Shanzhai Skyscrapers

China is famously a hotbed of copying.  Western firms constantly kvetch about Chinese knockoffs of their products—and often with good reason. China’s intellectual property laws are fairly strong, at least on paper. The problem is that the laws aren’t effectively enforced – and it’s an open question whether the Chinese government is capable of shutting down the copyists. China’s uneasy relationship with intellectual-property law is due in no small part to China’s "shanzhai" culture. What is shanzhai? The literal meaning of the word is “mountain stronghold,” but it has come to connote imitation, and more, imitation done in a way that is upfront about its fakery and may even be celebrated for it. 

Shanzhai culture is incredibly vibrant and shows no sign of slowing down. Shanzhai cellphones, for instance, are sometimes applauded for their ingenuity. Some include nifty features not seen on the original they are imitating. Some mash-up features found on competing phones into a single device.  All are cheap.

What Do the Election Results Mean for I.P.?

In the wake of President Obama's solid re-election victory last night, we are left wondering (geeks that we are) about what (if anything) an Obama second term suggests about the future of IP law.  We'll talk mostly about copyright policy here: Any action on IP policy in the next couple of Congresses would probably focus on copyright, not least because we've just been through a substantial reform of the patent law and no one has any appetite to revisit that right away.

Even focusing only on copyright, the picture is far from clear.  Millions of people joined in a wave of online activism back in January to defeat the copyright expansions offered in the SOPA and PIPA bills.  But the coalition that defeated SOPA and PIPA is new and no one's sure whether it's a one-off or the beginning of a broader movement to slow, stop, or even reverse copyright's relentless expansion. We'd note also that two of the entertainment industry's favorite people in the House, Reps. Howard Berman and Mary Bono Mack, were both defeated last night. We doubt the losses have much to do with the pair's outspoken copyright maximalism, but losing Berman and Bono is a further blow to a pro-copyright side that is still getting its collective head around the SOPA/PIPA debacle.

The Authors of The Knockoff Economy Answer Your Questions

We want to thank everyone for their questions -- it's great to see people responding to, critiquing and, in some cases, tweaking, the ideas we set out in The Knockoff Economy. We are fascinated by the complex relationship between copying and creativity -- and we're thankful that many of you are as well.  So, to the Q&A . . .

Q. The issue that concerns my industry most is internet sales of prescription skin products such as retin-A and hydroquinone. Some might be counterfeit, but many are probably diverted products. The manufacturer sells them to a physician, the unscrupulous physician sells them on the internet at a deep discount, the patient may be hurt by expired or dangerous medications or may not use them correctly even if they are real. This hurts legitimate physicians by drawing business away from them, but also hurts a manufacturer’s reputation. (Apparently, people who have qualms about buying Viagra online don’t think twice before buying skin medications from those same sources.)

Do you plan to do any research in this area? Will you be looking at diversion in addition to counterfeits?

The Knockoff Economy Is Out! Bring Your Questions for Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman

The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovationis out! The book explores the relationship between copying and creativity. Copying has a well-known destructive side—which is why we have intellectual property rights—but it also has a much less appreciated productive side. We explain how some creative industries not only survive in the face of copying, but thrive due to copying.  These industries offer an important set of lessons about intellectual property law and highlight the often complex balance between innovation and imitation. While many of the cases we explore are unusual—such as fashion and fonts—we close the book with a broader examination of the main themes and lessons and a brief look at the music business, which is perhaps the poster child for the (often exaggerated) perils of copying.

The Knockoff Economy grew out of an earlier paper of ours on innovation in the fashion industry. We realized there were many creative fields that fell outside the scope of intellectual property law in one way or another, and just as importantly, these fields turned out to be really fun to explore. Writing the book allowed us to dig into things like football and fonts, and to do so in a way that, we hope, opens up a broader debate on the law and economics of innovation.

Why Knockoffs Can Help Build a Strong Brand

Here is an excerpt from The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation, which has just been published by Oxford University Press. Next week, we'll be taking questions from Freakonomics readers in a Q&A. We’ll also run a contest for the wackiest photo of a knockoff item.

THE KNOCKOFF ECONOMY
CONCLUSION

The traditional justification for trademark law, which protects brands, has little to do with innovation. Instead, trademark law’s justification is that brands help consumers identify the source of products, and thereby buy the item they want--and not an imitation. And yet brands—like Apple, or J. Crew--play an important and often unappreciated creativity-inducing role in several of the industries we explore in The Knockoff Economy.

Put in economic terms, trademarks reduce the search costs associated with consumption. If you’ve had a positive experience with basketball shoes from Adidas, then marking them with the trademark-protected three-stripes helps ensure that you can quickly find their shoes the next time you are shopping. And of course it also lets everyone else know which shoes you prefer. 

Excerpt from The Knockoff Economy: Tweakonomics

Here is an excerpt from The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation, which has just been published by Oxford University Press. Over the next few weeks, we'll be running 2 excerpts from the book here on the blog and taking questions from Freakonomics readers in a Q&A. We’ll also run a contest for the wackiest photo of a knockoff item. 

In The Knockoff Economy we examine the relationship between copying and creativity. Most people who study this area look at industries such as music or publishing, where intellectual property (IP) protections are central. We do something different: we explore innovative industries—such as fashion, food, fonts, and finance--in which IP is either unavailable or not effective. In these industries copying is common, yet we find that innovation thrives. In a world in which technology is making copying ever easier, we think these industries have a lot to teach us. And one of the key lessons is that copying is not just a destructive force; it can also be productive. Harnessing the productive side of copying—the ability to refine, improve, and update existing innovations—is at the heart of this excerpt.

THE KNOCKOFF ECONOMY
CHAPTER 4

Rules against copying don’t just cover outright imitation. They also address variations: works that use that some portion of another creative work but add in new stuff, and in the process transform the original work. Think of Shepard Fairey’s famous Hope poster of Barack Obama, which took an existing photograph and reworked it into an iconic image: 

Can Marijuana “Brands” Be Legally Protected Against Copying?

In states like California, where medical marijuana is a big business, dispensaries often feature dozens of kinds of marijuana. Each has it own (supposed) qualities, often reflected in the price per gram. And these names, while colorful, are pretty standardized: newspapers like the LA Weekly run pages of ads that list prices for “White Widow,” “Skywalker OG,” “Strawberry Kush,” and “Charlie Sheen”.

Can you trademark a strain of marijuana to keep a competitor from copying your “brand”? The answer is more complicated than you might think. 

First, names like Strawberry Kush are not necessarily brands, but more like plant varieties, such as Meyer lemon or Alphonso mangoes. Plant varieties in general cannot be trademarked. Instead, breeders essentially get a form of plant patent. Growers and breeders can add a trademark on top of that, but the underlying plant variety name ultimately goes into the public domain for all to use. In other words, Fuji apples are a variety; Ranier Brand Fuji Apples is a trademark. A competitor can’t call their Fuji apples “Ranier”, but nothing stops a competitor from identifying their apples as Fujis.

The Copyright Wars Come to the Obama-Romney Campaign

Last week, the Obama campaign released this sharp-elbowed political ad featuring Mitt Romney’s off-key rendition of “America the Beautiful.” And the Romney campaign promptly issued a sort of knock off — an ad featuring President Obama singing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”  The Romney ad uses the song to criticize Obama’s allegedly too-cozy relationship with lobbyists and campaign fundraisers. 

We can’t show you the Romney ad, as it’s been pulled from YouTube.  Why?  Because BMG Rights Management, the music publisher that owns the copyright in “Let’s Stay Together,” has sent YouTube a copyright takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and YouTube has complied.

And we also can’t show you the original news footage of Obama singing — that’s also been taken down from YouTube following BMG’s copyright complaint.  The Obama ad featuring Romney’s singing is still up there – fortunately for the Obama campaign, “America the Beautiful” is a very old song (first released in 1910) and so the copyright has expired and the song is in the public domain.

The Summer Trademark Olympics (Please Don't Sue Us)

Whether the Olympics are around the corner (as they are now) or a few years away, there are always Olympic-themed events going on. Recently, a group called Ravelry sponsored a knitting competition called the “Ravelympics.” [Related post on Ravelry: "Is There an Elitist Oligarchy in the Underworld of Knitters?"] Whereas most people probably imagined a bunch of grandmothers knitting mufflers, the U.S. Olympic Committee saw a conspiracy to infringe its trademark in the word “Olympics.”

After enduring a lot of criticism, the USOC backed off the knitters. But what the USOC tried to do isn’t unusual.

In fact, just recently luxury goods purveyor Louis Vuitton threatened to sue Penn law school over a poster for an academic conference on the law of fashion that featured an artist’s funny take on the Louis Vuitton logo (with the famous “LV” replaced with a “TM”). Louis Vuitton didn’t see the joke, and threatened the law school (which, being a law school, knew enough not to be scared).

Who Owns Red? Maker's Mark and Jose Cuervo Fight It Out

A few months ago we wrote about whether shoemaker-to-the-stars Christian Louboutin ought to have a monopoly over red shoe soles. Last week, in Kentucky, a similar issue arose concerning red wax. The red in question was on the neck of bottles of booze—specifically, Maker’s Mark bourbon and Jose Cuervo’s Riserva de la Familia tequila, which both feature a bottle cap seal made of red, dripping wax (Cuervo has since shifted to a straight-edged red wax seal).  Maker’s, which used the dripping wax seal first, sued Cuervo, claiming trademark infringement.