The copy compliments the creator… True or not?

Design copies, counterfeits, plagiarism, for years we did not have to deal with these topics. We were affected so little by it, that we started to worry: is our work not worth copying? Or is medical technology, a market with low quantity and high requirements, just not a field suitable for rip-offs?

Not long-ago things changed. We were pretty confused when we have witnessed two audacious case, one after the other, both connected to our important customer Salvia Medical.

3D CAD Copy of the awarded Elisa 800 Intensiv care ventilator.

Elisa 800 – Original and copy alternating

The company 3DExport, operating in San Jose USA, offers multitude of realistic 3D models for use in computer context, for example in video games. The complete data record of Elisa 800 is offered for only 16 US dollars. Through direct comparison with the original product, there are couple of minor deviations or improvements to be noticed, however the product is completely copied, from its GUI to the touchscreen. Creating such a replica (without permission) and without suitable templates could take hundreds of hours. Why did they do it?

100% plagiarism of the Salvia Medical webpage

The Salvia Medical Homepage – and its Fake-Pendant.

The second case is even weirder: potentially fake company D-BALTIMORE LLC, 35 Clyde Rd. Suite A, Somerset, NJ 08878, USA has copied the Salvia medical webpage in its entirety and sealed it off with its logo. The fake webpage is still live in the moment of publishing this blog post. Texts, claims, product photographs, design awards – everything is copied, without any changes and very politely presented as a part of the fake branding. What is the rationale? The company can not deliver any of the products on the webpage and does not offer any additional.

Is this the case for the inspector Plagiarius?

From 1977 there is a brave institution that deals with similar cases: Aktion Plagiarius e.V founded by the industrial designer Rido Busse, awards yearly a considerable amount of recognitions for “the audaciousest copy.”

1:1 replicated famous products including all the details, often even mistakes. These copyists very often do not know what they are doing – they just copy everything just as it is and inevitably shut their critical thinking down. Through examination of the Plagiarius’ yearbooks one is amazed to notice that these exact copies do not come only from the “Middle Kingdom” (China), but that a number of the awarded copies come from our own cultural horizon.

“Copying is the highest form of flattery”

The aphorism created by the 17th century English essayist Charles Calleb Colton highlights our societal attitudes towards copying and imitating: a highly debated topic that is of crucial importance in many fields, ranging from art and science to lifestyle. It implicates many important problems such as intellectual rights and properties, profit making, questions regarding law, while it likewise has a strong moral undertone.

Usually it provokes disagreements. The reasons for disagreements are patent-, brand- or design rights, whose roots can be found even in antic Greece and have been described with the ensuing bartering logic “Share your ideas and recipes with the whole world, so that the potential advancements and benefit of all can be shared fast – and we will guarantee you some years of exclusive benefits from your ideas.” This genius idea helped create a very complicated and hard to objectivize domain of the law based on which it is sometimes very hard to come to justified solutions.

The EuGH and patent courts are full of current conflicts and curious cases: For example, famous Levi is charging Kenzo with stealing their signature red label on the pockets of trousers. They have filed a trademark infringement, protesting theft of their decades long signature sign. In UK Mondelez is charging Poundland in front of the High Court for stealing their mountain-alike chocolate look by trying to release Twin Peaks, a double chocolate bar Toblerone look alike.

The design-original dilemma

In our contemporary and inter connected world there is a huge amount of designs and it is developed so much that there is so little space for creating original products. Designers work in a field that demands creativity and inventiveness. On the other hand, design always has a purpose which sets the limit to the creativity. This is also the most important difference between design and art – Art must be original, while design always has a purpose and has to be original in addition to that. However, the borders are fluid even in art.

“Good artists copy, great artists steal”

the quote accredited to Steve Jobs reflects the attitude of this design icon towards artistic mastery – “make something someone else has made but make it so that people recognize it as your own.” Apple acted exactly in this way and has appropriated the patterns and philosophy of the brand BRAUN, founded by Dieter Braun in the 1960ies. However, they made it their own. This is especially visible in the case of the calculator, described by the FAZ article from 2010.

BRAUN products from the 60s / Photo by Sherzod Max on Unsplash

Meanwhile, we at WILDDESIGN are happy that the dominant influence Apple has on design practices has diminished – nowadays it is not so that 4 out of 5 customers express a wish for their Refrigerator-sized product to have a sexy iPhone look.

Where does the copying begin?

Is it with the requirement to mimic a successful example such as iPhone is? Especially in design there a constant pressure to be original. Jarod Drysdale, the author of “Bootstrapping Design” shares: “This is what designers often refer to as “finding inspiration”, “benchmarking”, and “best practice”. These are all fancy euphemisms for copying.”

Still, we should try not to reinvent the wheel.

There is also a practical reason why designers follow certain conventions and rules and are furthermore required to work according to the technical state of arts. Deviation from the tried and tested usually causes the problem of users not being acceptable towards the product. Is, therefore, the pressure for originality useful? People are creatures of habit, we get used to working on an intuitive level in our everyday lives. Coming up with a completely original design for a product people already use in certain ways can affect the usability and confuse the consumers making the design undesirable and unsuccessful.

Copying – does it happen only in China?

We would like to discuss the stereotype that copying and copy rights infringement exclusively happen in China. It could be true for simple plagiarism cases, however the reality is much more complexed and nuanced.

The story of the label “Made in Germany” shows that it could go the other way around, overturning the moralistic position regarding the copies from abroad. Namely, at the end of the 19th century the British industry labeled German products, especially the ones inferior in quality with the “Made in Germany” sign. It lasted for long 60 years until the label changed its meaning and became the absolute warranty of quality.

Similar could happen with the “Made in China” label, potentially even faster than in the German case. What we in Europe can hardly imagine and experience is our everyday reality in our Shanghai headquarters: Chinese designers that have worked, or are still working with us in the past 12 years are one of the most original persons and creative designers we have ever met. And these people are not exceptions to the rule. China emancipates itself in design, alongside other fields.

What now? The question of benefit and harm

Besides the ethical outcry copying can be soberly seen having in mind the harm that is caused to the creator and the dissemination among the users. The case of the 3D copy of Salvia Elisa intensive care ventilator highlights the Product-Placement aspect of design – the same product is used in German hospital daily soaps and represents the quality medical equipment, therefore giving credibility to the series. It is, to some degree an unpaid promotion for Salvia.

Even though we did not find a concluding and definitive answer to our starting question, we naturally support the utmost important of creativity and the biggest possible distance from products other creatives have developed. However, we are all for legal and ethically clean methods for securing the best possible outcomes for the customers and designing the products that will be competitive on the market, having in mind the motto:

Most advanced – yet acceptable!

What will be after COVID-19?
China’s Medical Industry Outlook 2019


Markus writes about design- and innovation management, creativity methods, medical design and intercultural branding. More about...

Originally written by Markus Wild, 27. May 2019. Last updated 14. April 2021

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