I have spent the better part of the last two years speaking with brands, big and small, around the world. They break roughly into two camps: those who see that the future of commerce is digital and are embracing it, and those who fear it.
What’s clear from the data is you can’t hold back the future. There were nearly $2 trillion in online retail sales last year, and the forecast is for more than $4 trillion in 2020. E-tailing is an incredible opportunity for brands to engage customers in new ways, scale their businesses and go global. The distinctions and borders between online and off-line commerce are fading. In a few years, they’ll be completely gone.
And yet, I understand the concern that some brands have — as you increase your distribution channels, it becomes more challenging to effectively protect your intellectual property. I’ve worked for some of the world’s most valuable brands to help them protect their IP, spent more than a decade as a federal and state prosecutor cracking down on IP violators, and now work for the world’s largest online commerce company. This has given me an appreciation for what we need to do together to make sure the benefits of e-commerce are not undermined by IP risk.
Here are three things I think every brand should keep in mind when it comes to protecting your IP in the digital era.
- Participate and Collaborate
In an increasingly interconnected world, IP protection is only effective when brands, industry groups, e-commerce platforms and authorities work together. We are a trusted partner and work with thousands of brands, including 75 percent of consumer brands on the Forbes most valuable brand list. Our message to brands is no one knows your brand like you do. That’s why we are constantly meeting with brands one-on-one to better understand their IP and how we can work together. And, earlier this year, we created an industry coalition with 30 global and Chinese brands to share best practices and take industry-wide action. This week, we are participating in the Interpol conference to communicate with law enforcement, regulators and policy-makers about how we can better collaborate.
The closer we work together, the better off we all are. We have the technology and are investing the resources, and brands have the knowledge of their IP. And as a collective, we are creating a safer place for brands to grow globally.
- Embrace the Technology
If you think e-commerce is bad news for your IP, it’s worse for those who steal it. Thanks to advanced algorithms and machine learning, bad actors are leaving digital breadcrumbs everywhere. They can’t hide for long. Yes, the bad guys are getting more and more sophisticated, but so are we.
We’ve created a single IP-protection portal across all our platforms, and are making it as easy as possible for brands to report fake listings and request takedowns. Once a brand registers its IP with us, we handle nearly all requests within 24 hours. We can do this, because our advanced algorithms are scanning tens of millions of new listings every day, and through our data analytics we can quickly assess the credibility of every single buyer and seller on our platform. This allows us to identify risk and ultimately remove infringing product listings with incredibly high efficiency.
- Off-line Activities and Enforcement
Counterfeiting is not an online problem. There has been IP theft for nearly as long as there has been IP. It’s an off-line issue that has gotten more visible through the proliferation of digital commerce. If we only focus on e-commerce, we’ll never eradicate the real-world problem. Let’s find and snuff out the source of illegal production.
How? We use data to provide leads to authorities, so that they can follow the digital footprint of the violators back to their factories, shutter them and make arrests. At the same time, we are keeping pressure on authorities to ensure IP protection laws and penalties are uniformly applied and stringent enough to be a real deterrent.
And we’ve taken to the civil courts in China, breaking new legal ground by suing violators on our platforms. We went after sellers of fake Swarovski watches and recently won a case against a vendor who stole Mars Inc.’s IP. These cases are aimed at protecting brands, and we can only do this with brand participation in similar efforts.
The retail world is changing at a dizzying pace, offering great rewards for brands that adapt. The digitization of commerce is allowing brands to reach new consumers, build brands and enter markets in ways and at a speed never before possible. Of course, there is no silver bullet, no single technology or effort that can ever fully rid the world of these criminals. But, we are incredibly optimistic about the future. Technology and collaboration are the key to brand success and protection. And, I would argue that the greatest risk to brands is not, in fact, counterfeits, it’s failing to adapt to a changing world and falling behind those that do.
Matthew Bassiur is head of global IP enforcement for Alibaba Group.
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