Steve Tam, Technology, Hardware, & Design, Canada, Indiegogo: "Intellectual property theft comes up in conversation pretty regularly."
The projects that do have genuine breakthrough concepts probably know it, and have the patent process in motion. But the ones most likely to seek patent protection would be those run by established companies, with their own sources of venture capital-possibly their own in-house legal team. "For them, the patent is more of an investment," says Tam. "Building the patent portfolio makes the company more valuable to investors, or to purchasers in the event of a buy-out."
Crowdfunders also have the option of turning to a brand-protection specialist like OpSec. Ben Stump, Chief Technology Officer, agrees that theft of ideas isn't a big problem yet, but could become an issue over time. "It's an emerging market, that's boomed in the last 18 to 24 months," he notes. "It is absolutely something we're thinking about and working on with some of our partners."
We'll have a full feature on counterfeiting and knock-offs in the upcoming April issue of WiFi HiFi Magazine, available at the end of March. Subscribe now to receive your copy, or watch for the digital edition online.