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Thursday, June 07, 2012

Let's Talk About Knockoffs in the Photo Industry.


The "borrowing of designs" has always been a part of the photo gear industry. But lately, it has spread to the point where it is much more ubiquitous—including by companies who previously would not have been caught dead knocking off another company's gear.

The imitations are usually cheaper. (Otherwise why bother, right?) But for for photographers who are presumably sensitive to intellectual property rights, this gets a little more complex.

And ethics notwithstanding, there is another long-term downside to the copycats…
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First, some conventions. By knockoffs, I am generally talking about a piece of gear that duplicates the main functionality of a unique, previously existing piece of gear. I'm not talking about the second manufacturer to make a light stand, or shoot-through umbrella. We're talking the near instantaneous copycatting of innovative new photo gear.

Here's an example. A few years ago Paul Buff introduced an all-new category of light modifier—a sub-$100, large, parabolic umbrella lighting system which he dubbed the PLM. It was an entirely new design with a flat, 16-rib parabola. Previously, buying a large "para" had meant a 4- (or 5!) digit price tag. Not surprisingly, the new PLM sold so fast Buff could not manufacture them fast enough.

The photo industry definitely noticed. Within a couple of months, copycat parabolic umbrellas (same shape, very inexpensive) started popping up everywhere. Let alone design their own innovative gear, some copycat manufacturers could even be bothered to tool up to create the knockoffs on their own.

Some examples of PLM copycats actually shipped with Buff's logo visible on product. In other words, some gear actually being made with "borrowed" molds.

Paul Buff, predictably, went apeshit. Having caught them red-handed, he wrote scathing and public letters accusing the knockoff artists of blatant theft.

Buff, a life-long serial innovator, was already busy redesigning his PLM into v2.0 and v3.0, each of which in turn was better than its predecessor. But the damage was done, with the PLM-clone "paras" flooding the market.

But what's the harm, right? Everybody gets cheap parabolic umbrellas!

Actually the harm comes later, when Buff decides not to not to finance the next big innovation in light control out of the realization that other companies are just going to immediately knock it off. That's the long-term, hidden cost of indulging all of the knockoff manufacturers.


Do Unto Others

And it's not just the Chinese pop-up rebrand companies, either. Westcott, a long-reputable lighting modifier company (I love their double-fold umbrellas) is selling a PLM knockoff. (As is Adorama, via the Flashpoint name.)

This actually surprised and saddened me, until I realized that Westcott may have well given up the high road after its own products started getting knocked off by companies like Phottix.

Phottix is a hard company for me to figure out. Much of the company's fast growth can be attributed to knocking off the gear of other manufacturers. Notably, their "Para Pro," [Paul Buff PLM] their "Easy-Folder," [Lastolite EzyBox] and their "Easy-Up," which is a knockoff of the Westcott Apollo.

Karma's a bitch.

But most famously, Phottix copied the electronics in the PocketWizard Plus II (with their Phottix Atlas) to the point where a US court granted an injunction against their sale in the US.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: In 2011, PocketWizard filed suit against Phottix alleging two counts of patent infringement. Phottix settled the suit out of court, with terms undisclosed. In the end, Phottix never sold the Atlas in the US. Subsequent to the settlement, Phottix stopped selling it elsewhere, too. At present, the Atlas product page does not appear on Phottix' online store. (More info/Links)

Oddly, Phottix is at the same time trying to establish itself as a legitimate world brand. Which kinda-sorta makes my head explode, given their continued existence as a serial knockoff company.

I talked face-to-face to the management Phottix about my concerns. They assured me that is something they are trying to get past (really? well you could start by discontinuing the knockoffs, Phottix) and instead pointed as example to their new Odin remotes.

Here's the irony. The Odins are, by most accounts, very good remotes. And, they also appear to be actual, original work by Phottix. But how do you judge a company that rips off concept after concept and then comes out with something original and decent?

Has Phottix peed in the IP pool too much to be considered a legitimate manufacturer of original, branded gear? I am not really sure.

And what would Phottix say if another company decided to skip the R&D for a new remote and instead just ripped off the Odin? I'll bet IP would suddenly become very important to them then.

And not just to harp on Phottix and Westcott. If someone invents a new light mod product category, you can bet multiple other brands will be selling a near exact copy within six months.

So the broader question is, as photographers who are presumably sensitive to intellectual property, should we support knockoffs?

And even not considering the ethical question, how about a selfish one instead. Who is going to fund the R&D of innovative new gear if it is going to be knocked off a month later and sold on the net with impunity?

Nobody, is who. Which is why I view this as a very bad trend in the industry. Eventually, we all lose.

Is there a compromise to be had between free enterprise and intellectual property protection? How long should a company be able to sell a unique new design before seeing it on the website of a direct competitor? Ten years? Fifteen years?

Who knows. But I certainly think it should be more than a couple months.

I know what I don't want to see. I don't want to see a landscape in three years where everyone is just knocking off everyone else's stuff and there is no true innovation happening in the photo peripheral industry.

So in the meantime, I'll probably vote with my wallet and wait to see what happens.
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Can of worms, officially opened. As photographers, do we give a crap about IP? Or is it "Screw innovation, I want it as cheap as possible?"

Either side, feel free to rant in the comments. Keep it civil.

(Awesome Caca Cala sewage truck via FailPost.)


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127 Comments:

Blogger Ed from Ohio said...

It is definitely a Catch-22. People will almost always go for the "cheap" way out when available, otherwise Walmart wouldn't be the massive giant it is.

As much as I hate knockoffs, I have purchased a couple when the "real thing" was prohibitively expensive. There's also the justification that "I'm only going to be using it a few times, so why buy the best?" line of thinking, which I'm also guilty of.

When I use something regularly, I tend to get the real deal, price tag and all.

June 07, 2012 8:11 AM  
Blogger Justin Van Leeuwen said...

Mom always told me to pay for quality - despite my wifes wishes - I've followed through on this and always (almost, I have some ebay strip lights but, as far as I can tell, they're not knock-offs of any company I know) bought the first party, branded, Joe McFukinNally named doo-dad if necessary. For exactly the reasons you point out.

If I want people to respect my work I have to start by respecting the work of others - and paying for it.

June 07, 2012 8:30 AM  
Blogger Tyler Briley said...

I agree with Ed. As a college student who is heavily interested in photography (and even starting to get a few paid gigs here and there), the cheaper knock-off always looks much more appealing because it works and it's far cheaper. However, whenever I can afford to, I like to purchase the tech from the companies who are putting in the R&D out of genuine love for innovative gear. Unfortunately, as long as there are fancy things that not everyone has the money for, the knockoffs will be rampant (Oakley, Nike, etc).

June 07, 2012 8:31 AM  
Blogger GNapp Studios said...

I am a photographer, not a legislator.

It is not my job to make or enforce the laws, and if someone is selling a product legally, then I will buy it if it fits my needs.

June 07, 2012 8:35 AM  
Blogger Tyler Briley said...

I've always tried - sometimes to a fault - to pay for top dollar gear rather than knock offs, but when I became a full-time student at a university 3 years ago that all became very difficult. When you're eating Ramen and dollar menu every day as it is and you need a new PocketWizard transmitter, sometimes it's easier to buy a knock-off transmitter/receiver set (which is often the same price as PW's transmitters alone). I can't say I support this %100, but at the fault of my wallet...I can't say I'm innocent either.

June 07, 2012 8:37 AM  
Blogger Charles Lethbridge said...

You do pay for quality - very true, but the quest for thrift can often make us do strange things. I have a Microwave food cover and a plastic just which handles all my ring light duties. I paid almost nothing for it, although it has had to be remade several times (and thats even though I don't use it all that often). Isn't that also someones IP I am ripping off? With patience and some clever sewing and/or soldering skills anyone can make a brolly, or an Ezybox clone or even radio triggers. I have very little in my inventory I can class as branded items, and even then the branded stuff is almost all second hand. I have a few bits of knockoff, and lots of DIY bits.
I would argue that the DIY mentality is better as that leads to innovation and fiddling rather than giving it a reason to dry up. But sometimes the copy cat can innovate as well: weren't the early Nikon rangefinders Leica copies? And look where they ended up! ;)

June 07, 2012 8:38 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

Let's not forget that Paul Buff had lawsuits filed by Mola of reproducing their BD's at a much lower price point. My budget didn't allow a Mola and I purchased a Buff Beauty Dish, love it.

That got me looking and I'm sure because of the knock off competition, the price for the BD is half of what I paid for it a year ago. I love his product, and what you don't get from the lesser knock-offs is the superb customer service he provides.

Of course he's still going to make a profit on the product, or he's not going to sell it. I didn't go back and track the pricing of the Mola BD's to see if the knock offs have driven their prices down. Un/Fortunately it's free market enterprise. Consumers make the ultimate choice, and I will pay a bit more for a product which has a proven support structure behind it.

June 07, 2012 8:40 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

Unless these companies are protecting their IP with patents then all bets are off. While it may be less than ethical to knock of the new ID, it's perfectly legal. Not saying patents are the perfect solution (pricy, hard to enforce in certain countries like China), but they do offer legal protection for your innovation.

June 07, 2012 8:44 AM  
Blogger John Grover said...

I have been a brand buyer for my 20+ years of commercial photography. Sinar, Broncolor, Nikon etc. Broncolor light mods have been the source of many of the knock offs in the industry, including the para brella made by Paul Buff (he's the cheaper imitator in that case, not the victim). All I can say is that the true innovator should have patent protection and vigorously protect it, just like the photographer concerned about his image rights should have them copyright protected and vigorously defend them. In the end though, it is an economic calculation like all others. Patents cost $$, litigation costs $$$$, and in an industry like photography fashion and change can wipe out your competitive advantage in short order. Remember the "Hosemaster Lighting System"?
So I think the answers are clear, and the avenue is legal protection. The choice is whether or not the "innovator" wants to put up the $$ or move on to the next thing.

June 07, 2012 8:47 AM  
Blogger GrumpyOldMan said...

Patents?
Now I think the patent system is fairly broken in many respects, particularly in the area of abstract inventions, such as algtorithms and other software patents.

However for straight up physical inventions, I think patents are fine - straight up physical inventions are what the patent system is for.

Having said all that, my question is were there patents on any of the products you are talking about that were kocked off?

Patents seems like such an obvious answer for the sorts of products you are talking about I have to wonder why they don't offer any relief?

June 07, 2012 8:48 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@ John-

re: Paul Buff and Bron Para, I actually considered that thought. But the Bron Para was the PLM was so significantly different from the Bron Para (see pics of Para) I saw it as much more of a reinvention.

June 07, 2012 8:52 AM  
Blogger John Fowler said...

I think there's another layer to this onion - the hobbyist on a low budget (not the dentists, brain surgeons, etc who give away their work). The hobbyists mostly shoot for themselves and their camera club friends, will never produce pro quality work and don't use gear hard enough to have the knock-offs fail anyway. The pros I know under
stand that quality is the best value in the long term and go for the best gear whenever they can.

June 07, 2012 8:52 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

David-
I appreciate your comments because this exact issue has concerned me for quite a while. I believe in the free market system, and I believe things will work themselves out with a few very unfortunate casualties along the way. The free market isn't a perfect or a fair system, but it is the best we imperfect humans have. The thing we don't need here is government regulation, or some other possibly well-meaning entity to come along to impart its interpretation of justice. That justice always comes at a heavy cost in terms of taxes or levies that usually end up stifling the creativity they were meant to protect.

After billions of years, nature has discovered that "survival of the fittest", while cruel, is the best path.
I don't have the solution to this problem, but I have faith that someone who can be clever enough to design a new product can also be clever enough to protect that product. For example, I was involved with a company that made a high-end unique product, and started its own knock-off company to service both ends of the marketplace. In one other instance, we employed marketing tactics and contacted the media and retailers to expose the activities conducted by these less than honorable groups. This is not just an issue in the photo industry.

While they usually don't make exact 1-for-1 knock-off copies that include ripped-off logos, some of these thieving IP offenders consider themselves the most innovative entrepreneurs by figuring out a way to offer a comparable product at a lower price.
I think that with market pressure, a competitive environment and reputation at stake, any entity planning to duplicate an existing product will need to employ their unique skills to evolve that product. As a nature photographer, I have learned this is the real path to survival of the species.

June 07, 2012 8:55 AM  
OpenID achifaifa said...

Well, as a newbie photographer wannabe I am divided with this issue.

On one hand I am really enthusiastic about photography and I want to support whoever creates something that is useful for my hobby and makes things easier. But on the other hand, and as a student, it is utterly frustrating seeing things that are useful and simple cost zillions of dollars. I just can't afford it and face it, in some cases the price is really bloated.

There is also the consideration that if someone really uses a device (Knock-off or not) it will end buying the best one. Take for example the pocket wizards. They cost around 200 bucks a piece (More or less). That means about 500 - 600 bucks for one emitter and two receivers. You just can not expect students, newbies or people who are just poking around and trying new equipment to pay that much. That is the money I have to live half a year with! It is normal, then, to buy the cheapest ones (I am currently using those nicna CTR-301, which cost about 8 Euro every sender or receiver) and then move to upper tiers if necessary. Knock-offs, even if they are not really ethic, greatly benefit the users. They give an alternative to usually very expensive material that only a few can afford.

A small note, continuing with the pocket wizard example. If you are a maker and you ask 500€ for a set of triggers (Or several hundred dollars for an umbrella, or 500 for a strobe, etc), I quite much doubt that you expect total beginners or curious people to buy them in the first place. In some cases I do not think that those products harm the original creators at all. If the product is great (And in this example it really is) the pros and the people who wants good equipment is going to buy it anyway. ¿Why bother in the first place?

I agree that knocking off someone else's work is a really nasty thing to do. But they give us newbies things to experiment, tinkle and learn with.

Now with the other part of the coin: It must suck seeing your own product copied massively for a fraction of the money. It definitely can turn someone down. I think a great choice in these cases would be to seek alternate ways to support what you do, and putting that personal touch and care in every thing you do. If you put passion in it, make a good item and you bother improving it, people will eventually go for your product. If you just sell things that are undistinguishable from those cheap Chinese stuff and do not even move and be active about it, people is not going to see any good reason to buy your stuff. Also, the main problem is probably that those innovative items are hand made and take a while to create. That creates a huge offer hole in the market: People want to try that new idea now, so they go for the first available one.

So yeah, I think we all want to support people who innovates, but in some cases money (Or the lack of it) comes first. A bit of rambling, but I hope makers understand my point.

June 07, 2012 9:01 AM  
Blogger Blog Deleted said...

I think it's a question of the original inventor setting a fair price that's enough to recover his R&D costs over time, but not too high that it encourages copycat versions. If Benro can make a tripod that's good enough to take the place of a gitzo at 40% of the price - then I'd suggest gitzo are charging too much for their brand-name; and should expect to get copied.

(I'm not suggesting they are equivalent... it's just an example).

A similar situation exists in the software space. If software companies set their prices too high - then software is ripped or copied. If they set a 'reasonable price', then it becomes uneconomic to rip it - and more people choose to pay for the true copy.

June 07, 2012 9:13 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

I'll be honest, based on Westcott's copying of the PLM, I looked at purchasing knock-off Apollo's versus the real deal. I did end up getting the real strip lights because they have features that hadn't made it to the knock-offs (yet.)

Let's not forget about rampant software piracy, either. I see posts (elsewhere) from photographers almost bragging about pirating Photoshop yet they get up in arms about someone using one of their photos without paying.

June 07, 2012 9:14 AM  
Blogger hht420 said...

Devil's Advocate talking: without cheap knock-offs, there would be far fewer photographers exploring using light in their photography. Side effect: the Strobist blog wouldn't be what it is today.

Perhaps these cheap knockoff manufacturers push the innovators to continue to innovate, by forcing them to design better and more affordable products. The smaller the price differential between original and knockoff the less likely consumers are going to settle for the cheaper option.

June 07, 2012 9:14 AM  
Blogger Martin Phelps said...

David, I think you're making this all too complicated. The only rule is don't buy the knock-offs. Have some backbone. If you're a professional photographer and you're using knock-off equipment you are an idiot on so many levels. If you're an amateur you'll have to wrestle with your own conscience, but you won't deserve any sympathy when your own job, whatever it is, gets outsourced to China. All the whiners who seem to think they somehow need or deserve to own all this stuff without paying the real cost of it's development need to grow up and stop acting like spoilt children.

June 07, 2012 9:15 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Check out Kirby Ferguson's Everything is Remix series of videos. They're a truly brilliant critique of the whole concept of intellectual property.

At what point does a product become revolutionary rather than evolutionary? Ferguson's point - and he's right - is that EVERYTHING is a "knock off". I know you tried to draw a line in your definition of that term, but that line doesn't really exist (except in the arbitrary decisions of litigation).

June 07, 2012 9:20 AM  
Blogger Dan Wolfgang said...

I'm in favor of not supporting the knockoff company, but... taking a slightly different point of view:

You specifically exclude the light stand and shoot-through umbrella. At one time, those had to be original products -- somebody did some work to come up with the idea and they brought it to market. Somebody else effectively copied it, and perhaps improved upon it or found a way to make it less expensive.

Why are those things different than the light modifiers you discuss? I'm guessing it's just because they're such old designs and everybody makes them so you don't attribute IP to them. In 100 years, will this discussion include the lightstand, shoot-through umbrella, and Buff's PLM as existing products while discussing somebody stealing the new whiz-bang design of some other manufacturer?

Food for thought.

June 07, 2012 9:43 AM  
Blogger Michael Quack - Visual Pursuit said...

I buy Chinese when nobody else makes what they do. I have suggested a flash to Metz in detail, and the answer was that they don't see a market for this. Now three years later a flash matching my exact description surfaced - the Yongnuo YN-460II. I bought five of these devices. So much for non-existent markets. I would have gladly paid anything up to 100 Euro for a metz brand flash with the same capabilities. But Metz doesn't see the market. Goodbye, Metz.

June 07, 2012 9:43 AM  
Blogger caprae said...

David,

You must have been very upset. I don't think I've ever seen so many typos in one of your articles. But as for the knock offs. The first thing that came to mind when I saw the tweet was Paul Buff and Westcott. I appreciate you taking the time, and heat, to call them out.

I recently had to deal with this when looking at the Spider Holster. There is a knock off that can be bought for around half the price on Amazon. I went back and forth over days reading reviews, but in the end went with the real deal. I'm not happy with the price I am having to pay but want the assurance that all parts of the item are made to spec and with the proper materials. Plus I want to know there is a company I can call if something does fail with the unit. A Spider employee did get get back to me when I had questions so I can rest assured I'll be able to reach them again.

June 07, 2012 9:46 AM  
Blogger Mark Gunter said...

An interesting topic that I'm seeing from a slightly different angle. On one hand, many preach that we need to avoid underpricing our photographic services as doing so has the potential to hurt the industry as a whole. On the other hand, we look for a rationale to buy the cheaper, knock-off product of the equipment we want/need to do the job.

I wonder what message this sends to OUR consumers.

June 07, 2012 9:46 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@ Dan-

Indeed, I do think time is a mitigating factor, and revisit that later at the end of the post. In cases whee patents are involved, the protection is not absolute and infinite. The compromise is based on an inventor having exclusive access to selling his or her invention for a set period of time.

My line of thought today is more about the ethical considerations of ripping off fresh and unique gear for a customer base that, in theory at least, values originality and IP.

I don't think it is a simple, black and white answer. Certainly where to draw the line is an issue. By like the Supreme Court justice said, I might not be able to specifically define pornography but I know it when I see it...

June 07, 2012 9:48 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@ Caprae-

Odd, usually pedants can't resist including a list...

June 07, 2012 9:58 AM  
Blogger Rob Blasdel said...

Aren't all other smart phones basically a knock off of the iPhone. Steve Jobs thought so.

June 07, 2012 10:01 AM  
Blogger Stephen Ratcliff said...

I keep hearing that that I'm a student and I can not afford the option of the orginal. This should spark the community of photographers to think about pooling their recourses...share the Load. Who knows you might even learn something from another.

June 07, 2012 10:08 AM  
Blogger Gerry Love said...

Since manufacturers don't label their products as knockoffs, the low-end consumer (hobbyist) doesn't generally know what is and isn't. Asking us to discern is implausible. I have bought Buff's stuff almost without regard to cost or design originality, based solely on Strobist recommendations.

June 07, 2012 10:12 AM  
Blogger ------------------------------- said...

I had a hard time understanding where this article comes from given the number of blog posts on Strobist over the past couple years that informed and therefore promoted lesser priced Chinese products easily available on eBay, Amazon, and others.

Thankfully as many have mentioned before, the one thing you should always promote is the great customer service you get with many US based companies. I cannot say enough about the support I have gotten over the past 20 years from companies like Canon USA, Paul Buff, Tamrac, and ThinkTank.

June 07, 2012 10:18 AM  
Blogger Richard Danter said...

This is a very interesting topic and I'm not sure what the answer is, but I am pretty sure that the answer is not to go down the patents route. At least not the way patents are being (ab)used right now.

At first glance, patents seem like the obvious answer, it is exactly what they were designed for. But just take a look at what is happening over in the computer industry. There are so many OEMs claiming that this or that other company has used their IP without consent. They are taking out injunctions against each other to prevent sales in numerous countries, in some cases just because a device "looks" like another device.

Not everyone can afford the top-of-the-range, latest-and-greatest gizmo, and the cheaper but less functional alternative may well do just what they need. But many of these top companies won't produce cheaper versions of their products because they don't want to risk diluting their brands or cannibalising sales of their top models. So it's the consumer that loses out because it is an all or nothing situation. Buy the best or go without because you are not allowed to have one of the less functional, cheaper versions.

The other problem is that, since patents can only be enforced by a court, individuals and small companies just can't afford to assert their rights when a larger company uses IP without consent. The people who can afford to pay for the best lawyers wins in many cases (as do the lawyers!). Not necessarily because they win the case, but because the individual will run out of money long before the case can actually be won or lost in court.

Worst of all, since there is now so much money in this, are the patent trolls buying up patents just so they can go sue other companies. They didn't innovate anything, they are just abusing a broken system by throwing their financial weight around.

Perhaps patents can work, but not until the system is fixed. And for it to really work would require every country to sign up to a single set of rules defining what patents are, how they can be used and what penalties should be paid for breaking the rules. Given the inability for governments to agree anything these days, even when there are obvious issue which need urgent attention, what do you think the chances are...?

Actually, thinking about some of those urgent issues, does any of this really matter in the larger scheme of things?

June 07, 2012 10:25 AM  
Blogger Simon said...

If we look at history, I'd say the future for innovation in photography gear is safe.

In the computer business, Apple VS PC, I'd say both are doing FINE even if one copied everything from the other. Apple found NEW ways to boost sales, and created a company image that is different.

And let's not forget that IP is a limited notion. You don't own a patent for somthing as elemantary as the wheel, even if it is revolutionnary. Brakets, light modifiers must be in this category. They are simple goemetric form of material, that uses the property of light. I'm no expert in IP laws but I can't imagine a patent for a new rain umbrella (unless the mechanism is funky or other caracteristic). In the end, it lets light through it (or stops water...)

The radio remotes are a different story.

June 07, 2012 10:27 AM  
Blogger capuozzo said...

Doesn't Strobist support many DIY projects that allow beginners to mimic commercial products rather than buying the more expensive original versions? Isn't that the same thing? Just saying.

June 07, 2012 10:35 AM  
Blogger Aud1073cH said...

I tend to agree with the "everything is a remix" mentality. If we only allowed completely new products, we all may be driving a Ford Model T around today. (although the French had the first production cars)

I do believe someone should be able to make a profit on their new product, but minor changes are happening continuously. Even a minor change can be big enough to get a new patent.

Eventually the remix of ideas seem to blend, and it is hard to tell who came up with (shoot-through umbrella) first. Using the car analogy, I can hardly tell one silver sedan from another.

June 07, 2012 10:54 AM  
Blogger Tsukasa said...

I know for sure (and this is easily proven by e.g. Joe McNally tutorials) that if we only to buy original gear, then it will cost always a price of small car to get certain things done. Radio controllers, PLMs, stands, even "branded" Velcro straps are clearly positioned to fit the market of PROFESSIONALS that have means to buy them. If you charge $500-$1000 a day, there is zero problem to cut some for a real thing.

However the price level is so high for most enthusiasts, that it can be considered prohibitive.

It might be unfair to intellectual property. But in the same time the original brands do not suit needs of other people, who can not justify to spend professional amount of money on their hobby. Look at Nikon: it makes all sorts of cameras. Look at Pocket Wizards: er... one product only, guys, no discounts!

So while I understand the frustration of whoever in brand companies that they were copied, they should address their marketing advisors about why they do not own low-end market. It was all there for ages: cheap Chinese force, cheap Chinese electronics, etc. It could be anticipated. The companies were doing wishful thinking, that order of things will be forever.

While we all try to be respectful to each other, and to laws, it is very evident that most people faced unfairness from companies, governments, bureaucracy and there are times that you just can not lose. You use all available means to reach your goal.

Small example: I do own a Softlighter which I orderded next day after David blogged about it. Well, $70 is fair, worth every cent. But... Adorama want another $70 for SHIPPING! This is damn prohibitive. I mailed it to friend in States, he mailed it to me. 2 months. $30 savings.

Chinese mail next day. For cheap. So my genuine Softlighter (is it yet sold in Europe at all? Huh? Means knockoff is ONLY option?) is sported along with a plenty of chinese rigging.

Point: while some things are certainly not right with knockoffs and such, companies being knocked off do not fullfill the available market. They let hurt themselves. Operating in cynical world of business, they want consumers operate in ways of "kindness and honesty to intellectual rights and other nice words". Kinda funny.

So, there are things they need to fix, if they want protect their market. Do not just sit around guys. World demands more work.

June 07, 2012 11:00 AM  
Blogger Larry said...

The inventors of these products have a right to be pissed. At the very least they should get some royalty off of the product that they researched, built multiple proofs of, and finally produced. A quick check this a.m. of the Phottix Para-pro and Paul Buff's PLM shows a $9 difference. For that, I'll buy from Buff- now if it was a fifty buck difference, I probably would have to think about the purchase.

How about extending this to photography itself - David, you are generally seen as the 'guru' (please don't let this go to your head) of the Strobist movement. I don't know of another person that has brought so much interest to OCF lighting. Can you see the parallels between a product that has been cloned - and the Strobist craft? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery - and I've imitated the hell out of you believe me... (and thanks for the teaching!) You can bet that as soon as someone comes up with a technique we are all out there giving it a try. The same could be said with product imitation - although with Brand Infringement there is a lot more money involved...

June 07, 2012 11:12 AM  
Blogger Ben Haslam said...

Everytime we pop a generic drug into our mouths this question should come into our mind.

June 07, 2012 11:12 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

The compromise is based on an inventor having exclusive access to selling his or her invention for a set period of time.

But that time period is 17 years not six months. In 17 years the technology has often moved on and is not longer unique enough to be considered for a knock-off.

June 07, 2012 11:14 AM  
Blogger Chris Nicholls said...

Firstly, I'd like to say that I love seeing all the intelligent, thoughtful, considered responses on this blog post. It's rare on many other sites.

I'd also like to say I agree with most of what the majority have said before me. I too have purchased knock-off gear (specifically Phottix Stratos triggers) and while I know it's never great to buy from an imitator, I also know that when I bought them, I could not justify the cost of Pocket Wizards.

And that's the thing. As Achifaifa said, the chances are, I would never have been their target market at the time. So they didn't lose a sale. In fact, now I'm a working professional and earning, I do want to consider Pocket Wizards, so they may actually gain a sale.

Plus, as Blog Deleted said, price has to be reasonable if you want decent sales. The reason Adobe get ripped off so much is because their software is astronomically priced. If I wasn't able to buy CS PP on educational discount, I'd still be stuck with Elements, even today. If Adobe just priced their stuff more reasonably, maybe they'd make more money by making more sales, even if off reduced margins. It's why iTunes works, even if it rips off the artist. People prefer to pay, just not an exorbitant price.

I'm not saying that's great, and thanks to Rdio and Spotify and the like, we see where the industry can go, but it's one possibility. Whether it works is another matter. I'm no expert here. Maybe someone with more knowledge than I can correct me.

One thing I would like to add to this conversation is an additional point to Charles Lethbridge. He mentions Nikon as knock-off Leica makers. In reality, much of the Japanese optical industry started this way, as I'm sure you're only too aware. But it's not just optical stuff. The auto industry is the same. Many people forget that when Japan first started making cars, they made cheap knock-offs of European or American cars. Some licensed the designs. Others didn't. But each of those companies, no matter how upright or shady their history, is now an innovator. Korea is getting close. And eventually, I actually think we'll even see some innovation from the Chinese. After all, they did give us half the world's inventions, difficult though it may be to believe that today, given their rampant knock-off-ism.

Point is, while I think patents should give you the right to protect your IP for a long time (look at the Dyson vacuum story to see how it's done), becoming a legitimate maker via copying is not new and will never stop.

Is it good for the industry? Not sure. But someone has to make cheap versions of stuff that works, otherwise the majority will be stuck with shit, and given that's not what anyone wants, you maybe have to take the good with the bad.

June 07, 2012 11:24 AM  
Blogger Steve Metz said...

To me, your premise is flawed. In citing the commonplace attribute of the shoot-through, you are forgetting that at one point, there was no such thing as a shoot-through. Someone designed the first the one. Imagine if we only had the original today.

It's only through replication that things become commonplace and a market which has varied price points for similar products will ultimately sustain those worth keeping.

June 07, 2012 11:46 AM  
Blogger Per Rutquist said...

Paul Buff didn't invent the para. He just made it cheaper. The way he accomplished that was by going to a manufacturer that had such small margins he could not survive without making a few bonus units out of the same molds. Then he complains about knock-offs. Go figure.

June 07, 2012 12:12 PM  
Blogger gianmarco said...

Lets not forget that many of these "original" manufacturers are producing their goods in Chinese factories so while you may be getting better quality control you are certainly not saving any American or European jobs, Apple is a very good example of this! I ask you this why should the manufactures benefit from low labor costs? and not us? You set the Apollo and the Easy up as examples of a knock off have you actually seen them side by side? while similar they are not at all identical and the umbrella is hardly a new idea, on the other hand build quality is very high in both cases and with the second one costing less than half......and that is if you live in the US, because if you are in Europe the price difference is even bigger so much so that buying the original becomes hard to justify. If manufacturers guaranteed that their products were entirely made in the US or Europe I might look at it differently.

June 07, 2012 12:27 PM  
Blogger Mark Davidson said...

The real irony of those proudly defending "Free Market Forces" is that a fundamental principle in the founding of the United States was a strong Patent and Trademark system that was specifically designed to protect our citizens from the depredations of the "Free Market".

The "market" always seeks to erase disequilibrium, man always seeks to protect it.

June 07, 2012 12:33 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

I certainly don't see anything wrong with multiple companies producing products that people want. Choice is good for consumers. The replication of umbrellas, RF remotes and brackets are very poor examples of IP "stealing." These are all very simple ideas that can be designed and built in nearly infinite ways. No one should own the rights to those ideas. And to say that Phottix can't be trusted because they started by emulating other products before making their own very good ones is analogous to not hiring a photog because his or her style copied too many others before finding their own unique one. It sounds pretty ridiculous. ANd we have to remember that these products exist because so many people are photographers now. The barrier to entry is lower than it has ever been and virtually everyone can afford the gear to create high end photographs. This is a good thing.

June 07, 2012 12:41 PM  
Blogger Emil said...

David, this has been a really insightful article with some wonderful and intelligent responses. I personally don't think anyone is innocent of not buying knock-offs though. I'm certainly guilty, using a set of Phottix Stratos triggers regularly for professional work. The thing is I, like many other photographers simply cannot afford the PWs, which is not the same things as not wanting them. As Chris Nichols pointed out above, PW might just be getting their money from him now. I suspect I will be buying PWs eventually, so in a perverse way the copycats have led the consumer to the original.

Now whether it's right or wrong is perhaps a moot point. People will always go for what they can afford. When they can afford the marque they will buy it. In a more serious example, here in South Africa, the courts have decided to grant Cipla, the Indian pharmaceutical copycat company a sort of patent blanket, allowing them to sell knockoff drugs despite international bans on their product (this is a rather simplistic explanation admittedly). It boils down to the fact that the South African government cannot afford the original drugs from the likes of Beyer and co. to be able to effectively treat pandemics like HIV/AIDS or illnesses such as malaria. Using the generic copycat is literally saving lives...but at the downside of diminishing R&D into those same diseases. This is just an example of the fact that this is not a new debate. Who are we to say that some child in Mozambique cannot be treated with anti-malarials because they cannot afford the life-saving drugs? It makes the Phottix vs. PW seem almost trivial. But in a lesser light, who are we to say that Photog Sue cannot learn lighting techniques learnt on this blog because she can't afford PWs?

It's a complex question that doesn't have a clear answer in my view...it's all 18% grey!

June 07, 2012 12:43 PM  
Blogger Flavio Martins said...

This is a very interesting discussion. Certainly one with no easy answers.

If you want to see the effects of the "I just want it as cheap as I can get it" mentality you need to look no further than the airline industry. With the birth of the millions of travel sites giving people the ability to search for the cheapest flights, price became the number one driving force in the industry. Airlines had to start cutting back on everything to compete for the lowest prices. In the end we all suffer by having pretty crappy experiences all around while flying. We lost a lot of the luxuries like meals, snacks, headphones, luggage allowances, etc... all so we can have the lowest price for the ticket.

If we start going for the cheap copies of photo gear, the same will happen. The pirates will be encouraged to keep stealing designs from reputable companies and in turn those companies will be forced to stop new developments in order to keep prices where they can compete with the pirates. In the end, everyone gets crappy gear at a great price!

On the other hand the pirates do make it possible for those with tight budgets to get in the game. Hopefully as their skills improve they outgrow the cheap, lesser quality, gear and upgrade to the higher level stuff.

Like I said no easy answers. I know that I don't want to have to add to my research of new gear who was the originator of a particular technology.

June 07, 2012 1:01 PM  
Blogger Hiro Schneider said...

Well said David. We actually published a similar editorial on this issue back in January and pointed out why the problem is so pervasive in lighting- many of the major brands use the same factory to produce their equipment, which in turn gets ripped off and sold to a competitor.

http://fstoppers.com/how-china-changed-the-american-lighting-industry

June 07, 2012 1:06 PM  
Blogger Victor Paereli said...

Sorry, David but here is a reality check - "brand name" manufacturers are not giving me what I need, and I am to be blamed here? As a hobbyist, if I want an entry level camera, I go for a Canon Rebel. I don't go for a 1D X, do I? So how come I'm suddenly presented with the choice of either going bankrupt on industry-standard gear used by professional photographers who, unlike me, make money off that stuff, or being a bad person for buying affordable knock-offs? Give me a sanely priced PW and I won't look back.

But tell me with a straight face that spending $200 on an Eazybox is sane when a Neewer knock-off is $35 on Amazon and that the difference goes into IP. You know, for $165 left in my pocket I can live with Neewer selling dildos as a side-business.

June 07, 2012 1:06 PM  
Blogger Brian Brown said...

I'm in the video production world (and shoot stills on the side), and copycats/ knockoffs are rampant in that industry, too. One usually "gets what they pay for" in terms of quality/$, but that's not always the case. R&D costs go up dramatically when a manufacturer or software developer gets ripped-off, because there's no income to support it, and they will have to charge more and more $ to innovate. Everybody loses. Anyone that justifies piracy in music, software, films, etc., is just contributing to the "IP drain". Same with knockoffs of hardware. I think reasonable people can tell the difference between a blatant knock-off and an cheaper, sometime less-featured innovation. I give up some of PW's power features to have a simple wireless trigger with my Promaster PowerSync's, and don't believe that they're knock-offs. I buy Paul Buff stuff because it's reasonably inexpensive, and fairly well-made, compared to higher-end monolights.

June 07, 2012 1:26 PM  
Blogger camerakungfu said...

It's more of a rabbit hole than a can of worms for me. I try not to buy anything from any factory in China, mainly a human rights issue for me. In the photo world that's a rough one. But I can sleep better at night knowing that my cameras are made in Germany, Japan and the US. All of my lenses are from Germany or Japan and all my bags are either made in the US or the UK. Light modifiers are a bit tougher but the US and swiss manufacturers are second to none. I value the fair treatment of individuals over my own pocketbook and I figure I'll always make more money. Hopefully.

June 07, 2012 1:34 PM  
Blogger MasterOfGoingFaster said...

I’m an inventor with several patents. I do not get a penny from my work because my ideas became the property of my former employers. People who knock-off my designs do not deter me in the slightest from continuing to innovate – because that’s what I do. Moreover, I don’t stop photographing because others try to imitate my work.

Regardless of patent protection or not – a company that chooses to stop innovating has chosen not to compete. The idea that innovation will stop without protection is a fallacy. I know this first hand. But it does affect the kind of innovation that will occur – true design progression vs. patent work-around.

Here’s what I’ve seen from the designer’s viewpoint:

One company stopped innovating because it could use the legal system (patents) as a tool against competitors. They would milk an old design and keep prices high for years. Most of my new designs never went into production and cannot because they own them – not me. This was of no benefit to society and is an abuse of the patent system's intended use.

In some cases, the competition made enough changes to get around the patent, resulting in a slight delay before they entered the market. We did the same to them. Because they included a tethered cap in their patent, I had to invent a new way to prevent the cap from getting lost. We tethered two caps together – how’s that for innovation?

A different company went without patent protection. They knew they had a short time to grab market share, and used that to gain the benefit of mass production. This led to them lowering the price aggressively, preventing the competition from being able to justify the expense of the same production method. This benefited the company and the consumer via lower prices.

A third company aimed for the high end of the market and produced customer support and service that made the total package worth the extra money. Competitors copied the product, but failed to deliver everything else.

I love my Pocket Wizards, but their high prices created the market for knock-offs. I stick with them because they serve me well. But I would not suggest a cash-strapped student do the same.

I do try to support inventor-owned companies, but to hell with the big guys that use designers like cattle.

June 07, 2012 1:35 PM  
Blogger Hindrim said...

Reading through articles like this always reminds of the ugly patent battlefield that the tech industry has become. Though I respect IP especially being an amateur photographer, I'm always reminded how we're encouraged to use and even partially copy pictures and paintings of others better than us in order to learn. If that's the case, aren't we just creating copies of others work?

Besides that, like many of the other posters have stated, often paying for the service is the better part of the purchase.

The only point that really caught my attention was when David was mentioning the fact that some of the knockoff Buff PLMs had the actual Buff logo on them. Though copying isn't really a moral thing to do, I'd say the biggest crime was marketing the knockoffs as originals which can hurt the original brand. Throwing a glance at fashion, they've never had patents but it's still a multi-billion dollar industry. It's also why I love TED

June 07, 2012 1:42 PM  
Blogger Wing Tang Wong said...

I value IP and I vote with my wallet.

Recently sold my PW(s) and bought a set of Radio Popper(s).

I completely agree with David regarding the negative long term impact the copycats are having on the lighting gear industry. Prices are being driven down yes, but so is quality. To sell at copycat prices, you are producing them as cheaply as possible. Worse yet, what is normally included in a brand name item's cost is the support. There is a litany of knock-off products dying shortly after purchase with no recourse.

10 years from now, people will be complaining about why all the products are so shoddily made. The knock ff trend will be to blame. True innovators who want to make durable goods that last decades will have no incentive to because the customer base fails to see the long term value of their product.

And that is just sad.

June 07, 2012 1:50 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Sony and Panasonic started out knocking off western electronics. Canon and Nikon got their start knocking off Leicas. Honda and Suzuki and Yamaha got their start knocking off Triumphs and Nortons. At first, they were "cheap, low-quality knockoffs" but within a few years, they were all equal to or superior (or at least more innovative than) the originals, at a much lower price, and eventually they all dominated the market.

That doesn't make knockoffs 'right,' I'm just saying the history of this goes way back, and it's always been a problem in any industry. It's maybe more common now because of China's huge cheap workforce and total lack of ethics, but soon they'll realize there's more money in quality and innovation, and we'll all be clamoring for whatever the Chinese equivalent of Sony turns out to be, and Chinese businesses will be complaining about southeast asian companies knocking them off.

June 07, 2012 2:05 PM  
Blogger philosophicguy said...

David, I agree with you completely (mostly that it's a dilemma with no easy answer.)

But let's also remember the flip side: There are patent-trolls out there putting true innovators out of business with the threat of costly legal action to defend against a ridiculously over-broad patent claim.

I have watched one of these cases firsthand in the flash-modifier business.

A young inventor came up with a radically new and different product, and I saw him hounded out of business by an established company claiming that it infringed a patent of theirs -- which they seem to believe covers anything that reflects light.

He can't afford to fight them, so he quit. Innovation squelched.

(I'm not naming names, because they have demonstrated their litigiousness, and I don't want to be sued as well.)

I'm a believer in IP, but the patent system is full of flaws, and that makes it even harder to draw that ethical line. I agree with you, though, that it needs to be drawn.

June 07, 2012 2:15 PM  
Blogger Ty Mattheu said...

As I read this post, I can't help but feel we might all be missing the point. Technology is changing the world, but in ways that we often miss because they are right in front of our faces. Simply put, the way we treat innovation isn't changing -- its actually the way we innovate.

The way products are invented and sold is changing at a rapid rate. Manufacturers used to spend tons of money on sales forces that have been replaced by SEO managers, social network coordinators, and armies of people that manage corporate identities. Consumers shop with a computer in their hand, using their local merchants as catalog showrooms, testing products in a store and then ordering them from Amazon for next day delivery, at a discount. The quality of your customer support is no longer judged by whether my phone call went to India or Nebraska, but by the fact that I had to call at all.

And this is nothing compared to what is happening to innovation. A dude with an idea and a passing knowledge of Adobe products (Photoshop is fine, but Aftereffects is better) can raise $250,000 on Kickstarter to launch an idea faster than I can set up an appointment with my banker. 10 years from now, if you want a cool mod for your speedlite, you won't choose whether to buy it from the inventor or the copycat -- you'll download the CAD file and make it yourself on your 3D printer (these are already cheaper than a Nikon D4).

In the immortal words of Ferris, 'Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. " (Not sure that's germane, but you can't go wrong with a John Hughes quote.)

June 07, 2012 2:22 PM  
Blogger wade_beard said...

I would say, having only been in the lighting photography game for a few years, how in the world do you know who came first when it comes time to buy a new lighting mod? I see something that I think could be pretty useful and I buy it to try it out. How do I know it's a blatant ripoff without doing hours and hours of research to see who has been selling it the longest? I do believe you get what you pay for and I very, very rarely buy the cheapest form of whatever it is I am purchasing, but I'm not a 20 something kid anymore. Had you asked this question 20 years ago, I'd have been all about the cheapest available item. I dunno...it's a difficult situation. In the end, it will be the customer service level that keeps some in business while others die off...

June 07, 2012 3:19 PM  
Blogger Dante Recknagel said...

Here's my two cents: I think that with all the camera companies making increasingly proprietary gear. (They took away the standard PC flash sync cable then they took away the standard plunger remote trigger) They have increasingly proprietary lenses with planned obsolescence. Pocket Wizard on the other hand is all about using it's proprietary nature to charge you WAY over what the stuff should cost. The bottom line is... if they wanted your business they would price the stuff according to what it's really worth. I mean... my Photoflex Octabank is like $400 (For CANVAS FABRIC!) Are they INSANE!!? And don't even get me started on the Gary Fong stuff. Of course people are going to buy knockoffs when the "official" stuff is priced for people who ride in golden rocket ships! It's just common sense!

June 07, 2012 3:36 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Funny enough, a huge jump in hobbyists moving to strobed lighting can be attributed to this website. From reading the comments its seems that hobbyists contribute to large amounts of the knock off gear purchases. Just saying.

June 07, 2012 3:48 PM  
Blogger Snap Cincy Photography said...

If something is truly innovative, it should have the proper patents and copyrights on it which would prevent someone else from directly copying it. As far as similar items go, if the "knockoff" is far cheaper than the original, then either it is of inferior quality or the "original" is overpriced. Either way, the market will decide what price is correct. People will either buy the real deal because it lasts and works, or they will buy the knockoff because it does the job at a fraction of the price. I don't think innovation will stop just because it gets copied. Things have been copied since the beginning of time. Cheap copies also push the real deal mftg. companies to step up their game and produce something people will pay more for.

June 07, 2012 3:54 PM  
Blogger Charlie said...

I just checked Paul Buff's PLM prices: 86" is $49.95. How much cheaper does a new umbrella design have to be? I can't use an 86", but I'll probably pony up for a couple of 64" PLMs in the near future.

June 07, 2012 4:16 PM  
OpenID marxmarv said...

David, I disagree to the utmost with your attitude toward knockoffs, and having tried to write a lengthy response and failed, I think I can explain why I disagree in three words and a link: "red bus photo"

June 07, 2012 4:19 PM  
Blogger David R Martinson said...

In the retail industry there are several versions of the same thing. Like lawn mowers, coffee makers, cleaning products, you name it. Several of the same item at varying price points. The consumer will most likely be tempted to go for the inexpensive UNLESS they are shown the features and benefits of the higher priced (usually higher quality) item. Built better, lasts longer, etc. Grills are a perfect example. If local retailers are carrying quality products and you can get it now with some education on it, then the knock offs will eventually fall off and people will migrate to the better product in the end...maybe. Yes is sucks they knock off the product and you're right, Karma is a bitch. If anyone has purchased a Yugo, you can be sure they have something better now.

June 07, 2012 4:39 PM  
Blogger Want to help said...

Very interesting discussion. Just because you invent something, doesn't mean it's yours and yours alone. "First mover advantage" gives any new product in the market an advantage to sell at prices the market will bear. But inventors/small businesses need to realize that unless you continually innovate, drive your costs down, improve upon your design, or provide some sort of differentiation (or legal protection), you run the risk of someone knocking off your design for less money. Yes, the cloning company did not have to invest all the R&D that the inventor did, and therefore can produce the goods at less cost (the inventor wants to ammortize that R&D investment in the way of higher prices), but that's the way free enterprise works. What it drives is constant innovation and a more competitive market. You need to look no further than the hi tech industry - the advances in high tech in the last 10 years is nothing short of amazing, and the value rec'd per $$$ spent by consumers is unmatched by any other industry. Someone did a study that said if the auto industry was on the same innovation/cost per functionality curve as high tech, they would be getting 100's or 1,000's of miles per gallon, and cost $10 to manufacture...without cloning and companies developing lower cost options, even if copied (AS LONG AS IT'S LEGAL), innovation would slow down and we wouldn't see the advances in photo equipment at the rate we see today. There will always be a market for higher end/"original" products, so long as they can provide REAL additional value - customer support, a better user experience, better quality, etc.. And the market will dictate how valuable these things are. Look no further than Apple - higher priced than PC's, Android phones, etc. - yet they are wildly successful due to the user experience - people are willing to pay more for real (or perceived) quality. Inventors, smaller companies need to go into the market with the ideas of: 1) Their product will be copied at some level, 2) A plan to address this and 3) a product development roadmap that constantly innovates and indeed cannibalizes their own equipment with new/innovative designs. In that way, they can stay ahead of the cloaners.

It's all good, again, as long as it's legal.

June 07, 2012 5:03 PM  
Blogger fishtoprecords said...

In my day job, I write software. I expect to get paid. I expect everyone creating bits expects to get paid.

I've also designed hardware. In hardware you have NREs, non-recurring engineering costs. You have to amortize them over the life of the product.

When your product is knocked off, the innovator can't spread the NRE over the expected product run. This will raise the innovator's prices.

The knockoff folks don't do engineering, they have no costs for design, invention, creativity, etc.

One can argue that a PocketWizard Plus 3 is "too expensive", fine. Don't buy it. But don 't buy a ripped off knock-off and think that its ethical.

June 07, 2012 5:39 PM  
Blogger chase said...

Welclme to the world of "He who fracks over the most is richly rewarded"

This is nothing new. Perhaps your eys have just been opened since it hit closer to home this time.

And to a certain extent it is sad.
But being in a Capitalist country such as ours were "He who fracks over the most is richly rewarded" starts at the very top. Showing all others that this is the way. And further fine tuned the phase to an Frack thy neighbor, the world, and the future formula.

Well what the heck do you expect?

Then you get into can another country "copy" a technology of another country. Sure why not.

All you can do is say frack it, frack me, and even if you like me, frack you.

June 07, 2012 5:48 PM  
Blogger Em said...

Can't someone patent their designs to prevent them being knocked off??
Personally, I buy what seems the best value. End of.

June 07, 2012 6:16 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

I don't see the big problem with reproductions and variations. It's a completely different issue from actual fakes.

A product with a weak "unique" sales point, has de facto no USP and is a bad product if you want to charge a high profit margin.

Same thing happens in the pharmaceutical industry. Once a patent expires, the generics producers jump on the bandwagon and sell drugs for a fraction of the price.

I would always by the best value for money product, without remorse.

June 07, 2012 6:32 PM  
Blogger Charlie said...

Yes, I care about IP and us photographers, like any creators can't be hypocrites (though I am a hypocrite, I have cheap eBay radio triggers). But one must balance it with budget restrictions. Other companies will always come out with competing, similar products, which keeps prices competitive for us consumers AND can stimulate R&D within these competing companies. (Though I agree, a couple of months later is hard to swallow).
We all borrow and adapt ideas...
http://www.everythingisaremix.info/about/

June 07, 2012 6:42 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Well, I respect IP but both parties must understand a few things. Like some commentators said even if you invent something, that doesn't mean it will last forever before someone copies your design or improves upon it. In the US you still have some ways to protect your design at least for a few years with a patent. But in a globalized world if you think you'll protect it forever then dream on. As a consumer I think I'll go for the best quality/price ratio.As an example, I bought a calumet parabolic last week as the price was cheaper than the westcott one, way cheaper that I didn't give it a second thought and bought it. Guess what, after only one use the string that hold the diffuser to the rods started to come off, the umbrella cap that was made or the cheapest plastic came off and was not fixable. I returned it the next day and never gonna buy their products again and will go for the more expensive Buff or westcott. One thing Paul Buff must get better at is marketing his products and improving his brand. He has people all over the world screaming to get his products but can't because he cannot mass produce his products to make it available worldwide and through big suppliers. Now if I wanna buy a parabolic and have to choose between westcott and Buff's then I will think that westcott is better and maybe even the original. Why? because westcott knows how to market it better. I see Kelby raving about them, I see youtube videos, ads everywhere. So to make a long story short, Paul Buff needs to keep improving and learning the rules of the new economy we are in and must market his products better and grow his business. If he doesn't know how then he must hire someone who can help him. It will be a matter of time until a Chinese company comes out with a 200$ ringflash.

June 07, 2012 7:03 PM  
Blogger Robert Davidson said...

I started to write a post here, but I got so long winded that I posted some of my thoughts on photo equipment to my blog.
Here are some of the most relevant paragraphs that I wrote:

If Canon made a manual-only flash that had the features of the Lumopro LP 160 or the Yongnuo YN-560II, and if they priced it in the neighborhood of $200, I would purchase several. (This would not be an unreasonable price, considering that I can purchase a new 430 EXII for $279.) However, Canon has not cared to make a manual-only flash, and I doubt if they ever will. Thus, my only option is to look elsewhere. The used Nikons used to be a good option, but their e-Bay prices have become unattractive, especially since the probability is high that such used flashes would need repair soon.


Since I now own 10 flashes, the marginal utility of additional units does not come anywhere near the price of a new Canon eTTL flash. If I could find a manual flash with all the features that I want for $200, I would probably purchase a half-dozen of them over a reasonable period of time. As it happens, the Yongnuo is the only flash that fully meets the specifications of what I am looking for. The fact that its price, at under $90, is less than half the price I would be willing to pay a reliable manufacturer for one, makes me willing to take a chance that Yongnuo has improved its reliability. Even if 50 per-cent of the units prove to be lemons, I am still ahead of the game. So far, my one YN-560II has been working like a charm. If it should fail, I have pleny of backup with my other flashes.

The free enterprise system, with free and open markets, provides the greatest value to the greatest number of people, at the lowest cost. New product innovations usually command, and get premium prices for the new value they present. But after the initial (and substantial) cost of R&D is covered, and with improvements in production techniques and materials, there is room for prices to drop substantially. (Consider the fact that the first 36 inch flat screen, HD tv's sold for more than $10,000.) History's greatest free market innovators have always provided great value for everyone and helped to bring the prices down below the point where such value would have cost before they came on the scene. However, innovative producers cannot just rest on their laurels. To remain relevant, they must constantly work toward improving their products and lowering their costs. Consider the performance and contributions of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, James J. Hill, Henry Ford, John Hartford (A&P), J. C. Penney, Sam Walton, and Steve Jobs, just to name a few.


One additional thought, on the subject of amateurs versus professionals: consider the fact that the Titanic was built by professionals, and the Ark was built by an amateur. Just because some experts have created high quality products does not mean they can sit back and rake in profits without constant improvement and innovation. A free and open market keeps all businessmen on their toes to keep improving their business and staying ahead of the competition. At the same time, it provides the opportunity for the individual with a great idea to break in to the market with new innovations that can make everyones' lives better.

In addition consider the facts that Canon started out making Leica knock-offs and Nikon started out making Contax knock-offs. Today you don't hear of many pros using either Leica or Contax, but many, many use Nikon or Canon.
Today's knock-off could turn in to tomorrow's professional tools of choice. It all depends on the vision, creative and innovative skill of the entrepreneur that creates and sustains a business.
Making a knock-off won't get you there. Having the vision, drive, creativity and tenacity of a Steve Jobs will.

June 07, 2012 7:37 PM  
Blogger Chris Nuzzaco said...

Innovation is the result of theft. Like it or not, Buff stole a concept (umbrella) and then worked on top of that. That's theft, not innovation. This is how progress is achieved.

June 07, 2012 8:57 PM  
Blogger Heipel said...

I'm a brand whore which ultimately means I believe in the quality (and non fiscal value) of originators' products. And a true brand can't be built by fundamental copying. I'm hardwired to buy the best, even though I can't actually afford it and I think it has everything to do with what you're getting at David -- the value of rewarding innovation. No wonder all my glass is Nikon, I trigger with Pocket Wizard and light with Profoto -- including putting their modifiers on their lights.

Oh and anybody who is from Asia or has been there knows Apple did not invent the smartphone! :) That said, their product is entirely not stolen in the way we're discussing here. Improving, adapting, modifying (innovating!), making a product your own to build a brand is not idea theft.

Anyway, always like the thinking and discussion you can prompt, David.

June 07, 2012 9:10 PM  
Blogger ric woods blog said...

Life is Life, and its a world of people having MOVING guidlines of their morale point of view. The vegetarian that wears leather shoes, the avid recyclist that drives a car or uses electricity....Its a fact, we have to lock our houses as some people cannot be trusted.
We have maggiage contracts for a reason...we want a promise from the ones we ardently love...
the individual is accountable to their own conscience when policing cannot keep us on the straight and narrow.
My concern is....How many of your readers will now INCREASE the sales of the companies you revealed so they can save money?
"The truth will ALWAYS uout" anon

good story

ric

June 07, 2012 9:27 PM  
Blogger The Phantom Hack said...

Hrm...sad story.
Actually, I was looking to buy a PLM, then I checked the price of knock off units, I eventually went with the real thing because there really wasn't any cost saving.
The knockoffs charge less for the product, probably making no profit on it whatsoever and then charge a lot more for shipping. At the end of the day, it was less hassle, less expensive and FASTER to just order the PLM.

June 07, 2012 9:52 PM  
Blogger Dante Recknagel said...

I've seen several good points raised in here that I'd like to synthesize. First, If a company is first to market something... even if they have a copyright to the name... how can you patent an umbrella? Even if it's a shoot through umbrella? Even a parabolic? (Again, just a big freaking umbrella!) I've seen umbrellas of that shape before. And how round does it have to be to be a parabolic? Should we have the knockoff companies making "SLIGHTLY LESS ROUNDED" umbrellas so they don't infringe on the other manufacturer's IP? We can play the "How different is different" game all day long (like Samsung and Apple countersuits are currently doing over tablets in Germany.) Or we can just accept that "First to market is also first to profit." (Also the first to profit from the type of market that they cater to that has the money, the need and the impetus to buy and use such equipment at exorbitant prices. (In other words, the pro market.) They SHOULD then put some of that money into refining their manufacturing or even applying loss-leader economics to making it cheaper down the road. It seems the photo accessory market (unlike the camera market) does not believe in making things affordable over time. It seems they get out the cookie cutter and decide that "This product will be aimed at this price for only this long and then discontinued." (Selling it after being discontinued does not count as making it affordable) By the time they do that the rip-off companies have done laps around them and it's too late. (Good for them I say!) If it weren't for them the big companies could basically charge whatever they want, for as long as they want... hanging that cudgel over our heads.

June 07, 2012 10:03 PM  
Blogger Jim White said...

Perhaps a system could be devised like that in the Pharmaceutical industry: you are granted exclusivity for a period of X number of years to recoup you R&D investment before "generics" could be released. Why should photo gear or any other product be different? I guess it comes down to big bucks and good lobbyist.

June 07, 2012 10:09 PM  
Blogger RFS said...

Ironically, students are the people who can afford high end equipment like Pocket Wizards. How? MAC, the company which handles Pocket Wizards and a number of other high-end photo equipment brands has almost unbelievable discounts for full-time photo students.

June 07, 2012 11:32 PM  
Blogger Barry Shaffer said...

Color me guilty... But I boil it down to a pure value proposition. If the item in question can't provide an advantage in terms of image quality, durability, or reliability - the increase in cost can't be justified. Brand loyalty is one thing but Professionals especially need to realize a return on investment and that doesn't always lie in the brand names... The steaming pile of dog stuff (read Pocket Wizard FlexTT5 system) that LPA gave me in exchange for $800 is testament to this. In the 2 years I had them, they rarely demonstrated the type of reliability needed to accompany me on a job. About the only benefit that the brand afforded me in this case was that it brought in good money on Craigslist.
FWIW- the Phottix Odins that I replaced them with for 1/3 the price quickly earned a spot in my location lighting kit.

June 08, 2012 1:57 AM  
Blogger Leo said...

The old Paul C Buff AB400/800/1600 flashes didn't have any innovative features that I know of, while the quality of the units, consistency and colour of light was not the best. They didn't even come up with their own speedring mounting system but borrowed Balcars. Not sure why PCB chose Balcar its one of the least secure mounts around. The best thing about PCB is their customer service.

The new Einsteins are innovative... or are they? They are essentially giant speedlights and their performance is a result of upscaling the IGBT technology someone else patented years ago. Quantum and a few Chinese manufacturers were exploring the same idea before PCB did.

Calling the PLM innovative is a bit of a stretch. Other manufacturers have been selling photographic parabolic umbrellas for a long time. Clip on covers have been supplied by Photek for years. PCB making a smaller, cheaper parabolic is exactly the same strategy the Chinese use... but for some reason its seen differently when done by a US supplier.

Wesctott have been making umbrellas for over 100 years (70+ years in the photographic umbrella market) and have more innovative umbrella products than any other photographic supplier I can think of. Westcott selling a parabolic umbrella as they happen to be popular at the moment is not surprising. PCB can't complain as they didn't invent the concept.

There is a fine line between being inspired by someone elses idea and blatant copying. If the Atlas uses the same actual code & chips as a PW thats bad form. However designing similar or compatible products is the result of healthy competition...

For example : PW TT5s work with Canon TTL flashes, which involved PW reverse engineering Canon's TTL protocols. No lawsuit needed. Canon have now produced their own TTL radio system. I don't see PW suing Canon for copying their idea either...

Most new products are not "a giant leap" but rather a refinement or recombination of existing ideas. Recognizing that means a lot less accusations of "copying".

Much the same applies to photography as well, pretty much every idea will have been tried before at some stage. The trick is combining the ingredients in an interesting way.

June 08, 2012 3:41 AM  
OpenID achifaifa said...

@RFS: I think that most of the people who are 'students' here are studying something non related with photography.

I mean, if you can actually afford couple of thousand dollars to be a full time photo student, I'm sure money is not a concern.

June 08, 2012 3:48 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

I agree with the point that a straight up rip off, especially using the tooling of the company you are ripping off is just plain wrong. But I think calling out every manufacturer who sells a large parabolic type umbrella as ripping of PCB is a bit much. Would that also mean that only one company should be able to produce a 50mm lens or softbox? Who was first with the manual strobist type strobes LumoPro or Yongnuo? From memory yongnuo were. The LumoPro seems to have taken hints from yongnuo that there was a market and developed something similar (with higher QC) are they in the wrong?

June 08, 2012 5:01 AM  
Blogger Valerie Close Evans said...

Wow, this has really opened a can of worms. Here's my tuppence worth: I sympathise with IP issues and don't encourage IP theft if I can help it. On the other hand, equipment is ridiculously expensive and there does seem to be a trend for extortionate pricing which has the smell of pretentiousness about it on occasion. You could thrash these two sides of the argument to death and still not get anywhere. Here's the decider for me: the more products are on the market, the more natural resources have been destroyed to make them and the more landfill there's going to be. So buy smart - if you HAVE to buy a new gadget, buy the product that's been made more sustainably and/ or to last longest.

June 08, 2012 5:46 AM  
Blogger michael anthony murphy said...

I respect IP. I almost bought Chinese triggers but soon thereafter changed my mind after getting a crap mod from Hong Kong. It was a very very cheap ring light adapter. I have yet to put it on a speedlight and have had it for over a year. Junk! After that I decided not to get Chinese triggers and invest in Pocketwizards. Best decision ever.

These days I look for a quality product at a reasonable price. I don't mind shelling out a few more bucks as it usually ensures some peace of mind.

June 08, 2012 8:21 AM  
Blogger RFS said...

@achifaifa
Photo students come in all income levels. I myself am taking a couple of classes at the local college and my income is ZERO (just got laid off from my job).
Here's the link to MAC in Education: http://www.mac-on-campus.com/

June 08, 2012 10:21 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Andy-

I don't think that is really a valid comparison.

Nothing about a 50mm lens or a slaved manual flash is unique or new. Neither is a standard umbrella, which is long-produced tech.

Besides, the YN460 and LP120 launched almost concurrently (with any gap being a very small fraction of product development time needs). They also had different features.

But a rash of copycats of a seven-foot parabolic umbrella, which involves is a *very* specific design for both ribs and panels, is completely different.

This specific functionality is what defines the umbrella. That's why they all try to cram PARA into the name somehow.

That the early models actually contained parts made from "borrowed" molds was convenient proof, but frankly the smell test is pretty obvious. Most people well know the difference between a shared product category and a knockoff.

June 08, 2012 10:58 AM  
Blogger fishtoprecords said...

Ed wrote: "Can't someone patent their designs to prevent them being knocked off?? "

Yes, in the US you can get a Design Patent. It covers the look and trade dress of an item. But you have to have a company to sue for infringement, and many knock-offs come from companies that are mere fronts for others, you can't find the real company behind the product.

June 08, 2012 2:46 PM  
Blogger Marco_NL said...

Let's just keep in mind that not everybody is as fortunate as some of us. A lot have the same occupation or hobby, but can not afford more expensive equipment. I am one of the 'more fortunate' and can spend on an item I want, others can not.
I don't want to make right what el-cheapo companies are doing wrong, but there is a market for it and they fill that gap.
We can all complain or talk about it, bu aseferere 2s long as there are no legal steps taken or possible against nockoffs, the issue remains.

June 08, 2012 3:33 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm a legislator, not a photographer (or at least, not a very good one.) There is a reason that patent protection is in the US Constitution from over 2 centuries ago - it's crucial to be able to protect innovation for some period of time, but its also crucial to allow patents to expire and not have monopoly pricing forever. The framers got it pretty right, but enfocing patents and copyrights is a bitch, as Mr. Buff has discovered.

June 08, 2012 6:25 PM  
Blogger bpennphoto said...

David, I have to disagree with you when you say that because of the knockoffs, name-brand manufacturers are going to stop innovating and making new products. That response is entirely "bite off your nose to spite your face." It's not even in their business interests to stop innovating, as that essentially means corporate death. It's the same as me saying that because other photographers copy my portrait style, I'm going to stop shooting better, cooler portraits, because then they'll only copy me. Well, in the meantime I'll starve and one of those "copycats" will figure it out themselves.

I think this is a case of competition in the industry. The "big names" have been able to slap very large price tags on items for years without there being any alternatives. Well, not there are alternatives. And frankly I don't see any reason why an umbrella should cost $50 (for example), especially if a knockoff company can do it for $12. If the design is the same, and the quality is the same (and half the the time these things are all made in the same factory to begin with), then what's my motivation to pay the higher price? Just because it's a "big name" company? An "industry leader?"

This is competition, and competition is good. If the "big guys" are getting out priced, then maybe they need to reexamine their products and come out with something truly innovated, something the other guys can't copy so easily. Instead of just over-pricing the same old stuff. To me this just sounds like the same old argument of Sigma vs. Canon, or Honda vs. Accura. It's all about perception - and the "big names" seem to have lost their golden status.

Just my take on things...

June 08, 2012 10:22 PM  
Blogger Will said...

I do shoots for free, because I loved taking photos. Other photographers have scolded me for "diluting" the photography market, since if there are people like me in the world, people are willing to pay less, if at all, for headshots.

I never used knockoffs. If I cannot afford something, I simply won't get it.

June 09, 2012 12:25 AM  
Blogger willmcgregor said...

There is another side to the coin as well, things not being for sale in the UK for years.

The wescott Apollo for instance, wasn't available in the uk until recently, and if you could get it shipped from the US, the shipping would be high plus a 15% import duty on this end and 20% tax being added on, so ordering on principle would cost you an extra 35%.

Even the products that are available here cost more, the ezybox in the US is $180 but here in the UK it's around $270 for the same model.

I love PCB stuff, and I'm saving to ge some Einsteins, but the UK reseller has a massive price hike, with the units costing $499 stateside but costing $900 here.

Generally over here, the knockoff costs the same as the original would be stateside.

But as mentioned before, sometimes it's not a cost thing, it's the case that a knock off/redesign is better, we have a UK eBay shop that redesigns some things like the ezybox, which has a speed ring to fit large flash units, an integrated ball joint and other things he original doesn't.

I totally agree that it's detrimental to the industry though, a reinvention is ok, so people have the choice, but a blatant knock off isn't good, the American companies need to realise that getting in to the UK directly and not through resellers is the way to go, and as soon as their product is released, not 3-4 years down the line when the knock offs have had a chance to get a foothold.

June 09, 2012 12:37 AM  
Blogger Jorge Rodriguez said...

I'm in a market where the only thing available are knock-offs. Sometimes knock-offs of knock-offs. There is a generation of photographers growing in these places that never see the "real" thing and if and when they do, it's too late. "Why buy that really expensive one when the brand I have been using for years is much cheaper."

June 09, 2012 3:16 AM  
Blogger i e R said...

how i wish they have Knockoffs D800!

June 09, 2012 6:00 AM  
Blogger Australian Outback Photographer said...

The frustrating thing about knockoffs is that with some lighting products I already have no choice, as the real deal is no longer available.
Recently tried to buy a brand name clamp for my lighting system. Told we don't have them cos nobody buys them. We do have these, a direct copy, just as good at half price... Everyone buys these.
Well the little bleeders may be copies and maybe half price but they break after a week while the originals are still working after 20 years.

June 09, 2012 9:28 PM  
Blogger Rajiv Sarathy said...

Unless something prevents choice, consumers will maximize their expected returns. The returns consumers expect will vary from "the best" (whatever that means to a particular purchaser), to the most economical (again, depends on the consumer's values), to the cheapest. To prevent or at least reduce choice, producers can take various actions, including IP protection. When producers don't take such actions, they can't complain that consumers aren't behaving the way they would want.

June 10, 2012 12:08 AM  
Blogger tabbycaat said...

It's not as if copyright laws really protect the average photographer. It's not surprising that the average photographer doesn't have a whole lot of respect for copyright or copying that goes on in other areas, copying music, buying copycat products. Have you looked at the feasibility of actually pursuing a copyright violation if someone decides to use your photos without paying you or getting your permission? For most photographers, the cost to hire a lawyer and sue is far above the value of the loss, they can't win enough in damages to pay for pursuing the suit. Only Getty, Disney, RIAA, etc. can effectively win copyright suits.

June 10, 2012 3:12 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

Ironic, as photographers we borrow off ideas and methods developed over centuries. The skill is the interaction skills with people in addition to technical mastery or great weather forecasting skills in the realm of landscapes

June 10, 2012 3:14 AM  
Blogger Victor Paereli said...

How about power adjustment in 1/3 stop increments and LCD screen on a full-manual flashgun (Yongnuo 560 II) and pass-through TTL (Phottix Stratos)? The "budget" manufacturers aren't exclusively sitting on their rears either. Of course "brand name" manufacturers should be rewarded with higher profit margins for their innovation efforts. But consider two things, 1) the price of a PW3+ in comparison with that of a RF relay (for this is what it really is) in any other modern industry, 2) where is the real innovation? PW's are powerful, but this is because they have a powerful radio, not because PW "invented" powerful radio circuitry. The multi-channel support is also hardly something PW "invented". PWs get better with each new generation, but not exactly more "innovative". Second post - I do feel very strongly about the subject.

June 10, 2012 3:31 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

@Barry Shaffer,

I don't think brand loyalty is the correct term. Once you buy into a system, you're locked in. And this applies for almost all systems regarding photo. Your studio lights have a specific mount, so does your camera bayonet, and flash guns use specific pin-layouts or hot-shoe structure, your triggers communicated with encrypted protocols, etc. High switching costs allow manufacturers to drive higher margins. This is just one way of protecting their share of the market.

If you're happy with your manufacturer and their prices, this is--naturally--completely irrelevant, but brand loyalty is often forced.

June 10, 2012 5:01 AM  
Blogger infinite said...

I guess the problem is not everybody earns so much to be able to buy the originals. We live in different countries, and our economies differ greatly. At the same time we know (via internet and photogs like you) that there are great products that would make our photography life easier. We know who produces those things be it light modifiers, camera straps, flashes or cameras or anything else. We can see the prices of those thing, and we can all count. But remember this – the same piece of gear, with the same price has different contextual value for each of us depending where we earn and live. It's one thing to get a D800 for a US or Norway citizen, and quite another thing to get it for somebody form Ukraine, or Ghana. If somebody earns a fraction of what a person form another country earns, even if their skills are similar, one of them can easily buy the original, and the other has to dig deeper in his pockets to get the same gear or buy something cheaper, which usually means a kind of knock-of. I'd love to get the lovely 24 mm f/1.4 Nikkor and just as lovely 85mm prime. But since they both cost so much I have a decision to make. Should I buy Tamron/Tokina/Sigma? Or maybe go with Samyang… The same goes to anything like cars, light bulbs and anything that was invented. Should we all buy only the light bulbs from Edison? So the IP and patents that protect it are a necessity I guess. Let's all pay for the R&D of those inventors, one way or the other. Buy originals or make the companies that knock stuff off pay a licence fee.

June 10, 2012 7:55 AM  
Blogger Thomas Lawn said...

As a student, it's common for me to not have enough money for the gear I want. I make due with flashpoint lights, cheaplights triggers, and B&H light stands (which are awesome, btw). One day, I hope to be able to vote with my wallet and buy Paul C. Buff's stuff, I spend my money on good lenses, and piece together whatever else I can for the least amount on money required to get the shot.

June 10, 2012 11:49 AM  
Blogger Steve Loos said...

One of the best discussions I have seen on this fantastic blog. I shoot name brand lenses after trying off brand and finding name brand superior in quality and function. Same for name brand TTL flashes, but also have a growing collection of LumoPro 160's based on David’s suggestion and great reviews. I bought name brand mono heads as the quality of light received far better reviews than off brands. I upgraded to used Pocket Wizard II’s because I needed the power but kept my original and very good Seculine Twinlinks. I have a growing collection of folding Westcott umbrellas and Lumopro compact stands, and use a PLM; the value of these is so reasonable I have no need to look elsewhere.

In the end I use whatever gear does the job, has great reviews and great customer service. I have tried enough cheap off brand gear to know you almost always get what you pay for, but when starting out much of this gear allowed me to get a foot in the door without going broke. This is an important point. Students and new business owners often have no choice but to buy the least expensive gear possible. The name brands will come later. Fraud in labeling and advertising aside, there is a place in the world for name brand and off-brand companies.

Having owned and operated two businesses for over 25 years I have found that low price is a poor way to keep customers. Consumers seek value, not price. Value is a belief, a feeling, an emotion that is as difficult to define as any piece of art. My definition in value was vastly different when I started in photography than it is now.

If a company looses business to another that provides better value, I do not cry for them. Also, I absolutely reject the idea that innovation stops because of fear. If you fear the future or competition you will not be an inventor or investor in new ideas. Passion drives innovation and inventors who only “keep their eyes on the prize” will rarely succeed.

June 10, 2012 2:55 PM  
Blogger Kurt Wall said...

I seem to require continually reminders that buying the cheap knock-offs is a poor idea. As a woman told me once, I don't have enough money to buy things twice. Perhaps it's time I start living by that.

I can't remember a time that a cheap, down-market clone didn't break unreasonably quickly or otherwise fail to perform up to snuff. Generally, the cheap parts wear out. I've replaced all that cheap stuff eventually.

June 10, 2012 3:28 PM  
Blogger Sodabowski said...

I completely agree with you David, as an inventor myself I know what it takes to patiently elaborate a new product that goes beyond what existed before, and see it ripped off in no time. Cheap stuff is okay, as long as it's not a blatant copy. I think two to five years would be a long enough time for a law against technical plagiarism, but it would be impossible to apply. I strongly believe in your educational approach, knowledge is power.

June 10, 2012 11:02 PM  
Blogger Glenda said...

I like buying things from the people who created it, not copied it. When it comes to electronic readers, for example, I went with the Kindle. If I was to buy a "smart phone" I would probably go for the iphone, but as of right now, I still cannot justify their price for their basic functionality as a phone, so I do without and keep my not so smart cell phone.

I think this concept of staying true to the original manufacturer will not be comprehended by people until it happens to them. As a jewelry maker, the moment a friend asked me how I did a certain necklace (with the obvious intention of her making it and possibly selling it) made the knock off world a personal reality for me, and I did not like it.

June 11, 2012 12:12 AM  
Blogger cream of beats said...

Some things you just can't penny pinch, but just about everything today is made with the most inexpensive materials and components, even the "quality" products. Buy something new and the store will immediately try to sell you a warranty "in case it breaks" and when it does break they find every reason not to honor the warranty! Give me the cheap gear any day. It breaks, I buy a new one. With the original gear, when it breaks, I cry!

June 11, 2012 3:14 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I understand the problem, I like to support the original and creative manufacture when they are not over charging for stuff because they are the only one whit that product, but in the case of Paul C. Buff for me there is another consideration I live in Mexico, and Paul C. Buff punished me for that, they don't sell's me stuff for the original US store, they say that I need to go and buy for a 3party store in Australia or Europe, that have higher prices for the products, more taxes and at very large shipping costs, this is ridiculous and offensive why I need to buy stuff for the other side to the world if the manufacture is right up there like at 4 hrs flight? this is a constant from many stores in the US they simple don't like to sell stuff to Mexico, I encounter this kind of problems with a lot of Ebay's and Amazon stores even with Adorama, so when I order a knockoff from China so much cheaper, with free shipping and a excellent service and willing to take my purchase sometimes it my only option for having that product so for now I'm really happy with knockoffs.

June 11, 2012 9:42 AM  
Blogger Justin Dallas said...

Hiya - heres my 2c right ...
I love to buy quality hi-end gear, but, as Im in South Africa, I end up payment 3-4 times the retail price in the US (with tax, duties, shipping etc...) ... so, I cannot possibly afford it.

For instance:
US list price for the PLM is $69
but, Paul Buff wont sell to me directly, so, I have to buy from PCB Australia - who magically now sell the same unit for $149, then want to charge me $369 to ship this item to me... total of $518 - for a $49 PLM umbrella.

So, hell yes - Ill buy knockoffs, ill buy imitations. Until they have proper distrubution & representation in my country.

Incidently, China gives me FREE shipping, & arrives in 2 weeks.

June 12, 2012 11:46 AM  
Blogger Justin Dallas said...

Hiya - heres my 2c right ...
I love to buy quality hi-end gear, but, as Im in South Africa, I end up payment 3-4 times the retail price in the US (with tax, duties, shipping etc...) ... so, I cannot possibly afford it.

For instance:
US list price for the PLM is $69
but, Paul Buff wont sell to me directly, so, I have to buy from PCB Australia - who magically now sell the same unit for $149, then want to charge me $369 to ship this item to me... total of $518 - for a $49 PLM umbrella.

So, hell yes - Ill buy knockoffs, ill buy imitations. Until they have proper distrubution & representation in my country.

Incidently, China gives me FREE shipping, & arrives in 2 weeks.

June 12, 2012 11:47 AM  
Blogger Carlos said...

This whole IP issue has gotten out of hand. Can you imagine the wheel, or fire being subjected to IP laws, or how about cars, airplanes, white umbrellas etc..

Remember Microsoft and Apple going to IP war over the "look & feel" of Windows vs Mac Os.

Companies now look to IP to lock in their revenue stream while they rest on their laurels for decades (Blackberry anyone ?)

Competition is good, if your product (an umbrella, really) is being duplicated, just make a better one, period, or reduce your costs and price and wipe out your competition.
Now I just found out that the American Music Industry (RIAA) wanted to extend copyright on songs to 100 yrs. Enough is Enough.

June 12, 2012 1:48 PM  
Blogger Justin Dallas said...

Just read a classic post on something simialir ...

Talk about knock offs! The umbrellas was invented/originated in China. So, by our calculations, everyone is then ripping off their IP!

+1 for Carlos post!

June 12, 2012 4:16 PM  
Blogger Darren Arena Photography said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

June 13, 2012 7:12 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey Lowman said...

David, I think IP is incredibly important. I do believe this is why we have patents. If patents don't exist than it is free game. But also I believe that competition drives economy and protects against price gouging. I'm won't always go with the cheapest gear, but I will go with the best quality gear for the price. This is why I own pocket wizards and not cactus, or any other remotes. Pocket wizard does it best and I will support that company to the end. Just like my original alien bees 800's I bought a set of 4 of them and I will only buy light mods from Paul Buff.

June 16, 2012 5:10 PM  
OpenID doru said...

I try to be honest, but in some instances i ask myself how honest is a producer that has costs to make something $100 and sells it for $500? I know they have to make a profit and finance r&d, but sometimes they get too greedy.

June 17, 2012 6:34 AM  
Blogger ChibaCityFunk said...

I beg to differ. First off: Almost all Photo Gear is knocked off. Using a 35mm camera? Just a cheap Leica copy. Using a prime lens? Probably "influenced" by a Zeiss design.

And speaking of Paul Buff: We all had to go for a cheap knockoff, since he refused to deliver Europeans - in fact - he refused to deliver anyone except US citizens. (And yes, it is true, in the meantime we finally got a distributor in Europe. But he charges astronomical prices.)

And one has to be thankful for the Phottix Atlas, since PocketWizard reduced the price for the new trigger.

June 18, 2012 5:40 AM  
Blogger Jerald Jackson said...

There are a tremendous number of very good comments on here. Like many others, I am divided on this.

It's easy to see where the "line" has been crossed completely (e.g. selling knockoffs with the original branding), however, much of the time the "line" is not really a line at all. There is more grey area at times than black or white.

It is vital that innovators have the ability to know that they can put the work in, invest in the production, marketing and support of a product and feel assured that they will have the ability to make something.

It is also critical that free markets be allowed to operate, since the other side of innovation is improving upon existing design.

In this particular case, I wonder sometimes if the innovators spent time understanding that there are two sides to the market (high end and low end) and made the effort to produce something for both, how much that would help.

Another point that I think is quite relevant is that the knockoffs are generally priced so much lower than the real thing, that I am not sure how much impact those items have. There is some to be sure, but if I am a professional there is no way I am caught using a cheap knockoff. As a hobbyist, I might only use something 2-3 times a year.

(Disclaimer: While I am a hobbyist, to my knowledge I have nothing that would be considered a knockoff. I just wait until I can buy what I really want.)

June 20, 2012 8:57 AM  
Blogger Justin Dallas said...

My hope is that established companies take a leaf out of ProFoto / Creative Lights book... (Roland/Boss do it as well)

Create a range of more affordable gear, under a sub-brand, using your industry leading technology & research - whilst not losing out to knockoff companies, and all the while still maintaining a decent quality level.

June 20, 2012 11:46 AM  
Blogger kmci said...

In response to Unknown's comment : "some of these thieving IP offenders consider themselves the most innovative entrepreneurs by figuring out a way to offer a comparable product at a lower price."

OK, this was probably a troll, but I feel it has to be said:

Offering a comparable product at a lower price is easy when you don't have to worry about covering the cost of developing the concept/design and engineering.

But seriously, this isn't a surprise to anyone. We all know this.

I'm not saying it's the individual's responsibility to decide what is legal or not, but I take David's point about the irreparable damage this is doing to intellectual design, to heart.

Intellectual property rights need to be defended by corporations, legitators, AND us.

June 22, 2012 9:30 AM  
Blogger Albertas Agejevas said...

I disagree with the main premise of the article. Copyright does not, and should not, apply to utilitarian goods. Patents are a mechanism that grants an artifical, limited monopoly on innovative ideas. Besides that, everyone is free to make and sell things. Cameras, zoom lenses, electronic flashes, were all invented by someone. Your copyright-based industry would have been a lot worse-off if the first inventor automatically had an exclusive right to create a thing he invented.

June 24, 2012 7:42 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Maybe in the photo industry this is not common, but how many knock offs out there are not rip offs, but genuine products that are rebranded? How many companies ship their work over to China where the plant there makes their quoted amount, and then for a few hours more makes a knock off that the plant will sell under their own brand name? Who's fault is it then?

Granted a number of items you may be thinking about are made in the US, so much is just shipped over to our "buddies" in china. Most non pros are always going to look for a deal since they are dipping their toes into this area, and they can't afford the real items, we want the real items, we would love the real items, but we can justify the costs, and that is who the knock-offs serve.

June 28, 2012 8:46 AM  
Blogger vdubelu said...

I'm sorry but a PLM is just a giant umbrella. Of course every company is going to start copying anything that sells. Everything you mentioned has been a copy/improvement of someone else's invention. There is absolutely NOTHING new about the PLM or the Pocketwizards for that matter.
Do you consider IS a knockoff of VR? Sigma lenses vs Tamron? They are the same focal length providing the same features for the same camera, what's the difference?
If you are going to call Paul C. Buff innovators, then talk about something they invented that didn't come from another product that was already invented. Making something bigger, smaller changing it's color is not innovation.
Almost every company in the photo industry is a "knockoff" of someone else's product you just have to broaden your perspective to realize it.
Any company that is out there and trying to make it should have a chance, especially if the product they are knocking off is already of knockoff of someone else's product!
If they truly have a unique design, aka the BlackRapid Strap for example...then that's another story!

July 17, 2012 9:26 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@vdub-

Actually, a PLM is not just an standard umbrella. PLM actually stands for PARABOLIC light modifier, which sets it apart from the vast amount of photographic umbrellas that preceded it (and all if you are considering competitors anywhere near its price range.)

Given that your beginning assertion is incorrect, it goes without saying that much of the downstream logic is similarly flawed.

July 17, 2012 10:04 PM  
Blogger vdubelu said...

Actually Dave if you want to get into the technical of what a Parabolic is then the PLM is closer to an umbrella than a true Parabola which is what Paul C. Buff is trying to market it as.

You can't honestly tell me that the PLM has anything close to a true parabolic focal point. Compare it to a true parabolic like the Broncolor and you will have your answer.

July 18, 2012 2:17 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

No, it is closer to a parabolic than a normal umbrella. That's where it gets the extreme efficiency it has, as compared to a normal umbrella. I know this because I have used it for quite some time now.

If you do not believe a PLM is reasonably close to being parabolic (as opposed to a regular umbrella) then maybe you find a 7' shiny PLM, point it at the sun, stick your head in the focal point for a few mins and do a little scientific research.

Spoiler: It gets pretty warm in that spot.

FWIW, if you wanna troll someone about a Paul Buff PLM not being "anywhere close to parabolic," go troll Paul about it.

July 18, 2012 10:11 AM  
Blogger Steve Loos said...

Wow, what a great discussion (albeit a bit emotion and personal at times!)

I don't give a whit if the PLM and Photek are true parabolas; they both do a great job of efficiently focusing light. They both do this better than the "normal" umbrellas in my bag. This means I can slap two LP160's at 1/8 power inside the Photek and get great results.

The price of the Paul Buff and Photek "focused light kind of like a parabola" umbrellas is fantastic. Isn't this why we buy tools in the first place?

If I ever book a shoot where I need a $$$$$ focused light umbrella that does a job better than the PLM or Photek, then how cool would that be!!!

ps; I thought about measuring the one of these "parabola" umbrellas to see if they actually fit the standard parabola equation y = ax^2 + bx + c equation, , , but thought I'd better not!

July 18, 2012 2:16 PM  
Blogger TB said...

Using a photographers photo as your own is not comparable to making a similar product.

The comparable that would fit would be someone making a similar photo to the original photo.

I dont think I have many if any knock off items. However living in the middle east its sometimes the only option as companies like Paul C Buff dont have a precense here.

Also many of the products developed if not all of the products are a variation on something else.

At the end of the day Im still mad that Nikon hasnt sued Canon for Canons blatant copying of Nikons tube shaped, glass filled lens design. ;)

August 08, 2012 4:58 AM  
Blogger Noknockoffs really said...

"Matt said" in his comment that Mola Inc. had sued Paul Buff. This is INCORRECT.
Mola Inc. sued Kacey Eneterprises.
http://dockets.justia.com/docket/washington/wawdce/2:2011cv01522/178529/

September 16, 2012 10:24 PM  

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