The Businessweek Article:

China’s Counterfeit Condoms

I mean – how could I resist? It’s a ready-made soapbox to stand up and make a counterargument about counterfeiting. And also, there are the condoms.

About six months ago, I listened to Loretta Napoleoni give a lecture at the LSE* about her book “Maonomics”. And she made the most fascinating observation about China’s fake good industry – it may, or may not, have rocked my world view. I’ve mentioned it before in passing, but with a segue like dodgy durex, it gets a post all of its own.

Have you heard of ACTA?

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement is one of those much-campaigned-for international treaties (like the Kyoto Protocol) – and this one is meant to deal with the enforcement of international intellectual property rights. And by “international” what we mean is: the US, Europe and Japan. The rest of the world looks happy to stay in their grey area:

Of course – if we were to redraft that map to emphasize principal targets and offenders, it would be CHINA and SOUTH ASIA with a few small islands representing Nigeria and Latin America. Of course China won’t be signing on – the counterfeit good industry makes up 8% of their GDP by official numbers.

Which may make ACTA a bit moot; but it does make it obvious how absolutely disgusted the West is with this blatant thievery of intellectual property.

Why The Outrage Bores Me

Integrity is expensive – it means that you have to buy the DVD boxset. So let’s talk about DVDs.

Since I was blessed with the means; it somehow felt ungenerous, or unsupportive, not to buy DVDs from an outlet store. In my head, the argument has gone “Well I like the cast, so I don’t want them to stop making the movie/series. And I like being able to visit music stores, so I don’t want them to go out of business. Let me just buy it rather.

And then I’d get home, and put the dvd into the player, and press play. Immediately, and un-move-past-ably, I’d be bombarded with the PIRACY IS STEALING advert. And the sound would boom across the room at a volume far above the normal setting on my TV (how do they do that?). And it would happen every single time I wanted to watch it.

Then. Then maybe I would try and play the series on my lap top while I was travelling. And it would be rejected out-of-hand by the optical drive with a small little error message about “being set to the wrong region”. Because of that one time that I was in Paris and bought a french movie and clicked “yes” to the change-region notification. AND COULD NEVER CHANGE IT BACK. And was told, by Mitsusomething’s website, that I would have to replace the drive if I wanted to go back to watching Region 2.

Dear DVD makers. I don’t care about your outrage. Because you’re already outrageous. Selling me product that I can’t use, and getting all preachy when I was already converted.

Honestly – thank God for iTunes. It just made everything so much easier.

But I’m not blind – I know that not every counterfeit good is a DVD. Some of them are condoms. And that leads me to Loretta Napoleoni’s awesome point:

Why Counterfeiting is Good for the Original

Here are two articles about two studies:

  1. Fake Louis Vuitton Bags Look Fake.
  2. Fake goods are fine, says EU study.

Let me give you the summarised version. Here is what the lobbyists in favour of ACTA are saying:

  1. Counterfeited goods are causing the sales of the real goods to go down**; and
  2. The funds from the sales of counterfeited goods are being used to fund terrorist activities***.
  3. Also: counterfeited Louis Vuitton bags are JUST AS DANGEROUS as counterfeited drugs.
  4. <insert anecdotal story of someone’s death from eating counterfeit salmon>
  5. This is an issue of national security.

I realise that some may read that as me mocking the pro-ACTA argument from the get-go. Oh! How deceived you would be. I paraphrased point 3 a bit – but that was really the extent.

Here are the counterpoints:

  1. Consumers are not stupid. We know when we’re buying fake stuff. But you know what owning a fake Louis Vuitton bag does? It makes you 50% more likely to buy a real Louis Vuitton bag in the next three years. It’s actually like advertising:
  2. A quote, from a (former) LVMH brand manager that now works at MIT: “The counterfeit actually served as a placebo for brand attachment. People were becoming increasingly attached to the real brand even though they never possessed it at all.
  3. As for the lost sales argument… Honestly – do they think that the young student on holiday in Cairo that just bought a fake rolex was actually going to buy a real rolex? These are not lost sales. The customer base that would have bought the original is still going to buy the original. No – what counterfeiting has done is create a culture of aspiration, magnifying the status of those able to buy the authentic version. Which is a good thing – no one buys a rolex because it tells the time really well… It’s always a statement.
  4. Luxury goods are, like, not drugs.
  5. I’m going to ignore the “funding terrorist activities” line. I think that the EU study actually laughed at it at one point.
  6. Anecdotes are not arguments.
  7. And let me not forget the music and dvd industry. I will always buy the albums of artists that I care about, and pay for individual song downloads on my iTunes account. But I am yet to have this question answered successfully: why are they not chasing down secondhand stores as well? Because what is the difference between buying the disc secondhand (where the intellectual property holder earns nothing) and someone downloading it from a torrent (where the intellectual property holder also earns nothing). Maybe, you could argue, the difference is time. But at that point, the argument is already on shaky ground. And the real losers sound like the secondhand record stores.

Where Counterfeiting is Legitimately a Problem

Counterfeit drugs sound serious. As do counterfeit airplane parts. And counterfeit food items (although, by my understanding, that’s usually just horse).

Oh yes – and counterfeit condoms.

Which brings me neatly back round to the original article. Police in the Fujian province just confiscated more than 2 million “incorrectly-labelled” condoms. The enterprising individuals concerned had purchased condoms from one factory, packaging materials from another, and had appointed themselves as “assemblers” in the supply chain. And, I guess, adders of brand value?

No word on whether the condoms were faulty.

But ultimately, faulty condoms, unlike fake handbags, can have a real impact on a confused consumer: death, disease and/or unexpected offspring.

So regulate those guys. And let the DVD retailers take care of themselves.

*via iTunes U, naturally: the audio lecture link

**Ermagherd. Lerst sehrles!!

***Could this argument be any more emotionally-manipulative?