Monday, February 08, 2010

The seen and the unseen

The Chamber of Commerce's Mark Espers is bemoaning the fact that some people may get high-quality sports merchandise from unlicensed vendors at a fraction of the inflated prices of official league-sponsored gear.

That those foolish enough to buy sports jerseys can now do so without first taking out a loan is a tragedy, we are told:
NFL licensed merchandise—such as men’s jerseys—can sell for anywhere from $80 on up.  Thus, a price tag of half that much for a seemingly flawless replication seems like a steal for any fan—which is exactly what it is. Each year, as counterfeit vendors make their way to the playoff games to hawk NFL merchandise, the problem of fakes not only gets worse, it gets more sophisticated. Counterfeit jerseys, caps, and other paraphernalia are often mixed in with the real ones, and even the merchant may not know they're selling a fake. A closer look at some merchandise and the subtle discrepancies should become clear: the color is off, the stitching is sloppy, or sometimes players’ names are misspelled.
That counterfeiters are getting "more sophisticated" to the point that even merchant's can't tell the difference suggests they are improving quality. And if the NFL wasn't using the state to forbid any unlicensed dealers from selling clothing with a team's logo, more respectable merchants would be in the business with even better quality control.
Counterfeiting costs U.S. businesses hundreds of millions in lost sales each year.  Indeed, the Customs and Border Protection service last year seized 14,841 shipments of counterfeit goods with a domestic value of $260.7 million---and this is only the stuff they caught!  All of this counterfeiting leads to job losses ranging from the workers who make the products, to those that package, market, distribute, and sell them.  The NFL and its franchises are surely affected as well, especially given the League’s popularity with the American people. 
Counterfeiting may cost jobs for companies involved in selling official merchandise, but there's no evidence it affects overall employment -- to the contrary, more counterfeiters are certainly employed, and somebody is making the t-shirts they sell. And just because less money may be going to rich NFL owners -- royalties making up much of the price of NFL merchandise -- that doesn't mean there's less money in the economy overall. Saving $60 bucks on a Saints jersey means $60 bucks can be spent elsewhere, like on an overpriced beer or hot dog. Indeed, intellectual property boosts the costs of many consumer goods, diverting resources to padding the pockets of already-rich executives that could have been put to more productive uses.
And in today’s Internet era, sales of counterfeit goods are not just happening on street corners, back alley stores, or outside stadiums, it is occurring in increasingly higher numbers online, and in ways that fool consumers into thinking these goods are the real thing.
So counterfeit gear is indistinguishable from its much more expensive competition? Sounds like consumers win. Remember, though, the chamber represents businesses.
Intellectual property theft—through counterfeiting—is NOT a victimless crime. Not only do these crimes eat away at our economy with job losses, but those involved in these crimes are often directly linked to organized crime in one way or another.
Name something a crime and it should come as no surprise that it is criminals that engage in it. Prohibition beget bootleggers, just as intellectual property laws beget "counterfeiters", whose only crime is making affordable merchandise without paying a state-enforced stipend to some already wealthy copyright-holder; that some counterfeiter uses the Miami Dolphins logo does not preclude the creator or "owner" of that design to use it themselves.

And since we're on the subject of organized crime, how again were mobsters pushed out of the booze business? Alcohol was legalized. There's probably a lesson there.

First, the feverish conclusion:
Counterfeiting is a serious global problem that costs tens of thousands of American jobs each year, and eats away at our economic growth and vibrancy.  The only way to fight back is through stringent enforcement and consumer awareness.  So as we watch the game on Sunday, there will be a lot of activity going on behind the scenes that you’ll never see on instant replay. The cracking down on counterfeiting is just one step in stopping this illegal activity. Increased vigilance from law enforcement all the way to Congress and the White House is needed if we are to deal a serious blow to this detriment to our economy. And lastly, if you’re at the game this weekend or online in the coming weeks, and the price of that NFL cap or jersey seems too good to be true, it’s probably a fake; please don’t buy it, somebody’s job may depend on it.
Intellectual property laws safeguard our nation's "vibrancy"? Tell that to any hip-hop artist trying to clear a sample, or someone trying to use an NFL logo in a way that may not appeal to the near-dead white dudes that make up the league's leadership.

For those that don't speak chamber, Esper's basically saying: keep doing the same thing, U.S. government -- blustery rhetoric coupled with heavy-handed enforcement -- just do it harder. And you, Mr. and Mrs. Consumer, forgo that good deal and additional cash you could have spent (or saved? Nah, this is America) elsewhere, and give more of your money to the filthy rich members of the Chamber of Commerce. Or a puppy gets it.

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