Clothing copycats exploit DTG trend

By Hannah Jordan, Monday 19 June 2017

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Counterfeit, fake, knock-off, copy, call it what you will, it’s a burgeoning trillion-dollar global market that has touched most of us either knowingly or unknowingly at some point in our lives, and despite efforts to the contrary by international authorities there is always going to be demand.

tech-fake

Fashion garments are of course some of the most reproduced products – the greatest proportion originating in China – and some say the huge growth in the printed textile market, the increasingly affordable cost of direct-to-garment (DTG) printers and the explosion in online trading is fuelling a murky underworld on UK shores.

“There is a lot of counterfeit going on in the UK digital textile printing world – it’s a big issue,” says Mohsin Omarji, managing director of garment and textile print business Rialto Designs. 

“With the direct-to-garment market and its new digital technology you can pick up machines very cheaply now and it’s easy enough for people to stick them in a garage and set up an operation selling garments on eBay, for example. It’s a growing market but not one that everyone knows about and it’s hard to police.”

Omarji points out that the problem is not just with one-man bands but far bigger operations running under tight security. “Trading Standards needs to be knocking on doors but they obviously don’t have time. It doesn’t damage us directly, but it damages the brand and that affects the whole market,” he says.

Of course there will always be rogue traders who set up with the sole purpose of producing and making profit from counterfeit products but perhaps even more worrying is the notion that some rather unscrupulous trade printers are either copying designs whose digital files they have been entrusted with by a client or indeed are offering the design to prospective clients in order to maximise profit from it.

Omarji tells of one trade printer who put Rialto Designs’ reputation on the line; the situation arose when Omarji was carrying out a substantial print run on a line of garments for a popular high-street brand and one of his machines developed a fault leaving the firm looking for someone to outsource to. Omarji enlisted a business with whom he had previously worked, and that also did work for the same high-street brand, to finish the job. The order was completed in time and all seemed well – until products featuring the same design appeared at a wholesale outlet before they appeared in the high-street stores and at a fraction of the price. 

“They’d reprinted it for another retailer. It was lucky no action was taken against them. That’s the problem: people like that will continue to do this if no-one takes action,” he says, adding: “It was a lesson learned: if you’re outsourcing work you need to make sure they sign disclaimers saying they won’t use the designs. We have to do that with the brand owners, so we should do the same between ourselves. We need to be responsible.”

Widespread abuse

It’s a situation that digital textile equipment supplier iSub’s Simon Lymn says is not uncommon.

“Digital is offering new ways to counterfeit goods – fashionable home interiors or fashion wear – and it’s quite rife in certain textile hubs where there is a high concentration of different textile producers and printers. I’ve seen many lawsuits over various designs. 

“One of the issues is trade printers reproducing a design they agreed with another company they wouldn’t print for anyone else but then they do because these things tend to only be agreed as gentlemen’s agreements. 

“The big problem is when design agencies outsource their printing – as soon as they send their designs by whatever digital medium it is, the print house then has the design and is able to print it for another client. That’s where it gets messy because they are relying on a company to keep their intellectual property (IP) safe and not profit from it. The problem is that they know they can make a lot of money from it on the side.”

Lymn says that most cases never end up in court because they are too “muddy and long-winded” and fashion doesn’t stand still for long enough. “In fashion, people don’t have time and they will just fall out with whoever copied it and never do business again,” he explains.

Rogue businesses, he says, are easy to spot and “get under the radar” by furnishing themselves with used equipment. 

“We absolutely don’t get involved with these types of businesses and people that are selling equipment to them are not doing so with their eyes open. We sell premium brands like Epson, Roland, Mimaki, Reggiani and EFI and I’m proud to say our customers are the good ones.”

If you’ll excuse the pun, the textile trade is close-knit and nearly all to do with reputation, says Lymn, so reputable firms stay away from rogue operators because if brand owners decided to withdraw because they’ve had a whiff of counterfeiting in an area, that has an impact on the whole supply chain. 

“Quite simply, if you’re a trade printer and someone trusts you with their IP then you have to keep it safe. If you don’t you’re in the wrong job,” he states.

IP, copyright and trademark infringement is primarily enforced by Trading Standards and is a crime that, depending on its extent, can carry some hefty penalties: up to 10 years in prison and an unlimited fine on indictment to a Crown Court, or six months in prison and an unlimited fine through the magistrates courts.

The Chartered Trading Standards Institute’s lead IP officer Gavin Terry explains that reproducing designs on garments and interior fabrics could contravene a number of laws including the Trade Marks Act and Copyright, Designs and Patents Act. 

Of course it is possible, and in fact more likely, that a printer may unknowingly reproduce something, where the copyright or IP does not belong to the client, and Terry says that with registered designs and copyright cases there is a requirement to prove guilty knowledge, however infringing goods are liable to seizure and forfeiture, irrespective of guilty knowledge or not.

“Traders should seek advice from Trading Standards or the rights owner before printing,” he adds.

Indeed the BPIF’s head of legal, Nicola Langley stresses that printers should be aware of the risks and know whether their customers have the appropriate licences or permissions to reproduce the designs being requested before printing, as they could be found liable. 

“If it seems suspicious they should ask customers to provide copies of such permissions,” she explains. “Printers should also ensure that their terms and conditions have appropriate clauses so that the customer indemnifies them against any civil claims from third parties for IP infringement,” Langley adds.

Copyright law itself is quite lenient in this regard as it only requires three changes to be made to a design for it to be considered a ‘new’ design.

These changes can be so small as to be insignificant, according to fabric and wallpaper designer Vanessa Arbuthnott, who once had a collection copied and sold in-store by an interiors retailer that had previously been taken to court for copying designs.

Arbuthnott found the products were on sale for around half the price of her orginals but said she decided not to sue because of time and money and hoped that hers would survive because the copies were on inferior fabrics. Arbuthnott’s designs are rotary printed as were, she suspects, the fakes because she thinks it would currently be too expensive to reproduce her work digitally, although she says that with the price of digital coming down all the time, “it could all change in the future”. 

Others who design fabrics and wallpapers specifically for digital printing such as designers Petronella Hall and Debbie McKeegan say that copying in their market, even by major retailers, is also rife but that for independent designers it is generally a matter of “grin and bear it” because people simply don’t have the time or money to contest. Hall says printers should have a hand in protecting them.

“Digital printing companies should be checking that whoever is asking them to print something is actually the IP owner or has the rights to be using it,” she asserts, but concedes that although firms such as Spoonflower and Surface Pattern Print do ask clients to tick a box stating as much, it must be difficult to police.

It is a point backed up by McKeegan, who as well as designing her own collections, is creative director at UK digital printer for textiles and wall coverings, Digetex. 

McKeegan says copying designs is a growing problem being fuelled by “a visual and trend-led society” where so many images are now available online and developments in computer technology allow almost anything to be copied, be it watermarked or not. 

Check it out

While there will always be ‘digital print bandits’ making copies in their ‘garage factories’, she says reputable printers should make efforts to take note of what they are printing and check for licences.

“The best we have done is disable right click and drag-and-drop so images on our site can’t be copied and we also refuse to take jobs where people call and ask us to print a scanned and emailed image, unless we can see it’s their copyright or it’s in the public domain,” she explains. In the end though, she says with no official copyright registration system in the UK, it can be an almost impossible task and one that businesses don’t have time to deal with. 

The haute couture market, meanwhile, is taking steps to limit counterfeiting with brands incorporating haute-tech features into their garments, outside of the digital printing process, such as UV-printed yarns, synthetic DNA-laced security markers, invisible inks such as that launched last year by Kodak-backed eApeiron and of course the more common label holograms and QR-codes. 

More simple yet effective is where a tiny feature, indiscernible to the naked eye, is incorporated into a digital design. It is an approach being taken by numerous fashion brands according to SPGPrints worldwide commercial manager for digital textiles, Jos Nostermans.

“My feeling is that if brands do nothing there is definitely a threat there but technology also offers them possibilities to defend themselves,” he says. 

“Resolution of printers is so high now that you can hide features in the designs and you can only find them if you know where they are and you use magnification to find them. As long as the original design file hasn’t been leaked, then the design is somewhat safe with this kind of security feature,” he adds.

Nostermans says, however, that in his opinion, one of the best measures to protect against digital print counterfeiting in the fashion industry, aside from technology, lie in turnaround times.

He explains: “Some of the huge brands change collections so quickly that counterfeiters can’t possibly copy, print and distribute fast enough. That’s why I think we are seeing many European brands moving production of their digital printed products closer to the end-customer, basically moving production back to European countries and the same is starting in the US.”

If this trend continues in the fashion industry, perhaps then UK digital textile printers could begin to benefit indirectly from the complex and seemingly unscrupulous counterfeit trade by becoming part of a move by brands to stamp it out. 

Ultimately as Nostermans says: “A printed item is more than just the print and in textiles it’s even more important, it’s about the quality of the fabric. By using very high-quality fabrics brands can differentiate themselves from someone who has a great printer but inferior fabric”. 

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