Eurobsit: Could you tell us about how counterfeiting has affected you?
Quibe: As an artist, I developed a minimalist style of drawing, ‘one line’, which I’ve been working on since 2012. Some of my drawings are registered trademarks in certain parts of the world (including the EU, USA and China) to protect them as intellectual property.
But in recent years, I’ve been finding my drawings featuring more and more on products for sale without my consent. Looking further into it, I found my work on loads of products: phone cases, mugs, T shirts… the counterfeiters were pushing things really far, my work was even turning up on a line of underpants. Beyond such merchandise, I’ve also found my creative work being used for marketing purposes, as deco or on pieces set out alongside a product line.
And there’s no way this can be claimed as innocent. It’s not just my recent work, but old drawings from when I was starting out, that I published on social media for fun.
In my case, it’s become so bad that it’s getting hard to promote my artistic work to potential clients, including large industrial groups looking to market one of their ranges using ‘Close’, one of my most plagiarised pieces. There are two reasons: some have told me they’re concerned about coming across as counterfeiters themselves. And because the design has turned up in all kinds of places, its rarity value has been hit.
E.: What prompted you to start this fight against plagiarism, both on the legal front and in the media?
Q.: To tell the truth, I’ve reached a dead end and I can’t keep silent any longer, because my work is now completely out of my hands. Dropshipping sites such as Alibaba offer many low-cost products featuring work of mine, eroding its distinctiveness and value. It can make people feel like the work belongs to everyone, and that you can re-use it as you please. For instance, I came across a gentleman who had been making furniture strongly inspired by my works. When I contacted him, he justified it by saying that he had seen the drawing online, that it wasn’t signed, and he thought he was free to use it. Of course, that is always possible for personal purposes. But when it comes to making money on the back of a trademarked work, the author must give their prior consent, and then a licence or transfer agreement arranged.
So, for the last 3 years, I’ve been working as best as possible alongside a lawyer, to try and contain the appalling spread of counterfeits, plagiarism and other parasitic practices I’ve fallen victim to.
A few years ago, I got in touch with a Spanish fashion designer who had created her entire collection on the back of my ‘Close’ design. She was billed to present it at Madrid Fashion Week, and I had found out about this plagiarism two days before it was due to open. My lawyer and I thought we had managed to stop the collection from being shown, but in fact it quietly went ahead anyway. In response, I filed a lawsuit in Spain. While it was a success on the legal front, it was a shock to find out that this person, who still has a career as a designer, was teaching in a fashion design school! And then, 3 or 4 months later, she tried to bring out a collection again, with the drawings adjusted or just in reverse.
E.: Is taking legal action unavoidable?
Q.: In this type of case, it’s often most effective to call on an intellectual property lawyer. Moreover, the law is not the same everywhere. For example, in France, damages are calculated in terms of how many fraudulent items have been sold. It’s not always easy to estimate that, when it comes to online sales. In the United States, it’s potential sales that count: the court takes the reputation of the accused brand into account, and estimates the number of items that it would have been able to sell when calculating the damages. It’s a certain deterrent!
So, you have to go to court in the country where the counterfeiting has been perpetrated… and that’s precisely the problem for me. I’ve been counterfeited in almost every country, but I can’t take the matter to court in all those places. I can only take steps locally, if the products are distributed in France, for instance.
To back up the work of my lawyer, I’ve filed some pieces as trademarks. Not to help me my rights, but to deter offenders from operating. This can work quite well in Europe, but it’s quite different in China or Korea…
In my case, the worst of the pandemic is mainly in China. The rise of dropshipping sites that operate with third-party shops has made things worse. A lot of westerners have opened up an e-boutique to make some money on the side, and they source their products from where they can make the best profits, namely China. To give an idea of scale, nowadays we can source telephone cases made in China for €1.50 with free delivery, and resell them for 20 to 30 euros.
We’ve filed surveillance requests to French and European customs services, so they can reinforce their controls. But we’re talking about individual packages that get lost in the huge flow of parcels customs services have to check. But the authorities are trying to hone in on culprits by paying attention to the origin of deliveries. Yet the online sales platforms are now opening logistical platforms in Europe… that isn’t going to help.
E. So who do you approach, online merchants or the third parties using them?
Q.: The entire problem is that we have to approach the platform. We can’t directly attack the third parties operating on it. Personally, I must have now made almost a thousand online complaints to the Alibaba Group platforms for intellectual property infringement. I could never have gone individually after all of the six or seven hundred shops in question.
It’s all the more complex in that these shops often close down very quickly once a complaint has been launched… only to open again a few days later using a very similar name, which may only be different by a single letter. And if the name changes, you have to make a new complaint. It’s endless!
As for platforms such as Alibaba, they generally shield themselves by way of their host platform status to dodge responsibility. They are generally pretty slow to react.
In any case, legal cases are very long and that can put off many artists. You have to have the offence certified by a bailiff, you have to send a letter of formal notice to the counterfeiter, you have to come to an agreement… My first legal dispute was against a French brand that acknowledged in writing that it had usurped by drawing. But it still took over 10 months to come to an amicable agreement.
Fortunately, some solidarity has emerged, and social media communities are flagging up the various cases of fraud to me. It’s particularly useful because it quickly becomes a full-time job to fight this battle… and it hurts your artistic output.