Shanzhai skyscrapers

Kal and I have a new post today up at the Freakonomics blog, this time on an close replica in the Chinese city of Chongqing of a building designed by starchitect Zaha Hadid that’s currently being built in Beijing.

At upper left is a rendering of the Hadid original.

And here’s a picture of the “Hadid” copy.

Both buildings are under construction. At the rate things are going, the Chongqing copy may be done sooner than the Beijing original. The Chinese really have outdone themselves this time.

The question for us is why copying is so ubiquitous in China. In the case of the Hadid building, it can’t be cost. Given that design is an insignificant part of the total cost of a large commercial building, the copyists couldn’t have saved much. So what’s going on?

Does this Chinese cabbie love Louis Vuitton? Or hate them?

From a faithful student correspondent (who won’t be named so that Louis Vuitton’s famously aggressive lawyers won’t try to seize his camera), comes this picture taken from the back of a taxi tooling around Xi’an, China.  What you see is a mud-covered “Louis Vuitton” floormat.  Although of course Louis Vuitton, the famed luxury goods manufacturer, would never, never make floormats for cars.

This is obviously a fake. Less obvious is the message it’s meant to send. Is this homage to LV by a cabbie who wants to class up his ride? Or, is this cabbie subverting the creeping capitalist takeover of his country by encouraging his customers to wipe their feet on this symbol of Western decadence and excess?

Hard to tell.  But we’re confident that LV’s lawyers would be furious either way. LV is (in)famous for its rabidly aggressive responses to unauthorized uses of its brand.  A few years back they sued Haute Diggity Dog, a pet products company that markets, among other things, a “Chewy Vuiton” dog chew toy, which was shaped like a woman’s handbag and used a “CV” mark similar to Vuitton’s “LV”. Here it is:

LV lost the case — Haute Diggity Dog’s chew toy, the court held, was a parody of the LV handbag, and Vuitton could not use its trademark rights to suppress Haute Diggity’s First Amendment rights to make a lawful parody.

After that loss you might think Vuitton would re-think their approach. But instead, they doubled down. In February of this year Vuitton threatened to sue the University of Pennsylvania when it found out that students at Penn’s law school were planning an academic conference on trademarks in the fashion industry (sic). Vuitton objected to the parodic use of its mark in this poster advertising the conference:

As you can see, the poster uses the letters “TM” in the shape of Vuitton’s LV. Clever? Yes. Confusing to consumers? Um, no. No one in the market for a Vuitton handbag is going to rock up at an academic conference in Philadelphia, or is even likely to think that Vuitton has anything to do with it. But to the lawyers at LV, who must sleep in their suits, this was an outrage. They fired off a nastygram to the university, ordering them to take the poster down, and chastising the Penn law faculty for not “understand[ing] the basics of intellectual property law.” After consultation with some of the IP faculty at the law school, Penn politely told LV to go fly a kite. Penn’s letter to LV is a masterful piece of cutting understatement.

Why is Vuitton so aggressive? One reason might be that, at least in the past, judges in trademark cases would occasionally hold that a trademark that had not been aggressively enforced was abandoned. But those holdings are increasingly decrepit, and courts in recent years have been much less ready to hold trademarks abandoned because of non-enforcement. So there must be something else going on here. Maybe LV’s lawyers want to be known as the baddest guys on Madison Avenue. Well, if that’s your motivation, when you do file or threaten a lawsuit, it’s important that you win.

Why are the Chinese so devoted to knockoffs?

That’s the subject of this interesting article in the International Herald Tribune. The article begins with a crazy-sounding anecdote — apparently, a property developer in southern China built a nearly-exact copy of the picturesque town square of Hallstatt, Austria. You can see the Chinese knockoff in the picture at left — although the Austrian brass band is real. The question the article grapples with is the obvious one — why would anyone want to do this?  And what lies underneath the ubiquity of knockoffs in China?

The article advances a few theories. One is cultural — Chinese tradition holds that copying is a way of showing respect for artistic, literary, or technological mastery.  There’s a famous and excellent book by William Alford that advances this thesis (among others): To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization. A second is linguistic — the task of memorizing the huge array of pictographic characters necessary to become literate in Chinese requires a massive amount of rote copying of those characters, and early immersion in this activity helps create a national proclivity for copying. That, at least to me, sounds like a “just so” story — seemingly commonsensical, but a bit too tidy and incapable of proof.

In any event, the IHT article engages in a bit of civilized China-bashing, including some sniffiness about China’s inability thus far to knock off the one Western innovation that the U.S. and its allies would dearly like to see copied — democracy. But the article also misses a broader point. The Chinese are avid knockoff artists.  But they are also increasingly innovative.  How to square these two trends?  Well, shanzhai may be part of the answer.  The Chinese mode of innovation may turn out to be different from ours, but just as valuable. It may be that China emerges as a nation of world-class tweakers — i.e., focusing on innovations that build on others’ creativity. As we discuss in The Knockoff Economy, this sort of innovation is often disparaged, or ignored. But it’s a vital ingredient in a thriving creative economy. And China may be the next hotbed.