NikeKnockOff.jpgLast week attorney and EE Rick Abegglen talked to my local IEEE Section about trademarks. 


Most of us have stories about components purchased from brokers appearing genuine but turning out to be fake.  A few years ago I worked with a company that purchased ICs that turned out to have no die inside.  The guys on The Amp Hour told of transistors that appeared to have the correct I-V curves but when they opened the package, counterfeiters had replaced the transistor with a smaller-package transistor.  You don't notice the problem until you need to dissipate power. 


Partly because how bad enforcement is, I assumed the process of applying to get a trademark in foreign countries would filled with red tape and graft.  It turns out that while many countries don't enforce trademark laws well, the application process operates mostly above-board.  The reason for this is everything is done in writing, making it harder to operate on bribes. 


Even the level of red tape is improving thanks to international agreements.  The idea of a trademark goes back to preindustrial times, when a grain producer would be authorized to use a unique stamp indicating its origin.  In 1883 the Paris Convention was established to handle international trademarks.  Member countries are required to accept foreign trademark applications on the same basis as applications from their own citizens.  Applicants still have to deal with the vastly different rules for each country, but member countries can't count the nationality of the applicants against them. 


knock-off-2.jpgIn 1989 the Madrid Protocol reduced the complexity of filing for patents in multiple countries.  Citizens of Madrid Protocol signatories can apply for a patent in their own country and then apply for “international registration”.  International registration means that each member country in which they apply has 18 months to object to granting the trademark.  If they fail to object, the applicant gets the trademark in that country.  There are a few drawbacks to filing under the Madrid Protocol, but it's much cheaper and easier than filing in each country directly.


Rick provided the photos in this article.  He got them from his students, so except for the one from The New York Times he has no way to know which ones are bona fide knockoffs (if that's not an oxymoron) and which ones are jokes.  He says blatant errors don't stand out as much to people who usually operate in Chinese characters.  Even if they have basic proficiency in English or another language that uses a Latin-based alphabet, changing one character may not be obvious to them.  The subtle changes do not make it not a violation of the trademark.  Someone intent on misusing a trademark might as well make the best forgery possible.