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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Fakes rule


Sunanda K Datta-Ray  |  New Delhi 

The demand is soaring. But can political pressure help dismantle supply?
A Mancunian mill manager made a revealing confession when I wore a dhoti for the Lord Mayor of Manchester's reception for overseas students in the early 1950s. Recognising my "dooty" (as he called it), he said his mill used to make them to look like homespun during "Gandy's" movement. He also exported to West Africa coarse brightly printed cloth whose colours ran into each other like local wood block printed textile.
So much then for today's sacred cow of There has never been anything sacred about them. There's little the Business Standard editor or I can do effectively if another newspaper or an Internet site decides to republish this article without so much as a by-your-leave. It happens quite often. Some publications "" not, I hasten to add, this one "" even sell reproduction rights they don't themselves own. Every so often I am told of my by-line appearing in some distant publication in Seoul or Seattle that I haven't heard of.
Of course, the courts are open for redress. But it's adding insult to injury to suggest an individual can sue a foreign corporate entity in an international court for one piece of writing. The law may not be an ass, citing Mr Bumble, but it is fearfully expensive and extremely time-consuming. It isn't for the poor. Or those who need quick justice. I wonder sometimes whether justice comes into it at all.
Sanctimonious claims of British rectitude ever since the Statute of Monopolies was adopted in 1624 also reek of dissimulation. Even before the long-dead Manchester mill manager gave the lie to that pious claim, the English themselves coined the phrase "Benares brass made in Birmingham" to boast of their cleverness. Another phrase, "Not worth a Continental", referred to the thousands and thousands of dollars of counterfeit banknotes with which Britain flooded Continental America during the War of Independence to subvert its economy.
It happened again during the when fakes accounted for nearly half the currency. But Britain may not have been the criminal. Forgery was not difficult with 1,600 American banks issuing their own notes and 7,000 kinds of real notes in circulation.
With their background, the Americans should chuckle over the "Made in USA" joke about clothes stitched at the But their vital interests are at stake as an Indian cottage industry, turned into Chinese big business, seems to be moving with the wind to Eastern Europe. Some 600,000 counterfeit items of clothes, shoes, cigarettes, drinks, CDs and DVDs have been seized in the Czech Republic alone.
Meanwhile, China is emulating what Macaulay called the ridiculous spectacle of the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality. Thanks to that, it has been theoretically possible since early December to tell one Chinese abroad from another simply by attire. The provincial government of Jilin in the north-east bordering North Korea and Russia has sternly warned people not to wear counterfeit brands overseas. If the shoes are not genuine Bally, then the woman isn't genuinely from Jilin. Even the postal system is strictly watched to prevent duplicates sent abroad.
"Infringement of in importing and exporting seriously damages the government's image," say the authorities. It does even greater damage to the pockets of international manufacturers whose ability to exert political pressure explains Jilin's sudden rectitude. Jilin is not the first province to be overcome by piety. Sichuan, bordered by Tibet, the Three Gorges and the Yangtze river, has been there already. Customs in Chengdu, the capital, recently seized a haul of 58 fake Coach, Louis Vuitton, Juicy Couture and Gucci goods bound for retailers in the United States, Japan and Britain. Pockets are hurt when a potentially huge Chinese market succumbs to fakes. But pride is hurt even more when existing European and American customers turn to Chinese copies of French and Italian fashion items.
That is when manufacturers pressure their own governments to pressure China. Last year, a formidable alliance of Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Burberry, Prada and Chanel sued Beijing's Xiushui Market (known for selling brand forgeries like Istanbul's Covered Bazaar or Fancy Market in Calcutta) and won the case. The Xiushui Market was ordered to stop violating property rights.
This outcome was only possible because of China's calculated political decision. Fines of 300,000 euros at European Customs, the confiscation in France of a Chinese tourist's fake Adidas backpack and sustained Western criticism are forcing China to conform. It knows that Asian Games gold medals alone don't make a superpower: China must also play by Western rules. Officials who cover up fake products have been warned of severe punishment, and small shops ordered not to sell counterfeits.
But if the magic of the marketplace means anything, the trade will continue. With fakes costing 1 per cent of the original's price, $50 billion worth of counterfeit Benetton, Lacoste, Nike, Reebok and other brands are sold on the Internet. Demand is soaring. Supply can't lag behind. There's consolation in that thought for hack writers whom copyright piracy deprives of the chance of earning an extra penny.

First Published: Sat, December 09 2006. 00:00 IST