19th March 2019
In the fight against counterfeits, technology is a double edged sword. On the one hand, advances in technology are making it easier for counterfeits to be produced and distributed to a wider audience, but on the other, technology is providing new ways for designers to mark their products as genuine.
Counterfeit products can be very lucrative. It is
estimated that last year alone, trade related to counterfeit or pirated
products generated approximately US$1.2 trillion worldwide. The growing demand
within the counterfeit product industry makes it even more inevitable that
designs will be copied – either as counterfeits or as copycat products. For
designers, this can tarnish their reputation (when counterfeit products are
sold unknown to the consumer and then are poor quality), in addition to
reducing their bottom line.
An additional factor in the demand for ways to
authenticate products is the boom in the ‘pre-loved’ industry (also known as
the secondary market). Whilst this may not be such a concern for original
designers, there has been a massive increase in secondary sales, especially in
the fashion and luxury goods sector, where it is estimated that globally, secondary
market trade in luxury items is worth US$25 billion. One of the largest issues
facing these consumers, who do not purchase designs directly from the original
designer, is verifying that the items are authentic.
This article looks at some of the ways designers are
trying to better mark their products by using both old and new technologies.
within the product
Sometimes simple is best. Handbag designers in particular
are known for using unique stitching patterns or liners to indicate that their
products are genuine. Such marks are not always obvious to consumers but
instantly recognisable to those ‘in the know’. French luxury goods company,
Hermes is reported to use a mouliné linen thread, coated in beeswax. This
confers a different appearance on the stitching as compared to synthetic
threads (which are often used on counterfeits) meaning it is easier to identify
a product as genuine (the thread is expensive and harder to obtain and
therefore less likely to be used by counterfeiters).
Holograms have been used for many years now but their
reliability sees their continued and widespread use. In fact, they are fast
becoming one of the most widely used authentication methods across the world.
Chanel, for example, is reported to insert unique holograms within the lining of
their handbags. Whilst it is common for counterfeits to attempt to replicate
holograms, their intrinsic features and visual effects make it very difficult
to copy a hologram properly.
DNA spray is a more recent method of authentication. It provides
design owners with the ability to mark a design as an official product for
review by customs officials. Unique DNA strands can be sprayed in a certain
location on authentic products, and can then be tested to ensure that the
imported/exported product is not a counterfeit. The added benefit of this
method is that DNA spray is too complex a structure to be easily replicated,
and therefore the same DNA cannot be fraudulently applied to a counterfeit. This
method was used successfully to identify original merchandise at the 2000 Sydney
Summer Olympic Games.
identification (RFID) and near-field technology (NFC)
RFID tags contain an antenna and chip to store data, which
can include “fingerprint” information such as where a product was
Salvatore Ferragamo microchip a number of their bags and shoes
with a RFID tag, which is readable up to a distance of 4cm, and Moncler have
included a RFID microchip in all of the goods they have manufactured since
Spring/Summer 2016. This chip can be scanned by a smartphone, and enables
purchasers to verify that their goods are original designs.
NFC technology is a similar method for marking a design,
and enables communication with a smartphone in a similar format to that of contactless-payment
Last year, the Dutch furniture, interior and lighting
design company Moooi introduced an authentication function through its mobile
app. Each product was issued with a wireless chip, called the “Button”. This
chip is marked with a floral pattern and provides information to an individual
using the app, including an image of the product, the product code, an
individual ID code, and details on the origin of the design, thereby allowing verification.
One of the interesting things about Moooi’s use of the “Button” is
that instead of hiding the authentication device, they have made it part of the
Although blockchain is more closely associated with financial
technology, retail sectors are also beginning to consider possible uses for
data storage and anti-counterfeiting.
Blockchain is a database within a shared network. When a
user enters information, this record, known as a “block”, is
automatically synchronised to every other copy of the database. This protects
any data within the database, as a hacker would need to remove the record
across the whole network.
Importantly, this mechanism removes the need for a central
intermediary between parties, and is currently being used within several industries
for supply chain management. In combination with RFID identification, blockchain
can track shipments all the way from raw materials to the consumer, and the
records cannot be altered. This means that any designs tracked by block chain
can be easily authenticated, even when sold second-hand, or through a third
Blockchain has already been used in conjunction with NFC
technology to provide background on designs produced by fashion brands such as BABYGHOST
and Martine Jarlgaard.
What is next?
Whilst many of these tools are helpful in the fight
against counterfeits, it remains to be seen whether counterfeiters will be able
to replicate these authentication technologies. Additionally, whilst several of
these methods focus on verification via mobile-apps, it is still unclear
whether these technologies will prove to be accessible enough for consumers to
use. Although first-hand consumers may not feel the need to verify the design
when buying from source, there is likely to be a strong uptake by secondary-market
buyers and customs officials alike.
Whilst counterfeiting techniques continue to evolve, brands
are beginning to respond by implementing technologies and markers which will
provide a clear authentication for their consumers of the quality and
craftsmanship of their designs.
Daisy is an associate in our Intellectual Property Group based in London. She has experience in a broad range of intellectual property matters across the technology, financial services, life sciences, sports and media sectors.
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