Thursday, July 11, 2013

Trolling for Hate: The Pernicious Kevin John

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
materials.

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.

14 comments:

  1. Mr. Pibb was the shiznoz. Always liked it more than DP. Especially before its 2001 reformulation as "Pibb XTRA." (eyeroll)


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  2. If the Kevin John's of this world are making knives that are exact knock offs including trademarks and breaching IP then rule of law should be used to curtail the activity. What use is legislation if it is ignored to the detriment and suffering of US companies and workers.

    I deplore breaches of patents and trade marks and associated misleading and deceptive conduct.

    If however, the KJ's make exact or even better engineered copies and they do not mislead or deceive potential consumers with register trademarks and there are no patents to breach then aside from one's moral viewpoint what is the legal issue? I put it to you that in such instances the question is not one of forgery purporting to be deceptively sold as the original.

    In many cases that I've seen, product from KJ does not have the same markings as the original. I don't know if KJ put the deceptive markings on offending product if indeed KJ made it.

    You singled out KJ as being synonymous with forgery. My experience and knowledge is only anecdotal so I'm curious to know if you have any substantive evidence to support the allegation that KJ is carrying out such breaches?

    The basis for Patent Law, was originally "An Act to promote the Progress of Useful Arts" and to have benefit for wider society including the consumer as a primary objective. That is, after guaranteeing some reward for the IP creator the wider community would benefit when registered IP lapsed or was licensed to third parties. As you probably know better than I, Patent Law of late can be less predictable and logical than a lottery and in my view the founding fathers or their contemporary peers could justifiably feel their original course has been perverted. Anyway I digress…

    Product and technology design influence over the ages is just part of human evolution. It is a good thing.

    Just because my Corvette has four wheels doesn't mean that your four wheeled cart is a knock off or clone. That is ridiculous. Sure, some people have the view that the main difference between cars is the color.

    Your opinion that the San Ren Mu 710, aside from resembling a Sebenza, is a clone is inaccurate at best. The physical dimensions are different. The proportions are different. The materials are different. The finish is different. The markings are different. The method of using fasteners to assemble them are different. Sure there is a resemblance but calling it a clone except for fit and finish is well not your best prose.

    Nonetheless, thanks for continuing to put your review's opinions and EDC thoughts on the blogosphere.

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  3. Googling Kevin John and XM-18 provided me with many hits. The first one was a true counterfeit with the Hinderer word mark and all. The problem with these counterfeiters is that they are beyond the reach of US IP law. Many are produced overseas and small time makers like Hinderer don't have the financial resources to use the law to shut them down. Specifically, I spoke with a custom maker Tim Britton in researching this piece. He has a specific design for a knife that was copied entirely by a Chinese company. He found it exhibited at Blade Show this year and protested with the organizers of the show. He wanted to do do something to enforce his property rights, but again, the cost of starting litigation with an overseas company is beyond what most knife makers can afford.

    You quoted the part of the Constitution about patents, but in most cases we are dealing with trademarks (such as the Hinderer word mark around the pivot) and they work differently than patents. Very few of the things I referenced are even eligible for patent protection. The overall design of the Sebenza for example is not eligible for patent protection, though it could be possible that the framelock was at some point in time. Its definitely not now, but what we are talking about has nothing to do with patents, but trademarks. This is the case in almost all counterfeiting.

    There is very little I can do for you if you can't see the similarities between the SRM 710 and the Sebenza. They are different in small ways, but the overall design and appearance are essentially the same.

    I am not a fundamentalist when i comes to property rights. I like a lot of work done by people advocating reform, including Lessig. The idea that you can patent rice or that there is an entire industry of patent trolls is appalling to me, but when it comes to plain old theft, I think its okay to single folks out and say: "don't steal."

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  4. Tony,

    I was under the impression that distinctive markings (e.g. logos, brand names, seals, etc) were trademarkable under the auspices of the commerce clause, presumably for the purpose of brand preservation/distinction. What is the basis for trademark protection of dimensions, shapes, material composition, fasteners, etc? It seems odd to me that an aesthetic or functional aspect of design (which is not patented) could/should be protected.

    In other words, would you agree that the idea of a trademark is to prevent consumer brand confusion; nothing more, nothing less.

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    1. Designs CAN be trademarked if the design is central to the trademark, such as a furtniture company with a chair in their logo. It is a work around, but it does happen fairly often. The famous example involved a bike rack system. The bike rack had a distictive look and the rack's shape was used in the logo.

      None of the knives I referenced, to my knowledge, have ANY possible protections other than the Hinderer word mark. This is why I distinguished between the Kevin John counterfeit with the word mark and the San Ren Mu clone that merely copies the shape.

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  5. Dear Tony

    If the high end knife industry wants to reduce counterfeit sales, you’re 100% right – increase access to prospective buyers.

    Because of your article, I developed this craving for a Strider PT-CC. Because of its scarcity, I spent some time searching the internet and luckily found a dealer with available stock. I filled out the dealer’s order form, included my credit card details to pay full price of $300+ shipping only to get a rudely written email rejecting my order because I was overseas, with a non-US issued credit card. For my order to be accommodated, I had to provide “references”.

    Well - @%#$ you Mr. Dealer - let me talk to Kevin John. His product pictures look decent enough, blade steel (assuming true) is fair, and even if the product is NOT anywhere as good as the original, it’s only 1/3 the price.

    I’ve received similar messages from other US dealers and merchants about international credit card concerns but these messages were politely written. I have gone on to order from these parties with other means of payment. Unfortunately, none of them had the Strider PT-CC.

    One day, when the PT-CC is available from other dealers, maybe I’ll buy the real thing…maybe not. But to satisfy this craving, and given the rude experience I had, let me get the next-best-thing - a Kevin John fake.

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  6. Tony, I think you're onto something. Obviously, the dealers of counterfiet blades are scumbags and deserve the majority of the blame here. But, so many legitimate manufacturers are caught up in the desire for exclusivity that they forget to provide enough for consumers to be able to purchase their products. Seems to me that Atwood is probably the best example. His work is impossible to get a hold of (unless you happen to enjoy dropping $900 on a pocket tool), so the OPMT market has sprung up in reaction to that shortage. would others be sucessful seeling these products without Atwood shortages? Probably not, I'd think.

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  7. Hi guys.

    As obviously Kevin John is what started discussion I would like to chime in.

    Many knives sold under the Kevin John brand do not have the original Makers marks but a clearly marked as ie "S35VN Triumph Precision 05/2013". For these knives all we can discuss is the moral question. Examples are Kevin XM-18, Kevin Strider PT or Kevin Small Sebenza.

    Curiously all his bigger Striders do have to original Makers marks. Lately there are even lots of clones of Mick Strider Customs. All the fakes made by other brands (mainly wild Boar) are always marked with the original Makers marks(Hinderer , CRK, Strider etc)

    And these are the real problem. If fit and finish is close to the real deal people will and do start to pass them off as the real deal for that premium prices.

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  8. Caveat Emptor.....

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  9. Trust me the knife makers are NOT suffering for the clone knives....can you say "gateway drug". As one famous knifemaker put it when I pointed out that M-tech had knocked of his design "Sincerest form of flattery." He knows that the guy that bought the cheapo a) would likely NEVER pay the price of a custom but is still shopping HIS design around b) that custom knives are a niche marketband his clients will still buy his most popular designs and variations of such. c) that he STILL needs to innovate to stay ahead of his direct competition (other makers). Aside from those knocking off old Loveless, Scagel and Moran designs in the custom world the "Tactical" customs market is still extremely competitive and while niche there are still plenty clients to go around.

    Market protections are overated AND anti free-market. Think of all the innovative products that are squashed by large corporations that sit there on outdated old technological patents filing suit against small innovative entrepreneurs over frivolous form factors on inventions that they likely bought the patent rights or licensing from someone else to begin with. The big 4 verses Tucker Automobiles and Mag Light (Mag Industries who actually bought their patents from Brinkmann) vs ARC light are two that immediately come to mind. It's called death by litigation and the plaintiff never actually has to win the suit. He simply files suit forces his competitor to spend funds preparing a defense then drops the suit before trial, then waits ashort period and files a separate suit the lather, rinse, repeat until he bankrupts his competition. Old school fatcat bs! Like it says above Caveat Emptor. If you is buying high end you should alway does you homework, homeboy!

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    1. The market protections that are relevant here originate with the Constitution (patents come from Article 1, Section 8) so they aren't going anywhere any time soon. Additionally they are all privately enforced, that is, they are enforced through litigation. There is no government office that challenges patents or shuts down patent violators. Additionally, while the litigation is complex and in need of reform (patenting genes or other things that are only minor modifications of nature seems crazy to me), it is an efficient way to do business--lots of folks in the IP business call it "licensing by other means." Big companies factor it in as a cost of doing business, which is another reason those cases don't go to trial. There is an enormous amount of stalling that goes on, as there is with almost all civil litigation, but in this case it is something the parties usually anticipate. Apple v. Samsung didn't surprise either side, the surprising thing there was the fact it actually when to trial.

      As for the notion that clones are gateway drugs, I think you got it right later when you acknowledged that folks that buy the knockoffs are unlikely to buy the expensive originals. It is a form of flattery, but if a maker had his choice, I am sure they would rather not be "flattered" that way.

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    2. The ones that are being knocked off are usually making ALOT on the real thing thus the profitability of knocking them off in the first place as you mention. But there are those who will join the niche market and buy the real deal IF it really is all that an a bag of chips...unfortunately it usually isn't and collaboration with a large manufacturer will usually net them about oh... .03 percent per unit, not exactly a glowing incentive to collaborate. Now they'd be smart if they co-opted the counterfeiters in a direct deal and put out their own "low line" version...but we're talking about guys that inhale titanium dust and polycarbonate fumes all day arent we?

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  10. I have had Striders and Hinderers. I just could not justify the price these dealers want now. No way. Great knives, but not worth the price you pay for the materials and the machining. If it were a totally handmade knife? Yes. But a lot of it is not. I have 3 Kevin john knives. Say what you want but these are a STEAL at the prices they sell for. Easily 90-95% as good as the originals. Now Im not talking the less than 100$ KJ knives, but the higher end 130$ and up. They are not made in China by the way.

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  11. Yeah, interesting comments above. I have no problem helping someone pick up a fake Seb 21, if their intent is to try one before committing the big bucks for the real one. Wat's wrong with try before you buy? Which of course begs the question: how come the real deals are so expensive? Marketing: costing a product (how much for component parts etc) versus pricing a product (how much can we gouge out of punters, based on name alone). Badge engineering? I have two Sebs, but my EDC is a Sanrenmu 710. Sebs: 21 years, now 25 years ... haven't they paid their way by now? And don't get me started on Mitch Strider! ... Dave

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