The knock-on effect of knockoffs in the craft world  


PaperArtsy-stamp Credit: Leandra Frainch

How do you know if you’re buying a craft item that’s genuine? Why does it matter? Leandra Franich, owner of PaperArtsy, and a UK manufacturer for almost two decades helps you understand why your purchasing decisions might make a difference.

By Leandra Franich, a.k.a. PaperArtsy.

I was asked to write this information about how we have been involved behind the scenes in trying to raise awareness among manufacturers. I hope this information gives you a better sense of how this issue is very much a global and industry-wide problem, and how what you choose to buy, and where from makes a difference. 

Leandra-Frainch-PaperArtsy

If it looks too good to be true, it probably is

Perhaps you’re scrolling through social media and you see an Instagram or Facebook advert promoting stacking flat lunch boxes, snazzy shoe storage or a stick-on bra, or maybe it’s the most amazing make-up foundation ever invented. It looks pretty good – do you click through and order? 

  • Have you looked at the reviews? 
  • Do you know where the item is coming from – will it arrive tomorrow or in weeks? 
  • Is it manufactured under certified and safe conditions (guessing that you really don’t want to react to a skin product)? 
  • Are your payment details safe? 
  • Will you get customs duties applied that you didn’t expect? 
  • Can you contact the seller? 
  • Do you actually stop and ask these questions or just click through and buy it because the accompanying video was so convincing? After all, the price is pretty good? Ridiculously good.

Invariably the item arrives long after you’ve forgotten you ordered and what a bummer – the lids don’t shut, they certainly don’t stack because the plastic is warped, the bra won’t stay stuck and the make-up coverage is bad. Yup, you kind of knew it probably wasn’t going to be all it said in the advert, but you really hoped for better. You reluctantly realise that you’ve been ‘had’. 

Cheap craft stashes – why they’re NEVER worth it

You’re in a crafty Facebook group where you’ve got to know some members. People often make recommendations for cheap craft stash at really low prices. They seem to think it’s OK, so one day you follow a link. 

And, similar story, perhaps the item isn’t quite the same as you expected when it actually lands through your letterbox. You’re a bit disappointed, but it really was cheap, so you decide to see if you can make it work. 

Your next order is worse, different shop but those dies totally don’t match the stamp quite the way you expected, but hey, it’s cheap – you win some you lose some, right? 

Will you keep ordering? Maybe? Maybe not. After all, you’re on a budget and you’re saving pennies, and this one looks just like the one that your friend bought at that craft show last week, even if it isn’t quite the same size or detail.

online-craft-shopping

Imagine discovering your work had been stolen…

I’m in a Facebook group too. Full of women who are avid crafters just like you, only they turned their passion into designing products, creating a brand, and figuring out how to bring those items to market.

These women (yes, there’s a few men in there, too) mostly come from North America, UK, Europe, and are all very well-known craft-brand owners and manufacturers. 

Daily they are sharing links to shops on online retailer AliExpress letting each other know they’ve spotted something belonging to someone else in the group and struggling to work out how their products, the designs they imagined, created and brought to life are listed on all these shops hosted by a giant Chinese selling platform. 

They didn’t sell the design to anyone else. How could this be? They designed everything, down to the packaging from scratch in their country, and yet that exact same image is listed for sale by someone else in a different country. Heck, sometimes even the samples they made for an Instagram post are on there with the counterfeit product listing. What can they do?

A losing battle for craft-brand owners and manufacturers

Finding a counterfeit version of your brand on AliExpress, Wish or other such platforms, well, it’s a bit like getting a bad health diagnosis for someone you care deeply about. You get mad, you get a bit scared, you even feel utterly hopeless. Why me? It’s not fair! You feel violated. Eventually, many of these brand owners give up. They admit defeat and pretty much accept that they can’t stop it. 

But after a while of sitting back and doing nothing, these brand owners start to see the impact is starting to have real consequences on their brand. Retailers can’t sell the brand in shops because consumers are buying similar stuff from China. Distributors lower their orders from the brand because the shops aren’t buying. You still have the same overheads, and sales volumes are dropping. As a brand, you design and manufacture less in response to the lower demand. How long can you carry this? You have to take action to turn this around. 

These people are desperately trying to work out how their product is suddenly listed on these platforms for absolute pennies. The only difference is her brand logo is missing. The price is way less than she can produce it for, way less than the price she pays her supplier (if she doesn’t manufacture herself). 

Discovering my products had been turned into knockoffs

I watched for two years, waiting for us to be next, knowing that one day our brand would fall victim. And then it happened. About 18 months ago, just before we left for the biggest annual PaperCraft trade show in the world, I received an email with a link to one of our products listed on AliExpress. ‘Isn’t this yours?’ Ugh. I felt ill. Now what? That was January 2019. 

Having visited the same trade show in 2020 I can tell you, every die manufacturer had significantly smaller stands and dies being shown as a category were about one-third of the size compared to a year earlier. Scrapbooking, which used to be the dominant part of the show almost all gone – there were only a handful of paper companies showing products. So, expect a lot less choice from international brands if dies and paper are your thing! 

paperartsy-product
PaperArtsy – Jofy

To the bigger question… what can these companies do to protect their brand from being copied illegally?

Western brands increasingly outsource production to China, but not always, or not everything. We don’t. Everything at PaperArtsy we design and manufacture in house, in the UK. We don’t outsource any part of the production process – we press, trim and package all our own stamps, bottle our paints and laser cut our stencils. Our pigment infusions are our own recipe that we blend. This is how we’ve worked for the past 17 years – everything done in our workshop. We also take care of all the imagery for marketing – no leaks, nothing can get ‘out’. 

Last year we did the usual ostrich thing and ignored the problem until March 2019. We looked at all the links we’d now acquired, probably 50 or so and getting worse by the day. Old products from years back were listed as well as brand new. There was no logic except that designs that were easy to trace were hit harder than our vintage, very detailed imagery. You find one item, and that leads to more. We kept reporting. 

Out of the blue I saw an advert about an event in London hosted by Alibaba Group (the parent company of Ali Express) – the topic? Intellectual Property Protection. Perfect. We had lot of questions, so we went.

I’d always assumed that the counterfeit stuff from China was a surplus, the manufacturer making more copies of a product than the western company ordered, and someone selling those items. But they were selling OUR stuff, and we don’t get ANYTHING made in China, so that theory went out the window. 

How are products are stolen?

We now know that they used our new product announcements or links from online sources (blog, Pinterest, Instagram, etc.), lifted the image, traced it (badly!) and then advertised their knock off product. In June 2019 we released new items daily, and within less than 24 hours many of those items were listed on AliExpress! We couldn’t believe how fast they moved. Devastating. It was clear we were a sitting duck, an easy target.

Smaller businesses closing down because they can’t compete

In my manufacturers Facebook group, one company told us she’s closing down “AliExpress is the final straw,” she said, “Our sales have been decimated to the point that we can’t continue.” We all commiserated, and the elephant in the room was ‘Who’s next? How many of us will still be trading in another 12 months?’

Their websites pitch their products exclusively to western consumers. Generally, that’s where the unbranded craft items you order come from. Like Amazon, AliExpress is not one shop, but millions of retailers using the platform to sell. These Chinese retailers can list their goods free, pay no sales commission, and the freight is cheaper than normal because as a ‘developing nation’ they get rates below any we can achieve here in the UK.

It’s not just Chinese sites that are guilty of selling knockoffs – we can all name western brands that have knocked off other western brands and that is the same offence. In fact, we’ve also seen UK brands caught out for using source materials to create a product that they didn’t get permission to use – this also is wrong.

paperartsy-lynne-perrella-collection
PaperArtsy –Lynne Perrella Collection

Protecting your Intellectual Property (IP) is essential

Here’s the thing. If you bring a unique design to market – a stamp, a paper pattern, or whatever it is – and if you want to sell that item commercially, and you can prove the idea is yours, inherently you have copyright over that item by default by being the creator of it. 

BUT if you want to protect that Intellectual Property (IP), then it’s your responsibility to register the design with an official registration company, for example Copyright House, at the point of initial publication. 

If you take that simple step, then if anyone creates a knockoff, you’ll be able to produce a certificate, with a date confirming the IP is yours and the counterfeit will immediately be removed from any platform, no questions asked, because you can prove ownership.

Cleaning up all breaches

That’s how we cleaned up all breaches of our IP off hundreds of AliExpress shops. It seems that there are a handful of bad manufacturers in China who are specifically targeting western brands in the papercrafting sector and lifting their imagery to produce counterfeits. These suppliers in turn are selling the counterfeits to hundreds of small retailers who then list them on AliExpress. 

How do we know this? The funny thing is that when you report one item, often the seller will complain that you are unfairly targeting them – and share with you a list of another 27 retailers who are selling the exact same item! Thank you very much. It saves a lot of time when you can report 27 shops on the back of one slightly annoyed retailer. So, it seems that the actual seller might not even realise that what they’re buying is pirated. 

After three months of meticulous reporting and following trails we cleaned everything off AliExpress. We’ve not seen anything new on there, which suggests the manufacturer knows we’re all over them and they’ve moved away from us onto other brands. They KNOW not to go near us! Fantastic!

designer

Mission: spread the word that you CAN stop and prevent counterfeit issues

For the past 12 months, my mission has been to share with other papercraft manufacturers that it IS possible to not only stop but prevent listings going up. How is prevention possible? Remember the Alibaba seminar we attended in London last year? The Chinese government wants evidence from Alibaba that they are doing all they can to keep their platform safe for consumers to buy products that are legitimate. They want to shut down bad actors – shops, suppliers and manufacturers. 

Alibaba – helping to get listings removed quickly

Alibaba has partnered with IACC (a global independent Anti Copyright Organisation) to provide a free (subsidised directly by Alibaba) hand-holding service to help companies like us get listings removed fast. Not only does the software get pirated products removed from the platform, but the more companies who are reporting bad AE stores, the sooner their software learns who the repeat offenders are, and it actually prevents them from adding new or repeat listings going up too. A bad actor cannot re-list the offending item, thus shutting down their income. 

This hand-holding programme is called ‘Market Safe’ and any manufacturer can join free for 12 months. In that period, IACC will train you on how to do your own takedowns and how to protect your IP properly. IACC also has the power to report to police around the world information they have regarding brand infringement.

For example, when they get to the source of who’s supplying all these stores with counterfeit goods, they can pass on that information so that authorities can raid a premise, and arrest, and charge the supplier. At the seminar we were shown footage of these arrests – contrary to what you might think, copyright law in China is very strict and there are severe consequences for acting in such a way.

Referring more and more companies

In March 2019, until we attended the seminar in London, neither Alibaba nor IACC knew the papercraft sector existed, nor that it had such a widespread problem. In the past 10 months they’ve been acting swiftly with all the manufacturers who are now on board the market safe programme. We continue to refer more companies to the programme and we expect that over the next six months we WILL see other manufacturers in the sector start to get results like we’ve had.

Also, in the works are talks between craft manufacturers, IACC and Facebook to expose secret/private FB groups who are widely sharing, ordering, selling direct, and in general, promoting Chinese counterfeit sellers on AliExpress and other platforms.

I know here in the UK we’ve seen other counterfeit issues occurring between UK companies who seem to all too readily copy each other, or use imagery they don’t have permission to use for commercial use, and as I said earlier, it’s not OK. 

What it all boils down to is companies and individuals MUST protect their IP as soon as they bring a new idea to market through certification. That evidence gives any designer/manufacturer the upper hand to protect their IP legally and directly challenge and hold any other party to account who attempts to breach copyright on any pre-existing designs.

What you choose to buy, and where from makes a difference!

Find out more about PaperArtsy on the PaperArtsy website or on Facebook at PaperArtsy


Read more on counterfeit crafting and how it’s destroying our craft industry or if you’re exploring the idea of starting your own cardmaking business and keeping this wonderful craft going, check out our guide on how to make cards to sell.