Not long ago the counterfeit goods market was largely limited to luxury apparel, consumer electronics, and shoddy Rolexes. But today nearly any consumer or industrial product—from household cleaners to auto components—can be subject to sophisticated forgery. The overall weak enforcement of both national and international intellectual property protections has made counterfeiting a low-risk, high-reward global industry with an estimated market value of $600 billion a year.
The Museum of Counterfeit Goods in Bangkok offers an illuminating introduction to the shadowy world of knockoffs. The museum features a menagerie of forgeries collected by Tilleke & Gibbins, Thailand's oldest law firm and one of Southeast Asia's most persistent defenders of intellectual property. Their collection comprises more than 4,000 goods that infringe on trademarks, patents, and copyrights.
Together these items present a revealing snapshot of the global counterfeiting industry. Many of these knockoffs—especially the designer logo-festooned bags, belts, and t-shirts—would look familiar to anyone who has strolled through Southeast Asian street markets and fashion malls. But the museum's display cases also feature product forgeries that would surprise many consumers, including imitation cosmetics, food products, and pharmaceuticals.
Fake products, real consumers
Counterfeit versions of apparel and accessories from Gucci, Lacoste, Ray-Ban, and other global luxury brands are prominently featured in Tilleke & Gibbins' collection. Some of these pieces are impressive duplications that wouldn't look out of place in a real display case. But given a close examination, most of the embossed goods are poorly crafted imitations that would deceive only the most naïve of consumer.
Why are so many people continuing to buy fake luxury goods that are clearly inauthentic? The obvious answer is that these goods are much, much cheaper than the real thing. But just as important is the recognition that even a fake designer logo can function as a conspicuous signifier of class and taste.
It's no secret that—for designer brands especially—the emergence of cheap knockoffs in new markets has long been an effective form of advertising and a reliable indicator of future sales. A 2011 studyfound that when knockoff versions of high-end footwear emerged in China, sales of the real product increased by more than 60 percent. For upwardly mobile consumers, fake Louis Vuitton goods are often a gateway purchase to the real thing.
The hottest counterfeit brands are pharmaceuticals
Cialis has replaced Nike as the top counterfeit brand, according to the WCO's most recentIllicit Trade Report. Sexual performance drugs thrive in the black market, as they are quite expensive without a prescription, which some men may be uncomfortable acquiring from a doctor.
But knockoff Cialis and Viagra pills are just the tip of the iceberg. An estimated 10 to 30 percent of all medicines sold in developing countries are counterfeit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These forgeries are manufactured with either diluted or missing active ingredients, and then pressed with familiar pill logos or bottled up or with realistic looking labels.
Tilleke & Gibbins' collection includes several display cases full of counterfeit medication, including imitation Throatsil and other cough suppressants, bronchial syrup for infants, and Japanese antidiarrhetic treatments. It is troubling to imagine that these fake chemical concoctions (which I was not allowed to photograph) were intended for real consumers in need.
Smartphones aren't counterfeited—they're cloned
Tilleke & Gibbins' collection includes an impressive haul of knockoff Nokia phones, but no iPhones or Galaxies. That shouldn't, however, suggest that counterfeit smartphones can't be found in Thailand. Indeed, a spate of recentseizures may provide the museum with new displays.
That said, the absence of smartphones from the law firm's collection is telling. Many of the knockoff smartphones is Asia are better described as "clones" than counterfeits. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but there remains a critical distinction: clones emulate the function and design of another product, but are generally sold under another name, while counterfeit goods are usually passed off as authentic merchandise.
Over the past decade China's clone market has specialized in affordable phones that mimic market-leading brands but operate on a wider range of networks and offer unusual specs and features, including additional SIM card slots, extremely thin frames, and even built-in electric shavers. Clones may well be a violation of patent, but that's usually a tougher case to make than rather clear cut trademark and copyright infringements.
The counterfeit market is often dismissed as more of a nuisance to brands than a real problem for consumers. But counterfeit goods negatively impact not only copyright and trademark holders, but the entire supply chain that delivers products from manufacturers to retailers to shoppers.
Counterfeit goods are often manufactured in unsafe conditions by criminal gangs using cheap (and sometimes child) labor. And the final product presents clear health and safety risks. Tilleke & Gibbins' collection includes counterfeit cosmetics and perfumes, knockoff food products (such as fake Pocky sticks and Doritos), and even fake household cleaning supplies. At best these products will simply be ineffective. At worst they could cause serious illness or even death.
Perhaps the most impressive item in the museum's collection is a fully functional—and fully fake—Honda motorbike. It should go without saying that while this bike may have worked, it was far from street safe. A case full of fake engine components and auto accessories nearby underscore the danger counterfeit goods can pose to consumers in Asia and across the globe.