If you’ve ever wandered into an independent bookshop or specialty retailer and discovered a rack of socks with fun designs, proclaiming things like “I’m a Delicate Fucking Flower” or “Quiet I’m Introverting,” those are products made by Blue Q, a Pittsfield, MA company whose motto is We just want you to be happy. At the very least, something in their line of socks, oven mitts, dish towels, personal care products, or bags will probably make you smile. Or more to the point, when you discover Blue Q’s stuff, you’re likely to think, “I know exactly who needs this.” And that’s the whole idea.
This year’s World IP Day focuses on small and midsize enterprises (SMEs) and the role intellectual property plays in these important ventures. Small businesses generate approximately 44% of U.S. economic activity, and COVID-related job loss has spawned new entrepreneurial ventures, many of which are apt to rely on one or more type of intellectual property. For instance, Blue Q owns hundreds of copyrights in the graphic designs that appear on its sassy and sardonic products, and that IP is the foundation of a thriving, fun, diverse, and highly supportive place to work. After all, how dour and corporate can you be while shipping out products with statements like “This Meeting is Bullshit”?
Accidentally in the Gift Business
“We were originally going to make home lighting fixtures,” says co-founder Seth Nash, who was looking to start a business with his brother Mitch in 1988. “We rented a studio in Boston, and we happened to have this cardboard cat on the floor that we made by cutting out a photograph from a print ad for the Canon Cat word processor and then backing the image with cardboard and attaching a little easel to it so it would stand up. All our friends who came over to look at our lighting ideas kept saying how real the cat looked.”
And that led to what Nash calls the “stupid idea” to make a bunch of cutout cats, which they could sell and then invest the proceeds into the lighting business. The brothers tracked down the photographer, Manny Denner, who had shot the Canon ads and bought the license for one of the outtake photos, which Nash says Denner was happy to sell cheap because he thought the cat idea was so dumb. “We printed 40,000 and took them to the New York Stationery Show, and suddenly, we were in the gift business, we just didn’t realize it yet.” It wasn’t long before Seth and Mitch quit their jobs to answer phones and fulfill the number of orders they were getting for the product they had dubbed “Flat Cat.” It was the only product for the first 6–8 months of the business, and today, visitors to the Blue Q website can download materials and instructions to make their own “Flat Cat” or “Flat Fido.”
Thirty years later, Blue Q employs sixty-five people working in an airy, music-filled environment, and about twenty percent of the staff comprises persons with disabilities who work in assembly and packaging. The company offers profit-sharing, 401K plans, and health insurance; and a percentage of its sales from three product categories—socks, bags, and kitchen accessories—are converted into donations to Doctors Without Borders, The Nature Conservancy and other environmental initiatives, and hunger relief programs throughout the world. And everyone in the company is involved in the creative process.
First the Words
Much like TV writers’ rooms, Blue Q wordsmiths gather for summits to kick around ideas until they come up with long lists of aphorisms, epigrams, and zingers they think consumers might enjoy, selecting an average two phrases for every fifty to go into production. Meanwhile, the company is constantly searching the work of contemporary artists whose styles might complement the new copy and the product offerings for an upcoming season. “Nearly all the artwork is done by independent artists located all over the world,” says Bill Wright, company photographer and second in charge of operations. “It’s a marriage between the creative artist, the creative writer, and then everyone in the company gathering and seeing what goes best together.”
“Using outside artists wasn’t always our model,” says Nash, “but we realized that working with independent artists is the best way to keep the line fresh and flexible.” To support this process, Blue Q enters into a variety of license, royalty, and work-made-for-hire agreements, which means that although they are almost always the rightsholder of the final designs, there is usually an independent artist counting on the success of the products for part of her income.
Blue Q’s off-beat, occasionally foul-mouthed, but always lighthearted products sell to over 5,000, mostly independent, retailers in the U.S. and Canada, and the company sells internationally via distributors in multiple markets overseas. Although quirky design with attitude is what attracts Blue Q’s customers, it’s the quality of the products themselves that keeps them. These are not one-off gag gifts. The pair of socks with the private little joke hiding behind your cuffs also happens to be quite comfortable because Blue Q’s designs are woven into quality foot ware rather than printed onto cheap fabric.
“Socks began for us in 2013, and that was the category that really put us at the big kids’ table as a company,” says Paul Boulais, who works in sales. “They really increased demand from retailers for the Blue Q brand.” At the same time, however, socks are a category that is particularly vulnerable to counterfeiting via eCommerce platforms because it’s so easy to download and copy the designs and then print on-demand to make a quick buck at low volume. “You can’t easily copy one of our bags and sell those at low volume and make money,” says Nash, “but cheap, poor-quality socks are really easy to make and fulfill five at a time, if you want.”
As one would expect, Blue Q counterfeits are almost always produced and sold by Chinese operators, hosting retail “storefronts” on Amazon, eBay, Alibaba, etc. They invariably use Blue Q’s product shots, offering knockoffs at a fraction of the retail price, and quite often, the customer believes they’re buying the real thing. “Without a lengthy, expensive process,” says Boulais, “we don’t have the power to stop these people who ship counterfeits to Amazon, which then fulfills the orders. The customer thinks they’re getting something legit, and then what shows up is a very poor facsimile. And then we get negative feedback for it.”
Fortunately, Blue Q has two advantages when it comes to dealing with the potential PR fallout caused by counterfeits. The first is its base of loyal customers who “deputize themselves as IP agents,” reporting counterfeits the company does not have the time and resources to discover on its own. The second is a policy of making customers happy, like the motto says. “Even though we may not have been the ones to make you unhappy, we don’t want you to walk away and think anything bad about Blue Q,” Boulais says. “But Nash adds, “if they don’t already know Blue Q, it’s unfortunate. Socks are not a very expensive item, so customers don’t always know they’ve bought a knockoff. It’s worth it to make someone happy who’s been bamboozled, but we have to know about it.”
Because the vast majority of Blue Q’s business is wholesale—deep B2B relationships with brick-and-mortar retailers—they don’t see counterfeiting in the B2C online retail environment as a major threat to their bottom line. But that doesn’t mean they let it go. “We don’t want it to get out of hand and spread,” says Nash, “so we do spend considerable time, effort, and money shutting down infringements as we discover them.” In collaboration with their attorney,* Blue Q devotes resources just about every month to filing takedown notices or sending Cease & Desist letters to counterfeiters. And some of the most galling ones, Boulais notes, are the copyists who try to pass off Blue Q’s products as their own. “Just do your own thing, man,” he says, “We put a lot of time into coming up with that.”
And that is why copyright is essential for a company like Blue Q to exist at all. There is no IP that protects the idea of making products with fun designs and smart-ass comments on them. There is no trade secret to protect in the business model. No IP protects the capital or sweat investments themselves. And any good copyright nerd knows you generally may not copyright short phrases. Only the copyrights in the complete pictorial works gives Blue Q the exclusive right to exploit the output from their investments, and without that, the entire operation—which is clearly a major economic driver—simply would not exist. So, as far as my socks are concerned, “IP is No Bullshit for SMEs.”
 U.S. Small Business Association 2019.
*I happen to know Blue Q through their attorney, who is a personal friend.