Taking Copycats to Task
Your product's been copied, and flattered you're not. But is taking imitators to court worth the trouble and expense? Below, two frequently copied companies give different answers.
Michael Reinhold of Annieglass, in Santa Cruz, Calif., remembers when he and his partner, Ann Morhauser, saw the first copycat version of the dinnerware they manufacture. Within the first few years of start-up, a customer tipped them off that a Los Angeles shop had copied the distinctive gold-rimmed dinner plates Morhauser had designed. They decided to visit the showroom. Not only was the product alarmingly similar, but "when we asked for prices, the person pulled out our brochure and price list," says Reinhold.
The partners were hot to sue, but although they had copyrighted and trademarked their designs, their attorney advised them not to go to court. "He said we wouldn't really win," says Reinhold. "It would just be a way of making the other guy spend money." It could have cost Annieglass about $50,000.
Instead, the $2.5-million company has focused on cultivating an upscale image and landing exclusive retail outlets. Apart from sending the occasional threatening letter, Annieglass basically ignores imitators.
The way Reinhold sees it, "knockoffs are fine in Kmart," because he's targeting Neiman Marcus. When Reinhold visits top retailers, he appeals to their desire to carry only the best. The company now frequently mails PR material that introduces new lines and emphasizes their quality. The tactic has persuaded some retailers to drop copies altogether.
Garry Kvistad, president of $10-million Woodstock Percussion, in West Hurley, N.Y., has faced knockoffs ever since he began creating his distinctive wood-and-metal-tube wind chimes, in 1979. But unlike Reinhold, Kvistad sued two of his competitors when Woodstock was still a start-up with sales of less than $1 million. The war was waged for two years. Kvistad won the right to demand design changes of the competitors. It cost more than $100,000, "and back then it hurt," he says. "But we felt we had to make the investment." Now Kvistad's attorney sends out "nasty-grams" to competitors, referring to the lawsuit.
In addition, Woodstock's independent sales force is trained to sing the praises of the chimes' precise tuning to unusual musical scales. And a company newsletter sent to retailers points out distinctions between knockoffs and the original.
-- Phaedra Hise* * *
Woodstock Percussion won its lawsuit under "trade dress," a subcategory of trademark protection. For a rundown of the differences between trademarks, utility patents, design patents, and copyrights, call the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's automated information line at 703-557-3158. A recording defines each term and explains how to apply for coverage.* * *