Stop Faking It

Germany's Museum Plagiarius showcases knockoffs. The founders are determined to protect small designers from counterfeiters that stifle innovation

Caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, warns one of the oldest sayings in the book. That's also the message behind a new museum of counterfeit goods, which opens to the public on Apr. 1. The Museum Plagiarius, in the German city of Solingen near Cologne, will permanently exhibit some 300 original products together with inferior rip-offs produced by unscrupulous companies out for a quick buck.

Its message: Plagiarism kills innovation. "Companies have spent time and money making these products; if someone steals that idea, then they are also stealing the incentive to invent," says the museum's curator, Christine Lacroix, who is also managing director for nonprofit lobby group Aktion Plagiarius, which runs the museum and offers design companies legal advice and regular workshops to help fight against organizations that counterfeit.

Badge of Shame

It's essential to protect the small companies, Lacroix argues. Unlike similar collections like the Musée de la Contrefaçon in Paris, which exhibits fake versions of some of the world's biggest brands, like Louis Vuitton (LVMHY), Levi's, and Gucci, the Museum Plagiarius focuses on copies of products from little-known companies. "It's almost worse if you think about it," says Lacroix. "These outfits lack the money and brand recognition to promote and protect themselves, so they rely on the quality of their product alone to convince the consumer."

The museum has a wide collection of items to choose from. For 30 years, the museum's co-founder, Rido Busse, has given the annual Plagiarius award to a handful of unscrupulous product rip-offs. Busse, a design professor, created the award in 1977 when he discovered that a Japanese company had copied a set of scales he had made for the German interior design company Soehnle Waagen. He decided to publicly shame the Japanese outfit by symbolically awarding them a prize—a black garden gnome with a golden nose—which he handed out at the Hanover Fair in the presence of the only journalist who decided to turn up. (Naturally, the counterfeiter didn't show up to accept the award; it's safe to say that was one bizarre ceremony.) But the idea caught on. The next year several other companies submitted their original designs to Busse along with the rip-offs. Thirty reporters turned up to the ceremony, and the annual Plagiarius awards were born.

This year, an independent jury of eight design professionals presented 12 awards to the best—that's to say, the worst—plagiarists at the world's largest consumer goods trade fair, Ambiente, which takes place each February in Frankfurt. While many of the gnomes are handed to Asian companies, a surprising amount went to outfits closer to home, says Lacroix. "There are quite a few German companies that have no scruples in copying products from companies based just a few kilometers away from them. It's no longer just an Asian problem, it's happening in Europe too."

Counting the Losses

The figures are frightening: The World Customs Organization and the European Commission both estimate that 7% of worldwide commerce is counterfeit, causing global losses of up to $500 billion and several hundred thousand legitimate jobs each year. Both agencies concur that the problem is getting worse. "Of course, each country has laws designed to protect companies against counterfeit organizations," says Busse. "In Germany, the maximum sentence is five years in prison, but the reality is that not many outfits are convicted. We're trying to change things for the better, and for the fairer."

Busse and Lacroix don't pretend that Aktion Plagiarius, the museum, and the annual awards will solve the global problem, but they are making progress in Germany. As well as staging regular lectures and workshops for companies on how to fight brand and product piracy, they regularly campaign against shady manufacturers and distributors, often shaming them into retracting products from the market. In 2005, the top Plagiarius winner was a Taiwanese company that had copied a high-quality faucet. Busse's team convinced the German distributor of the counterfeit item to retract it from the market, something it had refused to do before the award.

But there's quite a way to go. In the meantime, as Lacroix points out, not only does product plagiarism kill innovation, it can be downright dangerous. Visitors to the museum may be unnerved to find not only expensive fashion goods and household items among the collection, but also electronic and medical products. It's one thing to buy a counterfeit chair, but quite another to wear fake reading glasses, to name just two unlucky winners of this year's gnome. Caveat emptor, indeed.

For a slide show of this year's Plagiarius Award winners, click here.