I have been wanting to write about the rampant counterfeiting that is going on in the gear world right now, but until this piece I really had no formulated opinion other than: its bad. But I think the issue has a little more nuance to it than that. I am well aware that this opinion might cause some push back, I think I can defend this position. And if I can't I'll say so in a future post.
If you have Googled "Hinderer XM-18" or "Strider PT" in the last three months or so you probably saw the name "Kevin John". Kevin John is synonymous with forgery. The knives produced and sold under the name Kevin John are counterfeit knives. They look like the originals, they are designed to mimic the originals, they bear intellectual property marks of the originals, but they are not authorized by the makers of the originals. They are clearly nothing more than blatant theft. Furthermore like all counterfeit knives they harm the originals.
Counterfeits are a very particular kind of copy. First there is the design homage, where the new item echos the old, like the C7 Corvette shadowing the design lines of older models. Here is the C7:
And here is the old Stingray:
Then there is the reproduction, something like a Windsor chair made in the style of 18th century makers. A copy, no doubt, but one designed to pay respects to a great design and, of course, not something copyrighted or otherwise protected by intellectual property laws. Then there are the clones, like the San Ren Mu 710, a knife that looks like a Sebenza but has lesser fit and finish and
San Ren Mu 710 and the Sebenza:
It gets closer to the straight rip off, but it does not purport to be the original, only a lookalike, the Mr. Pibb to Sebenza's Dr. Pepper (mmmm...Dr. Pepper; funny enough, Dr. Pepper is even a rip off of the true Dr. Pepper, Dublin Dr. Pepper, I HIGHLY recommend you try some if you can, and I hate soda). Then there is the most insidious form of copying--the counterfeit. It looks exactly like the original, and even bears the trademarks of the original, but it is not.
In the case of Kevin John stuff, the seem to be a step above the run of the mill counterfeits. They claim to use a good steel, mostly D2. They appear to have decent fit and finish. And they fastidiously copy the original down to the finest details. These are high end counterfeits, but counterfeits nonetheless.
In reality counterfeits do not hurt the original brands like most people think. Studies in economics and IP law have shown that the harm is not a reduction in sales because people are buying the cheap knock offs, but because people are refraining from buying the expensive originals. In other words, the harm from counterfeits doesn't come from the budget buyer looking to get a "Strider" for $99. Those people would, in all likelihood, never buy a Strider if they only want to spend $99 AND are willing to buy a clearly illegal, black market copy. Instead, the REAL harm to brands from counterfeits in situations like this is that folks that ARE willing to shell out of the $300 for a real Strider PT are less willing to do so because they are afraid of paying for a real PT and getting a fake.
This sort of problem not only impacts the makers of the real knives, it impacts their distributors. Only the most established distributors, ones with lots and lots of history or big budget sites, are seen as being trustworthy enough to carry the real thing. The up and coming distributors, the ones that are trying to make a name for themselves by carrying upgraded items like Strider knives aren't seen by the consumer as being a safe bet to get the real thing. This means these up and comers suffer the loss of sales and confidence by the consumer, all but guaranteeing them to remain in their second tier status.
Counterfeiting causes other problems as well. High end makers are less likely to make new designs for fear that they lose money when that design is inevitably counterfeited. Additionally, like a single drop of ink in a glass of water, counterfeits don't just hurt high end brands, eventually it becomes profitable enough to counterfeit mid tier stuff like Spyderco Delicas and then the problem becomes rampant. If Delicas are being counterfeited in large numbers, then essentially no knife or light is safe and reliable. We aren't there yet, but things could go in that direction soon. Counterfeits are brutally bad for the entire industry and if there is no profit for the industry there are no products for us.
But this is not a simple argument of counterfeits are bad. Some of the companies involved bear a small percentage of the responsibility for rampant counterfeiting because of radically unmet market demand. In a market where demand is high and the authentic product is simply not being sold, counterfeiters thrive. For example, it is hard for Hinderer to say that counterfeits are preventing buyers from purchasing REAL XM-18s because you can't buy them. There is really no direct from Hinderer or a distributor alternative--you either pay 300% mark ups on the secondary market (which of course does not benefit Hinderer) or you buy a counterfeit. Everyone other than the LEO/MIL/EMS folks out there, market is out of luck. Counterfeits probably do take away from the market for Hinderer's licensed goods, like the Kershaw Cryo and Thermite or the ZT56x series, but there is no way that counterfeits hurt the market for a real XM-18 because, in essence, there is no market for these knives.
Strider is a little better, but not much. The history of the Strider PT is one of constant QC problems, issues with fit and finish or tang geometry or pivot construction have resulted in new iterations on a regular and unannounced basis. Right now the Strider PT is almost (I snagged one from Plaza Cutlery very recently, one of three or five) entirely out of production. Given this uneven product quality and availability, counterfeits again thrive. It is odd that every other product on the Strider webpage is readily available but the PT, one of the more common counterfeits, is not. In a market without production, its almost impossible to avoid counterfeiting. The demand is certainly there, but again, the products are not.
The Sebenza knockoffs seem to be a counter point to my argument, but I think they are a special exception. The Sebenza has passed into hallowed territory--it is the common definition of ultra luxe knife and has been for some time. Even folks that have a scant or passing interest in knives, know about the Sebenza and so while there are counterfeits out there AND there is lots of product on the market, I think the counterfeits fall into the "Rolex" and Gucci class of counterfeits--intellectual property pirates just capitalizing on the most famous product in a given market. It seems to me that we have had Sebenza counterfeits for so long and supply has been there that makers of the counterfeits aren't really benefiting from production shortages or unavailable products. It is, for some reason, less opportunistic in the case of the Sebenza than it is the case of the PT and XM-18 counterfeits. I am not sure I am completely right here, but that is what I think is going on. Of course we will never know for sure because the counterfeiters are about as likely to open up their books as they are to donate to a charity.
Kevin John or whatever company is behind these knock offs are hurting the knife business as a whole and consumers of high end stuff in particular. But these blades only exist and are as readily available as they are because the real stuff is just not available. Supply and demand. It is an old lesson that for whatever reason some makers haven't learned. When there is a gap between supply and demand crazy things happen, including high-end counterfeits. People should NEVER buy these blade, but makers also bear some responsibility here. Make this stuff. We will buy it. Counterfeits prove there is a market for these things, so it is time to meet that demand.