Let's Talk About Knockoffs in the Photo Industry.

The "borrowing of designs" has always been a part of the photo gear industry. But lately, it has spread to the point where it is much more ubiquitous—including by companies who previously would not have been caught dead knocking off another company's gear.

The imitations are usually cheaper. (Otherwise why bother, right?) But for for photographers who are presumably sensitive to intellectual property rights, this gets a little more complex.

And ethics notwithstanding, there is another long-term downside to the copycats…

First, some conventions. By knockoffs, I am generally talking about a piece of gear that duplicates the main functionality of a unique, previously existing piece of gear. I'm not talking about the second manufacturer to make a light stand, or shoot-through umbrella. We're talking the near instantaneous copycatting of innovative new photo gear.

Here's an example. A few years ago Paul Buff introduced an all-new category of light modifier—a sub-$100, large, parabolic umbrella lighting system which he dubbed the PLM. It was an entirely new design with a flat, 16-rib parabola. Previously, buying a large "para" had meant a 4- (or 5!) digit price tag. Not surprisingly, the new PLM sold so fast Buff could not manufacture them fast enough.

The photo industry definitely noticed. Within a couple of months, copycat parabolic umbrellas (same shape, very inexpensive) started popping up everywhere. Let alone design their own innovative gear, some copycat manufacturers could even be bothered to tool up to create the knockoffs on their own.

Some examples of PLM copycats actually shipped with Buff's logo visible on product. In other words, some gear actually being made with "borrowed" molds.

Paul Buff, predictably, went apeshit. Having caught them red-handed, he wrote scathing and public letters accusing the knockoff artists of blatant theft.

Buff, a life-long serial innovator, was already busy redesigning his PLM into v2.0 and v3.0, each of which in turn was better than its predecessor. But the damage was done, with the PLM-clone "paras" flooding the market.

But what's the harm, right? Everybody gets cheap parabolic umbrellas!

Actually the harm comes later, when Buff decides not to not to finance the next big innovation in light control out of the realization that other companies are just going to immediately knock it off. That's the long-term, hidden cost of indulging all of the knockoff manufacturers.

Do Unto Others

And it's not just the Chinese pop-up rebrand companies, either. Westcott, a long-reputable lighting modifier company (I love their double-fold umbrellas) is selling a PLM knockoff. (As is Adorama, via the Flashpoint name.)

This actually surprised and saddened me, until I realized that Westcott may have well given up the high road after its own products started getting knocked off by companies like Phottix.

Phottix is a hard company for me to figure out. Much of the company's fast growth can be attributed to knocking off the gear of other manufacturers. Notably, their "Para Pro," [Paul Buff PLM] their "Easy-Folder," [Lastolite EzyBox] and their "Easy-Up," which is a knockoff of the Westcott Apollo.

Karma's a bitch.

But most famously, Phottix copied the electronics in the PocketWizard Plus II (with their Phottix Atlas) to the point where a US court granted an injunction against their sale in the US.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: In 2011, PocketWizard filed suit against Phottix alleging two counts of patent infringement. Phottix settled the suit out of court, with terms undisclosed. In the end, Phottix never sold the Atlas in the US. Subsequent to the settlement, Phottix stopped selling it elsewhere, too. At present, the Atlas product page does not appear on Phottix' online store. (More info/Links)

Oddly, Phottix is at the same time trying to establish itself as a legitimate world brand. Which kinda-sorta makes my head explode, given their continued existence as a serial knockoff company.

I talked face-to-face to the management Phottix about my concerns. They assured me that is something they are trying to get past (really? well you could start by discontinuing the knockoffs, Phottix) and instead pointed as example to their new Odin remotes.

Here's the irony. The Odins are, by most accounts, very good remotes. And, they also appear to be actual, original work by Phottix. But how do you judge a company that rips off concept after concept and then comes out with something original and decent?

Has Phottix peed in the IP pool too much to be considered a legitimate manufacturer of original, branded gear? I am not really sure.

And what would Phottix say if another company decided to skip the R&D for a new remote and instead just ripped off the Odin? I'll bet IP would suddenly become very important to them then.

And not just to harp on Phottix and Westcott. If someone invents a new light mod product category, you can bet multiple other brands will be selling a near exact copy within six months.

So the broader question is, as photographers who are presumably sensitive to intellectual property, should we support knockoffs?

And even not considering the ethical question, how about a selfish one instead. Who is going to fund the R&D of innovative new gear if it is going to be knocked off a month later and sold on the net with impunity?

Nobody, is who. Which is why I view this as a very bad trend in the industry. Eventually, we all lose.

Is there a compromise to be had between free enterprise and intellectual property protection? How long should a company be able to sell a unique new design before seeing it on the website of a direct competitor? Ten years? Fifteen years?

Who knows. But I certainly think it should be more than a couple months.

I know what I don't want to see. I don't want to see a landscape in three years where everyone is just knocking off everyone else's stuff and there is no true innovation happening in the photo peripheral industry.

So in the meantime, I'll probably vote with my wallet and wait to see what happens.

Can of worms, officially opened. As photographers, do we give a crap about IP? Or is it "Screw innovation, I want it as cheap as possible?"

Either side, feel free to rant in the comments. Keep it civil.

(Awesome Caca Cala sewage truck via FailPost.)


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