Samui Wining & Dining

Are counterfeits parasites to the creative economy? Or can genuine and fake products enjoy a symbiotic relationship?


Tiffany pendant, 350 baht. Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, 1,200 baht. Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam!, 3,500 baht. The benefit that bestows the creative industry with the sales of similar items on the streets of Samui? Mmm, inestimable.

       Now, unless you are as gullible as a fly seeking escape from a window pane, you cannot truly believe that Tiffany the jeweller licenses its silverwares to a makeshift tent on a tropical island, where the world-famous designs are retailed at one thousandth of the commodity’s actual worth. And if you believe the smiling Thai girl’s claim that her Birkin bags are authentic ‘factory outcasts’, then may I have your credit card’s pin number please? I am rather trustworthy too.

        The reality is, every time you hand over a bill to a counterfeit vendor, you are fanning the fire for the illegal industry. And the problem of plagiarism isn’t confined to the sales of exact replicas either. You can buy iPad’s brother – the E-Pad – in an electronics shop outside Tesco Lotus. For 200 baht, you can take home that T-shirt emblazoned with an inverted Nike logo with ‘Just Did It’ printed on it too.

          Indeed, knock-offs being exchanged for peanuts on Koh Samui is as new as the sun rising after sunset. What makes the whole débâcle interesting, first of all, is the psychology behind the act. While a slight pang of guilt may yield from plagiarising a colleague’s thesis in a last minute attempt to avoid missing a deadline, conscience rarely bats an eyelid when you purchase copied goods. Conscience, in fact, may even congratulate you on your do-gooder behaviour, for your benevolence facilitates the prosperity of rural sweatshops and local businesses. ”Well done for starving the conglomeratic off-shore bank accounts and kudos for robbing the rich to benefit the poor.”

          It all sounds very altruistic, but a person buying faux replicas isn’t a selfless robber. Intellectual property laws have been in place to encourage technological advancement, enabling the likes of Steve Jobs to file for patents in order to secure funding for further research and development. And when a patent is infringed, you can be sure the big guns won’t be too happy about it.

          In fact, Louis Vuitton – the French luxury goods giant – recently won a landmark counterfeit case against two Chinese businessmen at the Trade Commission Committee in the United States. The accused had been, for years, systematically exporting leather goods etched with the iconic LV monogram. And the guys were doing so well it enraged the Louis Vuitton people. Although it remains to be seen whether the ruling will actually deter pirate factories from ceaselessly churning out fake Guccis and Versaces, one thing is for sure: breach of the IP law is difficult to prove. The prosecution has to demonstrate that the replica bears a significant resemblance to the original, but the defendant can easily dismiss their claim by saying they’re merely making ‘artistic references’. It doesn’t help matters when the legal system has a glaring vacuum where a chef’s signature dish is not any more protected from plagiarism than a gold bar locked in a bird cage. An unsigned band’s impromptu musical score, a broadcaster’s script on live television and a perfumer’s recipe are not secure under the law either. For this reason, the Council of Fashion Designers of America is turning up the heat for a black and white IP law that serves to shield catwalk showcases from unauthorised reproduction. But not all creatives are chanting “hear hear” to this proposal. One of these protection sceptics is the Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter Joss Stone.

          The bohemian Brit has spoken openly of her pro-piracy stance. In an interview available on YouTube as “Joss Stone piracy is great”, she tells a journalist: “I think [illegal MP3] is great. I love it. I think it’s brilliant… If music is free, then there’s just music... I think we should share [music].” Somewhere in a record company’s boardroom, monocles are dropped into bourbons, as bosses choke on their cigars in horrified shock.

          Game developer Martin Amor shares the music bosses’ sentiment too. The former IO Interactive technology director and current Samuian resident (who produced many multi platinum games including Hitman and Mini Ninjas) also thinks that piracy is a bad thing. “People need to realise that a hit game takes years and years to develop, and a huge workforce, often in the hundreds, are involved in the painstaking production. Every game is a very expensive piece of art and can cost up to US$100 million to make. In order to keep the engine going, we have to be able to sell the game,” says Amor.

          But AAA games – the industry’s lingo for popular franchises such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto – don’t come cheap in an HMV plastic bag. These games often retail for upwards of US$60, an amount out of reach for most workers in developing countries. Partly thanks to pirated copies, thirdworld game lovers can have a taste of first-rate game designs. But will it be the same if piracy laws are firmly and actively enforced, rendering the poorer demographics salivating outside candy shops, as kids with means devour rainbow coloured sweets within?

          “That’s like if I cannot afford a new computer, then I go and steal. Or I pay for a guy to steal. Therefore we try to accommodate different economies by implementing different business strategies, for example, subscription, Freemium or payper- episode. But on the other hand, I don’t think that a more expensive item is necessary a better item. For instance, a lot of indie games have more soul and game play value than big ‘Hollywood-esque’ productions,” Amor reasons.

          While you can subscribe to games or legally stream music videos online, the enjoyment of luxury goods is completely all or nothing. You buy the real thing or you don’t. There’s no grey area in between. With counterfeit handbags and watches dripping down every awning on Chaweng Beach Road, one can only imagine the luxury giants scrambling to shut the floodgates, since their water supply is being drained by roadside hawkers. Surprisingly, LVMH, the parent company that owns most of the big luxury brands around the world, makes a habit of announcing year on year growth without having to break a sweat whipping counterfeiters.

          However, precision copying isn’t the only nightmare for luxury giants. Indirect duplication causes a terrible headache too. Irish aristocrat and beverage heiress Daphne Guinness, a fervent devotee of haute couture, once told a journalist that: “If I had seen a dress on the red carpet on an actress, I don’t want it.” Applying the same mentality to Champs-Elysée shoppers, they would probably be loathe to style clash with “commoners” as well. We all love a bit of cheap chic, and we praise H&M and Zara for their ‘tribute’ designs that make references to high brow creations. Although on paper fast fashions aren’t exact duplicates of the bank breaking originals, Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs are probably not too ecstatic about this form of tribute. Or are they?

          UCLA School of Law professor Kai Raustiala reasons that Zara, H&M et al actually enjoy a symbiotic relationship with their upscale counterparts. Fast fashion in fact, he argues, encourages creativity by way of generating competing impulses – an incentive for designers to make truly remarkable designs that are difficult for mass re-production.

          “Copying helps to diffuse designs into the mainstream, where they lose their appeal for fashion cognoscenti. The desire for new designs is then ‘induced’ by this process,” say Raustiala and colleague Christopher Jon Sprigman. They also suggest that copying actually enables a wider spectrum of customers to follow fashion trends, therefore driving up demand and awareness. In essence, the consumers at the lower echelons of the fashion food chain are the lab rats, who run the wheel that propels the fashion engine, which pumps billions of US dollars every year into the global economy.

          At the end of the day, no one is certain whether counterfeiting is right or wrong. But for us lowly consumers, we should be able to appreciate the artistry behind a Thai hand-woven rattan tote in the same way we adore a hand-stitched Hermes bag that is made in France. And it’s certainly comforting to know you can choose to decorate your house with a Made On Samui Buddha statue or a Whaam! replica painting (called Wham! on the island).


 Kawai Wong


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