The lamps of Secto Design are world-renowned. The downside of this success is illegal copying; the fight against it requires strong measures and detective work.
YOU COME ACROSS a tempting design lamp in an online store. The picture is stylish and the product familiar, but the price is only a fraction of what the lamp usually costs. Should this ring some alarm bells?
Secto Design, a Finnish company that makes wooden lamps, knows well that the inexpensiveness of a foreign online store is a sure sign of copy business. The company wants to root out any copies of its products from the market as quickly as possible. When Secto finds a copy, it takes a screenshot of the online store page and orders the illegal lamp in order to gain evidence. After that, the company sends a strongly-worded letter demanding that the copy product be removed.
“If we send the letter first, the manufacturer has time to pull the product from sale and can claim that there never was any copy”, says Tuula Jusélius, the founder of Secto Design.
Chasing copy products is everyday work for Secto. Tuula Jusélius calculates that there have been more than 120 attempts to copy their products, or at least that is how many cases Secto has intervened in. There are varying degrees of copying, and each case is different. Sometimes the company engaged in copying poses as Secto and sells its collection with the original names. It is also common to manufacture products similar to Secto and give them new names – as if they were the copyist’s own design and development work.
In order to press charges, it is enough that the shape of the lamp suggests the original product. It is no excuse that the product is made of a different material or is a different size. In legal proceedings, however, Secto must prove that the shape of their original model has been deliberately sought in the copy. What makes this difficult is that sometimes there is a fine line between copying and “inspiration”. The copyists also appeal to this.
Copies of the Secto lamps began to appear on the market some ten years ago.
Copies of the Secto lamps designed by designer Seppo Koho began to appear on the market some ten years ago. Jusélius had managed to grow the one-woman lighting company established in 1995 into an international brand whose products were sold to both Parisian restaurants and luxury hotels in Kuwait.
“We were not copied in the early years, and I thought that we were safe because the manufacturing technique of the lamps by Seppo Koho is quite demanding. The copyists stirred as the products began to thrive. After that, we have come across an eclectic set of copies.” Typically, their shape resembles the original designs, but the materials, manufacturing technique or size are different.
A mere strongly-worded letter or phone call is not enough to stop the copy manufacturers. In most cases, strong measures are needed: lawyers, long and expensive legal processes, cooperation with the authorities in different countries, raids in factories, and quite often even detectives.
A mere strongly-worded letter or phone call is not enough to stop the copy manufacturers.
Defending its own rights has cost Secto hundreds of thousands of euros. Within the company, whose turnover is eight million euros, the entire working time of one employee is spent dealing with copying cases.
Tracking down the copy factories requires composed and persistent investigative work. “We managed to track down one copy factory in China by combining snippets of information from various official registers. We hired a Chinese-speaking assistant who called the phone number we had found and posed as a buyer”, Tuula Jusélius says.
This was followed by a series of strange instructions. First, they were provided with an unknown address on the outskirts of the city where the buyer was supposed to go alone by taxi. There the buyer was “interrogated”, and only after that was he allowed to go inside the factory. There he was openly presented with copies of Secto lamps and promises to manufacture any model. The next day, when the fake buyer returned to the factory with the authorities, everything that he had been told was denied.
Exposing a copy factory is not without risk. According to Jusélius, sometimes the situation has become so threatening during factory raids carried out with Chinese authorities that Secto’s local representatives have been forced to leave the scene for their own safety.
Product copying is not a matter of small change. The manufacturing of illegal copies is widespread and professional shady business involving billions of euros.
At present, the trafficking of illegal product copies is one of the largest forms of criminal activity in the world, after drug and human trafficking. The largest sums are involved in electronics and fashion. Almost everything is copied: medications, luxury handbags, phones, sports equipment – and Finnish design. The largest quantities of design copies are brought to Europe precisely from China. A mere glance at the Alibaba website reveals dozens of Finnish design copies: Ball chairs by Eero Aarnio, Karuselli chairs by Yrjö Kukkapuro, Artek furniture and Block Lamps by Harri Koskinen.
Almost everything is copied: medications, luxury handbags, phones, sports equipment – and Finnish design.
“A good copy is appreciated in Chinese culture. At one fair, we were invited by a Chinese company to come and see at their stand how good copies they make of our lamps. They were so proud of their achievement”, Tuula Jusélius says.
The people from Secto did not go; instead, they sent a lawyer. In addition to China, copies also currently come especially from Eastern Europe, Austria and Spain.
The copies have made their way all the way to Finland. When a new restaurant was opened in the Helsinki region, many acquaintances congratulated Tuula Jusélius about the fact that Secto lamps had been selected for the restaurant. Alarm bells started ringing for Jusélius when she saw photos of the restaurant’s dining room on social media. The lighting fixtures were not Secto lamps, but copies of them. The restaurateur had ordered the lamps at a low price through an online store, thinking that they were authentic products.
“Many people do not know that they are committing a crime if they publicly display illegal copy products. There was nothing else to be done than to ask the restaurant to remove the lamps. It was, of course, too bad for the restaurateur who had unsuspectingly paid for low-quality copies.”
“Many people do not know that they are committing a crime if they publicly display illegal copy products.”
Even someone decorating their own home can surprisingly easily find themselves in a copy store. Some of the sites have been made to look very credible.
“Fraudulent companies often use our original press photos in their sales advertisements, but send the customer a bad copy. It is futile to try to find contact details where the products could be returned on the website. The customer is left high and dry – unless the customer is guilty of knowingly purchasing a copy product. Perhaps even more worrying are the shortcomings in the electrical safety of copy lamps”, Tuula Jusélius says.
According to Jusélius, even large chain stores have been deceived by scam websites. A while back, for example, dozens of Secto copies ended up on the shelves of one Finnish department store chain. When the situation was discovered, the lamps ended up in the crusher.
Major operators or buyers are not always innocent, and may even support copying with their own actions. A large international hotel chain asked Secto for a quote regarding lamps for its new hotel in Vienna. The company handling furniture purchases for the hotel as a subcontractor wanted to save on costs and ordered copies from an Austrian factory instead of Secto. The case was dealt with in court for many years until Secto won it.
Last summer, the Norwegian customs stopped a shipment of 80 Octo lamps that was on its way to a local resort hotel for interior decoration. Secto was contacted by a clerk who had noticed that the sizes and production materials of the lamps that had arrived were different from the authentic ones. The country of origin also seemed strange as the lamps came from China instead of the country of manufacture, Finland. Once the lamps were found to be copies, they were destroyed. Secto has since entered into an agreement with the European customs authorities, according to which their products are monitored more closely.
E-commerce is continuously opening up new opportunities for the trade of copy merchandise. At the same time, it makes the original design products more easily available to everyone. Tuula Jusélius estimates that copying has become even more common in recent years. New designs end up being copied faster and faster.
“A copy of a chair by a Swedish design company was on sale in a Chinese online store the same week that it was presented at a design fair in Stockholm!”
By ordering a copy, you are likely to end up with poor quality and, at the worst, a dangerous product.
The affordable prices of online stores may tempt people to buy inexpensive copies of design products, but by ordering a copy, you are likely to end up with poor quality and, at the worst, a dangerous product.
“The copy business attracts shady characters. Both ordinary consumers and others should remember that all the money spent on copies will eventually end up in the pockets of criminals”, Tuula Jusélius says.
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Text: Anna-Kaisa Huusko Images: Timo Villanen, Uzi Varon and by Løth
The story was originally published in Avotakka.