Vibram Boss: IP Enforcement Is A Waste Of Time; You're Better Off Building A Relationship With Customers

from the good-for-him dept

Last year, we wrote about a ridiculous bit of javascript coding on the website for Vibram (makers of the famed "five finger" shoes) in Italy -- in which if you merely right-clicked on an image, you were accused of trying to illegally copy their images. I was thinking about this recently, as I actually bought a pair of Vibrams. Last Thursday, upon receiving the Vibrams, I mentioned them online, and a DC-lobbyist, who follows me on Twitter, suggested my purchase was hypocritical, since he claimed Vibram was a strong supporter of intellectual property enforcement -- and pointed me to this Vibram ad, which shows a raised "middle toe" on one of their shoes as "a message to anyone thinking about infringing on any of our 200+ patents and trademarks."
It turns out that this ad is from 2010, and apparently the company's attitude has evolved quite a lot in the past two years. With somewhat amazing timing, the very day that my shoes arrived, the BBC put out an article in which Vibram's CEO, Tony Post, explains that focusing on IP enforcement is a waste of time -- and that the better solution is to build a much stronger relationship with customers -- basically the same thing we've argued for over a decade now:
"Candidly, you have to realise that intellectual property only gets you so far," says Mr Post. "At the end of the day it's really about your relationship with the consumer."
What the company realized was that focusing on lobbying and enforcement just wasn't effective. Instead, educating customers on the difference between real and fake Vibrams, and showing why they'd want to buy the real ones (i.e., giving them a "reason to buy") was much more effective. The company put up a page showing customers how to spot a fake, and saw that it worked.
Vibram offered vouchers to customers who had unwittingly bought fake Five Fingers, so that they could buy the real product at cost price.

The company also put up a page on its website alerting customers, enlisted the help of bloggers and asked fans of its Facebook page to get the word out.

Within a year, the deluge of complaints from customers who had bought fake products slowed to a trickle.
Amusingly, the article quotes Susan Scafidi, a professor who is well known for her support of ratcheting up intellectual property laws on fashion/clothing, suggesting that Vibram speaking out and connecting with its customers on this issue was a mistake: "It was a risky move, according to Ms Scafidi, who says that a company associating its name - however tangentially - with counterfeit goods could damage its brand." Beyond the fact that she was empirically wrong about this, that makes no sense. Being open and honest with fans, and explaining why they'd want to support the company whose product they like (and why counterfeit products are inferior quality) seems like a smart strategy. It's hard to see how that could "damage the brand" at all. In fact, it seems almost guaranteed to do the opposite, as it appears to have done here.

While the company still does seem to be interested in some legislative changes (and is taking legal action against a competitor), it certainly seems like a case where a company has realized that there are better ways to deal with these issues than just using intellectual property law.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    arcan, Jun 5th, 2012 @ 3:41pm

    2 things
    one: Some faith in humanity restored.
    two: eventually companies will have to innovate no matter how much they don't want to.

     

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  •  
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    Glen, Jun 5th, 2012 @ 3:41pm

    That sounds strangely like common sense. That can not be allowed.

     

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 5th, 2012 @ 3:42pm

    Is a "pare" of Vibrams what you get after a "pair" of Vibrams has worn down?

    Mike, this is twice in one day... :)

     

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      Mike Masnick (profile), Jun 5th, 2012 @ 3:44pm

      Re:

      Is a "pare" of Vibrams what you get after a "pair" of Vibrams has worn down?


      Better than a pear of Vibrams, I guess.

      Yikes. I blame my editors. And by my editors... I mean me.

      Fixed.

       

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  •  
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    TimothyAWiseman (profile), Jun 5th, 2012 @ 3:51pm

    SOPA and Vibram

    I took a look because of this post and stumbled on: http://www.vibramfivefingers.com/counterfeits/stop-online-piracy-act.html

    Short version: Vibram won't come out and oppose Sopa, but neither are they actively endorsing it or supporting it in any way.

     

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  •  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 5th, 2012 @ 3:54pm

    This has been proven not to be the case with music software.
    The main players in music software have come to the party.
    They have greatly reduced prices, many give away free software. They allow free demos. They run customer forums and act on customer feedback with free upgrades. Music software companies are almost all owned by the creative force, not by money hungry 'gatekeepers'. So your purchasing dollars go STRAIGHT to the creative people innovating in the music software scene.
    And yet pretty much all the most wanted music software products appear on all the piracy stress for illegal/free download.
    It doesn't matter what the price is. I know one major product is $39. People still want it free.

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Jun 5th, 2012 @ 3:56pm

      Re:

      If people still want it for free than how are they still in business?

       

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      •  
        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, Jun 5th, 2012 @ 8:48pm

        Re: Re:

        Because just enough are honest enough to pay.
        But if free filesharing becomes more normal than even now, many companies will go to the wall.

         

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        •  
          identicon
          bw777, Jun 6th, 2012 @ 6:56am

          Re: Re: Re:

          It can't get more normal. Pretty much any software you might pay for is available for pirating now and has been for 15 years or so. It is just a google search and a click on a link away so there is no technical hurdle to the average internet user.

          I would say that these companies still exist because more than enough customers are willing to pay. Some of those customers may have originally downloaded the software for free and liked it enough to support the company.

           

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      chris (profile), Jun 5th, 2012 @ 5:15pm

      Re:

      And yet pretty much all the most wanted music software products appear on all the piracy stress for illegal/free download.

      people who don't want to buy your product are not your customers, it's just that simple.

      if you are spending time and money on people who aren't your customers, you are wasting your time and money. it's just that simple.

      the issue with IP enforcement is that in a lot of cases it hurts your legitimate customers AND still does nothing to stop piracy. this is especially true with software. if your copy-protection scheme is implemented badly enough, it will actually turn some -possibly a lot- of your customers away from purchasing your goods and encourage them to pirate them. this is the single worst problem facing the producers of digital goods. this is also the exact problem that good relationships with customers will solve.

      it's not about stopping pirates and converting them to paying customers. it's about stopping the exodus of paying customers to unauthorized versions. being good to your paying customers will not stop piracy because piracy cannot be stopped. let me say that again in case i wasn't clear: piracy cannot be stopped. what good relationships will do is stop pissing off your customers and give them a reason to not be pirates.

       

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      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Jun 5th, 2012 @ 5:51pm

      Re:

      >It doesn't matter what the price is. I know one major product is $39. People still want it free.

      And you're not going to tell us what it is so we can fact-check? Nice.

       

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      Mike Masnick (profile), Jun 5th, 2012 @ 6:22pm

      Re:

      And yet pretty much all the most wanted music software products appear on all the piracy stress for illegal/free download.
      It doesn't matter what the price is. I know one major product is $39. People still want it free.


      No one said that any of these things stops piracy. There's always going to be some piracy. So your complaint that these still show up for download is meaningless. You're setting a standard that makes no sense.

      The focus should be on whether or not they've taken steps to create viable businesses by actually connecting with their audience (and that might not mean just "free demos" and such).

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Jun 5th, 2012 @ 8:46pm

        Re: Re:

        The focus should be on whether or not they've taken steps to create viable businesses by actually connecting with their audience (and that might not mean just "free demos" and such).

        I'll repeat myself because you somehow missed it.
        Music software producers have listened to their customers. They have connected in many ways, 1) by talking directly to users on their forums, 2) by improving products based on customer feedback, 3) by reducing prices in a very competitive market, 4) by offering free demos, 5) by making the products easy to access - downloadable 24/7/365.
        BUt they often can't give the products away, which is why if you Gooigle a music software product you'll get hundreds of links to unauthorized versions, not just one or two.

         

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        •  
          identicon
          Anonymous Coward, Jun 6th, 2012 @ 4:38am

          Re: Re: Re:

          "I'll repeat myself because you somehow missed it.
          Music software producers have listened to their customers. They have connected in many ways, 1) by talking directly to users on their forums, 2) by improving products based on customer feedback, 3) by reducing prices in a very competitive market, 4) by offering free demos, 5) by making the products easy to access - downloadable 24/7/365.
          BUt they often can't give the products away, which is why if you Gooigle a music software product you'll get hundreds of links to unauthorized versions, not just one or two."

          Yes, and we're all supposed to just believe an AC like yourself. No mention of the software producers in question, nor any specific software. Just vague claims that "they did what has been discussed". Mhm. Yeah, I'll say it... you're full of shit and the best you can do now to shoot down a company such as Vibram is make unsubstantiated claims about "music software producers". When you're ready to tell us a specific one or a specific software, the rest of us will be all ears.

           

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          TtfnJohn (profile), Jun 6th, 2012 @ 5:48pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          You can Google, Yahoo or Bing ANY software and find links to unauthorized (pirated) versions.

          At some point you're going to have to name one or two of these firms so we have some idea who you're talking about and who the market is for these "music software" outfits are.

          If there is so much piracy there would seem to be a disconnect somewhere between the makers of the product and its customers.

          If, however, these companies decide to go after infringing sites and those downloading there is inevitably an increase in the cost of production, as lawyers and lawsuits don't come cheap and those costs have to be passed on to the paying customer somehow. From what little you've told us we have no idea if one or more of them can partly fund that through mass sales. I doubt is as that software sector would seem specialized to me. I could be wrong, of course, as I'm trying to figure out a thin ghost here.

           

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          nasch (profile), Jun 7th, 2012 @ 3:51pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          I'll repeat myself because you somehow missed it.

          I'll repeat Chris and Mike because you somehow missed it. Your chain of thinking is that since there are still people pirating the software, then the connect with fans + reason to buy model is a failure. This is incorrect. If your standard for a successful retail software business is "there is no piracy of the product" then there will never again be a successful retail software business.

          This is a pointless standard to even try for, because not only is it not achievable, it will actually lead you in the wrong direction. As others have said, a business should concentrate on giving people a reason to become paying customers, not on trying to get people to stop being pirates. Those may sound the same, but they're not.

           

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Jun 5th, 2012 @ 6:34pm

      Re:

      Your problem is trying to chase mouses that will give you make you chase your own tail every time, instead of focusing on your customers and what is best for them and why they should be buying from you and not going to the pirate website or the competitors.

      Instead of working hard giving people a reason to buy you are trying very hard to chase people who either will never give you a dime ever or can't for whatever reason do it right now, trying to make them pay, when they will not or can't, that is a waste of time, instead of getting all workup about what others are doing focuses on the people who care about your product and you always will have money else people just will find another place to go.

       

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        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, Jun 5th, 2012 @ 8:50pm

        Re: Re:

        Instead of working hard giving people a reason to buy you are trying very hard to chase people who either will never give you a dime ever or can't for whatever reason

        Well then I guess you'd have to prove to me music software companies have NOT worked hard to give people a reason to buy.
        I say emphatically they have.

         

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        •  
          identicon
          Anonymous Coward, Jun 6th, 2012 @ 7:54am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Lets consider this for a moment shall we. We have 3 groups of people. Fully legit users (A), Complete Pirates who never pay (B), and those in between (C).

          Assume your music software company works really hard and turns out a product choke full of DRM. It has some stupid always online requirement to use.

          Customers from Group A are constantly on the move, they don't know if they'll have an internet connection. Therefore the avoid your software like the plague. It really won't matter what promotions you do, you're still not going to attract them.

          People from Group B simply strip your software of the always online DRM and use it as they please. Here your DRM has failed, maybe some lazy pirates don't download it, either way it makes very little difference to your bottom line.

          People from Group C have been watching both sides of the fence and see that the superior product comes from pirating. I mean they don't have to be online to use it! Great! So they download.

          So while your company has worked very very hard, and done like tons of promotional things to communicate and build relations with their customers. They've completely alienated them by having insane DRM requirements. The pirates are, go figure, still pirates, meanwhile your legitimate customers have gone elsewhere.

          This is what happens so often it's pathetic. It's not always online DRM that pisses people off, there are a variety of reasons. Obviously you'll never be able to accommodate everyone, but something that's easily removed that would please a lot of people is DRM. It only serves to punish legitimate customers.

           

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  •  
    identicon
    Bill Waggoner, Jun 5th, 2012 @ 3:58pm

    Yeah, but ...

    One can only focus on "the customer" if you ACTUALLY HAVE CUSTOMERS!

    As far as I know Patent Trolls ... Have No Customers!

     

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    vegetaman (profile), Jun 5th, 2012 @ 4:00pm

    So... Wait?

    So am I to understand that Scafidi thinks that Vibram trying to educate its customers on why to buy "the real deal" and how to spot a fake... Is a bad thing? How the hell is protecting your brand and showing what you are paying for a bad thing? Isn't that the whole point of putting out a quality product that you want to stand behind?

    The opposite case makes more sense, where you're a counterfeiter and you don't want to point out why your brand sucks ass compared to the real mccoy... And when your brand is actually just a piss poor kindergarden spelling of the actual brand name...

     

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      That One Guy (profile), Jun 5th, 2012 @ 5:46pm

      Re: So... Wait?

      Apparently she was of the opinion that they were better off with people thinking the counterfeited shoes were real, and that therefore the company made crappy products, than they would be should they point out that no, the crappy products weren't theirs, and educate people on how to tell the difference.

      ...

      Someone please tell me people aren't stupid enough to take advice from this woman on a regular basis, or even more than once.

       

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      Anonymous Monkey (profile), Jun 5th, 2012 @ 9:53pm

      Re: So... Wait?

      Add to that: The fact that Vibram also gave vouchers to the people who got scammed to get the genuine thing at cost.. so they made nothing on the sale, but ENSURED a happy, and possibly loyal, customer.

      Mrs. Scafidi, That IS NOT a bad thing.

       

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 5th, 2012 @ 4:34pm

    lol

    "only gets you so far" = "total waste of time"

    c'mon man

     

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    Mystic5523 (profile), Jun 5th, 2012 @ 6:51pm

    Interesting Update

    Saw on Facebook today (where I have several friends who use Vibrams) that Tony Post is resigning as CEO. I wonder if they'll keep up with the better customer service, or if they'll revert to the old "sue everyone" mindset.

     

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 5th, 2012 @ 7:35pm

    God's shoes

    I thought Al Bundy held the patents on these types of shoes.

     

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 6th, 2012 @ 1:35am

    "Within a year, the deluge of complaints from customers who had bought fake products slowed to a trickle."

    This could be that people got tired of reporting, and that once the newness of a system to report wore off, people just stop participating. There is no way to draw a conclusion that they are somehow magically beating piracy.

    They may also be seeing their trend tiring, and that the number of knockoffs drop as the market tires of the product and moves on. A number of lawsuits in regards to injuries as a result of using the product also exists, so their legal dollars may be tied up protecting their own asses, and not in chasing down knock offs.

    There is a lot more going on here than meets the eye (or toe).

     

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    identicon
    Anonymous Bosch, Jun 6th, 2012 @ 4:42am

    Meanwhile, I dunno if this is good or bad for the brand, but it's funny: http://www.xkcd.com/1065/

     

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 6th, 2012 @ 4:53am

    I am amazed they considered enforcing IP to be more important than advertising their product....IN AN ADD FOR THEIR PRODUCT. Whoever designed that ad should have been fired.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 6th, 2012 @ 5:01am

    i wear vibram soles, they are exceptional.

     

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    shawnhcorey (profile), Jun 6th, 2012 @ 6:31am

    Who's Always Right?

    A business is its customers. Anything else is not important.

     

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    mlang (profile), Jun 6th, 2012 @ 7:42am

    No surprise that the lawyer says companies have to register your IP to have any chance. I'd love to see him try to enforce them in China. Of course, he won't try - but he'll still take your money.

     

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 6th, 2012 @ 8:08am

    Mike,

    You might appreciate today's xkcd comic - http://xkcd.com/1065/

     

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