Shanzhai -- The Ancient Chinese Art of Brand Identity Theft
I started writing about Brand Identity Theft last week because, well, honestly, the domain name was available. But when I started digging into the whole fake brands, lazy designers and just funny product adaptations, I stumbled into the whole world of Chinese knockoffs, Shanzhai.
The Wiki entry calls Shanzhai
Chinese imitation and pirated brands and goods, particularly electronics. Literally 'mountain village' or 'mountain stronghold', the term refers to the mountain stockades of regional warlords or bandits, far away from official control.
Ethics are contextual. For example, the Native American tribes believe in taking care of their members by, for example, giving your brother a job on your construction project just because he's your brother. But the US Government calls that nepotism and has laws against it.
I think there's some ethical difference that I'm missing between our sense of intellectual property and Chinese culture. I don't think they really think they're doing anything wrong when they build a fake KFC or make a shampoo called 'Oil of Okay.' It's not stealing, after all, it's just making something that looks like something successful.
Sometimes, they do it poorly and it's amusing. Sometimes they do it so well even the people involved don't know they're dealing with a fake like the Apple Store found in China last month where the employees really thought they were working for Apple.
I have to wonder if the employees at that store were more disappointed they lost their jobs or that they were duped. Again, I know the cultural difference says that Shanzhai isn't as big a deal in China as it is in the US, so if you remove cultural differences, is there still something wrong with the idea?
I have written a lot about my complaints about the way Steve Jobs runs his company, or the way that the iWhatever fans clamor for a minor upgrade like the Second Coming. But the design of the products, and the design of the marketing is Apple's. It's Steve Jobs' vision, it's the development of really thought out product designs, and it's countless sleepless nights to get things just right.
I think it's clear that when you take someone else's idea and present it as your own, you are stealing. You're stealing the time, the creativity and the very soul of a person. Imitation may be the best form of flattery, but you have to have originality to have something to imitate.
There's the other realm of poking fun of another person's idea, be it their brand or their political campaign, but being clever for fun is different than being clever for profit. I like clever things and clever people, and Shanzhai can be clever, but then a really good jewel heist can be clever too.