After the Apple vs. Samsung Verdict, Let’s Talk Knockoffs in the Photo Industry: Isn’t Everything a Remix?

This post gonna be a bit longish, so let’s get on with it. At the recent Alpbach Forum, U.S. technology lobbyist Robert Atkinson did not haver. “The Asian economy is essentially based on the copying and stealing of intellectual property,” Atkinson said according to “If you’re good at it and, as the Chinese, don’t abide by any rules, then you can within ten years easily achieve technological progress that takes 40 years elsewhere.”

Following Apple’s sweeping court victory in the patent dispute with Samsung, the mightiest gets even mightier while looser Samsung warns consumers of less innovation and higher prices.

Steve Jobs, Creator of Everything

It’s now official: Apple rules in mobile devices, Asian phone makers face setbacks — even though Apple shouldn’t be too surprised that this happens when you produce everything in cheap cheap Asia. And everything, Apple, is the result of theft, imitation and adaption. And no, Steve Jobs, not all other smartphones are a knockoff of the iPhone. Even your own empire is the result of, well, the imitation of intellectual property.

When Patrick Wensink was commissioning the cover for his book, “Broken Piano For President,” he probably wasn’t expecting a cease-and-desist letter from Jack Daniel’s Properties — the owner of the Jack Daniel’s trademarks. In what might just be the nicest cease-and-desist letter ever seen, the people at Jack Daniel’s not only politely explained the situation to Wensink, the company even offered to help pay for the cost of designing a new cover. The moral of the story: Don’t mess with the wrong company.
Take the old Apple legend:

It tells how 24-year-old Jobs visited PARC (Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center) in late 1979; got a demonstration of the Xerox Alto personal computer from PARC engineers Larry Tesler and Bill Atkinson; took the concept of the Alto’s $300, three-button computer mouse to an industrial designer named Dean Hovey, who redesigned it as single-button mouse that could be built for $15; had Apple’s software team soup up the Alto’s graphical user interface with menus and direct manipulation features; and eventually ended up with the Macintosh. True innovation, Steve?

More in the video below.

The photo industry is not so different from the computing and mobile phone industry. They copy. They transform. They combine. They’re at each others’ throats to be a step ahead, but in the end, when you see the final products, differences are miniscule.

Photographers Become Brand Products

Canon and Nikon basically copy each others DSLR lineups. Photography today is unfortunately often more about forced brand loyalty than making real use of hardware. Hardware is exchangeable. You’re not a Canon or Nikon shooter. You’re a brand product. Doesn’t matter what’s in your hands. Every latter-day camera is able to shine in the right hands.

But then again, the photo industry took precautions against knockoffs. With all the camera companies making increasingly proprietary gear with planned obsolescence, knockoffs are less profitable. That’s why the industry took away the standard PC flash sync cable, then they took away the standard plunger remote trigger.

But whatever camera you choose today, you can’t blame the gear no longer. Even talking compacts and point-and-shoots, worried about high ISO or frames per second? Amazing new world of photo gear.

Because everyone steals from everyone.

Some do it the gentleman’s way. Forget Nikon without Sony. Nikon’s best cameras are built around Sony sensors. LCDs, circuits, even lenses, it’s as with the mobile phone industry where Apple needs Samsung to make the iPhone and iPad. Period. Samsung is the sole supplier of Apple’s processing chips. Without Samsung, they can’t make these products.

Japan, the True Innovator

Theft of intellectual property is a two-faced issue for consumers. Yes, it means greater choice and more competitive prices. But real innovation? Olympus (and in a way Panasonic) fathered ingenious Micro Four Thirds — only to be copied by Sony, Samsung, Pentax, Nikon and now Canon.

Truly innovative Olympus invented the sensor dust removal system and an amazing 5-axis image stabilization. The sensor cleaning system was copied in no time by the other major brands. Rest assured that within a year or so 5-axis stabilization is common standard.

These are all Japanese innovations. Asians may be world’s foremost copyists and intellectual property thieves. But imagine the photo industry without the Japanese. Canon, Sony, Olympus, Nikon, Panasonic, JVC… How much did the Americans and Europeans plagiarize?

But then again, the Japanese ask for the production of Chinese and other knockoffs. If Canon made a manual-only flash that had the features of the Yongnuo YN-560II, and if they priced it in the neighborhood of $200, many would purchase. Canon though has not cared to make a manual-only flash. So your only option is to look elsewhere.

Even the Japanese can’t reinvent the wheel.

Everyone’s Borrowing

The photo industry is moving fast and all players are building upon ideas that have been around for some time, if not decades. Weren’t the early Nikon rangefinders Leica copies? First off: Almost all Photo Gear is knocked off. Using a 35mm camera? Just a cheap Leica copy. Using a prime lens? Probably “influenced” by a Zeiss design.

On the other hand, history has shown there has yet to be a company that has won the hearts and minds of consumers and achieved continuous growth when its primary means to competition has been the outright abuse of patent law.

“Borrowing designs” is not new to the industry, but so far it’s more a problem in the photo peripheral industry. Take Paul Buff’s revolutionary parabolic umbrella lighting system, dubbed the PLM.

Copied within no time, Buff went apeshit. Well, meanwhile he invented PLM v2.0 and v3.0, but with clones flooding the market the golden days are gone.

What’s the harm, asks the consumer, as everybody gets cheaper parabolic umbrellas. Choice is good for consumers. And of course people are going to buy knockoffs when the “official” stuff is priced for people who ride in golden rocket ships.

Well, innovation was a first victim of these PLM knockoffs, says the Strobist. Buff decided to not finance his next big innovation in light control. It was all too clear that the R&D of innovative new gear would be knocked off a month later and sold on the Net with impunity.

But then again, weren’t umbrellas invented in China?

And we’re talking global economic crisis. People have less money, that’s the ideal breeding ground where everyone is just knocking off everyone else’s stuff and there is no true innovation happening.

Screw Innovation, I Want It Cheap…

And tempted by all the expensive gear, do photographers give a crap about intellectual property? Screw innovation, I want it as cheap as possible? And it’s not just the Chinese pop-up rebrand companies copying stuff. Well, originals are often way overpriced. We’re photographers, not legislators, so we buy what fits our needs.

But remember, you usually get what you pay for. Most don’t have the money to buy things two times, so avoid buying the same crap twice. Personally, I buy what seems best value overall. How I wish though there were Leica M9-P knockoffs… Not happening, as a truly complex, innovative product simply can’t be knocked off.

Knockoffs are about mass market. The free enterprise system, with free and open markets, provides the greatest value to the greatest number of people, at the lowest cost. What’s new gets a premium price for the new value. After the initial (and substantial) cost of R&D is covered, and with improvements in production techniques and materials, there is room for prices to drop.

The less prices drop = the more imitations/adaptions/knockoffs.

In the end though, isn’t everything a remix?

Or as Steve Jobs said:

Good artists copy, great artists steal. We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.

(If you’re interested in the other parts of Kirby Ferguson’s visual tetralogy, here are Part 1, Part 2 and outstanding Part 4.)