Book publishers don’t bother pursuing legal action against websites that offer free downloads of their books because of the sheer volume of illegal download sites. Musicians have gotten used to having their new releases pirated. Companies and entrepreneurs, particularly those that don’t have on-staff legal teams, feel helpless to prevent foreign companies from using their materials. Though what would happen if a U.S. company decided to pursue these cases? What if a copyright infringement case could actually have a happy ending?
That’s what happened with SeaDek Marine Products, a U.S. manufacturer of EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) foam material used for non-skid pads on boats and personal watercraft of all kinds. The material is similar in nature to sheet foam used to make sandals and flip-flops.
This raw material is imported from suppliers overseas. SeaDek laminates different colors together to create patterns, adds textured patterns to the surface, applies 3M™ acrylic-based high-bond pressure sensitive adhesive to the back, and routes patterns and text into the foam using CNC machines.
The company’s products and customers fall into several categories, including OEM boat manufacturers who use it on their high-end vessels, boat owners who order customized products, boat shops and distributors who sell SeaDek materials at retail, and sheet material for SeaDek Certified Fabricators and Installers worldwide.
“We’ve been manufacturing high quality marine-related products in the U.S. for several decades and we’ve been ripped off, stolen from, and generally infringed upon in just about every way possible,” said Jason Gardner, the company’s Vice President of Marketing and Advertising and one of the owners. “One knock-off manufacturer even went as far as to copy and paste all of the text from our website onto theirs and simply change the company name and contact information. When it comes to copyright and patent protection overseas, China in particular, we’ve always viewed it as a bit of a lost cause.”
Much of what you hear and read in the media would have you believe that China is a lawless land with no legal recourse for injustices in the market place and no desire or perceived need for reform. Anonymous Chinese companies have indeed stolen copyrighted material, pirated movies and games, and generally ignored violation enforcement of intellectual property rights and established patents for decades.
A few months back, while doing a weekly SEO Analysis, the SeaDek marketing team happened across a company that had taken copyrighted photos directly from the SeaDek website and used them on their own. The company, a Chinese manufacturing company that produced a low-quality version of the raw materials used in SeaDek’s products, had stolen their copyrighted materials.
“My first feelings were helplessness and anger,” Gardner explained. “Chinese companies steal copyrighted material every day and now it was happening to us. What recourse did we have against this company thousands of miles away in a country that doesn’t value intellectual property rights?”
Gardner shared his findings with his business partners and forwarded the information on to an attorney. No one expressed much hope of remedying the situation.
In a twist of irony, one week later Gardner got an email from the same company, trying to sell him their products using SeaDek’s copy and images.
“I can only assume that this was a blanket email they sent to a list of potential customers in the marine industry,” he said. “The person sending the email probably had no idea that the person building the website had stolen the images they were using to sell their services and creating the perception that they were already manufacturing finished goods like ours. Once they had a potential customer then they would try to actually produce a knock-off version.”
Gardner decided to take this one on. He went to work researching copyright infringement in China and was pleasantly surprised. He found that China has been cracking down on copyright infringement cases, even sending some violators to jail. For example, Zhou Zhiquan, the CEO of a pirated movie website, was sentenced to five years of imprisonment with a fine of one million Yuan, the equivalent of 160,000 American dollars.
Gardner also found several articles featuring Chinese copyright infringement cases in the news. The Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the American Embassy in Beijing both have helpful information on their websites. He dug up the name of the Deputy Director of the Chinese Telecommunication Administration, Li Xiangning.
Gardner formulated a courteous email, thanking the infringing company representative for taking the time to share their products and services. “I told them that our business and legal representatives in China had planned to contact them that same week and I was happy that their email had given me the opportunity to speak with them directly.”
He told them about the theft of SeaDek’s copyrighted images and wording, giving them an ultimatum. If they didn’t immediately remove the copyrighted material from their website and all marketing material, SeaDek’s legal team would file a formal complaint under article 5 of The Copyright Law of the People’s Republic of China pertaining to copyright infringement. He referenced Government and diplomatic websites in the correspondence, particularly fdi.gov.cn, a financial website and the international copyright pages of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing’s website. He also specifically mentioned Mr. Li Xiangning.
“Their response was swift and surprising,” Gardner explained. “Within 12 hours, I had received a formal apology from the company and they acknowledged the violation of our copyrights. They also completely removed of all of our images from their website, along with several that I assume belonged to other U.S. companies. Surprisingly, they even told me how seriously they considered violations of this sort and promised that they would never do such a thing again.”
While Gardner knows that this one incident isn’t enough to signify a sea change in the behavior of Chinese companies, it points to a reason for companies like his to attempt to address copyright infringement when they see it. While movies will continue to be pirated, copyrighted images will continue to be stolen and patents will continue to be infringed, it may be best to not simply “give up” in the face of violations.
It seems that China’s communist government is going after violators and this activity may send ripples throughout the country’s business community. If the government in Beijing stops turning a blind eye to this type of infringement, we can only hope that more changes will follow.