Attack of the Clones: Buying & Selling Counterfeit Products

Clones, counterfeits, bootlegs. I’m sure that we all have an opinion about buying (or marketing) them. Those opinions may be strong, or they may bother on apathetic. However what is harder to determine is if they are right or wrong; or ethical or immoral.

This issue came to the forefront of my mind after reading this article on Spinfuel. Basically the article’s author is in vehement opposition of the creation and buying of cloned vaporizing devices. Many of the article comments refute her opinion surprisingly well. The reasons range from highlighting the fact that China’s copyright and patent laws are different than that of the United States; and that there is great need in the market for replicas. Especially if they can be offered with a considerable cost savings and the original manufacturer is overcharging you for R&D and name brand. In the end, it is the consumer that wins.

I personally can see both sides of the argument, and to me, it depends on what type of consumer base you are dealing with. But first, let me give you some highlights with my experience with clones.

 Cloned or “Stencil” Equipment

 When I was a kid, band and playing instruments was my thing. However my family was also poor. Fortunately, back when I was in elementary school, the school owned many musical instruments that you would just “sign out” if you were interested in learning to play them. I don’t remember there being a charge to do this…but if there was, it was very nominal. They were old and beat up, but they worked. Plus there was no way that my family had the cash to shell out on even a used clarinet or flute for me. So I played on the school instruments all through elementary school.

 Keep in mind, this is no longer an option at many schools, in that they no longer have school owned instruments to lend to kids to play…especially on the elementary school level!

 When my family saw that I was going to stick with it, I moved into the rental program with the local music store. Again, options were limited back then. You could either rent or buy…and buying was still out of the question. The problem with renting is that you pay full retail. But at least you get to pay it off over a long period of time. In the early 90s, I rented my flute for 5 long years. Finally, I had enough banked to “purchase” my new one. An Armstrong 303B with the piccolo outfit for about $1,700. Yes, I got ripped off. However like I said, no real alternative for us.

 Fast forward ten years or so, and I got a job working at Sam Ash in the Band & Orchestra department. That’s when I got my first real understanding of clones and stencils. Sam Ash is a “big box” musical retailer; not a local music store. Therefore they are a dealer for hundreds of brands and thousands of items in stock. Although we could order high-end, professional level instruments, we mainly stocked the student level and intermediate instruments. For student instruments, Sam Ash had enough klout to create their own “house brand” for band instruments — called Jean Baptiste. These were Chinese made instruments. And I loved selling them.

As a flute player, I didn’t hesitate to suggest the cheapest Jean Baptiste flute to parents…especially parents of elementary school children. Why? Well, because I’ve seen firsthand how quickly kids can change their minds. The Jean Baptiste sold for $175 (back then, now it’s over $200). It had a one-year warranty and repair plan through Sam Ash. So while they weren’t made very well, they did work and were more than suitable to learn the basics of flute playing. And in all honesty, when it comes to woodwinds, they are delicate anyway. If you think that a Selmer flute won’t ding and bend where a Jean Baptiste will, you’re in for a rude awakening. In addition, I did buy a Chinese piccolo in the early 90s that was pretty much unplayable…it was that bad. The Jean Baptiste instruments were in a completely different class (a decade later).

Etude student flute

The Etude brand student flute. Retails on Amazon for $99. Compare this to the Gemeinhardt student flute that sells for $479. Personally, I would not feel comfortable buying this flute without being able to see it and test it first. But I do not deny that this could be an incredible deal and cost-savings to parents.

If I could turn back the clock, it would have been great if I could have started off with a new Jean Baptiste flute instead of a 30 year old flute that was tarnished, missing stoppers and the tuning top. Yes, I stuck with it regardless. But yes, I did eye the instruments of the kids whose parents could afford to even do a rental…to play an instrument that actually looked they way it was supposed to. Yes, it would have been nice.

Conclusion here: clones serve an important role to give access to equipment to people who cannot afford the name brand. This is nothing to be ashamed of!

OEM vs. non-OEM Equipment

Almost all of us have purchased equipment which people in the industry refer to as ‘aftermarket’ or ‘non-OEM’. ‘OEM’ stands for ‘Original Equipment Manufacturer’. So why not just say ‘Factory’ or ‘Manufacturer’? Well…

Let’s take cars for example; they have thousands of parts. Dodge does not make every part on the car. They might get Raybestos to make the brakes, and Panasonic to make the radio (and I’m just speaking out off my head here, I really have no idea who makes these parts for Dodge!). So what are your options if you need brakes for your car? Well you can take it to the dealer. They will most likely throw on brakes that replace what the car came from the factory with. You’re also paying for dealer markup and the assurance that your car is being kept ‘to original specifications’ as much as possible. Or you can go to another auto parts retailer or mechanic. They will most likely give you the option of OEM Equipment. So Raybestos brakes, under the original manufacturer’s name, not Dodge’s. You will also have the option to upgrade above the quality of the factory equipment your car came with; if you want to.

Now, you have specialty brake manufacturers, like Bembo, who didn’t supply your Dodge with brakes originally, but produce brakes that can fit your Dodge. You have these types of manufacturers on both the high end…and on the low end. So as you can see, OEM doesn’t = good; and non-OEM doesn’t = bad.

And the Sticking Point, is Always Going to be Quality

I’ll be the first person to raise my hand and admit that I’ve turned to online shopping as a means to find what I want at rock bottom prices. Sometimes it turns out good. Other times…a disaster. Of the disasters, I’ve had:

  • A $3.00 iPod charging cord that fell apart in less than two weeks
  • A $400 black tenor saxophone who’s paint you could scratch off with your fingernail, and while it would play, would come out of adjustment at a moderate jostle
  • A lot of 10 CE4 electronic cigarette clearomizers for $14.99…or about $1.50/each. They sell in the local stores for about $3.50. However of the 10, at least 3 of them don’t work. So I’m feeling less excited about the “great deal” I found, because it’s turning out to be a hassle.

Those are just three examples…I’m sure there are quite a few more!

In my experience, buying clones online has been a crapshot. I’ve had much better luck when I could see the item firsthand and test it out.

And not to pat myself on the back or anything, but I am the type of shopper who is pretty knowledgable about what they buy, and I like to go home and research things. This has really helped me in regards to buying clones…in that I know exactly what to look for. For items that I’m not so expert in, I defer to friends and family who are.

While not all clones come from Asia, business practices in Asia are where factories come and go…manufacturing agreements are cancelled and transferred. Long story short, name brand isn’t always reliable. Things can change from year to year…for the better, or for the worst.

Conclusion: The preferable way to buy a clone is in a situation where you can see and test the product. Any other way, you’re taking a bigger risk.

Knockoffs, Counterfeits and Bootlegs

It’s one thing to know when you are buying a clone, compared to when you think that you are getting the original, and it turns out to be a fake. It seems that this happens in the vaping community quite frequently. It stems from the industry being so new (so consumers don’t have the prior experience and are at the mercy of vendors really), and from the fact that such a high percentage of the industry is fueled by online sales.


Vision Spinner II 1600

The alleged counterfeit of the Vision Spinner II 1600 mAh e-cigarette battery is on the left, the authentic one is on the right. Apparently the manufacturer uses black font on the stainless steel versions, not white like they do with some of the other colors. The counterfeits sell for about $15 and up; while the authentic versions sell anywhere from $25-$35.

Counterfeits hurt both the consumer and the original vendor alike. Consumers are more apt to write bad reviews than good ones. If they get their hands on an inferior clone, and they think that it is your product, then the word spreads like wildfire that your product is an overall piece of crap.

Many manufacturers have incorporated authenticity seals and other means for a consumer to determine if their item is genuine or not. However you will always have that consumer base that just does not care. They want the prestige that comes with owning a particular brand of product, but they don’t want to pay (or can’t pay) the market price.

It goes without saying that if you are selling or marketing a counterfeit product and trying to pass it off as the original, you are engaging in unethical business practices. It does not matter if there is a law in place protecting the product or not. Any profits that you collect are ill-gained!

In Conclusion (Finally!)

Making a cloned copy of a manufactured item, whether it’s a 1:1 copy, or an improved/cheapened imitation, is not inherently right or wrong in terms of business ethics. That determination is made by an entire host of factors besides whether or not the item is cloned or not. Counterfeit items tend to be more problematic than not though, since their manufacturers are purely focused on profit, and not on build quality. With that being said, there will always be the consumer demand for off-brand copies of both popular and expensive products. From the sales side of the equation, you want to not only keep your profit margin on the high end of priorities, but product quality as well. Who wants to sell a product that will not meet the needs of their customer base on alienate them in the long run? From the consumer standpoint, if you about more than just appearances, make sure that you are knowledgeable about the clone that you are buying. If you are not, seek the advise of someone else who is. Keep in mind that whatever money you save buying a clone, you are essentially flushing it down the toilet if the product does not work well or has a shortened lifespan due to inferior craftmanship.