The Knockoff Economy - Knock Off Week


There are two ways to view imitation — one is that it’s flattery, the other is that it’s straight up stealing.

Which knocks off which?
Courtesy of Chris Ssk

In the increasingly complex and integrated global community, the way innovation translates to commercialization has become what some are deeming a “knockoff economy,” a marketplace that thrives on replication. At first thought, no one wants their work to be copied – particularly when credit isn’t always given – but law professors Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman have noticed that there are in fact many perks to the art of reproduction.

In their book, The Knockoff Economy, Raustiala and Sprigman researched a variety of creative and business ventures, from “fashion to finance to font design,” uncovering ways that knockoffs benefit creators and consumers alike. On their website, they identify issues cropping up in this new fiscal community. Not surprisingly, a lot of conflict has been sparked within the tech branch, as patent wars have been ongoing since the beginning of the PC. Other dilemmas veer more towards the absurd. Now that there is technology to monitor copyright infringers, more eyes are paid to watch, and just about anyone can get caught.

“The estate of William Faulkner is suing Sony Pictures for its use of a famous line from Faulkner in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris,” Raustiala and Sprigman describe in a post on November 7. “The Faulkner estate’s claim rests on the idea that since this is a commercial use, it is not ‘fair use’ to employ the quote in the film. Fair use is a legal doctrine that allows some copying that comports with certain criteria.”

They continue, “What’s most interesting is that one of the four enumerated factors in a fair use analysis ‘the effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.’ Does Woody Allen’s use of a (misquoted) line from Faulkner raise or lower the value of Faulkner’s original work? The effect is surely very close to zero, but to the degree there is an effect, it is much more probable that it is positive.”

It’s a seemingly ridiculous legal battle that has become common in the knockoff economy because everyone is so poised for battle. Beyond illegal use of creative mediums like music, photography, and literature, or those frequent computer replicas, knockoffs are also thriving among basic commodities. There was already a black market for faux designer handbags and fake Oakleys, but with an even bigger marketplace online, cheap imitations are sold in abundance.

Nevertheless, according to Raustiala and Sprigman, it can be quite beneficial. In an interview with Time, the authors specifically addressed knockoffs in the fashion world.

“There are a couple of different things going on that make copying and creativity run together very nicely,” Sprigman points out. “One is that copying helps to set trends. We see a popular design copied and modified in a way that helps us to recognize that this is a trend. Then, as the copying is done more and more and more, it helps to kill the trend: When the trend gets over-copied, the fashion-forward people drop it and move on to the next thing. Copying is actually the fuel that runs the fashion cycle, and by making the fashion cycle go faster, it helps the apparel industry sell more stuff. Another thing copying does is communicate to us what’s in style.”

What appears to be critical in making positive use of the knockoff economy then is to consider the various applications of an idea, and the role others have played in the process. As Sprigman notes, very few people are true “pioneers,” but rather “tweakers” of innovation. While one person may have been the actual inventor, it is often those who perfect the design and “build on existing advances,” who gain the most attention and earn credit. He uses Thomas Edison as a prime example of such phenomena.

Sprigman writes on, “One great example is one Mark Lemley has written about: Edison and the lightbulb. Edison is popularly valorized as a great pioneer, but Mark notes that there were no fewer than a dozen lightbulbs already. Edison’s great contribution was to ‘[find] a bamboo fiber that worked as a filament in the lightbulb developed by Sawyer and Mann, who in turn built on lighting work done by others.’ One could say the same about Steve Jobs, whom The New Yorker‘s Malcolm Gladwell recently called, ‘the greatest tweaker of his generation.’”

In Raustiala and Sprigman’s perspective, knockoffs are integral to the creative process and to innovation in all fields. We advance as a society because we learn from our past, and improve upon what’s already around. From restaurant menus and recipes that are shared across social networks to the way that Romeo & Juliet was adapted into West Side Story, advancement depends upon an initial copying of the original.

A final word taken from their book, “When we think of innovation, we usually picture the lonely genius toiling away until he finally has his ‘aha!’ moment. But in fact, innovation is often an incremental, collective, and competitive process. The ability to build on existing creative work is critical to the creation of new and better innovations.”