Appearances can be deceptive in China

By copying an entire Apple store, Chinese fakers have taken the concept to a whole new level.

This store in Kunming, China, may look like an Apple store, but it isn't. Reuters / China Daily
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To the untrained eye, a store found selling Apple products in Kunming in south-west China was hard to distinguish from the real thing.

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It had the same minimalist design, logos, spiral staircase and, of course, products on sale.

The staff members wore Apple-branded clothing with large ID tags hanging over their shoulders. It was even reported by a blogger they believed they were Apple employees.

The shop appeared to be a carbon copy of the company's flagship outlet in Sanlitun, a trendy shopping centre in east Beijing, or the space-age store in Pudong in Shanghai that sits almost in the shadow of the famous Oriental Pearl Tower.

But appearances can be deceptive; the Kunming store was fake, even though the Apple products were original - having been smuggled into the country. And it was not the only one.

"Media should not misunderstand the situation and jump to conclusions. Some overseas media has made it appear the stores sold fake Apple products," said Chang Puyun, a spokesman for Kunming government's business bureau. "China has taken great steps to enforce intellectual property rights and the stores weren't selling fake products."

The stores were not sanctioned or licensed by Apple, and it was an eagle-eyed female blogger, under the tag BirdAbroad, who uncovered what was going on in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province.

Bryan Mercurio, a professor of law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who specialises in intellectual property issues, says the unauthorised stores took the concept of fakery to a new level.

"The norm in China would be to try to brand your product like another product, not to have the product," he says.

"For example, if you copy Starbucks, you're trying to associate your product with a well-known company's product. But this is going further. This is pretending you are that product."

The clues something was amiss were there for those who looked hard enough.

The stairs in one store, BirdAbroad wrote, looked a little bit scruffy, while the signwriters had been overenthusiastic and written Apple Store on the front of an outlet, when the genuine article simply makes do with the Apple logo.

One outlet had clumsily written Apple Stoer [sic] - a rare mistake in an otherwise near-perfect rip-off. The fake outlets - Apple's only genuine stores are in Beijing and Shanghai - have prompted the local authorities to launch an investigation.

It turned out there were five "copy" shops in Kunming operating without authorisation from the parent company, all of which were said to be selling genuine products. Two have been told by local officials to close down because they do not have business licences.

The story does not end there, because others have highlighted unauthorised Apple outlets in Xi'an, the historical city in central China, among other places.

These stores appear to be in clear breach of intellectual property rights law, not just in using the logo of Apple, but also in copying the "look and feel" of its stores.

However, it is not difficult to find unlicensed stores selling electronic goods indistinguishable from those authorised by the manufacturer.

Anyone hoping to find a Canon or an Acer outlet, among others, in Beijing will not have difficulty. Confirming whether the store is genuine may prove harder.

This month, the Chinese authorities announced they had arrested more than 9,000 people in a crackdown on intellectual property rights (IPR) violations that also resulted in almost 13,000 factories producing fake goods being closed.

Yet the problem remains acute. Copies of brand-name clothes, handbags and other items are openly sold in markets, and fake DVDs and books can be bought on the street for about a dollar apiece.

In May, the International Trade Commission in the US said American businesses lost an estimated US$48 billion (Dh176.3bn) in 2009 because of counterfeiting, piracy and other IPR infringements by China, Reuters reported.

Prof Mercurio says in major cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, foreign companies have taken legal action.

"There have been some high-profile cases where a brand name has won."

Outside these cities, however, it can be much tougher for companies to ensure trademarks are not breached.

As the Kunming stores show, what you see is not always what you get.