Faking It


Written by Betty Wood
Photos and illustrations by BirdAbroad & Various
14 Sunday 14th August 2011

Image: BirdAbroad

From the staff uniform to the wooden furniture, every aspect of the official Apple store layout was carefully copied into the Kunming store in what has to be the ultimate 'real' fake. Her suspicions were first aroused by a misspelling in the shop's name, then pricked further by the lack of staff name-badges, and then again by the proximity of shops (three within a short walking distance; London has one store). BirdAbroad blogged her find - "they were such detailed and complete rip-offs that they almost rose to the level of artistry" - only to find the article was picked up by a large readership on the internet sending the story viral.

'Apple Store', Kunming

After complaints by Apple and investigations from Chinese authorities, the fake Apple stores - five in total - were closed down. But it's not the first or the only time Apple has suffered at the hands of China's bootleggers; after rumours surfaced recently about the impending release of the new iPhone 5 (supposedly next month) Chinese fraudsters unveiled their first take of the new iPhone 5, capitalising on 'leaked' details of its specs that include rounded edges, a thinner handset and increased memory capacity.

A 'leaked' image of the new 'iPhone 5'

In fact, phones are common hijacks for KIRFs (Keep It Real Fakes, as Engadget.com has termed them). BlackBerry has been on the receiving end of its fair share of knock-offs (each more aggressively misprinted - BleckBerry, BlockBerry, BLACKBERRY). In China counterfeiting android phones and technology is big business, and as the ‘Apple Store’ incident proves, the Chinese tech markets are very good at it. Shanzai (“mountain bandit”) counterfeits are big business in China, in large part due to the speed and affordability at which products become available. Whilst the big companies like Nokia, Apple and BlackBerry work tirelessly to counter fraudsters in the developing BRIC markets, the fraudsters themselves work equally as hard to improve on the products they are copying.

Fake BlackBerry

For the iPhone and Blackberry, this can mean a double SIM slot (which allows one to run a second line, switching between service providers to make cheaper calls), USB connection port or extra video cameras.

In an interview with tech mag Wired’s Bobbie Johnson earlier this year, Frog Design and former Nokia counterfeit expert Jan Chipcase nodded to the Chinese’s ability to exceed the provisions of official companies and the speed with which it can be done as the key to counterfeiters success:"The way you make a copy, the nuance, is one form of innovation. What if that way of innovating becomes the dominant way? Imagine you took all the energy in remix culture in the US or the UK, and you put it in an environment that was driven by a desire to make money and covered both hardware and software. There's a word that needs to be invented: it's not shanzhai… it's beyond shanzhai." The counterfeit version of Dell's Streak 7 tablet usurped the actual model with an increased memory capacity and its ability to make and receive phone calls (something the real one can't do).

An anti-piracy advert

There is of course the argument that shanzai-style counterfeits hurt no one apart from the ‘big’ companies, but this isn’t strictly true. Whilst phone companies decry counterfeit goods for stunting innovation – Chipcase disagrees on this point – and the film industry accuses counterfeit DVD pirates of funding terrorism, some of the more immediate fakes available in the UK market are undeniably sinister.

Take for example the influx of ‘fake’ cigarettes flooding the UK over the last 10 years; figures released last week show that one heist of counterfeit cigarettes seized in Middlesborough this summer contained 63% more tar than the genuine article, and emitted up to 30% more carbon monoxide when smoked. Other worrying figures included the addition of up to seven times as much arsenic as normal cigarettes, and 10 times as much lead amongst other poisonous substances.

Seized counterfeit vodka, like those produced in Boston.

Fake alcohol has been hitting the headlines too following a recent explosion at an illegal vodka distillery in Boston, where five men were killed. Around the same time, a rash of local people were admitted to hospital in the area thinking they’d had their drinks spiked – it emerged that they’d actually been sold counterfeit booze. The fake-vodka was found to contain isopropanol, a chemical most commonly used in windscreen wash, fuel, cleaning products and brake fluid. Yum! Needless to say, the consequences of drinking isopropanol laced vodka vary in severity from severe stomach pains to permanent blindness.

So even if the fake goods you’re buying aren’t funding organised crime and are saving you a packet on your cigarettes, the long-term price might be higher than you’d think.

Fair game or intellectual theft? Tell us your opinion.

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