Hong Kong product designer Steve Yeung Siu-hong was at an amusement park with his son last November when the nine-year-old boy pointed at a plastic mask holder on a shop shelf and said: “Daddy, it’s your design!”
Yeung’s heart ached as he replied: “No, it’s a fake.”
Almost a year ago, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck and everyone in Hong Kong began wearing masks, Yeung and his partner, Maurice Kwok Ho-yin, noticed that people dining in restaurants simply left their masks on the tables.
The pair designed and produced their Maskeeper, a pocket-sized, foldable holder for masks to be kept hygienically
As sales took off, they registered the trademark, patent and design in Hong Kong, mainland China and Japan.
Then, to their dismay, countless counterfeit items began appearing on the market.
They have tracked down more than 150 copycats so far, including those produced, sold or distributed by corporations, media companies, lawmakers and even government departments.
Kwok said he was overwhelmed by the success and popularity of the product, but was traumatised to realise that people do not respect intellectual property rights.
The pair have reported almost 30 cases of copyright infringement to the Customs and Excise Department and are considering civil lawsuits against some companies.
“Hong Kong often claims to be a knowledge-based economy and creative capital,” said Kwok, a visiting lecturer at Polytechnic University. “But how do I convince my students that they have any prospect and can survive in an environment where manufacturers and the public do not care about intellectual property rights?”
The customs authority confirmed receiving the complaints, which are being investigated.
In 2019 and 2020, the department found 163 cases that breached the Copyright Ordinance, resulting in 71 prosecutions. The culprits were jailed for up to eight months and faced fines of up to HK$40,000 (S$6,900).
Under the Copyright Ordinance, it is an offence to possess or distribute items that infringe copyright to such an extent that the patent owner is affected. The offence carries penalties of up to four years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to HK$50,000 for each infringement.
Yeung and Kwok said that since their product hit the market, their design team turned into a “search team”, collecting copycat items that kept turning up everywhere. They followed up by tracking down the distributors or sending legal letters.
“We should have spent time on new innovations over the past 12 months, but our output has been next to zero,” Kwok said.
The counterfeits included products by schools and charity groups. Yeung said these groups bore legal responsibility, but were victims too, as manufacturers who ignored copyright earned money from them.
A public transport company which admitted overlooking the copyright issue approached Yeung and Kwok with legal documents.
The pair thought the company was prepared to discuss paying a licence fee for using their design but, to their surprise, its legal documents set out terms to allow it to continue producing the mask holders without liability, on a “licence-free” basis.
Yeung urged the government to do more to protect intellectual property and promote arbitration of related disputes.
“Hong Kong has a well-rounded registration system, but it seems enforcement cannot keep up. It takes a long time to get someone to stop selling counterfeits,” he said.
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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.