Culture

Your favorite pin may be a giant fake

How ripoffs of independent designers are taking over online marketplaces.
Culture

Your favorite pin may be a giant fake

How ripoffs of independent designers are taking over online marketplaces.

In the world of enamel pins, there is one design that’s commonly seen for sale online. It’s a two-piece set based on the classic broken-heart friendship charm design, but with a modern stoner girl twist, featuring a glamorous hand on both halves. One ignites a lighter while the other offers a thick joint. The words “best” and “buds” appear in white clouds on at the tips, each flanked by a green marijuana leaf.

It’s cute. It’s catchy. It’s the perfect gift for the Ilana to your Abby (or vice versa). And, if you google “best buds pin,” you’ll find it’s everywhere. As of this writing, one Amazon seller, 14 Etsy shops, and 48 eBay stores sell versions of the pins, charging anywhere from $1.02 to $24.95. But unless the pin came from the website of the original artist (and copyright holder) or a shop that specifically carries her products, chances are it infringes on her copyright. That means Sara Lyons, who earns her living designing and selling that item and others like it, didn’t receive any compensation, and continues losing sales as long as this particular design remains popular.

Lyons, a designer and illustrator whose products have taken the internet by storm, is well-known among pin enthusiasts. Originally, she began selling pins as a way to make her art more accessible to her customers. They are relatively affordable to manufacture, promise generous margins, and, by virtue of their portability, act as free advertising for the artists behind them. But while Lyons has had to deal with copycats and outright design thiefs since her early days, the pin’s rise to a must-have fashion accessory has led to unprecedented wholesale production of knockoffs that then go for sale on online marketplaces.

Everyone from Kim Kardashian to Coach has incorporated pins into their retail offerings. The trend originated off the runway with independent artists using them as cost-effective, social-media ready ways to share their work with young people who may have bigger senses of style than budgets. Soon, those same designers had to deal with knockoffs from giant retailers and brands like H&M, Zara, and Lord & Taylor. And while artists have always dealt with big brands as well as individuals illegally uploading designs to print-on-demand product sites like CafePress and Redbubble, they now also have to contend with largely anonymous wholesale manufacturers supplying copies to smaller, harder-to-corner sellers on store websites like SoAestheticShop.com and shops on online marketplaces, like CustomBling313. Neither responded to The Outline’s requests for comment.

The original best buds pin as seen on Lyons' website.

The original best buds pin as seen on Lyons' website.

A photo used on several listings for unauthorized Best Buds pins on Etsy and eBay.

A photo used on several listings for unauthorized Best Buds pins on Etsy and eBay.

The original best buds pin as seen on Lyons' website.

A photo used on several listings for unauthorized Best Buds pins on Etsy and eBay.

A careful eye can spot the knock-offs from the real product. The fingernails on Lyons’ pins feature tiny, round shards of glitter. The lines are crisp, the colors contained, the lighter’s flame made of two layers, and two tiny blobs of green peek out of the top of the joint. The details vary on the unauthorized copies. The joints often miss the delicate overflow of green included on Lyons’ designs, and the hands on the copies all vary in color and tone.

“In some cases it appears that someone has purchased my actual physical pin and essentially made a new mold,” said Lyons. “You can tell that because the lines are not as fine, but it's exactly the same. And then there are other factories that are using the artwork that is now been spread all over the internet to make their own pin. I can tell because there are other counterfeit pins where they are larger than my pins and the artwork is laid out slightly differently, but they're still a vector copy of my line work.”

It’s that acceptance for small flaws and assumption that these are lawful that keeps “Best Buds” pin money out of Lyons’s pockets. Lyons says the sea of copies she fights against for several of her designs threatens her livelihood, and she’s not taking it lightly. Last year, Lyons publicly called out Snapchat for stealing her “Whatever Forever” design, in which two hands with pink painted nails form a “W” over a banner bearing the design’s effective name, for use in a filter. The company quickly took it down. In 2015, she sued retailer Brandy Melville for ripping off the design as well.

Earlier this month, she took action to protect the copyright again in a lawsuit she and her lawyer Andrew Gerber of Kushnirsky Gerber PLLC filed against Lord & Taylor. Lyons has sold pins, patches, shirts, phone cases, and tote bags featuring the design since 2013 and copyrighted it back in 2015. But, as her complaint alleges, Lyons found out that the high-end retailer was selling jeans with an unauthorized “Whatever Forever” patch on the thigh last fall. In October, she contacted the store to stop selling and displaying the product. Lord & Taylor ignored her demand until February of this year.

Gerber, who is also representing 11 other pin artists in a copyright infringement case against apparel and accessories retailer Francesca’s Collections, stresses the havoc copycats cause in the lives of creators. “[Offending companies] don't fully appreciate and compensate artists for what is often just blatant theft,” he told The Outline. “When you wake up one morning and some gigantic big box retailer has ripped you off and is selling thousands and thousands of copies of your work, it's devastating and it's frustrating.”

“We can’t spend thousands and thousands of dollars taking these people to court. We make our money so we can live and have a real life.”
Jen Koehl, manager of oft-copied artist Chris Upheus

The Lord & Taylor and Francesca’s cases are still in progress, but Gerber believes they offer hope that, in the future, big brands will find copying more of a hassle than a bargain and get their designs the legal way. When it comes to effectively anonymous sellers on eBay and Etsy, Lyons has little recourse outside of tediously trying to contact them, and convince them to stop. It’s actually easier for her to hold big names accountable, she observed, than the smaller, less profitable copy sellers.

Whereas high-end, mass-produced brands like Gucci and Chanel used to be the targets of indeterminable masses of copycats, now anyone can easily become a cash cow for overseas manufacturers. And while vendors selling unauthorized products have clear presences on online marketplaces, the manufacturers supplying them are shrouded in mystery, even in this super-connected age. Lyons has faith that the manufacturers she contracts are not behind the production of copies, but not every artist shares that confidence. “The factories that make your pins for you are probably taking everybody’s stuff and just reselling it,” said Chris Uphues, a Chicago-based fine artist who has made gallery and street art since the ‘90s and began selling enamel pins about three years ago. “It’s almost impossible to deal with.”

While she trusts her suppliers, Lyons shares Uphues’s realism about getting to the root of the problem. “There is really no way to know, barring flying to your factory and walking on the floor,” she said.

Uphues first dealt with copyright infringement around five years ago, when one website used a photograph of his street art as the background of a watch they had for sale and continued to sell even after Jen Koehl, his manager and wife, contacted them. Uphues says a 2009 H&M garment and promotional campaign raising money for AIDS and HIV awareness featured his unauthorized design. Uphues discovered the copy when he saw ads all over Manhattan featuring Katy Perry modeling the piece. “Okay, now I’m going to be the artist who’s going to sue H&M for the AIDS money,” he joked. “It’s like, you know, fuck me.” Since he didn’t have the funds to take legal action, he let the issue slide.

Today, Uphues is successful enough that brands like Doc Martens approach him to collaborate. When it comes to independent sellers, however, Uphues and Koehl have little hope that the problem can be meaningfully stemmed — plus, they have little interest in devoting their resources to what may prove a bankrupting and unwinnable fight. “We have some lawyers that help us but we can’t spend thousands and thousands of dollars taking these people to court,” said Koehl. “We make our money so we can live and have a real life.”

For emerging designers still gaining a customer base, legal action can feel even more out of reach. Copyrighting a design can be done online for a $35 fee, but as Gerber explained, many artists have little knowledge of their rights and the ways to protect them. His advice for anyone getting into selling their art online is to have an easily-protectible copyright by making sure your designs are sufficiently unique. Most important is actually getting the copyright itself. “If you’re creating designs that are going to be shown publicly, either on a web site or sold on the open market, get a copyright registration for them,” he said. “Go to the government web site and apply for copyright registration and get those registrations, because if what you’re creating is popular there’s a very good chance it will be ripped off.”

There are many listings for "best buds pins" on eBay, despite the fact that Lyons does not sell her products there.

For low-level copycats and their vendors, avoiding consequences is as easy as ignoring a cease and desist letter, closing up shop, and starting again almost instantly under another name. The Amazon and Etsy shops appear unaffiliated, but looking at the eBay stores selling versions of the pins, there seem to be families of vendors with similar names. There’s okcatfair and okcatzone. There’s qq1281 and qq1281AUS. There’s BicoinsUS, BuyinCoinsAU, and bycoins. And, included in the many store names that end in “AUS” a common abbreviation for Australia, there’s linyongshopAUS, warareshopAUS, and enyingsalesAUS as well as 2.66499AUS, 5.26600AUS, and 9.52976AUS, among others. The stores are as numerous as they are forgettable, which only adds to the trouble of holding them accountable. Of the 44 accounts I contacted for comment for this piece, all ignored me except for five eBay retailers — three of whom sent me identical messages declining my request for an interview, one of whom declined with a more original message, and one who said they would get back to me — and one Etsy seller, who declined my interview but pointed me to a merchant on Wish, another online marketplace, that they bought the pins from. The pins were no longer available from the Wish merchant, and I was unable to contact them for comment.

I also heard from another independent designer, Amanda Roberts, who sells wooden best buds pins through her Geek Details Amazon shop that are similar to Lyons’s but different in key ways, starting with the absence of the broken heart. Via Twitter message, Roberts told me that her design, created about two years ago, is copyrighted to her. She says she was unaware of Lyons’s design, but now having seen it, enjoys it. “So much of what we create is influenced by current events and what’s going on in our lives so there’s bound to be people out there with similar ideas and styles,” she wrote.

Roberts says she too deals with copycats and that Geek Details recently took action on Amazon after they say they discovered hundreds of listings for knockoff Geek Details items on the site. The company now sells through Amazon Exclusives, a platform the website launched in 2015 that she says offers enhanced brand protection and visibility in exchange for exclusivity. Roberts says that though the platform requires companies to sell Exclusives items only on Amazon or in sellers’ own websites and brick-and-mortar stores, the limitation is worth it for the increased copyright and trademark protection. Roberts says signing Geek Details up for Amazon Exclusives has cut its copycats on the website down to zero, unlike when Geek Details was signed up for Amazon’s brand registry alone.

While the brand registry is a fee-free service, Exclusives — a program that Amazon says includes added features like helping sellers increase discoverability for their products, marketing support, counsel — costs sellers a 5 percent hike in their category fees. In Roberts' experience, the website essentially put a premium on copyright and trademark protection, rather than guaranteeing her those tools outright. (Amazon responded with a statement that said, in part, "We remove suspected counterfeit items as we become aware of them, and we permanently remove bad actors from selling on Amazon. Amazon investigated and took action on 93% of all notices of potential infringement received from Brand Registry within four hours. With our proactive innovations that learn from the information in Brand Registry, brands in Brand Registry on average are finding and reporting 99% fewer suspected infringements than before the launch of Brand Registry. We have also successfully taken legal action against bad actors and will continue to pursue litigation and work with law enforcement where appropriate.") For Roberts, the restrictions and the fees are worth it, and her stance on legal protections is unwavering. “I trademarked the business name and now I include it in all our designs. If a counterfeiter uses our images, they’re violating our trademark.”

Beyond legal action in the U.S. the hope of wiping out copycats and their independent vendors overseas seems like a pipe dream — a distant one at that. So does the other solution, which is in the hands of the online marketplaces themselves. Ostensibly, places like Etsy and eBay could put a system of checks and balances in place, but not without significant effort that would protect creators more than it would enhance the websites’ bottom lines. “It would take a team of actual humans with a reasonable amount of knowledge and common sense whose job it would be to look over listings that are flagged, so they can recognize trends in this kind of counterfeiting and gain some awareness about the hundreds of pieces of artwork that are regularly stolen and repurposed without the artists’ consent,” Lyons wrote. “This way, over time, they’d be able to create filters that would automatically flag potentially stolen items for review and removal.”

No matter how her case against Lord & Taylor turns out, Lyons and other designers’ fights against independent sellers of knockoffs will likely continue. Arguably, however, the bigger fight is the one against consumer ignorance. With pins, their small size, relative cheapness, and informality makes them appealing to buy but can also make their production feel inconsequential. When knockoffs are listed on sites consumers trust their credit card numbers to, the assumption is that they are buying a legal product through a legal channel. But as long as buyers continue to give websites this unearned trust, they are hurting independent designers as much as the copycat factories that steal from them.

In Lyons’s case, competition from copycats has threatened her livelihood but has also encouraged her to continue speaking out, as she’s seen how little consumers and designers alike know about their responsibilities and rights. “If myself and other artists continue to talk about this [we can] at least keep it in people’s consciousness that maybe if they see a cute t-shirt on Amazon they should Google it real quick and make sure it’s not a ripoff,” Lyons said. “I always tell people remember that everything was created by someone.”

Update: This article has been updated to include a statement from Amazon and more accurately reflect its policy on copyright infringement and brand protection.

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