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Explain Me This: When Is Fake Ok?

When are knock-offs good and when are they not only criminal but morally repugnant?

Or, put another way, why does Our Government care if a bunch of guys at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW selling fake purses?

Generic drugs are not only ok, they're preferred--your insurance company is constantly looking for ways to get you to buy knock-offs of brand-name prescription drugs. And, of course, generics are legal and government-approved.

Everybody knows cover bands aren't as good as the real musicians, but they're certainly not illegal. They may be tacky, but sometimes they're beloved (at least by some)--think Beatlemania. The original bands are sometimes offended, but more often they're just happy to cash the royalty checks. And at some level, the songs that cut the original records are flattered by the fact that cover bands play their music and imitate their style.

The store brands of most foods at the supermarket may be blander than the famous brands' versions of the same products, but sometimes, those store brands are the exact same food as the name brand--made in the same factory, but covered with a different label. To the consumer, this is often a simple decision: The store brands are cheaper and there's no great shame in buying them.

So why is it front page news and the subject of a government investigation when somebody makes knockoffs of designer purses and then sells them at a vastly cheaper price?

As the Post's Jerry Markon reported this week, big fat piles of your tax dollars are paying for police and prosecutors to go after the makers of fake women's purses. The one obvious difference between these "counterfeit" purses and the above examples is that there's some level of deceit involved in the selling of the fake purses. These knock-offs bear the names of the various designers whose work is being copied--that's self-evidently fraudulent and bad. But given that the fake labels are glued on in the most obvious and tacky manner, is anyone really being fooled here? No one who buys a purse on a Georgetown street corner for $40 really believes that she's getting the same product that sells in a fancy boutique for $2,000.

So why is the government involved in this dispute between top-shelf designers and street corner tricksters? Where is the public interest in protecting those designers, whose profit margins are already so wildly, insanely high that surely they could hire their own police force if they wanted to? Why should those businesses be protected from competition--even from scurrilous competition--while less fancy businesses have to sweat it out finding their own way to compete against, say, cover bands or store brands?

The industry wants us to believe that we all lose money when people buy fakes because the guys on the street corners don't pay taxes. Fair point. But that's true of many sidewalk salesmen, and you don't see the cops and the prosecutors going after the corner hot dog man who sells Price Club dogs under a phony Sabrett or Hebrew National umbrella, or the guy on the street who sells review copies of the latest bestsellers.

Why do big fancy designer purse makers care at all about the guy on the corner, or the couple who host a house party to sell fake purses? The original company either has a superior product that customers are willing to pay for or it doesn't--why not let the market decide? The market for knock-offs is a distinctly different one from the folks who have the extra green to spend on a $2,000 handbag. Shouldn't the designer companies have more important things to care about than the street action?

Answers, please....and please don't go right to "It's the law." This is a more interesting issue than that, so let's not even go there.

By Marc Fisher |  February 1, 2007; 7:32 AM ET
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Comments

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If some stupid idiot isn't bright enough to tell a fake from an original, that's their problem. Let them waste their money. As long as there's ignorant customers, there will always be a supplier out there to provide their needs.

Posted by: Boo | February 1, 2007 7:59 AM

Um, Marc, you don't think that maybe the cops in the area are being slipped some quiet money or a handbag now and then?

Posted by: Hmm | February 1, 2007 8:28 AM

Gosh Marc, this is pretty dull stuff; I was hoping for something more like yesterday's discussion.

"... suburban churchgoers...", "...George Bush comes in third on election day...", "...indroctination...". Religion and politics; if you'd have somehow worked a little sex into it you'd have won the trifecta.

Now that was good stuff. Getting a knock off Kate Spade bag from some guy on the sidewalk just doesn't seem to match it....

Posted by: 20th St. and Pennsylvania Ave., NW | February 1, 2007 8:31 AM

Just wait until you end up taking fake drugs at the hospital, or feed your infant fake baby formula. Maybe on your tombstone you can have them write "Help fight pirated goods."

Posted by: Bob | February 1, 2007 8:37 AM

Many pirated goods support terrorism Marc or other criminal activity. The real Mafia not the nice Chris and Tony from the Sopranos deal in the fakes purses sunglasses etc to raise cash to support their other illegal activities ie illegal drugs sales, chop shops, loan sharking, credit card fraud etc. These pirated goods or knock offs raise easy untraceable cash that then gets sent to Lebanon or Iran or goes to support crime families.

Gee Marc do you really have a college education from a legit institution of higher education or did you get your degree from UMD?

Sorry these sales arent victimless crimes.
High class escort services may be if the girl is an independent but these vendors buy from the mob etc.

Posted by: vaherder | February 1, 2007 8:44 AM

vaherder is right. Counterfeit goods have been used to finnace terrorism and other criminal activity for years. Does the government care that somebody is making a buck off a poorly made purse - probably not. Does the government care that the money raised from these sales will be used to support terrorist acts against US citizens and interests? Yes, and Im glad they do.

Posted by: Arlington | February 1, 2007 8:50 AM

Well, your comparisons are off. Cover bands are not doing anything illegal because the band (or more often, the venue that hires the band) pays performance rights royalities to the rights-holder via ASCAP etc. Your purse sellers are not paying any license fees.

As for the "private police," what are you suggesting? Companies do spend an enormous amount of money in private ligitation, but when it's big enough (major tax evasion), or a threat to public health, safety, or a threat to a major INDUSTRY (not just a particular company) it also catches the interest of the government. Note that in this case, the men are accused of copying numerous brands, not just one.

Finally, small companies have the exact same rights and often enforce their trademark and other IP rights, just as the bigger name designers do. Perhaps you heard about the BlackBerry case -- little guy won big.

Posted by: dc | February 1, 2007 8:59 AM

Wow, everyone here needs to get a grip. While I have never bought a purse off a street corner I have no problem with these vendors. I would rather my tax dollars go to fighting some greater concerns such as child rapists and murderers. Additionally, underground crime mobs and terrorists get money from several other sources that generate tons of money. I'm sure they are not leaning on a couple of dollars from purse sales to fund any terrorist acts.

Posted by: Purse Fan | February 1, 2007 9:09 AM

You may recall, too, that 60 minutes did a story a number of years ago on fake airplane parts which were naturally of inferior quality even though the companies paid the very high price. Some counterfeits endanger lives not just wallets.

Posted by: Ali | February 1, 2007 9:09 AM

In the other examples you've noted, there is a legal right to the generic brand, and it is clearly distinguished from the brand name product. You know when the prescription is generic, the band is a cover band, etc. The fake purses are sold as something they are not--real purses. Whether or not I can tell if they are real is a different story. I personally probably could not, because I don't think I have ever seen one of the brand name purses. But that isn't the point--when generic purses are sold with designer labels, the seller is stealing the copyrighted logo from the company.

Posted by: compare apples to apples | February 1, 2007 9:11 AM

Marc - The govt. doesn't care that someone is selling $40 bags, the issue is trademark violation. I'm sure if a company started selling a newspaper and called it The Washington Post your bosses would be upset as well. People can sell all the cheap handbags, jeans, watches, and sneakers they want, but they cannot use another company's brand name.

Posted by: woodbridge | February 1, 2007 9:12 AM

The truth is the "original" mfg is not losing business because it is business they wouldn't have anyway at their price. In fact you can buy watches today that are advertised as "replicas".

Same with a lot of software. I have stuff I would never pay for and only have it because it was a freebie.

Posted by: Vinson Nash | February 1, 2007 9:14 AM

I have bought a few purses from the vendors on the street. And - while you may have some points as to where the money is going, the manufacturers are complaining becuase they say it dilutes their brand, and that people buy the fake instead of the real thing.

This is where I think it's a joke, I certainly don't have $500+ to spend on a purse, and if I did would not spend it on that! So - my purchase of a knock-off does not effect their sales - I would never have bought one to begin with.

And - do you really think that Paris Hilton cares that we have the knock-off of the purse she carries? This person is buying hundreds of these purses every year (or they are recieving them free as swag) - her purchases are not diminishing.

Really it's a way for "poor" people to have what rich people have. And I see it as the rich trying to keep the poor different.

Posted by: gs | February 1, 2007 9:16 AM

Yeah Ali!

There are also counterfeit UL labels that are put on power strips, electronics, holiday lights, etc. that can/will burn your house down (thank you Asia). These items are sent here illegally and wind up at dollar stores, flea markets, black market, etc.

http://www.ul.com/ace/

"Product counterfeiting is big business. The overall costs of product counterfeiting are estimated to be as much as 5 to 7% of total world trade. That's roughly $500 billion dollars US, each year. From CD's and DVD's to high-end handbags, sunglasses and even pharmaceuticals - nothing is immune from counterfeiting."

Posted by: Washington, DC | February 1, 2007 9:18 AM

It's an intellectual property issue, and that's the level at which the designers and government care. The government isn't shutting down factories and arresting people because of terrorist financing - it's copyright violation and fraud (of course, fraud is arguable because the buyers have to believe they're buying something real, and they usually don't). Counterfeiting prosecutions are about fraud, not terrorism.

Yes, there are effects on the makers of the originals. Burberry has dialed down the use of their trademark plaid in accessories because of the sheer volume of cheap knockoffs in the UK - accessories with that plaid are now considered downmarket, to the point that one of the marks of a "chav" ("white trash") is a fake Burberry plaid accessory, generally a baseball cap for a man or a handbag for a woman. So there are effects on the upscale market.

That said, I love my chav bag so much I have my eye on a smaller one :)

Posted by: MB | February 1, 2007 9:22 AM

These are Federal Trade commission and intellectual property/ trademark issues, not police issues. And financing terrorism ????????? Please, get a grip.
The big losers are the posers walking around with these knock off purses trying to make people think they are something they are not.

Posted by: jmsbh | February 1, 2007 9:32 AM

Lets continue Marc's logic at little:

Maybe I can start print fake $100 bills and use them as $20 bills ... by giving a discount I won't be breaking the law, right Marc?

Posted by: Anonymous | February 1, 2007 9:36 AM

Vinson Nash said "Same with a lot of software. I have stuff I would never pay for and only have it because it was a freebie."

Nice rationalization there. You are stealing regardless of your statement that you wouldn't buy it in the first place.

Posted by: Stealing is wrong | February 1, 2007 9:41 AM

Somehow, I think that the Post spends a fortune in trademark and copyright enforcement. And, I bet Marc would care if his byline was assumed by someone else.

Posted by: arlington | February 1, 2007 9:44 AM

Those that think that because they are not in the market for a $500+ purse are not harming anyone miss the point.

To begin with many of the knock offs are made with child labor or underpaid labor overseas.

Secondly, the companies that make the originals have a say in the quality of their purses, while they have no say in the copies. Certainly someone that buys a fake purse and is aware of it may not be harmed.
But when someone else (an unkowing person) sees the poor quality POS that the knowing buyer purchased with the label/name of the designer on it, they are less likely to buy from that designer, thereby reducing the value of the designer's name.

Besides, people buying the fakes are really posers trying to keep up with the Joneses and should take a deeper look at themselves. What other laws do they support breaking.

Finally, everytime there is a story about enforcement of the laws that are not on Law and Order every day, someone says I would rather that the police spend their time fighting murder or rape.

This statement assumes that they are not fighting murder or rape. But of course, they are. It also assumes that it is a quantity and not a quality issue with solving murders and rapes and that if enough money and manpower is thrown at any problem it will automatically be solved. This is a simplistic view of the world.

Posted by: bigdoglurker | February 1, 2007 9:44 AM

Yeah it's IP law, which I don't get because the people who download music in fair use and buy $40 purses aren't in the market to purchase the $20 CD or $2000 purse. So there's no loss of money to the company. The only loss of money comes from the company pursuing these absurd lawsuits. So I honestly don't get it. I mean, maybe it is like the chav-ination of Burberry, and the company's marketers, doing what they do best, convince the company that knock-offs and poor quality replications degrade the brand. Common sense dictates that no one buying the $40 purse or downloading the free song associate that with the company. I mean with official music, it's the company's DRM and rootkits destroying computers that damage the brand far more than the proliferation of their music.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 1, 2007 9:47 AM

The REAL criminals are the people who think that a purse should cost thousands of dollars... (and I include both the buyers and sellers of such things. It's a purse, for crying out loud, not a down-payment on a car. How about doing something useful with that money, donate to a charity or something?)

Posted by: Castor | February 1, 2007 9:57 AM

A lot of the protest comments do expand the issue beyond the requested guidelines, not per the request of Marc Fisher's piece.

In the original piece on the purses, it doesn't seem like the guys making the purses are exactly licensed and practicing terrorists, are they? I mean, not like those guys who are pulling all the strings in the marijuana market, if those ads from a few years ago are to be subscribed to...

So you have a father/son team making fake purses, which they sell for a deep discount relative to the price of the originals, to a bunch of people who aren't under the impression that they have just landed an original, anyways. This is actually a problem? People who are going to buy 500 dollar purses aren't or shouldn't be at the point that they are being fooled by knockoffs, but there's no correlation between wealth and knowledge, so that's really up to them.

This is a major problem, neh?

Record profits just posted by the oil industry giants - that's funny, I thought the higher pump prices were to compensate for their increased costs...

Posted by: Peter | February 1, 2007 10:04 AM

I don't own any of these purses, but I disagree that someone who buys them is a poseur. I'm willing to spend $40 on a purse and whether I see a purse I like at Macy's, Target, or on the street, it makes no difference to me. If I like it, I'll buy it. Hardly makes me a poseur. I don't know a Kate Spade from a spade.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 1, 2007 10:05 AM

Most of the real stuff is made by child labor and people who are essentially slaves because they've been convinced they can't escape or beaten and terrified into submission.

And I don't know if most buyers are posers since so many of the purses I see around town have those stupid little flowers and stuff on them, so you know their fake. But that candy-colored LV design is cute. I think WetSeal made one with really neat designs in the same color scheme. I guess the lack of LV made it legal.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 1, 2007 10:06 AM

This issue should be settled through private lawsuits or civil FTC enforcement actions, not criminal investigations - it's about intellectual property rights.

I'm in my 20s and own both real and fake Prada bags. I don't know anyone who tries to pass off the fake ones as real - if you're at all familiar with the real thing, it's obvious that the fakes are fake. It's more like people just buy them for fun, like a toy version of the grownup bag.

That said, would I be completely ticked off if I were Prada, or any of the other pirated designers? Absolutely. But I don't think we should use criminal-investigation resources to prosecute this. Let Prada use the zillions it makes from its 100%-quality-nylon bags to file its own lawsuits.

Posted by: Lilybeth | February 1, 2007 10:07 AM

How many women do you think buy these purses thinking that everyone will recognize that the purse is a knock-off? The point of a luxury item knockoff is to appear to be the genuine item, since it's the exorbitant prices and prestige factor that distinguishes the original brand. Same with electronic knockoffs using certification seals- they purport to come with the quality guarantee that is expected of certified products. So I think the premise that those buying knockoffs buy it with the expectation that it's different from the original is incorrect. It also creates a false sense of security- if you're buying a surge strip that is falsely certified and it fails to protect your computer, it fails to deliver on its purpose. Likewise, if everyone at a classy party you're at can tell that you're walking around with a $20 counterfeit Fendi, do you still want that bag? Probably not. It fails to deliver on the primary purpose, which is to convey prestige and luxury.

As for people who complain that police should be enforcing A instead of B, it's not about picking and choosing, it's about principle. Everything should be pursued, no matter how small or large. That's often where NYC folks credit Giuliani for cleaning up the city- he went after the petty crimes just as much as he did the larger crimes in order to enhance public safety. The perception that something is too small to pursue fuels petty crimes-- after all, it is relegated to "not a big deal" status. As for the counterfeit business, as someone stated before, it's a HUGE amount of money. Those who say it's a minor issue need to step out of their myopic world.

Posted by: dc | February 1, 2007 10:08 AM

So how much of the "I don't care" factor comes from the fact that it's handbags being counterfeited? What if they were selling counterfeit iPods? Or fake giant screen plasma TVs? Or any other popular consumer item that isn't primarily linked to only women buyers? You gotta wonder.

Posted by: CallMeSkeptical | February 1, 2007 10:13 AM

It's so funny that people care about child labor overseas and fake purses when they don't care about it at Wal-Mart. If that was the real issue behind why we should not support buying fake purses, then we'd have to add a host of other products and stores to the "do not support" list.

I also think it's funny that people assume that purchasers of fake bags don't know they're fake. Of course they know they're fake!! But it's still kind of cute of them to think that the customers are being duped.

Posted by: coulkat | February 1, 2007 10:13 AM

"Most of the real stuff is made by child labor and people who are essentially slaves because they've been convinced they can't escape or beaten and terrified into submission."

Where on earth do people get these ridiculous assumptions from? Do you have any reference to substantiate such false information? I personally have been involved with high-end luxury retailers, and their craftsmen (if the brand has been around for decades or centuries) are trained for years. I recall a Frenchman in his 20's paid $40,000 as a craftsman for a luxury watchmaker. Why all the ridiculous information about child laborers and terrorism?! The majority of fake designer goods are made in China, Hong Kong, and Korea. Have you ever met a Lebanese owner of a fake handbag shop or a Lebanese vendor, for that matter?

Posted by: huh? | February 1, 2007 10:14 AM

There's a difference between a supermarket brand bread that LOOKS like Wonder Bread, let's say, and a counterfeit purse with the actual brand name & logo on it. Of course, if the purse said "Cooch" instead of "Coach", that would be fine. I glued a Mercedes medallion on my Hyundai. Is that okay ya think?

Posted by: leralph | February 1, 2007 10:15 AM

"The REAL criminals are the people who think that a purse should cost thousands of dollars... (and I include both the buyers and sellers of such things. It's a purse, for crying out loud, not a down-payment on a car. How about doing something useful with that money, donate to a charity or something?)"

I used to agree with this. But then I considered this: I would be willing to spend thousands of dollars on a painting or sculpture if I had that kind of money and I liked the specific piece. I value art for its beauty and for the talent that goes into producing it. While thousands of dollars sounds like a lot of money, it's modest compensation for the time and skill that went into creating the piece of art.

Likewise, I see nothing wrong with spending thousands of dollars on a purse that is the result of paying a designer for an exceptional design and paying a living wage to the craftsmen who make it with exceptional quality, by hand. I can't afford this, but if you could, it seems like a good use of money to by a high quality product that will last many years.

Granted, most people who can afford these purses aren't choosing them for this reason. But my point is that a several thousand dollar price tag is not in itself outrageous.

Now, if you don't value art or craftsmanship and therefore still think it's a waste of money, that's fine. But there's a market of people who would rather pay handsomely for a good product than one that was made by some poor child in a third world country. And it's just as valid a choice as shopping at Target (which is where I shop).

Posted by: Anonymous | February 1, 2007 10:18 AM

FYI, people actually SHOW OFF the fact that they've bought a fake bag. Seriously! I can't tell you how many times I've been in a situation where someone has a bag with LV, Prada, etc., logos on it and someone is like, "Oh, cute bag," and the owner is like, "Oh, don't worry, it's fake" or "Thanks! It was, like, $20!!"
I've never seen anyone try to pass off their fake bag as real.

Posted by: Lilybeth | February 1, 2007 10:25 AM

Why, Marc? For the same reason that some hack writer can't put your name and picture on his piece of junk book. It's theft. Only YOU can put your name and picture on a piece of junk book.

By the way, some of the leather goods companies have tried to stop this practice through civil litigation, but so long as China not only permits but encourages violation of international trademark and copyright laws, there will be counterfeit purses, shoes, DVDs, etc.

Posted by: LadyWesley | February 1, 2007 10:27 AM

Again, I'm not saying it's morally right and justified, just that the wronged parties should be bringing their own lawsuits.
I don't see enough larger harm to society to justify a law-enforcement effort.

Posted by: Lilybeth | February 1, 2007 10:28 AM

"I can't afford this, but if you could, it seems like a good use of money to by a high quality product that will last many years."

Exactly. I love my four Coach purses. Just put conditioner on them once in a while and they last forever. yes, they all exceeded $100.00 per purse, but they're worth the money that I paid for them. The street vendors that sell the shabby $20.00 purses can be assured of repeat business because those purses won't last very long.

Posted by: Educated Consumer | February 1, 2007 10:36 AM

trademark and coyrigth law are there for a reason. The huge purse companies might seem unsympathetic plaintiffs, but those same laws protect small-time artists and creators who would be financially devastated if someone ripped off their creative design and sold it for less. it is theft. How about columnists' or authors' work? wholesale plagiarism and reselling a good idea, Marc?

Posted by: joe | February 1, 2007 10:52 AM

"Where on earth do people get these ridiculous assumptions from?"

You can find more information about these "assumptions" at www.sweatshopwatch.org.

"The majority of fake designer goods are made in China, Hong Kong, and Korea. Have you ever met a Lebanese owner of a fake handbag shop or a Lebanese vendor, for that matter?"

Although several fake designer goods come from these countries, any country is capable of making and selling fake designer goods. Even here in the US, one would be gravely mistaken to believe that there are not companies that produce and manufacture fake designer goods. Many of these factories are located on American soil and house workers that are forced to work in sweatshop-like conditions.

And although all US companies do not use illegal sweatshops, there are several corporations that have factory conditions that are equivalent. In fact if you have a garment that was made in Bangladesh, for example, one can pretty much assume that garment was made in one of these pseudo-sweatshops.

If anyone's sole purpose of opposing fake designer goods is because of the worker's conditions, I would highly recommend extending this concern to the treatment of all workers at all major corporations. Although Walmart has gotten the most publicity for their violations, they are certainly not the only one.

Posted by: Tisha | February 1, 2007 10:52 AM

cover bands?? that is the weakest comparison ever. They PAY FOR THE rights. The creator is not being ripped off!!!!!

Posted by: Dave | February 1, 2007 10:52 AM

I would assume, it was obvious. The bands, the store brands , the generic drugs are not claiming to be some one they are not. They are declaring excatly who or what they are.

Fake purses are "imporsonating" someone or some thing. Selling under false pretenses. You are only assuming that everyone who buys 40.00 Kate Spade or whatever should know better - but there are two problems with the assumptions - first , they might be guests or new comers to your country (or metro area), maybe with limited english and not know they are being duped.

Second, this would effectualy create a 'buyers beware' kind of market, where any one is allowed to sell anything subpar or illegal without the threat of any prosecution.

Finally , how would you like if some one starts writing a column named Raw Fisher under your name, with your smiling picture and your tag line - The Cold Splash of Reality, With A Side of Sizzle- and you find that there is no way to prosecute or even stop the guy ?

Posted by: Neerja | February 1, 2007 10:56 AM

You mean those Hebrew National weiners ARE NOT REAL!

Posted by: The Horror, the horror | February 1, 2007 10:58 AM

While there are alot of trademark issues and what have you. The truth of the matter is that the vendors in DC do not sell exact replicas. They are often similar but different then the original purse. If you know your stuff, you can spot the knock off miles away. For a quality Knock off, you would go to NYC, canal street???, where you can buy a replica in degrees of quality. Class A being the very best of knockoffs usually reserved for LV designs or Hermes. At about half the cost. SO the question is why does DC care more then NY? We are putting our tax dollars towards vendors who sell $40 dollar bags that are obvious knockoffs. When states like NY are selling $500 - 1000 knockoffs and the law is not stepping in there?

Posted by: AN | February 1, 2007 11:06 AM

Posted by: Anonymous | February 1, 2007 11:07 AM

Marc, can we assume then that you would be comfortable with a blogger copying your text, working in some grammatical errors (you know, to signal that it's a rip-off), and then marketing it as his own?

Posted by: McLean | February 1, 2007 11:09 AM

OF course we all know those purses sold by street vendors are not real. Who in their right mind would pay $2,000+ for a purse anyway, besides Paris Hilton. I think I just answered my own question. A tootsie stood beside me on the Metro yesterday with a 'Gucci' bag and judging from the rest of her attire, I know darned well that wasn't a real Gucci.
Anyway, Customs has an entire division handling imported fake stuff. Contact www.customs.gov/iprcenter.

There was a big flap a few years back about quilts imported from China. Needlecrafters who make real, hand-stitched quilts (starting at $800 and up) and consider them works of art were up in arms about the imported, machine made stuff. They were concerned that the cheap stuff would be considered in years down the road as 'authentic' by people who can't tell the difference. The media covered it and all those talented quilters got was a pat on the head and a tsk, tsk.

Posted by: NW DC | February 1, 2007 11:23 AM

As someone who has been gulled into buying fake coins on eBay, I vote for prosecuting all knock-offs - even the guys who sell the the fake Redskins gear in the parking log at FedEx Field.

Posted by: Tomcat | February 1, 2007 11:24 AM

Agreed. A big waste of money. I just can't cry crocodile tears for the designers who sell their original wares at prices so far beyond ridiculous that you just want to laugh at those who buy them. I don't buy the argument that it's cutting into their profits. I'll be there's only a handful of people who buy the fake bags INSTEAD of buying the real thing. Most of us could never afford those bags or would never be dumb enough to spend that much money if we could afford it. If we buy a fake bag on the streets, it means we're not buying a non-designer brand at Target or JC Penney's, etc.

Posted by: springfield, va | February 1, 2007 11:24 AM

Marc's point isn't that the faking is acceptable or within the law, it's whether the companies whose trademarks are being abused should undertake their own enforcement at their own expense. Ideally, they should, but there are things that only policemen or sheriffs are empowered to do -- such as enforcing a court order to shut down illegal sales. So it could be that the purse companies have gone as far as they can in privately enforcing their brands, but they are not permitted to send their own private agents to "take out" street vendors. I assume there are additional facts not in evidence.

Posted by: Barbara | February 1, 2007 11:35 AM

I'd rather buy a non-designer bag at Target for $20 than buy something from the street vendor. I least I know what kind of quality I'll be getting, and not have to worry that my fake will be falling apart any minute.

Posted by: LOG | February 1, 2007 11:40 AM

Barbara has it exactly right -- the question is not whether copyright or trademark infringement is wrong, it's whether it is a matter for law enforcement or the civil courts.

What I find particularly galling is that for the most part, the DC police do not normally treat theft as a crime worth investigating. And as Marc noted in an earlier blog entry, even when no investigation in necessary and the evidence is handed to them they do not consider it a crime worth prosecuting.

Somehow a handbag with a mis-appropriated label is a higher priority for police in this city than breaking and entering.

Posted by: DC taxpayer | February 1, 2007 11:44 AM

[The fake purses are sold as something they are not--real purses.]
Nobody thinks that a $40 Louis Vuitton that they bought on a street corner is real. If they do there's somebody else willing to sell them a bridge in NY.
[These are Federal Trade commission and intellectual property/ trademark issues, not police issues. And financing terrorism ?????????
This issue should be settled through private lawsuits or civil FTC enforcement actions, not criminal investigations - it's about intellectual property rights.]
Exactly. ICE is helping with the investigation. Why don't they help the people who have been victimized by some illegal immigrant who's running around with somebody else's SSN? Those high end retailers should be targeting the manufacturers, not the guys ont he corner who aren't getting rich from this. If there's nothing to sell there's nothing to buy.
[quote]To begin with many of the knock offs are made with child labor or underpaid labor overseas.[/quote]
So is some of the stuff from Wal-Mart; why do you think it's so cheap? And didn't Nike get in trouble for using sweatshop labor?

Posted by: really, who cares? | February 1, 2007 11:49 AM


We need to save the dugongs.

Posted by: Marc Fisher | February 1, 2007 11:54 AM

vaherder, you wouldn't know a terrorist if one bit you in the *ss. BTW, where did you graduate from? Billy Goat U?

PS: Keep your trash off of Kim O'Donnels blog too!

Posted by: Maryland | February 1, 2007 12:01 PM

I think the article that Fisher links to states that 30,000 bags were found. This isn't the same as going after the street vendor. This is the supplier. When someone is distributing a large quantity of counterfeit goods, of any sort, the government will decide to prosecute. I think this is a large high profile prosecution desgined to send a message to other distributors. It's just a signal that the government cares about trademark infringement. Why shouldn't the US government sue? It's not like this is the start of a street vendor roundup.

It may be good to throw a few counterfeit goods distributors in jail as a signal. It won't stop the problem but it still matters. If the logic is that we should only prosecute serious criminals then let's stop prosecuring petty burglars, white collar criminals etc...

Posted by: Alexandria | February 1, 2007 12:20 PM

How about this, Marc: I've got a copy machine here, and I'm going to stand outside of Politics and Prose and sell copies of "Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation" by Marc Fisher for $3.95 instead of the way-overpriced $27.95 that P&P is asking for it.

Do you think that the government should spend "big fat piles of your tax dollars" to stop me?

Posted by: KK | February 1, 2007 12:52 PM

KK, get with the program. Marc has already adressed that question in his chat today.

Posted by: boo | February 1, 2007 12:58 PM

Boo--

What exactly is "the program"? Do you have to sit through the chat, too, before you can respond to the blog?

Posted by: KK | February 1, 2007 1:03 PM

Capitalism will not regulate itself, that's why we pay for a Government. I'm glad they're at least making a token effort to keep fake purses off the streets.

Posted by: Tomcat | February 1, 2007 1:21 PM

May I reproduce your columns and other Post content and resell it on the street corner?

Posted by: Karl | February 1, 2007 1:24 PM

I posted this to the chat earlier.

Here's why I have a problem with law enforcement going after fake purse vendors:

From the Wash Post Checkout Blog:

"The multipart series is worth the time it takes to read. It offers a vivid glimpse into the thriving international market for stolen identities. Most shocking, perhaps, is the revelation that much of this illicit activity takes place under the passive gaze of law enforcement, which prefers to sit things out and wait for bigger fish while consumers and businesses absorb huge financial losses."

So, it's okay of John Q. Public suffers financial losses and identity theft, but if Gucci or Prada suffers the same thing call the feds. Puhleeze.

Posted by: why the problem? | February 1, 2007 1:35 PM

My only worry is, next trip to DC there won't be any bags on street corners. They are great.
And frankly, as most of us look like reasonable people instead of the spoiled brats who buy them, no one would think we'd plunked down $2 thou for such. We're not that dumb.
Having read stories of CEOs and wall street bonuses, I begin to understand class warfare. A bit of which this is.

Posted by: Lydia | February 1, 2007 1:38 PM

Come on, Marc. Surely manufacturers of $2,000 handbags (as ridiculous as such items are) have the same right as everyone else to enforce their trademarks, even if "everyone knows" the goods sold on the street aren't the real thing. Don't tell me you wouldn't be calling the cops or the prosecutor if I printed out copies of your latest book and started selling them on the corner for $1, even if everyone who bought one was quite aware that I am not "Marc Fisher." Who is hurt here? You are, of course. I'm using your ideas and your name to make money, of which you don't see a dime. And the handbag folks, as rich as they are by selling such over-priced items, are hurt in the exact same way, and have the same right to expect that the law will help them.

Posted by: Steve | February 1, 2007 1:40 PM

The luxury bag industry has never really cared about knockoffs. Think--have you ever seen an ad or commercial saying "only real Prada is real quality" or something of the like? No, because everyone could tell the real thing from a knockoff, and they weren't losing sales to anyone buying a knockoff thinking it was the real deal.

But now, the quality of knockoffs has greatly improved and even some luxury bag store clerks can't tell the difference. So the luxury bag makers say, "oh heck, if the knockoffs are that good, how can we sucker people into paying $1000 for the real thing?"

Meanwhile, where are all of the free market lovers shouting for the police to stay out of this and let the market duke it out? Consumers will get better product at better prices.

Posted by: mizbinkley | February 1, 2007 1:41 PM

SOMEtimes they're called generics. Sometimes they're called 'taking share'
as in major electronics firms. Depends on who's doint it.
Sometimes it's the phony balony such as this "crisis".
Put out the purses and Cwy Me a Wiver.

Posted by: Natalie | February 1, 2007 1:44 PM

..Tell me, will we be arrested if caught buying one?
Attention to this idiocy with all the problems facing us is SICK. Completely silly.

Posted by: Carolyn | February 1, 2007 1:55 PM

It was fitting that you cited Wisconsin and M Streets in Georgetown as the location for these illicit purse sales.

Those very politically astute people in Georgetown are the same ones that refused to allow a Metro stop anywhere near their fiefdom and more recently have championed removing the Whitehurst freeway and replacing it with nothing.

Instead of prosecuting these handbag felons, I'm in favor of a felonious handbag vendor relocation program. We'd welcome some nice-looking, inexpensive bags over in the Dupont/Woodley Park/Adams Morgan neighborhoods. We derive no pleasure whatsoever from having others know that we pay the maximum amount possible for our purchases. To us, the winner is the one who paid the lowest price.

Posted by: 4real | February 1, 2007 2:00 PM

Also, why NOW? These fake bags have been sold openly on the streets of NYC and DC for many years now - I remember first seeing them 10 years ago, when I was in high school. Just curious as to why it's finally on law enforcement's radar screen now...

Posted by: Lilybeth | February 1, 2007 2:00 PM

Why do you people buy stuff from a street vendor, anyway? Why not at a perfectly good store like Target, Wal-Mart, or any of the zillions out there? At least if the item is defective you can return it with a receipt for an exchange. They also take credit cards and checks. Plus they have a wider variety to choose from. Go to a store instead of buying from peddlers, for Pete's sake.

Posted by: NW DC | February 1, 2007 2:18 PM

How can you possibly defend this? What a bunch you people are. Are you the same ones who buy stuff that's stolen from their neighbors' houses or their cars?

And then you invent these convenient rationalizations for buying stolen merchandise: "why now" "the police should do something else" "the real bags cost too much" "this is class warfare" "the real criminals are the ones who charge $2000 for a bag" "the real criminals are the ones who pay $2000 for a bag" "it's all about me -- I should be able to do whatever I want" etc.

Do none of you know right from wrong? How do you live with yourselves?

Posted by: Real class | February 1, 2007 2:48 PM

Generic drugs come on the market after the period of patent protection for the original expires. They're quite legal.

The US government spends a lot of time and effort pursuading foreign countries to enforce intellectual property law (and live up to their obligations under international agreements covering trademarks, copyrights and patents) to protect U.S. creators and designers. That makes it that much more important that we enforce our own laws.

Posted by: annandale va | February 1, 2007 3:09 PM

Fakes are fakes, and shouldn't be allowed. I work with a local convention that has a dealer's room selling anime and manga and other merchandise from Japan. We work hard to police the fakes and toss out dealers who bring bootlegs because it cheapens the efforts of the original creator of the series, the band who recorded the CD, etc. The original material from Japan is more expensive, but it is worth it to us to ensure that is all that is sold in our dealer's room because we care about the original creators of the anime or manga series, and want to ensure they get the proper royalties from their merchandise.

Personally, I *loved* the Louis Vuitton Murakami bags that came out a couple years ago (they were colorful, and I was happy to hear a Japanese designer had done them), but knew I couldn't get one at the full $500-600 price. So I go without. I walk 4 blocks on K Street everyday past those vendors, and have eyed the fake Murakami bags they carry, but I can't do it, can't buy one. I think Murakami gets to receive credit for his design, and the main way that is done is that he gets paid based on the sale of the original, genuine item.

I don't think anyone who had read this blog would like it if they created something amazing and in trying to sell it, were undercut by someone else selling it for cheaper. You can sue privately, but law enforcement is generally needed to enforce judgments received. All copyright/trademark law should be honored, not just ones that don't seem to hurt people like luxury goods sellers. They have good ideas also, and they should be protected as much as anyone else, because most folks would want the protection there if they ever need it, and wouldn't want the police to think they weren't "deserving" enough.

Posted by: jrshark | February 1, 2007 3:10 PM

"Answers, please....and please don't go right to "It's the law." This is a more interesting issue than that, so let's not even go there."

Silly Marc Fisher. Trying to get some discussion going aside from "because it's wrong."

Posted by: mizbinkley | February 1, 2007 3:16 PM

On December 5, 2005, I heard an NPR segment about women RENTING designer purses. Netflix for purses! For the cost of purchasing one designer purse, you can get a different one in the mail every month. I just listened to the segment again. Fashion purses are a 5 billion dollar industry. Women, get a life! Mine is functional and roomy with lots of pocket and zippers. That's the criteria.

Posted by: Snip | February 1, 2007 3:22 PM

annandale va wrote: "The US government spends a lot of time and effort pursuading foreign countries to enforce intellectual property law... That makes it that much more important that we enforce our own laws."

Fair point. However, in the world of knockoffs, many other countries punish not just the seller, but the buyer as well. In the US, it is not a crime to buy knockoffs.

Posted by: mizbinkley | February 1, 2007 3:29 PM

Sorry. I meant to add that if the U.S. was serious about protecting intellectual property, it would be a crime also to BUY knockoffs, not just sell them.

Posted by: mizbinkley | February 1, 2007 3:35 PM

I agree with you, Mark.

It's a waste of my tax money.

If the purse makers want to pursue these sidewalk peddlers, let them sue them in civil court.

Posted by: stewart | February 1, 2007 3:47 PM

Something is rotten in the fake purse business investigation overzealousness. I agree with Marc completely: there are far more burning issues our tax money should be spent on than investigation of issues that should be resolved by the parties involved, meaning big wigs and their copy right lawyers. I think we should spend more time, energy and resources on addressing the homelessness issue in DC or other "human oriented" causes rather then few clearly fake purses and their ready and willing purchasers. It made me laugh to read that fake goods are made in sweat shops: where do you people think the designers get their cheap labor from??? Time to wake up. Fake purses do not hurt anybody; terrorists will function with or without them, let's get a life and direct our collective efforts to improve our life where it needs improving the most: eliminating poverty, injustice and ecological imbalance. Time to stop helping rich to get richer; they can take care of themselves, really.

Posted by: DC-ite | February 1, 2007 4:00 PM

Marc I am with you on that...I don't have money to buy a $2,000 purse, so I like to go and get my $40 dollars look a like.
I cannot believe that the goverment is taking my pleasure way!

Lets get real...no one is loosing money here..so many rules...so many no, nos..my God have some mercy.Let people buy what they want, and can afford.

Posted by: Neice Melick | February 1, 2007 5:36 PM

The designer companies pay taxes. Do the street corner sellers pay taxes? They should at least be a registered business with a license to sell. Then they could sell what they want, legally.

Posted by: Or is that too simple to ask? | February 1, 2007 8:40 PM

Generic drugs are a bad example. There's a BIG difference between generic drugs, which are regulated and meet quality standards, and counterfeit drugs, which are a growing problem in the US. http://www.fda.gov/counterfeit/ Drugs, purses, software, music--it's all theft.

Posted by: reader | February 1, 2007 10:29 PM

Several people here ask how I would react if someone Xeroxed my book and sold it on a street corner for $3. A similar issue came up on the online show earlier today, and here's how that exchange went:

Fake Bags: How would you feel if I started publishing a Metro column in the Examiner under the name Marc Fisher? The people who design those bags and hold the intellectual property rights to those designs lose the value of those rights when others sell duplicates.

Marc Fisher: I might be ticked off, I might be amused. I'd love the competition and the in-your-face gesture. However I felt about it, I certainly wouldn't want the cops or prosecutors to get involved in such petty nonsense. The correct way to combat that situation would be for me to try to write better and more attractive copy than the fake guy--exactly what the designers of the fancy handbags should do about the fakers on the street.

Posted by: Fisher | February 1, 2007 11:14 PM

My wife had to have her right leg amputated and the anasthesia was a knock-off, and the saw that the surgeon used was a knock-off from Bangladesh. The anasthesia worked only five minutes and she remained awake for the following six hours it took for the fake saw to grind its way thru her osteoperotic bones.

Posted by: Evan Grunge | February 2, 2007 8:29 AM

You asked: "[Wh]y does Our Government care if a bunch of guys at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW selling fake purses?"

If they do care, I hope it's because anyone selling purses at that location, fake or otherwise, is seriously impeding pedestrian traffic.

Posted by: Tony | February 2, 2007 10:14 AM

On Jan 18 you wrote about the problem of "Fake Bands", and at that time you opined "It's a reasonable cause".

What's the difference?

Posted by: Sholom | February 11, 2007 9:57 PM

Some of you need to realize that what is right for the US is NOT always right for everyone in the world. You people speak of sweatshops and child labor, but you really have no idea the life that these poor people lead. You guys should realize that the people that you refer to come from poor countries and jobs in childlabor, knockoffs shops/sweatshops actually provide these poor people with jobs that they need to survive.
This is a tough life for them, however in thier case, child labor and sweatshops actually benefit them more than you think. So why not buy knockoffs if its helping to feed families in poverty??

Posted by: lisa | February 14, 2007 10:41 PM

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