Rolex watches, Burberry hats and other fake luxury goods are increasingly becoming small beer to ambitious counterfeiters. They are now thinking on a far grander scale – both in terms of size and the tools for the job.
According to Der Spiegel, a “fake” copy of a Beijing office and retail development designed by London-based architect Zaha Hadid is already being built 900 miles (1,500km) away in Chongqing. In Guandong province, also in China, builders are reportedly working on an unauthorised replica of the Austrian village of Hallstat, a UNESCO World Heritage site. And on a smaller scale, pirated petrol stations are not unheard of in eastern Europe, including fake Shell stations in Russia, and an entire fake BP station, complete with a petrol tanker decked out in BP livery, in Bulgaria.
Ruth Orchard, director general of the London-based Anti-Counterfeiting Group points the finger of blame at the internet. "The sheer number of counterfeit goods is going up, because people can now order them online and they can be sent from the other side of the world," she said. "In the past we would see a large consignment that would be shipped, and the contents sold on market stalls. But thanks to the internet counterfeiters can send out individual items. It sounds low key, but it is actually far more difficult to detect."
The fear is that budding counterfeiters could soon create the parts themselves. That's because it will be possible to make your own copies using a 3D printer – either from pirated blueprints, or from digital files containing 3D scanned images of the object in question. The internet will certainly make accessing these files straightforward: The Pirate Bay, a website that makes it easy to access pirated music and movies, has already added a section called Physibles, where people can share files for printing objects.
It's important to remember that copying physical objects is not always illegal. While songs, movies and literary works are automatically protected by copyright, functional objects like tables or chairs don't have any automatic protection, according to Michael Weinberg, a staff attorney at Public Knowledge, a Washington, DC-based non-profit public interest group involved in intellectual property law. "Patents can be used to protect useful pieces of engineering or sciencey things, but you have to apply for a patent, and it only lasts for twenty years,” he says. “But the world is full of things that are not protected in any way, so anyone can make a direct copy."
Weinberg published a white paper last week that attempts to point out what is and isn't protected by copyright. For instance, there is the issue of severability, where the artistic features of an object can be separated from its functional features. A chair may not be covered by copyright, but the design on the seat cushion could be, so the design is removed from the chair and protected by copyright.
It's likely that laws relating to intellectual property will have to be updated or clarified in the future, to take in to account the capabilities of 3D printing technology, Weinberg believes. "For example, at the moment you don't have any intellectual property rights over your body parts," he said. That may become increasingly relevant, because a number of projects around the world are looking at 3D printing using biological matter, to produce anything from artificial raw meat to human organs. "If you had a fantastic heart, what happens if it gets scanned in hospital, and then someone uses that scan to copy your heart and then use a 3D printer to make a replica and sell it for a profit? At the moment there is no case law on that."