The average consumer probably associates Chinese counterfeiting with fake luxury watches, high fashion, purses, luggage and maybe DVDs, but the attacks against U.S. goods, company reputations and intellectual property go far beyond that.

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an excellent article on the threat posed to Zippo, the U.S. manufacturer of the iconic lighters, by “rippos,” the bogus lighters produced in China. Zippo’s single factory in Bradford, Penn., produces 12 million lighters a year — about the same number as the fake ones churned out by Chinese companies.

And with Zippo providing a lifetime guarantee to repair the lighters it produced, the counterfeits represent a burning problem.

From “The Lighter Side of Counterfeiting Puts Zippo in a Fix” [subscription]:

BRADFORD, Pa.—”Always works—or we fix it” has, with minor tinkering, been a Zippo lighter slogan since 1937. “It is a profound statement of quality,” says Greg Booth, Zippo Manufacturing Co.’s chief executive. It also means Zippo has to fix a lot of lighters.

The task falls to three “clinics”—two abroad and one here in Zippo’s hometown—that fix more than 100,000 lighters a year. Quite a few Zippos get mangled when they slip out of pockets into the mechanism of recliners. One was ingested (but not digested) by a pig. Usually, a new screw or spring will put it back in working order.

Fulfilling the forever guarantee would pose little challenge, in fact, if a huge number of Zippos didn’t happen to be rippos.

The Journal highlights the work of one Zippo veteran whose job it is to spot the counterfeits, an increasingly difficult task as the quality of the fakes improves.

Despite the article’s amusing observations, the problem is not funny. Neither is it a new one. The local paper, The Bradford Era, reported on the Chinese counterfeiting in August, 2004, “Counterfeiting of Zippo lighters in China affecting Bradford,” tied to a company visit by a Commerce Department official. The Bush Administration worked hard on the issue, and the Obama Administration is as well.

Earlier this month, Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Coordinator (IPEC) Victoria Espinel and her team released extensive recommendations for legislation to improve IPR enforcement.

And  a speech in New York City in February, Commerce Secretary Locke stressed the problems with China’s failure to crack down on counterfeiting and otherwise protect U.S. intellectual property.

Even when Chinese leaders make strong statements of principle to take action on an issue of concern, those principles don’t always turn into binding law.  And even if those laws are written, actual implementation at the local or provincial level is often left wanting.

Look at the issue of intellectual property. We have heard Chinese leaders condemn IP-theft in the strongest terms, and we’ve seen central government laws and regulations written to reflect that sentiment.

But American and other foreign companies – in industries ranging from pharmaceuticals and biotechnology to entertainment – still lose billions of dollars from counterfeiting and IP-theft in China every year.

We look forward to Ambassador Gary Locke keeping the issue at the forefront once he arrives in China.

P.S. Zippo announced a new line of men’s watches this week. Very cool. And a contest to win a brass “dragon” lighter in conjunction with the new SF film, “Sucker Punch.” Very, very cool.

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