IP Skeptic Doctorow Notices a Problem

Last week, Cory Doctorow reported on Boing Boing that Amazon has a growing counterfeit products problem on its hands due to a change in company policy that allows Chinese suppliers to sell direct on the platform, bypassing domestic importers. If accurate, the issue itself is not very surprising. What is surprising is that Doctorow does not acknowledge—at least not in this article—that the counterfeit outbreak he describes is an inevitable result of the anti-IP agenda he has personally supported for years.

At some point, one must toss that copy of The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace into the digital dumpster and accept that the internet is not a magical cornucopia whose bounty will flow only so long as it operates beyond the legal limits of the physical world. To the contrary, the virtual increasingly has significant influence on the tangible. Doctorow describes the following:

“In late 2015, there were a spate of warnings about knockoff sex toys on Amazon made from toxic materials that you really didn’t want to stick inside your body. Now this has metastasized into every Amazon category. Sometimes its clothes and other goods that have weird sizing, colors, or poor construction. Sometimes its goods that generate no complaints, but are priced so low that the legit manufacturers can’t compete, and end up pulling out of Amazon or going bust.

Or it can be the worst of both worlds: super-cheap goods that make it impossible for legit manufacturers to compete, coupled with low-quality knockoffs that generate strings of one-star reviews from pissed off customers, meaning that even if the fakes were chased off the service, the sales will never come back.”

Sound familiar? Doctorow observes that Amazon is making money on transactions that may defraud—or even endanger—consumers while simultaneously causing permanent economic harm to legitimate suppliers. Isn’t that what many of us have been saying would happen when IP rights are not enforced online—that the “free culture” fiesta would extend beyond the supposed “harmlessness” of media piracy and eventually manifest as physical goods that can maim, poison, or kill people? Or at least just rip them off?

Unfortunately, the broader battle over IP protection on internet platforms has been distorted by a naive belief in the harmlessness of pirating entertainment media and the assumption that IP only serves the big conglomerates who produce those works. This feeds a sense that IP in general is just a “protectionist” regime for entrenched corporations to slow innovation. When it comes to physical goods, though, suddenly people begin to notice that protecting IP happens to protect consumers. This is why for instance trademark infringement is not a minor transgression. The knock-off Polo shirt won’t get anyone killed, but the knock-off Graco car seat certainly could; and when one distribution service like Amazon is vying to be the “Everything Store,” the possibility for widespread hazard becomes clear.

Presumably, Amazon will recognize the potential loss of consumer confidence if their counterfeit problem grows. The company could take mitigating measures akin to the effective, anti-fraud practices employed by eBay, which weighed heavily in its favor in a 2002 litigation with Tiffany over fraudulent products being sold on that platform. That Doctorow writes the following, however, is the real hypocrisy that needs to be addressed:

“Amazon is bending over backwards to refund customers who get bad fakes, but either can’t or won’t stem the tide of fakes themselves (I run into counterfeit editions of my books on Amazon all the time). It may be that it’s more profitable to offer refunds to customers who get bad products than it is to police the millions of SKUs that are pouring in now that Chinese industry has a direct pipeline to Amazon’s customers.”

Doctorow is criticizing Amazon for tackling the counterfeit problem one infringement at a time while failing to take broader measures to “police” its own platform to “stem the tide.” Is that not a familiar refrain copyright holders have been singing about mass infringement of their works on platforms like YouTube? I think it is. Either these platforms are under the control of their owners or they’re not. Either we want a digital market that protects suppliers and consumers, or we don’t. And we can’t have the former without shedding this naive premise that the technology itself obviates the need for intellectual property enforcement, or that IP is exclusively a barrier to access, information, or innovative services.

This subject actually refers back to the first article I wrote about any of these issues—one that appeared in December 2011 in Stars & Stripes supporting SOPA/PIPA because of their associated provisions designed to mitigate counterfeit products entering the military supply chain. You remember SOPA, right? Certainly, the cadre of “digital rights” activists won’t let you forget it as they chronically insist that all proposals to protect any kind of IP online are basically SOPA in disguise. (See Guide to Critiquing Copyright in the Digital Age).

Likely, nobody remembers that Tittle II of SOPA contained anti-counterfeiting provisions as did a companion bill to PIPA called the Combatting Military Counterfeits Act, authored by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). These provisions and proposed amendments would not be protecting US consumers from Amazon-purchased counterfeits more than the existing statutes (Title 18) already do, but the bills did go further to protect against certain types of counterfeiting, and both bills expanded the principle that trafficking in counterfeits online poses a serious threat to consumer safety.

As Doctorow’s observations forecast, someone’s eventually going to get hurt. And unfortunately, that’s often what it takes for people to demand any kind of action. Or we could change the conversation before that happens.

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