Copycat

With the rapid growth of the copycat industry there is now a dizzying variety of knock-off phone brands. One has recently appeared (with) president Obama as its spokesman and sports a beaming Obama on its advertisements. “This is my Blackberry,” Obama tells us with a grin, “the Blockberry Whirlwind 9500!”

– Yu Hua, China in Ten Words.

Hi everyone,

Long time no post. I have the day off work and I’m sitting in a cafe with nothing much to do, so I thought I’d try writing a bit. I’d bet the people around me drinking their single-origin drip filtered espressos would never imagine that the guy on his laptop in the corner is writing a post about the dark and seedy underworld of resin model piracy for the world’s premier miniature wargaming blog. Yeah, I said it.

blockberry

Looks legit!

The quote at the top comes from a really interesting book I’m reading called China in Ten Words, by the apparently famous (according to the book cover) Chinese writer Yu Hua. Each chapter is an essay on a word that is commonly used in general chatter and the media in China today.

The quote comes from the chapter “Copycat.” In this chapter Yu explains that, beginning with the counterfeiting of western luxury goods, copycatting has become a way of life in China, and is seen as a legitimate expression of grassroots revolutionary power. The Chinese word translated as “copycat,” shanzhai, originally meant a fortified mountain village, and came to mean a lair of bandits. It still has connotations of freedom from authority. Everything in modern China can be copycatted, and doing so is totally fine. As Yu says:

Once I ran into a reporter who had fabricated (a fake interview with Yu) and I told him firmly: “I have never been interviewed by you, ever.”

He responded just as firmly “that was a copycat interview.”

I was speechless… (but) there’s nothing I can do about it, except pray that in the future, when people make up conversations with me, they don’t have me talk too much nonsense. If someone has me say something clever, I’m even prepared to say thank you.

Last year I was involved in a 40k narrative campaign with some serious players. These guys have tens of thousands of points of fully-painted models, titans, the works. They’re all grown ups with jobs and some have kids (or motorbikes and sporty cars if they don’t have kids). Like the inimitable Von I am a frugal gamer, and have tailored my army to reflect that. It’s a battered 2000 points of Tau and human mercenaries led by a radical Ordo Xenos Inquisitor. Trouble was, the last battle of the campaign was an Apocalypse mega-battle, and I knew from experience how those games turn out for me:

1: Spend half an hour deploying my infantry and MBTs.

2: Spend the next half an hour removing them all, except for my Eversor assassin who runs across the table for the next three hours trying to get into melta-bomb range of an enemy titan or superheavy.

3: Remove Eversor when he gets stepped on and cry quietly into my coffee.

This is not that fun. So I decided to buy a beat-up stolen superheavy tank for my guys, to represent reprazent and hopefully last a few turns. I settled on the Macharius Omega, because it looks awesome and also PLASMA KABLAMMO!!

Look at the size of that plasma cannon. I mean come on.

Look at the size of that plasma cannon. I mean come on.

And then I realised, I could buy one from Forgeworld for $240, or from China for $70.

Now as an Australian, I don’t feel particularly bad about piracy. Most of our early settlers were sent here for stealing things, or being Irish, or in some extreme cases, both. I’d say your average white Australian thinks that if someone in the world is getting something free or for a lower price than they are, they have the right to er… circumvent the system in order to get the better deal. We’re one of the biggest pirate nations when it comes to media, so much so that the US ambassador to Australia actually publicly condemned us all a few years ago and asked us to stop stealing Game of Thrones and pay through the nose like we’re s’posed to, please, ‘kay? We didn’t, and everything is still pretty much how it was before. Yeah, we got Netflix, but only a fraction of the catalogue available in the US is available to us, so we all just use VPNs to pretend we’re in the US. Our government (under advisement from American media corps no doubt) now wants to outlaw VPNs. Not cool.

I’m getting sidetracked here, but what I’m getting at is that there are a lot of justifications for product piracy, and as an Australian you don’t have to bust your gut to convince me there’s nothing that bad about it. Something we have in common with the Chinese I guess.

In the end though, I decided to buy my tank from Forgeworld, and I’ll tell you why. I’ve always wanted this:

Painted by John Pilkington, 1999.

Painted by John Pilkington, 1999.

It’s a resin garage kit of Gally/Alita from the manga Gunnm, known in the west as Battle Angel Alita. It was the series that introduced me to manga and anime when I was a teenager back in the mid 1990s, and I still think it’s one of the most unique, strange and philosophical manga out there. Yukito Kishiro did the whole Western metaphysics influence thing a few years before Neon Genesis, and less confusingly.

Anyway I went to buy this kit and found that I could get it from the legitimate licensed manufacturer in Korea for $110, or from some guy in Thailand for $40. I was just about to Add the Thai dude’s version to Cart when I suddenly thought: why did I think it was OK to buy a knock-off of an Asian-made work, but when it came to Forgeworld I wanted to buy British? Was I a racist? What the hell?

It was then I remembered reading a book years ago about the Japanese director Miyazaki and the rise of Japanese pop culture in the West. In it, the author showed that the Japanese government in the mid-late 90s decided that in the future, goods manufacture would be undercut by poorer nations, and that the only way for wealthier nations to stay competitive would be to use their cultural power to create and spread IPs, rather than physical objects. This was a radical idea at the time. But I see now it makes sense. The South Korean government decided the same thing in the early 200s and set up performing arts and fashion schools and departments of pop culture studies in all major universities to analyse trends, so Korean pop music and fashion could take over the world. It’s now starting to bear fruit.

No-one in Japan, South Korea, the UK or Australia is able to make stuff as cheaply as someone in China or Thailand. But because of the worldwide cultural influence that the English language wields, and the hard work the Japanese and South Koreans have put in to get their IPs and pop stars to be seen as cool worldwide, people in our countries are in the position to make up IPs and have them actually seen.

Hyuna, one of the super hot stars of the "Korean Wave" that is taking pop culture by storm worldwide. And I mean worldwide.

Hyuna, one of the super hot stars of the “Korean Wave” that is taking pop culture by storm worldwide. And I mean worldwide.

It’s sad, but you could be the most imaginative creator in Thailand but if you create in Thai, no-one outside Thailand will ever see your work and you’ll probably have to support your art with a labour, service or manufacturing job. But if you were born in the Anglosphere or Japan you can, if you work hard enough, have a job as an internationally visible artist. You can even be well-known. Perhaps even wealthy.

So this is why I buy Forgeworld from the UK, and why I’m ordering the Alita kit from Sol models in Korea instead of the Thai pirate. As time goes on, more and more Westerners will rely on IP creation and companies maintaining IPs for their income. We’ll come up with the ideas and original products, China or Thailand will make affordable copies. So not supporting Forgeworld means not supporting the people who pay the original creators, which means not supporting the creators, which means not supporting the main Western industry of IP creation. The most important and smartest thing wealthy countries with a lot of cultural clout can do is keep coming up with original ideas, and make sure our cultures stay “cool.” Copycats will mimic the original products straight away, yeah, but that’s because no-one’s willing to pay them for their original ideas. They can only make money parroting our IPs, which is sad when you think about it.

But not that sad: Mr Thai Pirate has a whole suite of knock-offs in his eBay store. There’s a whole world out there for him to copycat. He’s not going to starve if someone doesn’t buy his Alita kit that no-one born after 1985 is even going to know exists. Mr Chinaforge will just shut his site and open it again with a new name if GW somehow manages to track him down. But if someone does buy from them (and they will), the Japanese or British creator loses a little bit of the value of their IP, and that’s all they’ve got really.

So from now on my reasoning goes: I am a Westerner. It’s people in countries like mine who happen to make the original IPs that everyone loves. So if I can buy from the original creator or their licensed agent, I will; there are enough people in China to support the makers of knock-offs. They don’t need my help.

I’m not going to claim there’s some moral element here when I really don’t think there is. For me it’s a question of culture, business and practicality. If I was Chinese making/buying  knock-offs would be a smart thing to do, but I’m not, and doing it just harms my local industry that might be employing myself or my friends or family. But I don’t judge those guys in China and Thailand. You gotta do what you gotta do.

Till next time, have a good one!

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  • MerryVulture

    Well put. I don’t know that I fully agree with all of the article, but I find it to be much more well put than most arguments about piracy and the pros and cons there of. Good to see you back, by the way.

    • Thanks for the kind words Merry! Glad you enjoyed it. It’s a complicated issue to be sure, I think how you feel about it depends a lot on your point of view. Whether you look at it as a moral issue about stealing, or as a purely practical issue, or some other way.

  • The Warlock

    Nice to see you back 🙂 this was fun to read and feels more like an ethical debate.

    Had similar thoughts not a week ago regarding a contemptor dread. Saving up for the FW variety for a few reasons, most of which you’ve outlined but also due to QC and customer service. I’ve no idea regarding quality of the knock-off but it’s probably good seeming as they appear to sell. Secondly, I don’t know if I’d be sent a complete new replacement set/part if something arrived warped or broken. It was a tough call, but FW won out, if for the reason that I need to get the HH rulez from them may as well add some resin crack to the cart 😛

    Regarding piracy in general- I find the music/video piracy and VPN blocking to be relatively justified in Oz.

    To all people across the various pond: Nothing is more frustrating than clicking a you-tube link or an iTunes link and finding the message: The uploader of this has not made this available in your country. If we had complete access to the digital media (and who shouldn’t given how connected the world is these days) then yeah we’d gladly pay. Give access get money.

    For the flip, the original creator should, dare I say must be supported as without the original you can’t have the knock-off. If everyone bought the knock off, the original would cease to be as its creator goes bust. Would the knock-off gain legitimacy from this, or would it too slowly fade out?

    You’re right when you say that the Western world is relying more on IP’s than ever before – almost everything these days is made in China, or one of her neighbours. The western world seems to supply a constant stream of actors, singers, writers and so forth rather than any non-arts based creation.

    the =”” thingies are meant to be forward slashes, formatting is weird.

    • Yeah, back when there was the whole Game of Thrones fiasco, where pretty much every Aussie over the age of eighteen (and lots younger no doubt) were torrenting it, there was some interesting media stuff. Apparently in the US media pirates are thought of as shady individuals, if not outright criminals. But I saw one American media exec say that in Australia, everyday mums and dads were pirating because they couldn’t get the stuff that was being advertised and talked about everywhere within a decent release window, if at all. I don’t think I know any Australian who thinks media piracy is seriously morally wrong – only a couple people who are maybe leery of breaking rules.

      I think it’s because we are English speakers, so we feel as though stuff from the Anglophone world is our culture. And people have a right to their culture, or at least believe that they do. I know a guy who has a comics and media podcast and he rants about this CONSTANTLY. “Don’t fucken advertise stuff at us twenty four seven and then tell us we can’t have it at the same time as everyone else, for the same price.” By “everyone else,” he means the people who make the stuff, primarily Americans and Brits.

      This place (the House) is a case in point – we come from all over the anglophone world and the internet gives us the impression that we share a culture. When in reality we sort of don’t. Australia is not America, at least not to American business people. It’s a foreign market that doesn’t deserve any special treatment.

  • Thuloid

    It’s an interesting issue. As a rule, I’m with you. But on occasion there might be room for an exception. E.g., Forgeworld has a tendency to pull models from sale and never re-release. I’d say that sort of behavior is practically begging for recasts. And increasingly much of the WHFB line is going to look like that, soon.

    I’m also thinking, in a broader sense, about over-defense of IP, and what that means for this. Not just from GW–theirs is silly. But in general – copyrights that seem to go on forever, attempts to claim rights to things that couldn’t possibly have had that clean an origin, etc. And then, yes, vastly differing cultural expectations as to ownership of abstractions.

    • Hey Thuloid.

      GW hey, what can be said that hasn’t been said already? I guess they stop casting things to make Forgeworld stuff rare, or limited edition or something? To get people to treat them like art? Whatever the reason, it’s a suicidal business tactic in a globalized market full of people with knock-off capabilities, unless they have some way of watermarking FW originals so people can point to their Krieg commissar and say “see, this one is authentic.” Which they don’t. Maybe they should have certificates of authenticity with every model.

      I am not optimistic about the economic future of the current first-world countries. Automation is going to be disastrous for huge chunks of our population in the next few decades unless we have some sort of safety net set up for all the people whose jobs used to be driving things, delivering things, serving people, etc. Yes, we might have cultural cache and the ability to produce traditional handmade luxury goods for the newly rich citizens of the upcoming powers, but even then, look at Italy. That’s what they’ve been relying on for a while now, and they’re not looking too healthy. Over protection of IP is I think the over-reaction of scared people who know what’s probably coming.

      Wow that was bleak. I just got back from a tropical island and i feel great. Maybe that’s why I can talk about the collapse of our economies so candidly. This must be how Cedric feels all the time 😀

      • Thuloid

        I could go on for a while on economics. I suspect we are on opposite sides of the spectrum yet recognizing very similar problems and so in a kind of astrological convergence.

        Right now, royalties are holding GW up. Miniatures alone are proving not really profitable. So, speaking of IP, that’s what the biggest player in the mini game has going for it…

      • Cedric Ballbusch

        Yes, it is.

    • Von

      My justification for the occasional act of piracy has been more or less the same. I prefer not to pirate material that’s currently in production and actively making money for the people who created it. Once something is withdrawn from production, though… I consider it fair game, because it can only be sourced on the secondary market (which doesn’t return money to the creators and provide returns on their labour ANYWAY) or through copycat production.

      • Like I said in the main post, I think there are some simple anti-piracy arguments, but none of them are moral. Business is a dog-eat-dog thing. Moral condemnation of things that in another light could easily be legitimate business practices is either a cynical smokescreen or naivety, depending on who does it.

        Here’s an interesting story, my father in law gave me a Rolex he got while living in China. It was a factory run-on, meaning that the workers “accidentally” left the machines on a couple of minutes longer at the end of the day and then sold the resulting watches on the street. Given the difference in wealth between the western owners of the company and their Chinese factory hands, punishing them for this would almost seem monstrous to me. Akin to the British crown in the 19th century sending a London street kid to Australia for stealing a loaf of bread. I have no problem owning this very nice watch 🙂

        I don’t think I’ve ever bought a physical knock-off of anything knowingly myself, and i don’t plan to for the reasons outlined in the post. But I’ve certainly consumed my share of electronic media without paying the original creator. I think they’re two different things.

  • Captain Kellen

    …and then he appeared from a corner.

    I figured if you were going to write something that I better get out of a corner and respond by being a good follower… for the moment!

    I am doing well. Thanks for asking. I’m painting a rat-ogre for my battered skaven blood bowl team named ‘The City of Pillars Poison’… for now. I’ll go back to the Ruin-Nation but needed a change since it’s a different team than I have been previously using and skilling up.

    This season though. Argh. Eight games, five dead players. Rough… like sandpaper rough when you use the restroom.

    The bright and shining star is the thrower… SinSynn ‘Two-Tails’ the Breeze who killed the entire team from last season has gained two skills. Strong Arm and Accurate besides the normal skills he comes with that are Pass and Sure Hands. What does all this gobbledygook mean to the lay person? The board is only 24 squares from end to end, the longer you try to throw the ball the more negative modifiers there are… except for him. He can now throw at the longest range (The Bomb, 13 squares) with no modifiers… combined with his movement of seven and thus… he has a twenty square range AND pass allows him to reroll if he happens to fail the attempt roll at passing. It’s a good thing the model has a mechanical arm modeled onto him… cuz its just cool now!

    I suppose, since you wrote so nicely, that I should talk about your article…

    I buy original and stay away from copies. I understand artistry since I have a couple of relatives that are artists and a few friends that are artists. I get intellectual property jargon and the need to protect it. I can’t deny the cost that can be saved but in my mind sooner or later people will just give up making original parts and stuff if copy-catters just imitate their hard work. And it is work.

    At long last though I come to you with the rating…

    I rate your article a Pesto Chicken on the Medium Well Sirloin to Cornflakes scale…

    Thank you for your time and effort!

    I’ll be in the corner painting if you need me…

    CK

    • Ha ha thanks CK! I do enjoy your infrequent Blood Bowl updates, even though I haven’t played in many many years. I used to have a stunties team, so far back in the mists of time that I can’t even remember their name. I am ashamed. Five dead players in eight games though is a pretty horrific attrition rate. Easy come easy go with ratties though I guess? At least good old SinSynn is still reaching new heights of glory.

      Sounds like we’re standing in pretty similar places with regard to this issue. It’s always going to be cheaper to buy knock-offs, but buying original is a way to show you respect the work, and if everyone did it, the world would be a happier place.

      • Captain Kellen

        I have to respect the work. It’s an expensive on occasion personal choice.

        I know guys right now who are casting stuff. They are really good at it too but wow. Just the sheer amount of stuff they are casting and then selling locally. I’m not down with it. I’m sure there are people just fine with it but not me… again a personal choice.

        And from the dugout…

        It is easy come, easy go with rats but I get attached to my little guys. Even the ‘red shirts’ who don’t get a name till they get a skill. I have this gutter runner now named Goos who is sitting in the tray with his purple cape and just going to waste. A waste I tell you! See… attached!

        I’m setting up a lizardman team to play my rats. Seems they had this whoopty-doo ball carrier who got pounded into the turf and killed so it seems easy pickings for the moment. 30k in winnings and Goos takes the field… till then… the tray.

        Boo! Sssss!

        I know… famous last words from the corner! – CK

        • We have the same thing in my local scene, guys casting their own. Pirating FW is an epidemic. I haven’t bought any “stevecast” (name changed so as not to incriminate) yet and I don’t plan to. Assembling my Omega today by the way. It’s a pretty simple kit thankfully. I’m not much good with the millions of pieces ones, the Riptide almost drove me off the deep end!

  • Hi everyone! Thanks for commenting, unfortunately I’ve been overseas for the last week and just got back to Australia. I didn’t know this had gone live :[]

    I’ll reply to you all tomorrow when I get home.

  • Cedric Ballbusch

    I remember the time before my home was filled with the sound of K-pop and K-dramas…

    You’ve hit on the core issue of piracy. Ignoring the validity of the pricing structure (Lord knows, some things cost like sin) if you pirate something, the creator(s)/owner(s) of the IP will never see that money. This, in turn, means less will be created. Simple as that.

    • I have a friend who can’t watch K-Pop videos. He thinks it is aesthetically over the top to have so many beautiful people in one place all dancing provocatively. He says when he watches twelve ridiculously hot ladies at once like that he is stunned with beauty like some ancient dude who caught a nymph bathing in a stream 😀

      Er… anyway, yes it is a simple issue if you look at it purely from an economic perspective. I think we need more honesty in public discourse about this in the west though, and less hysterical moral condemnation. Copyright laws make sense within a given community, but when the world is semi-globalized like ours is today people can sense, even if they can’t articulate it, that trying to enforce these things internationally is a sort of protectionist strong-arm tactic dressed up as a moral issue. Screeching at Chinese copycats and accusing them of being Bad People, as some people do, is pretty disingenuous.

      • Von

        Speaking as a professional content creator (not an Artist or anything so grand, mind), the economic perspective is the only one that matters in the world as is. “Food is the first thing, morals follow on” – reimbursing creators for their labour and keeping a roof over their head is the secondary directive. The prime, of course, is keeping a roof over your own head, which does sometimes lead to a moral conflict: if it weren’t for the secondary market, I’d have had very few nice things at all and life would have been significantly more miserable for the last decade or so. For the sake of my sanity I’ve often chosen to buy things, but for the sake of my economic stability I’ve done so in a way which doesn’t directly reward the creators of the product, and that… sits ill with me. At the moment I am fortunate and can buy things first-hand without much in the way of qualms.

        • Cedric Ballbusch

          Secondary market sales are a more complex issue. Yes, the creators/IP owners don’t receive any portion of the sale, which is the argument against piracy. Yet, it is hard to argue that an individual is not free to sell or otherwise use his personal property as he sees fit.

        • Yeah, I think anyone who wants to argue that the secondary market is somehow morally wrong has been brainwashed by big capitalism, which exploits everyone: creators and consumers. I can’t imagine a creator who would object to someone re-selling their work. It’s an age-old principle: once you buy something, it’s yours. And it’s a principle that large companies, media and tech ones in particular, have been seeking to erode in people’s mind for decades now.

          • Von

            Funny you should mention that, because I was in need of a new mobile phone the other week (my aging Samsung having finally shuffed loose the mortal coil two days before SmogCon… the secret to good comedy is, after all, timing), and I was looking into the Fairphone. Part of the rhetoric around that little device is that if you can’t mend it yourself, you don’t really own it, and that makes me wonder – where does ownership actually START? And what relevance does this have to us and Our Dudes?

            (For those who are interested: I ended up with a second-hand Samsung S4. It cost about a quarter of what the Fairphone did and I was already spending enough money that week…)

          • I was looking into a fairphone myself. I feel a little miffed actually, my dad was an early adopter of Macintosh computers, so various hand-me-downs and family habit have almost locked me in to Apple products. I keep striking a moral pose whenever one breaks, and then realizing that I have to replace it with another Apple thing or it won’t match up properly with any of my other physical stuff or cloud stuff, and that no, I may not be able to fix them myself but they last for years.

            In terms of business practices though, I hate them so much.

          • Cedric Ballbusch

            Civilized, Eurasian concepts of property have always placed ownership in the hands of whoever controlled the mechanisms of production. It follows that whoever goods are then transferred to owns them in toto.

            The current push to redefine final sale as merely a lease rather than a transfer of title is rather a self defeating move. The entire collectivist logic behind modern Anglo-America corporatism demands that an entity can claim full and complete control of something it did not conceive of nor produce. Since a corporate ‘person’ is incapable of performing any function.being a creation of legal fiction.

            But, modern philosophies are almost without exception not intellectually rigorous. So, I suppose fundamental inconsistencies are to be expected.

          • Thuloid

            It is, of course, possible for social conventions regarding property ownership to vary, even for differing kinds of property. Leases on cars or apartments aren’t unusual at all. But a phone, a miniature, anything you can hold in your hand–the physical relationship to the object is unlike the others, and that tends to drive the social conventions.

            This is something I was taught when I was in sales: you want to sell a phone, put it in someone’s hand. Even a nomadic tribe that doesn’t do land ownership understands that something in your hand or your pocket is yours.

            I suspect this has a lot to do with the trouble large companies and governments have convincing humans that things they have in their computers and phones don’t really belong to them.

          • My old PhD supervisor did a piece on media piracy actually, where he pointed out that historically theft was punished differently depending on what sort of thing was stolen. It wasn’t until pretty recently that people even recognised that an idea could be stolen and that law should cover this. Which is not to say that they were right of course; only that people with vested interests made it happen.

            I did my honours thesis on the ethics of usury, because I was interested in finding out how we got from a society that banned making money from interest, to the lending economy we have today. Thomas Aquinas would be turning in his grave – business practices in the tech realm continuously violate his doctrine of double use: selling something to someone and then making them pay you every time you use it. His analogy was selling someone a vat of wine, and then charging them a fee every time they took a cup from the vat. Sounds a lot like WoW’s business model to me.

            I think things should be pay up front or subscription, never both. Insidious things like Apple products appear to be the former but are in fact both.

  • Von

    “Like the inimitable Von I am a frugal gamer…”

    Whilst I am indeed inimitable, I haven’t been able to claim ‘frugal’ with a straight face for quite a while now. ‘Frugal’ does not spend the kind of money I’ve just spent on and at SmogCon, or in the post-con hype…

    • Well maybe you just have a bit more money now, and frugal is relative? Or have you actually just gone bananas and blown your food money on special edition miniatures?

      • Von

        I’d like to believe that ‘frugal’ is relative, but I think that considering your purchases and the reward you’re likely to reap from them is a behaviour that’s not dependent on how much money you make. Frugal is buying the classic Goreshade and Deathwalker because they’re the most economically priced. I just bought the con exclusive ones because… I could, and they were there, and they looked neat. I don’t even play Cryx any more.

  • John Pilkington

    Hi – I remember painting that Battle Angel kit a long time ago & Sol from Korea were major knock off merchants – if I remember rightly they only had about 10 of their own – 1/8 female kits I think – The rest of their catalogue was ripped off from the Japanese…….