9 Ways Craft Artists Can Prevent Knock-offs

Time and time again, artists say,”I won’t sue someone who steals my design! I’ll just design something new. I’ll head in a new design direction.”

This is probably the most dangerous position to take when your business assets are at stake. Good design and new creative ideas truly are the most valuable assets any artist has. In fact, equipment, talent, and acquired skill all fall in line of importance after an artist’s ability to craft a strong, yet unique design.

Find that concept doubtful? Simply look at the number of successful artists at any wholesale craft show and you will find top selling pieces that have been around for a decade are often the backbone of the business. Creating NEW best sellers is not easy. Great ideas and solid designs don’t grow on trees… and chances are you can’t come up with a new best seller overnight.

Unfortunately, this foundation of a successful craft business – good design – is also what makes artists the target of international crime. It’s true! Glassblowers and potters all across the country are being pursued by large retail chains, foreign manufacturers, and their “design scouts” for their ability to quickly adapt to market trends, their design skill, and their understanding of local and regional tastes.

SCOUTING FOR ORIGINALITY

Many artists assume the crime of knocking-off a craft product or art object begins when good designs are left unguarded. More frequently, design scouts legitimately enter a trade show or buy a piece of work only to turn around and ship it overseas for reproduction.

These scouts do their research at some of the largest international gift and trade shows, targeting small companies, which are least likely to legally protect their design rights if they are under threat.

Because entering these large international trade shows is so easy, and because the number of small family businesses is so plentiful, there is little to prevent authentic designs from literally walking out the door. Design scouts have, unfortunately, become extremely good at their jobs.  They can quickly walk by a booth, assess the marginal designs, hone in on the bestselling items, and leave with a catalog or photo of exactly what they plan to recreate and resell for less. With cell phone cameras, it couldn’t be easier.

One more piece of discouraging news: Even once successfully prosecuted, design scouts and knock-off companies experience minimal penalty. If a big box retailer begins carrying a knock-off craft replica and is required by a judge to stop carrying the item, frequently these ‘seconds’ will be sold to another chain store outside of their area. This means your replica art object can hop from the U.S. to Canada to Europe, all in the blink of an eye and without putting a dent in anyones business other than yours!

Thus, some of your favorite mega-chain stores have organizational structures and business strategies that encourage and support the idea of stealing designs and ideas. The fact is that some of these companies have even changed the job title of “Product Designers,” now calling them “Product Scouts.” This new job title often doesn’t appear on business cards.

PREVENTING KNOCK-OFFS

Eliminating the risk of design infringement is impossible. However, there are many simple steps an artist can take to limit the likelihood of their designs being stolen for overseas reproduction:

1. Create delicate designs that can’t be easily molded. Sometimes details do make all the difference.

2. Copyright your surface designs, especially those that are “drawing like.” Get information about copyrights here. Save time and money with online filing – to access, go to the Copyright Office website and click on “Electronic Copyright Office”.

3. Use hang tags that clearly state “Handmade in America” or “Proudly Made in North Carolina USA.” Referencing where your work is made can be a point of pride, a sales feature, or a way of differentiating your authentic handmade item from the cheap replica made in Asia.

4. Make the purchase more personal. Tell consumers about yourself. Include a photo of the artist in the studio, or even an image of your family or your pets. Foreign knock-off companies are looking to make money quickly, not replicate your whole story.

5. Combine your skills and work across two mediums. The likelihood of your work being knocked-off goes down when the amount of equipment and skill required to create your work goes up.

6. Do only trade shows where show management is willing to assist to support design integrity. Do your show research beforehand. You will likely find that while most show management companies won’t remove copies from the show floor, provide you with defense advice, or punish exhibitors who are obvious and recurrent “counterfeiters,” there are some that do. Seek them out!

7. Encourage your professional membership groups and trade show managers to create arbitration committees so that you don’t have to sue to get knock-offs of your work off shelves, or off the show floor.

8. Keep the business cards of each and every person who takes a catalog or postcard from you. Write the date and show where you exchanged the card for a brochure. Design scouts are rarely shy and they assume you will be too busy to document the meeting and contact information.

9. Ask wholesale show managers to keep your brochures on file so that they can quickly identify exhibitor applications that include knock-offs. Expect more then just sales from your trade shows – expect some level of protection too!

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this article -specially the line, ”I won’t sue someone who steals my design! I’ll just design something new. I’ll head in a new design direction.” Psfth on that!

    How many times can/should an artist create a new direction when they haven’t had the chance to exploit the one they’re on? Personally, I find those who shout pithy statements like, “It’s an honor to be knocked off.” or “It’s going to happen sooner or later” convince me that they themselves have stolen ideas. Just go take a look at their work, it looks like everyone else’s devoid of personality.

    Those who know me know that I’m a bulldog for copyright. One year at Surtex, I personally ran out an Asian group who used their exhibit as a front just to get in and take photos of other’s art. Yes, it was late at night and I saw them ‘innocuously taking photos like tourists.’ Yah, right.

    And for those talent scouts, I have heard on tradeshow floors with my own ears, “Get a sample then send it to China.” So before sending out ‘samples’, make them sign a non-disclosure agreement first -that will definitely weed out the bottom feeders.

    So, never turn the other cheek when it comes to your business -unless your business is ‘just another hobby.’

  2. Excellent Advice.
    As artists we need to stand together and encourage one another to value their own work. Together, we can make it more difficult and less desirable for the corporate rip-offs and copy thieves.
    thank You.

  3. It happened to me. I sell my product to the hobby industry and attended CHA for several years. Even though I tried my best to protect my work by not giving out catalogs unless I was certain about who I was talking with, it still happened. A UK company took eight of my designs and had them mass produced in China and started approaching my buyers in the UK with an exact duplicate of my product but at 1/3 the cost. I found an attorney who basically said he could not help me – then I researched and found a good intellectual property attorney who knew what he was doing. The company had to pay damages and even though I only broke even, I did make them stop. It saved my business. My advice is to go after the offending company or risk losing everything.

    • Good for you for being pro-active. See our article “You’ve been knocked-off. Now what?” which follows in this series for more ideas on what artists can do to fight this offense.

    • nancy michalak says:

      The hard part might also be that artist don’t now that their work has been knocked off and being sold!

  4. With cameras in phones it certainly is difficult to keep people from taking photos of your creations now. You have some great ideas for making it more difficult for the “assembly line” to take over your design. Thanks for providing such great information.

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