Tuesday, November 26, 2013

License Infringement

Because I had been on Etsy (with an entirely different product than what I do with Bourgeois Baby) years ago- shortly after Etsy was just initially gaining some momentum on the internet- I had been very aware of a lot of the no-no's small handcraft businesses were doing.  These things, for whatever reason, stuck with me- not because I was doing them- but because I was surprised other people were.

A huge legal no-no is selling product using licensed images or characters by other companies.  And you see it all the time.  It drives me bat shit crazy, actually, for several reasons. But before I go on, what is considered licensed images or characters?  Think Disney characters (from the originals all the way to movie characters in Pixar films), Sanrio's Hello Kitty, Thomas and Friends, etc.  Large corporations own the sole rights to these characters and do sell certain rights for other manufacturers to make merchandise, they do legally pursue companies who use these characters without permission.  And I can tell you that virtually no small handcrafted business can afford the licensing fees.  Many of these small handcrafters buy their materials retail, which does mean they can buy things with these images legally- but for personal use only.  Making another product with these licensed images and then selling them for a profit is illegal.  And these companies have come down on small business people on Etsy and the like.

Here's a very common example I often see: A small business owner makes little girls hair accessories.  A big seller are the Hello Kitty hair bows and barrettes.  And of course they sell well!  Hello Kitty is very popular, the ribbon with her image is readily available almost anywhere you can buy ribbon, and the person making them shops at her local chain craft store.  Each bow may cost her less than a dollar in ribbon, and factoring in labor, etc, she charges around $5 per hair bow or clip.  No biggie, right?

Ya, it is to Sanrio!  I'd imagine that all they need to do is have their legal team write up an official cease and desist letter- but they could potentially sue for license infringement and fees on sold products to date.  This will crush a small business.

So- besides the fact that this is a no-no for the reasons states above- I have problems with it beyond that.  Here are those reasons:
  • It makes other handcrafted businesses look cheesy when, in fact, there is nothing cheesy or cheap about handcrafted products.  Handcrafted products are a labor of love.  Detail and care was put into EACH item made.  For instance, every fabric layer, every stitch, every label....you name the part of any of my products- has been painstakingly cut, sewn, pressed, packaged, etc by my own hands.  Other than a sewing machine- there is human touch and work put into every piece.  I take huge pride in this, and when I see handcrafted using materials that are not legit to resell- it is so irritating!
  • It makes handcrafted business owners look uneducated.  When you started a small business, didn't you do research first?  Did you look up laws pertaining your items, read different forums to get an idea of your market?  I am always surprised to see that some people do next to nothing to set up selling their wares and think that is all there is to it.  I did months of research, learning all sorts of retail and wholesale aspects of small business, not to mention as much legal stuff I could get my hands on.  Why would I put all the blood, sweat, and tears into this endeavor to have it threatened by some legal snafu?
  • It provides no individual creativity.  When I think of handcrafted- no matter the type of product- I think of some type of creative angle to it.  Coming up with products using someone else's (or company's) image or character really isn't that difficult.
  • It may hurt your competitors.  Now, when anyone (including myself) starts a business of any kind- we want to be the best.  We want to be THE place for the widget or whatever it is you sell.  Of course, other people sell widgets, too, and we want to outsell them.  That is business in a capitalist society, after all.  But I do think handcrafted is special.  The market we sell to is much smaller than traditional retail.  However, there is a place for all of us.  I really do believe that. Handcrafted often has something different to offer.  But when the business next to you is selling similar items but with these very popular images- what do people go to?  They go to the familiar.  And buying the illegal, licensed product hurts the handcrafted business who has the very cute hair bow with a kitty image that is not Hello Kitty.  And when the familiar licensed image is sold as "handcrafted", the real handcrafted original item gets the shaft.  These businesses may think they are helping the handcrafted movement because they are moving product made by them with illegal images and therefore getting handcrafted into more people's hands, they are really doing a disservice to handcrafted business in general.
I recently exhibited at the Boston Christmas Festival.  I loved it.  It was busy, but I got to meet lots of talented artisans and handcrafters.  Bourgeois Baby products had made their way into more markets than the southern NH area (even Germany and Iceland!!).  It was my first year there, and as part of the application process, I had to prove my worthiness to be in their show.  So it was disheartening to me to see these types of products in some of the booths.

Of course, I don't go telling the people who sell these items all of this.  I don't feel it would be proper etiquette of me to introduce myself, my business, and then follow it up with "By the way, you know that selling these Hello Kitty hair bows are illegal, right?"  Perhaps they really don't know....but I also don't want to make any business enemies. 

I guess this is why blogs are a good thing- I can just vent it all out here.  And as far as my Hello Kitty example- I am just using that one as it seems to be the easiest to make the point.  I am not writing this post with any specific business or person in mind- there are so many of them out there I don't actually remember any by name.

And on that note- /vent.  Much happier to have gotten that out!

For an update on this post, go here.