A while back I was summoned for jury duty and found myself being considered for a case against a young Latina with a court translator. She was accused of selling counterfeit Gucci and Chanel purses on the street in L.A. After introducing the case, the judge asked: “Is any reason why you could not objectively apply the law?” My hand shot up.
I have to admit, I’m kind of disgusted that state resources are being used to protect the corporate interests of Chanel and Gucci.
Then I gave a spiel about corruption in the criminal justice system and finished up with:
I think that society should be protecting its weakest members, not penalizing them for trivial infractions. There is no way in good conscience I could give that girl a criminal record, I don’t care if she’s guilty. Some things are more important than the rules.
I was summarily dismissed.
Criminal prosecutions are one way to decrease counterfeiting and, yes, protect corporate interests and Shaynah H. sent in another: shame. This National Crime Prevention Council/Bureau of Justice Assistance ad, spotted in a mall in Portland, tells you that if you buy knock-offs, you are “a phony.”
Yikes. I would have preferred “savvy” or “cost-conscious.” But, no, the message is clear. You are a fake person, a liar, a hypocrite. You are insincere and pretentious. You are an impostor. (All language borrowed from the word’s definition.) And these are not something that anyone wants to be.
But, honestly, why does anyone care?
I suspect that counterfeits don’t really cut into Chanel’s profits directly. The people who buy bags that costs thousands of dollars are not going to try to save some pennies by buying a knock-off. Or, to put it the inverse way, the people who are buying the counterfeits wouldn’t suddenly be buying the originals if their supply ran out.
Instead, policing the counterfeiters is a response to a much more intangible concern, something Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural capital.” You see, a main reason why people spend that kind of money on handbags is to be seen as the kind of person who does. The handbags are a signal to others that they are “that kind” of person, the kind that can afford a real Gucci. The products, then, are ways that people put boundaries between themselves and lesser others.
But, when lesser others can buy knock-offs on the street in L.A. and just parade around as if they can buy Gucci too! Well, then the whole point of buying Gucci is lost! If the phony masses can do it, it no longer serves to distinguish the elites from the rest of us.
In this sense, Chanel and Gucci are very interested in reducing counterfeiting; the rich people who buy their products will only do so if buying them proves that they’re special.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Trilby — July 16, 2012
Similar to the sumptuary laws passed to keep the distinction between the lower classes (esp. the middle class) and their betters.
Yrro Simyarin — July 16, 2012
Jury Nullification. More useful than an angry speech.
Emile Snyder — July 16, 2012
Curious about your jury duty anecdote, did you feel any tension about whether to disclose your feelings? One time I was called it surprised my how stressed out I felt about being put into that kind of a situation.
Susan R. — July 16, 2012
I have read somewhere (sorry, no time to check now!) that counterfeit fashion items are often made in really, really terrible sweatshop conditions. I know that's also true for many 'legitimate' fashion items! But at least Chanel, etc. are theoretically subject to labor regulations.
Anittah Patrick — July 16, 2012
So, there is a journal entry in the accounting books for companies that holds brand equity as an actual value that grows over time. I've often wondered if brands are required to defend their trademark in what I would consider icky ways in order to defend themselves against claims of cooking the books by auditors and such. i.e. if they don't defend, then they cannot justify that journal entry or whatever and/or could expose themselves to being unable to go after competing companies that try and knock off their designs (probably the bigger issue). Does anyone know anything about this?
Dawn Mooney — July 16, 2012
Yet the rich often don't have a problem with counterfeit body parts-- implants, hair extensions, acrylic nails and the like. Oh, the irony.
Elena — July 16, 2012
The flipside of laws against counterfeiting is that they are a form of consumer protection. If you pay for a brand item, you are assured that you aren't being sold an inferior quality fake at the price of the original product, like fake Lacoste polos with fraying seams or poor quality materials.
A related but different issue is that of shanzhai objects-- imitations that appear just close enough to the original to be mistaken for it at a quick passing glance, but that are different enough to remain this side of the law. For example, instead of a fake Lacoste polo, think of a polo with a crouching T-rex logo instead of a crocodile. In this case, there is little problem of the consumer mistakenly buying a fake when they intended to buy a brand item...
And another different issue is design lookalikes, just like everyone from Zara to Forever 21 has been riffing for a couple of years on Miu Miu's famous bird print. This summer the "it" thing has been vegetable print dresses (originally by Dolce & Gabbana), I'm sure you'll catch some if you go shopping :D
Leonidas Prime — July 16, 2012
I don't know about "cultural capital", but you have to consider the economics of commodities. An item is priced based on supply vs. demand. It just happens that the demand is higher for these items. Regardless of what that reason is that demand goes up for a commodity, it is responsible for driving the cost. Commodities can be compared to currency on this analogy. The value of the USD (imagine for a second that it isn't the world currency) is also partially governed this way. Now that this analogy has been made, you can say that counterfeited commodities are like counterfeited currency. I realize this is a extremely dumbed down version. It's just how I get around the understanding upholding the law against counterfeited goods. I hope this helps others.
Alex Tinsley — July 16, 2012
It's not about rich or poor, it's about copyright and trademark infringement. If a clothing company DOESN'T persecute someone for using their logo, they could lose their right to it. Beyond that, a luxury brand usually stands for a certain level of quality in material and craftsmanship- to have low-quality fakes floating around could jeopardize their reputation. I can definitely understand why they wouldn't want that happening.
If this girl (or any other counterfeiter) wants to sell purses on the side of the street that look vaguely like designer bags, that's fine. It's when they claim that they ARE designer bags (and use TM'd images like the logos) that it becomes a problem. A company, large or small, protecting it's intellectual property does not hurt the lower class. Come on.
Rayna Dexter — July 16, 2012
Johanna Blakely's TED talk from 2010 is both related and relevant to this topic. I'm not an expert on the subject, but it makes me wonder what exactly about the knock offs from your story left that particular woman open to prosecution.
the world — July 16, 2012
This disgusts me too. Billion dollar corporations controlling political power to gear laws to further their profits. Unless the replicas pose a safety risk due to substandard material or products (hardly likely for most fashion items, but very possibly for e.g. cosmetics and food) there should be no or very little intellectual property protection over physical products. Copy away. It is all the better for the consumers.
What's that? Will it damage the megacorps "product communication and identity"? Great! Society and people will be better for it.
Bryce — July 16, 2012
I think you mean symbolic capital - cultural capital was a non material code for interpreting aesthetic mediums (ala distinction). in this instance, the cultural capital would be the ability to tell counterfeits because of the accumulated knowledge from your spent social capital - which is itself made possible by your access to economic capital. :)
Vadim McNab — July 16, 2012
Thank goodness you were dismissed, or rather that we have a system where you can be dismissed.
So when someone plagiarizes your next book, article, whatever, and uses it for profit, you won't mind, right?
Carol Perryman — July 16, 2012
Lisa, this is an assumption:
"Well, then the whole point of buying Gucci is lost! If the phony masses
can do it, it no longer serves to distinguish the elites from the rest
While buying such luxury-branded goods, it may be important to have the real thing, you are disregarding those who are not among the elite, but who value the brand name. Why they do so is really very immaterial. Perhaps someone dreamed of owning a real... Gucci, or a very expensive bag of some kind. What if this ersatz item was represented as the real thing, at a great price?
EBay apparently spends a fair amount of time trying to protect against such fraud - and that is what it is, actually. You could argue that the seller of fakes on EBay is different than a single woman on a street corner - but doing so actually exposes a flaw in your argument. Do we need to know that the seller on the street is a poor person with need of the income? If there is intent to defraud, does it matter who, or where, commits the fraud? Do you feel that it is up to the buyer to detect such frauds (because after all, who would buy a Gucci for $ whatever)? Who is the victim here?
The use of branded high-dollar items to signal class affiliation is not the only issue, and nor is the class affiliation or need of the seller.
Jenswear10 — July 16, 2012
awww, reducing rich peoples ability to feel special. such a shame, i'm crushed!
Tusconian — July 16, 2012
Eh. A lot (I don't know about all, but a LOT) of knockoffs are bought from sweatshops, while the expensive ones typically are not, and of significantly higher quality. I've had Coach bags, and bags from Target, and yes, you ARE paying for quality if you get the name brand (I don't believe people who say their Target bag lasts for years and years and years of heavy use, because it's really not possible. Mine have frayed, and even fallen apart, after 2 years of light use, and that is the long runner). Now, I doubt that going after the people who sell the bags is going to change anything. The girl selling them in the street isn't personally rounding up sweatshop labor, and everyone buying a 20 or 50 dollar bag that "should" have a price tag in the hundreds knows full well their bag is either fake or stolen.
As for the "I'm A Phony" thing....well. I think buying a name brand or a knockoff just for the name isn't something to be applauded. If it was just to be thrifty, all of those things come in the same styles without the brand name on them. And they're usually cheaper than the knockoffs. If the point is to spend less money, why not buy the 20 dollar no label version than the 50 dollar knockoff, just to say "look, I have a designer bag?" Hell yeah, that's phony. That person isn't being thrifty and spending smart, that person is trying to say "LOOK AT ME, I'M IMPORTANT AND RICH!" without spending the money. I'd call that person pretentious. I don't feel bad for big name brands, because you're right, counterfeits probably aren't making a significant dent in their sales (people who can afford them and are trying to pinch pennies would buy them gently used, or at outlet malls). But I also cannot feel compelled to shed a tear for someone being called pretentious and fake because they had to have a name brand item THAT BAD to prove to everyone they had more money than they did.
EMB — July 16, 2012
Wow, and I thought being a mathematician with a beard and pony tail was a good way to get out of jury duty...
DISmagazine.com — July 16, 2012
kevd — July 16, 2012
Oh Lisa.... If you had really cared about that woman on trial, you would have kept your mouth shut, gotten on the jury and made sure that she was found not guilty.
But a big powerful speech and quickly getting back to your life, full of self-satisfaction for having stood up to the big evil corporate oligarchy (while actually accomplishing nothing) was more important than actually preventing that woman from getting that criminal record.
Since you called it a "spiel," I'm guessing you already know this.
Oh, so do your responses to similar comments below.
So... um... what they said.
Joseph J Kane — July 16, 2012
This reminds me of how the term "transvestite" was originally defined as an individual who dressed in such a way as to cross class boundaries. Of course such activity was made illegal because how else could someone tell the difference between a baron and a duke?
Koldpurple — July 17, 2012
Good job Lisa Wade!
Jd — July 17, 2012
I take your point about wasting State resources on protecting large companies, however I believe in an artists right to profit from their creativity.
In the example of a counterfeit designer pram the manufacturer has spent years and millions on R&D costs and taking it through rigorous stafety tests which do comprise a higher cost per unit that the person who is making (possibly dubious and possibly unsafe) copies.
Ellie — July 17, 2012
Ahh it's not abou rich, poor, trademarks or anything of the sort! The sad truth is that money from counterfeit goods are used to sponsor drug cartels and other illegal organizations. which is why it's so important that the justice system deals with this as a crime!
Anna — July 17, 2012
I find it hard to find fault in anyone who despises powerful corporations and the rich, and stands for the rights of the poor and powerless. It's perhaps naively and conveniently a black-and-white worldview, but still a worthy, admirable view.
However, based on this and pretty much any post that touches on the fashion industry, I deeply wish that the editors of this blog either take a sabbatical to attend at least a year of History, Sociology, and Business of Fashion - ASAP! - or else not bring up issues related to fashion on this blog at all. The amount of unexamined, one-sided, and often plainly FALSE opinions masquerading as sociological tract is incredibly hypocritical and irresponsible.
Meganboe — July 17, 2012
This also highlights a problem with jury duty. Presumably, those who got on the jury at least thought they could objectively apply the law, which I think is never possible.
Samrogo79 — July 17, 2012
I do feel like if it was one man handcrafting goods of superior quality that I would want his rights to his product protected. Yet there is a disconnect when the product is being mass produced by corporations- I just dont care about their rights.
Guest — July 17, 2012
What if you are supporting a brand specifically because you like its ethics - for example its policy on labour or something? It's one thing when Gucci is suddenly called Gucki or something, but not so easy when someone sells you a counterfeit item but you don't know it.
alwaysanswerc — July 17, 2012
This, to me, seems like a poorly researched article. While it may be true that this particular woman being prosecuted is a bit player in the scheme of counterfeiting, there are plenty of reasons other than being rich and elitist to be opposed to counterfeits. For one thing, the counterfeit industry regularly funds criminal street gangs and terrorist organizations (less than 60 seconds on Google will bring up convincing evidence of this.)
For another thing, while 'cultural capital' is certainly a motivator for wealthy individuals in wearing certain labels, why are people who buy counterfeit products off the hook for participating in the same kind of materialism? Counterfeits cost a fraction of the price of the authentic version of the items, but they still usually cost more than a non-label item. Choosing to buy a counterfeit designer item, therefore, doesn't strike me as being particularly savvy or cost-conscious. Designer bags at least come with a quality upgrade along with their cost upgrade; counterfeits are often terrible quality, so the only reason to buy these at a higher cost than a non-label is to give the illusion of wealth. It is phony.
ididthatonce — July 17, 2012
I have to admit, I was totally on your team until I read a book a while back about a Chinese family who worked in a sweat shop in New York. It's not so much the counterfeiting that bothers me, but the conditions in which these goods are created. If there was proof that a counterfeit good was made by people on living wages and in good conditions, I'd be all for them.
Lovely Links: 7/20/12 — July 20, 2012
[...] Don’t totally agree with this piece, but it brings up some fascinating points. “The people who buy bags that costs thousands of dollars are not going to try to save some pennies by buying a knock-off. Or, to put it the inverse way, the people who are buying the counterfeits wouldn’t suddenly be buying the originals if their supply r....” [...]
The Real Threat Posed By Counterfeit Goods | Disinformation — July 24, 2012
[...] fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, "script", "facebook-jssdk")); Pin It Sociological Images on an anti-knockoffs informational campaign from the U.S. government, to discourage plebeians from [...]
Bobby Thompson — July 24, 2012
I suppose the author wouldn't mind if I copied this article to my blog and say I wrote it? I'm not a phony, just like to save time and am too busy to write my own article. Or how about I write an article that's of 100x less quality as this for my blog and put the author's name on it, is that cool?
davakins — July 25, 2012
gladrags for douchebags?
Lurper — July 26, 2012
I'm sorry I feel this post is not sociological but purely emotional.
Society has created a large sub-proletratiet (or marginal population) that acts as an unemployed-labor-pool or is forced into the low wage service industry and is controlled via threat of the penal system. This is obviously wrong, and those who try to escape unemployment or the low wage labor force by entering the grey market should not be punished, but to support the sale/purchase of knock-offs is ridiculous.
And to justify this by irrationally explaining it is ok because it holds cultural capital for the rich adds very little support to your already flawed thesis (also this a very superficial use of cultural capital).
Encouraging people to purchase knock-offs will not make a better society, it will simply make things worse. Selling/buying/stealing knock-offs reinforces the current power structure dominated by the capitalists that produce this material. "There is no swifter way to destroy injustice and contribute to the equalization of the classes than to undercut corporate profit by selling knock-offs." This statement couldn’t be anymore false. Rather than actually changing the power structure and the ideology around this object you are reinforcing it. If you really want to challenge the power and hegemonic control these conglomerates have stop consuming their products, the real or the simulation! By consuming their products, in any fashion, you are still giving them power. If you want to make a difference ignore the objects these corporations produce, period!
If you want to make this woman's life better (or anyone else in the marginalized section of the population) start shopping in businesses that (at a bare minimum) use a Fordist model of production and stop buying objects or services produced in post-Fordist model of production (legitimately or illegitimately) in high esteem.
If you buy a real Prada bag or fake Prada bag and claim to be for applied sociology or justice "you are a phony. A fake person, a liar, a hypocrite. You are insincere and pretentious. You are an impostor. " Not cost Savvy.
- steward - — July 27, 2012
There are two reasons:
1. They're required to protect their trademark; otherwise it might be voided.
2. Suppose you're a good auto mechanic. You open "Lisa's Garage". You do quality work for a price that seems reasonable to you.Five years later, as "Lisa's Garage" has gotten a stellar reputation, someone else opens an auto-repair business one mile down the road in the same town and calls it "Lisa's Garage". They're not even named Lisa. They do shoddy work and charge whatever they think they can get from the customer based on the reputation you built up. Cars repaired there break over and over again. What does that do to your reputation as the founder of the real "Lisa's Garage"? Can you charge the same price that you did for your excellent work anymore? In the long run, can you even stay in business?
Cachopa — July 30, 2012
I don't know how it goes in the USA, but Italy is a nice example of why we shouldn't buy counterfeit goods. In any italian city there are hundreds of illegal immigrants from Africa selling "phony" purses, watches, sun glasses, etc.. These people are there because they payed the mafia to illegally transport them there in miserable and dangerous conditions. Then, the mafia has them selling money laundering counterfeit goods in a slavery system and still risking being imprisoned if the police decides not to ignore them. Although I don't think wanting to wail around a fake Gucci makes anyone a phony, only a person who feels better if others think he/she has a Gucci (whatever that says about the person), it does makes us accomplices of a sordid crime.
Couture girl — December 28, 2012
I agree that it's a lot about the rich feeling special (when really many of them are not!) but I say that if people can make money doing something they will especially when their options are limited. They go after people selling fake goods but what about all the aholes on wall street who sold fake bonds (bonds worth no money) and junk mortgage packages. I guess laws are only for those that don't have alot of money to buy a lawyer to beat the charges or pay off politicians. Personally I have no problem with it until they make things more equitable.
arsetechnica — April 20, 2013
counterfeit and IP are fundamental to control since the rise of the priestly class. The Protestant Reformation was a subversion of the brand of Catholicism and it's control of the code base (the bible, etc) It's the mechanism of sanction that worth investigating. How one Mexican Drug cartel uses the DEA to attack it's competitor. How Swatch and *Disney* control how an idea is owned.
TokyoWomenAreAmazing — August 3, 2013
Although most of everything said in this article is generally true... There is another side here that is not even acknowledged, and that is the rights to trademarks that these companies (Gucci, Chanel, etc) are all entitled to legally and federally... They follow the rules and essentially are not breaking any laws with their trademarks..so why should their situation be any different than perhaps a legitimate drug company's rights to trademarks? There are many counterfeit products (drugs in particular) that are made with poor or inadequate ingredients. In the case of drugs, this can be dangerous and lethal and cause deaths to people who rely on the real (non-counterfeit) drugs.. This makes counterfeit drugs extremely dangerous, and this is a huge problem all over the world. And I am not referring to "generic" drugs, I am literally referring to "counterfeit" drugs. My point is... trade laws exist for a reason and Gucci & Chanel are within their federal rights. For that reason, they should not be blamed for protecting their hard-established trademarks. I think the writer of this article is not somebody intelligent enough to be making such bold statements. For the record, I am not the type of person who buys brand name products just for the name. I have definitely never purchased Gucci or Chanel anything. I am fine with generic or lower-class products all the same. However, I am not fine with counterfeiting as this article is suggesting is "OK"... That is an asinine ideology.
Lisa Wade, PhD- From Manly to Sexy: The History of the High Heel | angelo ray martinez — November 26, 2013
[…] differentiates the rich from the rest, the rich will drop it. This, I argue elsewhere, is why some people care about counterfeit purses (because it’s not about the quality, it’s about the […]
History of the Heels | Godsloveandlaw's Blog — December 11, 2015
[…] differentiates the rich from the rest, the rich will drop it. This, I argue elsewhere, is why some people care about counterfeit purses (because it’s not about the quality, it’s about the […]
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