The recent January Furniture Show provided an excellent opportunity for Chinese copyists to use it as an inspirational supermarket, thinking they had bagged the latest new furniture designs, trends and launches on their cameras. But not for long! When the couple approached ACID member CIMC with a selection of their own products in a Chinese catalogue, CIMC staff immediately recognised them, and the company’s speedy reportage to the ACID team resulted in the duo’s swift removal by the show organisers. The exhibition organisers discovered and destroyed around 1800 images, and the culprits were expelled from the exhibition. 

As if launching a new product or bringing a new furniture design range to market doesn’t have enough challenges – the copying and counterfeiting of products has developed into one of the most insidious forms of crime across all design disciplines, so it’s even more important to ensure that exhibitors have a proactive intellectual property (IP) strategy to help protect and prevent knock-offs. 

Sending a clear message of deterrence to those who go deliberately to exhibitions to copy and steal ideas is an important element in any business strategy. A good start is to create a page about IP on your company’s website – translated into several different languages, this can provide a strong warning shot, just like a 24-hour burglar alarm.

Dongguan Guanding appeared to be well organised – enough to have produced a relatively high-quality brochure from which to try and sell their unlawful ranges. Displaying images or selling products that are not owned by the originator is against the law, as is direct selling if not an official exhibitor, which is against the terms and conditions of exhibiting. Since the 2014 IP Act, spearheaded by an ACID campaign, an intentional infringement of a UK-registered design is now a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.  

So what can be done to bolster prevention and deterrence against IP theft?

Firstly, vigilance – spot the lens! Copyists often have shoulder bags with a camera running as they walk the floors. At hip height, this provides the ideal wide-angle lens from which to photograph everything in sight. A quick edit back at base, and new designs can be sent across the world in seconds and mass produced in an equally brief time. Conscience about what is outright theft is non-existent. 

Next is the banning of unauthorised photography. Take control of who photographs your designs and, if you agree to their request, note their contact details. Only allow authorised photography, and if it’s a problem, insist that organisers support you. After all, exhibitors pay thousands to rent stand space and exhibition organisers build their reputations on their innovation (we thought the January Furniture Show team were excellent, but then they are an ACID-Accredited exhibition organiser!).

Remember to protect your most important asset. Many companies have a person from their team dedicated to understanding and looking after their IP, and this is something that ACID not only encourages but can actively support, by providing an IP strategy review and recommendations to become ‘IP healthy’. Exhibitions can provide a unique opportunity to get in front of genuine design buyers, so taking a few steps to ensure you protect any new designs against being copied will pay dividends. 

Make sure IP theft doesn’t happen to you – a proactive IP strategy is a must in the 21st century, and prevention is certainly better than cure.

Dids Macdonald OBE is the chief executive of Anti Copying in Design (ACID), the UK’s leading membership and campaigning organisation for design and IP, supporting a safer trading environment. She is also vice-chair  of the Alliance for IP.