The officers of the IBMA have been monitoring discussions that are taking place outside of our organization, and we are observing and making note of suggestions (and also rhetoric) coming from other non-members in the industry. The leaders of the IBMA acknowledge that the issues around counterfeit goods and theft of intellectual property are important for our members and we are addressing it.
Our official review of this topic will take place at our semi-annual board meeting on April 13th in NYC.
To become more educated about the topic, and learn what steps can be taken now by manufacturers, please read the missive below that has been forwarded to us by a volunteer with expertise in this area.
The Problem of Knockoff Sites
The Problem: Websites primarily based outside North America are promoting cheap wedding and formal dresses using product images stolen from the real designers’ or manufacturers’ websites.
The stolen images mislead consumers and can create reputation problems for legitimate designers, manufacturers and retailers. The situation is annoying for sure, and we can assume it has negative effects on sales, but there’s no consensus about whether the problem is a mountain or a molehill.
I would advocate that the IBMA and its members focus on one main response:
- Take aim at the unauthorized use of product images.
It’s ironic, but pictures of dresses have much stronger copyright protection than the dresses themselves. Taking action against unauthorized use of product images is the shortest route to harm reduction, and it would have the major virtue of improving the situation BEFORE the bride spends her money.
The IBMA must choose its battles carefully. It’s reasonable to think in terms of harm reduction, but unrealistic to think that the problem can ever be solved completely. The aircraft industry hasn’t managed to stop the flow of counterfeit parts even though they’ve spent millions in the attempt.
File DMCA Complaints (Digital Millennium Copyright Act)
DMCA takedown notices can get images removed from websites, get pages with infringing material removed from the search engines, sometimes even get entire sites taken down.
DMCA complaints must be submitted by the copyright holder or authorized representative. In other words, it’s a job that manufacturers have to do for themselves. The representative doesn’t need to be a lawyer, but needs to be someone who knows the facts. In this case that would mean knowing the manufacturer’s picture stock really, really well.
Infringing sites tend to be hosted in places outside the reach of US law, but the search engines Google and Bing are US-based. They will respect valid DMCA takedown notices and de-index infringing material from their search results. There’s no fee to file a complaint. Infringers often start new websites, so ongoing vigilance is required.
Report Counterfeiters to Google AdWords
This action would cover different ground than DMCA takedowns: Google will kick proven counterfeiters out of Google AdWords (advertising) and cancel their accounts. Again, complaints must be filed by the trademark holder or authorized representative. Successful action by one manufacturer would not need to be repeated by others.
Note that “knockoff” and “counterfeit” are not the same thing, although we often use them interchangeably.
Monitor Infringements; Help Each Other Identify Infringers
In cyberspace it’s easier to detect stolen text than stolen images, so one big reason the infringers get away with what they’re doing is that they escape the notice of the copyright holders. IBMA members could help each other with detection, because when a site is spotted stealing images from one manufacturer it’s a good bet they’re stealing from others as well. People wouldn’t necessarily recognize when someone else’s images were being infringed, but they’d each recognize their own if they were alerted about where to look.
- Suggestion: Create a private information area on the IBMA website where manufacturers, retailers or others who discover infringing sites could list them for others to check. Provide traffic stats, too, to help people decide which sites should be their priorities for action. This area should be accessible to IBMA members but not to the public and absolutely not to search engines.
Manufacturers could take additional steps to protect their images such as blocking traffic to their websites from certain parts of the world, or white-listing spiders. IBMA couldn’t give technical specifics for such things, but could point webmasters in the right direction.
Educate Consumers? Maybe …
Education for consumers would need to be approached with extreme caution. Some general promotion about the wisdom of dealing with authorized vendors might be harmless, but not if any knockoff sites were named. For one thing it’s seldom smart to help the adversary with free publicity, and for another, it could create a major legal mess if someone took exception to how they were portrayed.
Just in the last few days I’ve seen lists of suspect sites posted and passed around online. This not only makes them more accessible for consumers, it will make the listed sites more credible with the search engines. Linking to the adversary is the wrong thing to do! A centralized list could be very useful (see above) but it would be smarter to treat it as a private resource, not parade it around in public.
The present infringement situation is rooted in the fact that some cultures (and their laws) don’t have the same concept of intellectual property or copyrights that North Americans count on. That’s not something the IBMA can do much about, but it would be good to keep an eye on legislative activity in other countries. The day will come when international laws about intellectual property are more consistent.
That still won’t mean smooth sailing, though. It’s a certainty that foreign websites will get better and better at targeting US markets without infringements of any kind and staying completely within the letter of US law. The North American bridal space can expect growing competition from savvy business people who are not pirates.