By Ron Rosenberg
It is a sad state of the firearms accessories industry today that if you invest in a patent, product development, tooling, advertising, and everything else that goes into producing a product, certain factories in Asia will simply steal your idea and counterfeit your design.
Recover Tactical is a small company. Our annual sales are not huge, but we have the number 1 selling 1911 and Beretta 92 grips on Amazon with our grip and rail systems. Inevitably, being number one for a few years on Amazon attracted the attention of Asian counterfeiters and two molds of our best-selling items were made.
I was at a party one evening about a year and a half ago and came across a picture of a 1911 with what looked like our patented grip and rail system mounted. I pinched to zoom and saw right away it was a knock off, a 1:1 copy minus our brand name. It was something I always feared and expected would happen, but that didn’t make the pain any less. I was finally a victim of the dreaded counterfeiters.
I did a Google search and found some Chinese and Hong Kong resellers selling the counterfeit Recovers and I sent them some threatening letters. Most of them complied and removed the offending articles. I figured that as long as the “disease” was contained in Asia, the damage to Recover’s bottom line would be minimal. Unfortunately, I was mistaken.
The problem is multifold. First and foremost, it begins with the counterfeiters, next it’s the resellers, and last but not least, it ends with the consumer (who are, most of the time, oblivious to the fact that they are buying counterfeit goods).
Recover has patents on our products in the USA. The purpose of patents is to allow those that take financial risks and then have the opportunity to recoup their investments on that risk, thereby encouraging those that have ideas to go public with them.
Patents allow people protection when investing and cultivates and encourages innovation. We have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in R&D, molds, products, and advertising for numerous products. Sometimes a product works and is a good seller like our Grip and Rail Systems, and sometimes it doesn’t work out like our Rubber Grips.
You don’t know which one will hit and which one will miss, but you figure that at least you have the hits protected for a number of years to make up for the misses. That allows more leeway in design and manufacturer.
With that said, a good friend of mine who is the owner of a large accessories manufacturer recently had his entire product line copied by multiple counterfeiters in China. They copied the product, logos, packaging, and managed to register his trademark as their own in the USA and China.
This company whose IP was stolen issued a press release on numerous websites and the comments that I read were very disturbing; “The company had the chance to make their money, but 18 years for a patent is too long.” Comments like these weren’t the minority, but the majority and are misinformed.
Let’s look at the 18 years of a patent and play it out. In years 1 through 5 you don’t make any money as a new brand because you’re getting the word out and re-investing all of your income. Assuming your initial investment is recouped because your product is a success (which 9 out of 10 are not) you will finally make some money in years 6 through 10.
But if you are smart, you’ll then invest in new molds and new concepts and double down on your investment. If you’re lucky, then by year 8 you’re able to sit back and relax and hopefully make some money.
But that’s when the counterfeiters come along. Protecting your patent and enforcing what is rightfully yours takes a lot of money, and guess what? All the money you netted in years 8-10 is going to go to lawyers paying to protect the IP on your original concept.
So after 10 years you have 10 products, numerous molds, and not much in the bank because you’re constantly reinvesting all your income and protecting the intellectual property which you rightfully own.
Now I ask, is 18 years too long a life for a patent? I honestly don’t think so, especially with the amount of time and money it takes to launch a product, and then fend off the counterfeiters. Consumers need to be aware, buying counterfeits stifles innovation, especially in a relatively low tech marketplace such as firearm accessories where counterfeiting is rampant.
There are numerous websites that enable these counterfeiters to thrive. The biggest threat to the industry are websites like Aliexpress, eBay, Amazon, and the newest addition, Wish.
Amazon is a huge problem because if someone has a counterfeit product and a reseller account, they can ship it to Amazon for them to fulfill their orders. In the past, at times Amazon would mix (known as co-mingling) the counterfeits with the real products in the same bin and ship the counterfeit products as the genuine article to end users.
Amazon has been taken to task on this counterfeit issue and has implemented some new processes to prevent this scourge from spreading. I believe that in 5 years’ time Amazon will be at the forefront of preventing counterfeits.
Aliexpress, eBay and Wish (and to a lesser extent Amazon) are changing the rules by which counterfeiters operate because they are enabling the consumers to be able to buy direct from the counterfeiter, one unit at a time.
Back in the olden days (5 to 10 years ago), the factories would sell to an importer and it was easier to enforce the patent by going after the importer. Today the counterfeiters are selling their fake items one unit at a time and the flood is virtually impossible to stop.
Do a search on a website like Wish.com (a great article about the site appeared here at TTAG a few weeks back) for firearms products and you will find that the majority of their listings are fake knock-offs from factories in China.
Gear from brands like BLACKHAWK!, Leupold, EoTech and Fobus is being offered at rock-bottom prices. It’s so bad at Wish.com and other sites that Leupold has a warning on their website specifically calling them out.
What is so disheartening about a company such as Wish.com is that they’re located in the US. This isn’t a Chinese company operating without recourse. The company is owned and operated out of San Francisco whose main purpose is to provide a myriad of counterfeit products across multiple categories to gullible consumers in the US.
How can a brand protect itself? Register your trademark and or patents in the USA and, of course, China.
My personal opinion is that the trademark may be more effective and less costly in China. Once you have registered your trademark (which takes a year) the Chinese authorities will seize counterfeit goods on your behalf (assuming you can locate the factory).
Proactively search websites like Wish.com and Aliexpress.com and register your brand and patents with them. Larger brands can use services that scour the web and submit take-down notices on your behalf. This service can be costly, but I know of a brand that has seen a lot of success using such services. That may not be the way to proceed for smaller brands.
If you take the time to follow up, these websites will remove counterfeit items once you prove that there’s a violation and you have registered your IP.
Be a nuisance to re-sellers selling fraudulent copies of your products the second you see them.
If they see you don’t fight back, the problem will spread. Call the people selling your products, email them, and threaten them with litigation. It works.
Ron Rosenberg is co-founder of Recover Tactical.