COVID-19 and overwhelming amounts of counterfeits online: What businesses should do — right away!

Written by Xuan Nguyen

 

According to an update from the World Health Organization (WHO), by 15 April 2020 the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) had already infected 1 918 138 people in 213 countries, territories and areas, resulting in 123 126 deaths. Various governmental interventions have been applied, including border closures, strict quarantines, travel bans, and the forced closure of many businesses. 

It is expected that a deep economic crisis will follow the pandemic (which is still evolving and unpredictable). So far a dramatic slump in economic activities has been witnessed, affecting not only the supply chain (production of goods and services) but also demand (consumption and investment). Many people are forced to stay at home, factories have stopped operating, restaurants, shops and public places are closed. Consumers are being driven toward online shopping marketplaces. While major parts of the world, including, Europe, the USA and a lot of Asia, are struggling to fight against the crisis, in China the situation is now apparently under control and factories are gradually returning to normal.

Photo source: https://pixabay.com

Photo source: https://pixabay.com

The current situation has also created fertile ground for the sale of counterfeit goods online, especially in sudden upsurge sectors such as pharmaceuticals and medical devices. According to Interpol, during one week of action (3–10 March 2020), authorities in 90 participating countries seized more than 4.4 million units of illicit pharmaceuticals, more than 37 000 unauthorised and counterfeit medical devices, and closed down more than 2 500 web links, including websites, social media pages, online marketplaces and online adverts for illicit pharmaceuticals[1].

In South-East Asia all 10 countries have reported a substantive number of COVID-19 cases. Since there was already a high number of local counterfeit manufacturers available, and a significant trade exchange with nearby China, the region is very high risk in terms of counterfeits invading the market. Recently, Thai police seized 45 000 fake COVID-19 test kits, 350 000 medical masks, and 1 200 infrared thermometers that were smuggled into the country by two Chinese men. All products sold online claiming to be COVID-19 test kits at the moment are fake, according to the Thai Food and Drug Administration (FDA)[2].  Vietnamese authorities also found that a company in Vietnam had been making masks out of toilet paper amid the coronavirus outbreak and skyrocketing demand[3].

These figures are just the tip of the iceberg. There are overwhelming numbers of counterfeit products. This article will discuss how counterfeits are being fueled by an online market and what the brand owner should do to mitigate the impact.

Why have counterfeits surged in the shadow of the COVID-19 outbreak?

  • The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a spike in demand for essential products, such as personal protective devices (facemasks, hand sanitizers and antiviral medication), vitamins, pharmaceuticals, foods and beverages, as well as non-essential products, such as cosmetics and personal care items, household products, electronics, work-from-home tools, entertainment technology and children’s toys. Meanwhile, the majority of factories are being shut down, causing the shortage of supplies of genuine products. ‘In moments of high demand and rushed buying decisions, counterfeiters can jump on the opportunity and sway buyers in their direction[4].’
  • People are shopping online much more than ever. According to analysis by ACI Worldwide, ‘The COVID-19 crisis is driving the global growth of e-commerce sales, with millions of consumers worldwide in quarantine shopping for goods, services and entertainment online. Transaction volumes in most retail sectors have seen a 74 percent rise in March compared to the same period last year.’ The dark side of this phenomenon is that people can be more easily tricked. Many sellers use photos of genuine products while offering extremely low prices to attract online buyers during a time of crisis, and then provide fake products to consumers. It can also create a backlash for brand owners, leading consumers to mistakenly believe the product quality is very low and to lose interest in the brand.
  • The crisis has caused an immediate reduction in the income of many people across the globe, and consumers are looking for the cheapest possible versions of goods because of their reduced budgets. While the pandemic is still evolving, millions of people have lost their jobs following business restrictions and closures. According to a report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), if we are experiencing a ‘“High” scenario where COVID-19 has serious disruptive effects, reducing GDP growth by around 8 percent: Global unemployment would increase by 24.7 million, with an uncertainty ranging from 13 million to 36 million[5].’ Given the current environment of uncertainty and fear, and the real threat of significant declines in income, consumers in many economies are unable to purchase branded goods and services as before; buying cheap counterfeit products can be a tempting option.
  • Many counterfeit suppliers are concentrated in China where the situation is under control and factories have gone back to their normal operations. This means counterfeiters may be in a better position to jump onto the upsurge in demand before legitimate sellers can reopen production. Amid the panic of the crisis, a lot of companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are concentrating on solving critical issues such as declines in revenue, insolvencies and job cuts, rather than keeping an eye on monitoring the marketplaces for fakes. As a result of the lack of the legitimate owners’ attention, counterfeiters can more easily flood the market with fakes.
  • Customs checks, market investigations, and raid and seize activities have been reduced following social distancing and safety measures. In the same way as many other public services during this health crisis, officers involved with anti-counterfeiting activities have been physically limited to avoid the risk of infection. This means that infringers have more opportunity to take a free ride on the market.

What should brand owners do?

During volatile market conditions and the resulting increase in online shopping, consumers easily become targets for counterfeiters. Brand owners need to stay on top of monitoring and combating fakes more than ever. Otherwise, they may lose sales to counterfeiters.

  • Focus on monitoring e-commerce and social media platforms and proactively communicate with the customers. During the current social distancing measures and travel bans, a majority of customers has been using the internet for buying stuff instead of shopping physically, you need to keep a close eye to the net to protect your revenue and maintain safe channels for your business during the crisis, and after it ends. When some sectors have a spike in demand while genuine supply chains are being disturbed, fakes become a more serious issue. Brand owners should be more protective about their communications with their consumers, guiding them to available supply channels with authentic products and warning them about fakes.
  • Conduct an investigation and gather facts. Don’t make a groundless claim, it will cost you both time and money. Once you have found a suspected infringement on the internet, the first step is to quickly collect evidence on the infringer, e.g. basic information (name, address, other contact details, the scale of their business and the origin of their products).
  • Take-down Notices and Warning Letters: Utilise the available complaint functions on the e-commerce platforms and encourage social media operators to quickly take down infringing products. In the meantime, as a legitimate brand owner, you can also consider sending Warning Letters to the counterfeiter to ask them to stop their illegal activities.
  • Inform the competent authorities: In South-East Asian countries, local governments have recently made many efforts and improvements in combating online counterfeits. Brand owners can find available complaint tools — such as hotlines, emails or complaint submissions on the websites of customs, market police departments and other relevant national bodies — to promptly notify the authorities.
  • Seek advice from local IP experts. In critical cases, companies are usually advised to consult with local experts that are familiar with infringement cases and have close relations with enforcement bodies such as customs, investigators and the police. It is worth noting that many counterfeits are advertised in local languages or posted on local websites, so monitoring using detection software or search tools (usually in Roman characters) doesn’t work effectively.

The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. Our lives, and the way we do business, have changed in recent weeks. Brand owners should swiftly adapt to the new situation to protect their businesses against counterfeiters. Neglecting this during the crisis might cost you more than you imagine, i.e. from losing your faithful customers to losing your entire share of the market. Keeping your company safe amid the chaos, and getting ready for normal business to resume, is the only way to retain both your revenue and your reputation.

[1] https://www.interpol.int/en/News-and-Events/News/2020/Global-operation-sees-a-rise-in-fake-medical-products-related-to-COVID-19

[2] https://thethaiger.com/coronavirus/big-arrest-on-price-gouging-of-covid-19-safety-gear-and-fake-test-kits

[3] https://www.insider.com/vietnam-company-using-toilet-paper-for-coronavirus-masks-faces-penalty-2020-2

[4] https://www.redpoints.com/pdfs/market-research-impact-of-covid-19-on-ecommerce-sales/?utm_campaign=HS284-market-research-survey-impact-of-covid-9-on-ecommerce-sales&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=84691783&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-_KXO0X8sOU11ZaL9gXi53LxFBQjYdtj-ZtCHwLlocKYxHxgibn05yKKsXyfyIzVAccGKAF&utm_content=84691783&utm_source=hs_automation

[5] https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_738753.pdf

What to Pay Attention to When Registering Designs in Singapore: A Case Study

shutterstock_385731427Today’s second blog post takes a closer look at what SMEs should pay attention to when registering their designs in Singapore. It gives a brief overview of design protection in Singapore, followed by a case study demonstrating the importance of consulting with local experts or lawyers before filing for design registration in Singapore. 

Registered Designs in Singapore

A registered design is a right granted to the owner of a design to stop others from making, importing or selling, without their permission, an article to which that design or a design not substantially different from it has been applied.

In order to obtain a registered design, the design must be ‘new’ (i.e. not yet published or disclosed to the public) at the time the application for registered design protection is filed. It is possible to claim the filing date of an earlier application filed in a country that is a member of the Paris Convention or World Trade Organisation (WTO) for protection of the same design, provided that the Singapore application is filed within six months of the earlier application. Therefore, SMEs should ensure that their design is not disclosed to others until an application has been filed.

SMEs should consider applying for a registered design as soon as possible, as Singapore has a ‘‘first-to-file system’’. That is, the first person to file an application in respect of the design will have priority over others. This means that if a third party files his/her application on the design before the design owner, any registered design obtained afterwards will be in danger of being revoked for lack of ‘novelty’.

Singapore became a Member of the 1999 Geneva Act of the Hague Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Industrial Designs on April 17, 2005. The Hague Agreement makes it easier for foreign businesses to obtain industrial designs in Singapore. Continue reading “What to Pay Attention to When Registering Designs in Singapore: A Case Study” »

The Importance of Patent Ownership in Employment Contracts in Indonesia: A Case Study

patent-without backgroundToday’s blog post explains the importance of identifying patent ownership in employment contracts. The blog post gives a brief overview of patent protection in Indonesia followed by a case study demonstrating the need to be clear on patent ownership.

Patents in Indonesia

A patent is a right granted to the owner of an invention to prevent others from making, using, importing or selling the invention without his permission. A patent may be obtained for a product or a process that gives a new technical solution to a problem or a new method of doing things, the composition of a new product, or a technical improvement on how certain objects work.

Indonesia adopts a ‘first-to–file’ patent system, meaning that the first person to file an IP right in the Indonesian jurisdiction will own that right once the application is granted. Two types of patent are recognized in Indonesia – ‘Standard Patents’ (for products and processes) and ‘Simple Patents’ (for products only). The process for obtaining a Simple Patent is supposed to be shorter, however, there is a reduced term of protection in this case, as indicated below. For all applications, applicants need to specify the scope of the protection sought and to explain how to work the invention by means of technical descriptions and drawings. Continue reading “The Importance of Patent Ownership in Employment Contracts in Indonesia: A Case Study” »

The Importance of Voluntary Copyright Registration in Malaysia: A Case Study

shutterstock_176603774In today’s blog post we will be taking a closer look at the Copyright registration in Malaysia. The article demonstrates through case study the importance of voluntary copyright registration in Malaysia 

Copyright in Malaysia

Copyright in Malaysia protects literary, artistic, musical and dramatic works. Copyright also protects sound recordings, published editions, films, broadcasts and performer’s rights. Copyright ownership could be held either by the author, his employer or the person who commissions the work.

It must be noted that an author retains the right to have his name identified as the author of the work based on what is called a moral right. The author also has the moral right against the distortion, mutilation or other modification of his or her work. Ownership of copyright entails an exclusive right to commercially exploit the work. A classic example of commercializing a copyrighted work is the distribution of copies of the work for sale. We can see this in traditional commerce such as books and compact discs. As an intangible property, copyright can also be licensed or assigned to third parties for royalties. When licensing, it is important to determine the extent of copyright use that is permitted.

In Malaysia, copyright exists as soon as the original work is created and belongs to the creator of the work automatically. There is no formal requirement for the work to be registered in order for copyright to be claimed or recognized, however a copyright owner may voluntarily register their copyright in Malaysia. Registration is still advisable for foreign SMEs as the registration can be extremely useful in enforcement proceedings as evidence of your ownership. To claim copyright ownership (i.e. to forewarn infringement), a notice with the symbol © may also be placed in/on the work followed by the name of the owner and the year of first publication. Continue reading “The Importance of Voluntary Copyright Registration in Malaysia: A Case Study” »

IP Enforcement Litigation in Taiwan: Some Basics

courtToday’s blog post has been kindly shared with us by our external experts Mr. John Eastwood and Ms. Eve Chen from Eiger. In this article, Mr. Eastwood and Ms. Chen give a basic overview of IP enforcement litigation in Taiwan. You will learn more about the options you have in Taiwan to take action against the infringements of your IP rights and how to prepare to defend your rights. The article first appeared on Eiger website.  

INTRODUCTION

Rights holders looking at Asia-Pacific enforcement budgets often have to make hard decisions about where to take action. Although Taiwan’s population is small (about 22 million), it has a big role in financing massive overseas infringement in China and Southeast Asia and it is still a major manufacturer of fake optical-media products (CDs, DVDs, CD-ROMs), auto parts, and high-tech products involving infringements of patents and misappropriation of trade secrets. Fortunately, the Taiwan court system offers some solid options to rights holders who want to take action.

PREPARING FOR ACTION

Rights holders need to prepare evidence and documents establishing their rights and the facts of infringement before they take action, as the Taiwan police, prosecutors and judges involved with authorizing raid actions are sticklers for details. As a preliminary matter in trademark and copyright cases, it is important to assemble copies of the Taiwan trademark certificates (front and back sides) and any supporting documentation needed to establish copyright protection. Continue reading “IP Enforcement Litigation in Taiwan: Some Basics” »