March 13, 2010

Fighting commercial knockoffsMaine companies take on copycats that are stealing designs and profits.



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Doug Jones/staff photographer: Wednesday, October, 29, 2008: Sarah Willhoite, deals with a customer at the counter of the Angela Adams retail store on Portland's Congress St., where large wool rugs, like this "Lulu" design hang for display. Like some other iconic Maine products Angela Adams designs are incurring 'knock-off' licensing infringement violations.

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Doug Jones/staff photographer: Wednesday, October, 29, 2008: This "Kenga" pattern is among three Angela Adams designs that has suffered from unlicensed reproduction by knock-off manufacturers. Angela Adams designs, like some other iconic Maine products are incurring knock-off licensing infringement violations.

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Staff Writer

You can recognize an Angela Adams piece at 20 paces, with its bright colors and playful designs. What's harder to spot is a knockoff.

Copycat products represent ''a significant problem for us, and growing,'' according to Margaret Minister O'Keefe, vice president of licensing for the Portland company that bears the name of its founder. In recent years, the company has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to knockoffs, despite a fairly aggressive stance on tackling copyright infringement, she said.

''They are an unfortunate cost of doing business,'' O'Keefe said. ''In addition to lost sales, due to lower-priced knockoffs, we also lose shelf-space at our retailers for our other products, we lose licensing opportunities across entire product categories (because an infringer has now already created an ''Angela Adams'' line of X products), and we lose the time and expense of negotiating with and, in a small number of instances, bringing to court these infringers.''

Dealing with knockoff products is a problem faced by many Maine companies that sell iconic items or merchandise with distinctive designs, such as L.L. Bean and Thom. Moser Cabinetmakers.

After striking retail gold with a distinct look and feel, these companies find it costly and frustrating to defend their copyright or trademark. They are forced to operate in an area of the law that is complicated and subject to interpretation: Is a look-alike product an illegal rip-off or a legitimately inspired homage to the original?

''Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,'' said Rita S. Heimes, a law professor at the University of Maine Law School and director of the Maine Patent Program. ''It's the ultimate pinnacle your brand can reach, to be so valuable that someone wants to knock it off. That's the Catch-22 of having a successful brand.''

David Moser, product development manager at Thom. Moser Cabinetmakers, said the company occasionally spots copies of their signature products, such as the Moser Continuous Arm Chair, the New Gloucester Rocker, the Aria Chair or the American Bungalow Collection.

In general, companies producing copies don't try to pass them off as Moser pieces, but as their own design, he said. Moser Cabinetmakers holds about 15 patents for distinct components and designs, which the company vigorously defends.

So far, the company has not had to go to court over a patent issue, but it does send one or two warning letters a year, Moser said.

One time, a big-box store he declined to identify carried a knockoff of one of Moser's patented pieces. The retailer dropped the item after being contacted by Moser.

''Clearly, it is something we take very seriously, but we're very fortunate that commercial knockoffs have been fairly rare,'' Moser said.

L.L. Bean also has to send out letters to hold off copycats of its signature items. But the retailer can find it very difficult to prove something is a knockoff, versus being an inspired rethinking of a product, L.L. Bean spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said.

''Certainly, we sell two of the most iconic products in the country. The boat and tote (bag) has been around for 75 years, and the Bean boot has been around for 95 years,'' Beem said. ''There are lots of imitations, but they can't try to market it the same way we do.''

One notable -- and harmless -- takeoff of the Maine Hunting Shoe was a 1994 Manolo Blahnik high-heel shoe that copied the signature Bean boot look, with leather instead of rubber and a wicked high heel.

''We actually got a big kick out of that. We saw it as very fun,'' Beem said with a laugh. ''We bought a pair and had it on display in the corporate offices for a while.''

The problem is more serious at Angela Adams, where copycats have taken the company's designs and applied them to all manner of products: wallpaper, pillows, home furnishings, packaging and, in at least one case, boogie boards.

The most popular designs that have been stolen are the Manfred, Kenga and Lulu lines, O'Keefe said.

To head off copycats, the company registers its designs and labels products with copyright notices. In some cases, firm takes the extra step of recording its designs with U.S. Customs, a move that helps customs officers to seize knockoffs before they enter the United States.

''We are not in the business of enforcing our rights in court, so our first effort is always a direct contact and a request for cooperation in putting an end to the infringement,'' O'Keefe said in an e-mail.

''We want to be good corporate citizens. The best outcome for us is a friendly and quick stop to sales of the infringing products. If we need to, we will enforce our rights in court.''

They have never lost a case.

The issue of copyright protection is the topic of an ongoing lecture series at the Maine Center for Creativity. Adams was the first speaker and gave the artists and designers good ideas about how to tackle the problem, said Executive Director Jean Maginnis.

Adams is relatively unique in that she has both trademarks and copyrights, noted Heimes, the law professor. Copyrights protect Adams' designs and trademark protects her name, the ''Angela Adams'' brand.

''It is absolutely worth it for Angela Adams to litigate,'' Heimes said. ''It's too bad she has to do it, but her most valuable asset is her intellectual property -- her unique style and her ability to license that design on multiple types of merchandise. To be frank, if she doesn't enforce them, she'll lose them.''

Failing to protect your brand isn't a viable option, officials say.

''It you don't protect your brand and your trademark, you are at risk of people taking advantage of you,'' Beem said.

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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Additional Photos

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Doug Jones/staff photographer: Wednesday, October, 29, 2008: The "Manfred" pattern by Angela Adams, seems to be popular with Knock-off infringers. Angela Adams designs, like some other iconic Maine products are incurring knock-off licensing infringement violations.


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