Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Wait, What’s this Counterfeit doing Here?

Being engaged in the world of intellectual property in Africa, or at least trying to be engaged in it, I’m quite used to articles, signs and announcements warning people of the risks of counterfeit goods.  Trademark, patent and copyright infringements – make sure that product is the product you think it is, that it’s coming from the source you think it is, etc.  From faake medicines that don’t actually treat any illnesses to powdered milk that’s made partly with cement mix, many consumers in Africa are well aware of the dangers.  But I almost never hear or see any counterfeit warnings in the US.  Until now.

I was in Emeryville, the East Bay’s glitzy shopping district, transformed within the past decade from a run-down neighborhood of neglected warehouses to the home of stores so fancy I don’t even dare window-shop in them.  It’s also home to my closest Victoria’s Secret, and every few months I head down to redeem my “free in store, no purchase necessary” coupon.

Bounding down the stairs of the parking garage, my attention was grabbed by this sign:

counterfeit poster in Emeryville

“Don’t Get Burned,” “Counterfeits Hurt,” it proclaimed next to a picture of a sizzling outlet.

“What is this doing here?” was my first thought.  The United States, with its customs agents, well-enforced intellectual property laws, and tomes of safety regulations, is usually pretty good at keeping unsafe counterfeit products off the market.  Where’s the breakdown in that armor? What’s different about here and other places in the US where I have lived?  What’s similar between here and the other places I’ve seen these types of outreach ads?

Markets, public markets.  The kind with little stalls and people hawking all sorts of random odds and ends.  “A’s” and “Giants” hats, 2 for $10.  DVDs in clear plastic sleeves, 5 for $10.  The one in Berkeley even has fried plantains and chitenge cloth.  The Bay Area’s full of these markets, so is Africa.  Milwaukee, Nashville, not so much.  And these markets are a prime place for counterfeit goods.  Small time sellers, inventory stashes that would fit in a suitcase or two, little recourse for customers if something goes wrong; it’s prime for dangerous counterfeits.

Of course, I’m just speculating on circumstantial evidence, but sometimes that’s not a bad way to go.

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