People Freaking Out About Amazon Copying A Shoe Are Totally Missing The Point

from the isn't-competition-good? dept

I know that tons of people are talking antitrust about the big internet companies, and Amazon is a prime target these days. So, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised last week when there was a minor freakout, starting on Twitter, when Jeff Morris Jr., who works in the internet industry, tweeted out an angry tweet about Amazon supposedly copying Allbirds’ famous shoes:

If you’ve somehow missed it, over the last five years or so, Allbirds merino wool shoes have become somewhat ubiquitous as the “cool shoe” to wear among various folks — including the 44th President of the United States. Admittedly, they’re nice shoes (and crazy comfortable). And, with all such things that become a fashion fad, copycats have quickly followed. Over the last few years there have been a ton of Allbirds-like shoes hitting the market. As I type this, I’m wearing shoes from Awel, that lots of people mistake for Allbirds, because they’re… pretty damn similar. But there are many, many other similar shoes out there.

Jeff’s tweet went viral, and once that happened, the tech press started to pick up on it. Business Insider wrote an article about it, as did Quartz, The Verge and Engadget, with most of them framing it as “evil” Amazon attacking poor little Allbirds. The Quartz article by Michelle Cheng is the most ridiculous of the bunch, with the following title: “Amazon?s Allbirds clone shows its relentless steamrolling of brands.” Without proof, the article suggests that Amazon is using its sales data power to step in with its own clone shoe to undermine competition.

But… that leaves out an awful lot. Including the fact that there are tons of other Allbirds clones out there, and if you search on Amazon for “Allbirds” you actually get a bunch of other clones, and not even the Amazon one. If Amazon were truly nefariously targeting Allbirds and using its powerful data to do so, wouldn’t you expect that a search for “Allbirds” on its own site would turn up their particular shoes? Nope. It turns up other ones from lots of other shoe companies, including New Balance, Under Armour, Urban Fox, Adidas, Dr. Scholl’s, Keezmz, LeMouton, and lots of others.

So, it may be a fun narrative that Amazon is “targeting” Allbirds and out to crush the shoe company by offering a similar shoe in a style that has become immensely popular from dozens of shoe companies over the last five years, but it’s difficult to see how that narrative actually makes sense. Indeed, the story doesn’t even hold together on its own. Part of the reason why Allbirds is so popular is because of the materials and the sustainable way in which the company tries to make its shoes. The Amazon clone that has everyone up in arms isn’t even all wool like Allbirds’ flagship shoe is — it’s only 56% wool (and it’s not even clear if it’s merino wool at that).

Allbirds has successfully been beating off most of the competition not because it’s the only one who can make wool shoes, but because of the overall story and framing of Allbirds itself. People are supporting the company because of the specific product it makes and the company’s own reputation. It’s not like most Allbirds customers are going to rush to buy Amazon’s shoe instead, because even if it looks similar, it doesn’t have the reputation that Allbirds has.

And, of course, all of this ignores that copying is how innovation happens. I mean, there has to be some irony in people complaining about Amazon’s supposed “monopoly power” at the very same time they’re arguing that Allbirds should have a monopoly on wool runners. For years, we’ve pointed out that copying is standard in the fashion industry, where there is limited protections from copyrights and the like — and that’s actually helped the fashion industry be more innovative, and enabled much more competition, especially from smaller firms, because many start out copying the hot fashions before being able to introduce more original brands.

Now, there might be an argument somewhere that if Amazon were deliberately using its power as a store to wipe out competitors, or to unfairly advantage its own products, that you could show “harm” from the company abusing its dominant position. But producing an inferior shoe in an incredibly popular style — one that dozens of companies are now producing shoes in — and then failing to heavily promote that shoe directly on its own site… doesn’t seem like it’s actually harming anyone. Other than, perhaps, the ability of some tech journalists to keep things in perspective.

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Companies: allbirds, amazon

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Comments on “People Freaking Out About Amazon Copying A Shoe Are Totally Missing The Point”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

No, that's entirely on them

But producing an inferior shoe in an incredibly popular style — one that dozens of companies are now producing shoes in — and then failing to heavily promote that shoe directly on its own site… doesn’t seem like it’s actually harming anyone. Other than, perhaps, the ability of some tech journalists to keep things in perspective.

Oh the shoes aren’t causing that ‘harm’, that’s all on said ‘tech journalists’ who either chose or were told to write such absurd articles. ‘Amazon follows numerous other companies in making a particular kind of shoe’ doesn’t have the same attention-grabbing power as ‘Giant company Amazon steals shoe design from smaller company’ after all, even if the first is far more accurate.

While inflammatory rhetoric like that may be great to get clicks and work people up so they’re easier and easier to lead around with future, similar articles, it’s also undermining the very industry they are covering, and merely providing easy targets for politicians looking to score cheap points. Frame tech companies as these terrible, ravenous beasts and it’s practically made for a politician to step in and offer to ‘reign them in’, with nary a thought to what that will actually mean for the customers/users.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Are you getting paid for endorsing crappy knock-

Oh, no, what the anon was saying is that the person you replied to is one of the site’s trolls. Part of their MO is using strange fake names in each article they reply to. So, it’s not a conventional online alias, it’s an alias for their "real" online alias, if that makes sense.

A-Sbeve-Or-Two (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Expect the Unexpected

Seeing as it is your first day, I didn’t expect you to know who OOTB is or that they now use a different alias for every article. You are an extremely fast learner, carry on.

With the way the world has become, it’s a good idea to pay attention to every detail. Sometimes there’s something you see that everyone else misses or completely overlooked. But thanks for the compliment.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Are you getting paid for endorsing crappy knock-offs?

Are you getting paid for endorsing crappy knock-offs?

I saw no endorsement of wither shoe. Mike made a reference to the general reputation of Allbirds, not his own personal opinion, and claims about the features generally valued by customers that are not present in the Amazon knock off. In no place did he express an opinion endorsing either shoe, particularly the Amazon shoe.

Or is this just your elliptical shot at copyright / patents. — There is NO similarity between generally copying a physical product and EXACT copying of intellectual works. Period.

How convenient. If you had the capacity to comprehend what you’ve read, you’d know that Mike expressed the same position – Copyright should not be involved in this case.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Are you getting paid for endorsing crappy knock-offs?

Lookin’ might spry there, for someone dead these 70 years, Joe.

So, you been working on your literacy, mean time? You mention copyrights and patents, but you forgot to mention "trade dress" and design patents, which are more apropos for this discussion.

And there’s been plenty of Techdirt articles around copyright – and trademark – where the "intellectual work" is not copied exactly, yet a foul has been committed. Why are you bringing that up, anyway?

Sorry, have to call that a Strike, Joe.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Are you getting paid for Trolling?

Or is this just your elliptical shot at copyright / patents.

I don’t think this means what you think it means:

(of speech or writing) using or involving ellipsis

So It’s Ok to copy a movie but not a shoe? And are you basing this on "Ok under the law." "Ok by the rules of commen decency." or "Ok by my perosnal feelings?"

I spend all days "copying" digital files. It’s a rather important part of my job, BTW. So if it is never Ok to copy a digital file I think you need to re-evaluate your use of the engrlish language mate!!

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Are you getting paid for Trolling?

Meh, Elliptical just doesn’t seem like a very good choice of words. I guess maybe it fits what he is trying to say but it isn’t something you’d expect to hear even as an idiom.

Is he trying to say "Circular Argument?" Or maybe "Tangential?" "Convoluted?" Maybe "Sinusoidal." So many synonyms to choose from.
Blue Balls does try to take shots at others grammar but he refuses to use a dictionary.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Or is this just your elliptical shot at copyright / patents

Copyright and patents have their finger in every damn pie. You could fire a blind shot and have it hit copyright. Maybe next time don’t use the DMCA to take down YouTube videos critical of your game design.

There is NO similarity between generally copying a physical product and EXACT copying of intellectual works

You literally spent decades calling both of them theft, you ignorant motherfucker.

Anonymous Coward says:

Copying Is How Innovation Happens

Maybe we change this to "iteration is how innovation happens" because it’s hard to equate copying to innovation. If I made a site called CyberMud, reposted all of your articles, and marketed it as an alternative to TechDirt would I really be innovative in any capacity?

Just to be clear, I agree with the article, just picking at that one phrase.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Copying Is How Innovation Happens

If I made a site called CyberMud, reposted all of your articles, and marketed it as an alternative to TechDirt would I really be innovative in any capacity?

You would if you could figure out how to attract an audience to that site. In which case, that would be interesting and we could all learn from you how you were able to build an audience around copied content.

ECA (profile) says:

Standard shoe design...Nothing new here...

The only thing about these shoes is the materials..
And those ARNT new either..
FB has a seller selling REAL leather sandals at GREAT prices if you want to wait about 2-3 weeks for them to get here from China..

How many of these Companies have the shoes made OUTSIDE the USA.. NB is pretty good about that..

The Current Fashion is getting AWAY from CLOSED shoes. You want some AIR around your feet. and a show that will stay on your foot. My problem tends to be a EEEE width shoe, and having to by 1 size larger to get it Close.(yes I know where to get good shoes) But buying shoes at $100 or $16, is a major Complaint I have.

try this.

A-Sbeve-Or-Two (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: ECA = ???

”English is my second language” I think

Oh dear…
Go to 7:14 of this video
Singing In My Head, Regrettably

And that’s my reaction right there.

I just wanted an honest answer and you give me that response?

  • Bold move. Not Well Received
  • I’m starting to wonder if my question was even worth it anymore.
  • I may be American, but to be honest, even I was a bit offended by that.

If this is what it’s like being on TechDirt, I’m gonna need more than just coffee to deal with this tomfoolery!

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 ECA = ???

The First is Edward…the rest you can guess..
it was fun when I discovered they were ACE backwards..

And gary..
To explain..
I have Multiple handicaps, and the last one they found after I was 50yo.. That handicap Mess up allot of my life.
Let alone having both legs turned around and 12 years of Surgery, 6 months in a body cast(anyone know what they does?)(Doctors at the time, DIDNT)
That was part of another handicap Called NPS, Nail Patella syndrome.. Later to find that Kidney and Glaucoma are part of that..also..
As kids dont understand pain unless it severe..I was in pain alot, and add to that 2 types of Epilepsy(fun on top) then add my last Difficulty.. They found I have had a heart problem, where when I exert myself, I loose most of my Whole bodies Oxygen.. Run 1 block and take 20 min to recover..
GOD I was the Ultimate Space cadet.. Any of this would have made you a problem…I had all 3 at the same time. And was hyperactive. So a kid running around on Drugs for epilepsy, generally in pain, and a heart problem…
i will trade you any part of this, for any part of your time..but remember, being in Hospitals in the 60’s Kinda SUCKED..

aerinai (profile) says:

Allbirds wants people to copy them...

Allbirds has even gone OUT OF THEIR WAY to make other companies copy them. They even open sourced parts of their product to help other companies be more sustainable. It kind of fits with their brand and their goal: make a shoe that is better for the environment.

Note: I heard about their open source soles on NPR, but here’s another article about them open sourcing their materials:

Richard Hershberger says:

I agree that the knock-offs aren’t a problem. But this, on the other hand: "if you search on Amazon for "Allbirds" you actually get a bunch of other clones…" I just ran that search. A page of about sixty shoes comes up. Exactly one is from Allbirds, about a third of the way down. It is remarkable, watching Amazon work so hard to make its site less and less user friendly, fast heading to being unusable.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re:

As argued by Techdirt repeatedly when these things come up, transparency into the algorithms would be good. The statement was to note that Amazon was not in fact pushing it’s own knock off Over Allbirds. There is the question of if they are choosing to intentionally downrank allbirds, but that claim can’t really be addressed by your findings.

The assumption would be that people looking for allbirds on Amazon primarily purchase lower cost knock-offs than the genuine article, pushing the Allbird’s result lower. Its the self-reinforcing issue that can also be questioned with any search algorithm that learns and can be trained.

Darkness Of Course (profile) says:

Re: Re: Amazon search transparency

Amazon has fully committed to machine learning. Fully.

Here’s the thing. It sucks.

The problem itself is nearly as bad as the impossibly difficult content moderation (bot, troll, bad actors, think of the children) as it’s yet another intractable problem. Which means that it is too freaking big to solve within a reasonable time frame.

One might suggest that recommendation transparency technically isn’t possible. Because – there is little transparency in most machine learning use cases. The initial conditions, the processing (standard HW or custom like Google’s tensorflow), the storage solution, the search mechanism, and the training are not something one can put in a box and say – with authority – that this is their current search. ‘Cause it ain’t. The random number generator alone can sink any attempt to replicate it.

Judging on how far my recommendations from them have fallen over the last decade I would say that this machine learning effort isn’t working all that well.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It may or may not be indicative of Amazon making the site less user friendly, but in the list of companies in the left panel (where one can limit the search), there is no choice for Allbirds, even though that was the search term. I also found that the offerings from Allbirds seem to be in size 8, only, which wouldn’t work for me.

That may mean that Allbirds isn’t looking for Amazon to be it’s lead outlet, and therefore isn’t working at it. Their own page has many more offerings, and many more sizes.

That leaves Amazon with the choice of listing other options, or none.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Exactly one is from Allbirds, about a third of the way down. It is remarkable, watching Amazon work so hard to make its site less and less user friendly, fast heading to being unusable.

To be fair, I did see that, but I’m 99% sure that’s a 3rd party seller just reselling Allbirds. For one, Allbirds is somewhat famous in that all of its shoes are $95. Doesn’t matter what you’re getting. It’s $95. But the one on Amazon is selling for $130. So I’m pretty sure that’s just some arbitrager trying to fool people — in which case it’s good that Amazon doesn’t put them up top, no?

Anonymous Coward says:

Since when is similarity a knock-off?

Years ago a bicycle bell showed up on Kickstarter (Spurcycle, fwiw). It was a really nice design. Small, all metal, and a unique mounting scheme that uses a single bolt to hold it all together.

It didn’t take long for nearly identical knock-off bells to show up on Amazon. Almost as quickly some folks called them counterfeit. Except they weren’t counterfeit because they were not branded as Spurcycle or anything similar. That’s a knock-off.

I’m not sure what exactly these shoes have in common but simply looking at the examples in the “angry” tweet (you call that angry, really?) proves these are merely similar. Therefore that fellow is correct. I do not care about such similarity.

Agammamon says:

"People used to care."

No. No Allbirds, we never did.

There has been a thriving counterfeit industry for longer than this country has existed. No has ever cared. People don’t care when actual logos are copied onto these products, they certainly aren’t going to care because someone makes a comfortable shoe similar to yours but at a lower price.

And why should we? What are you offering? A comfortable shoe. What about that shoe is unique? What about that shoe should be your IP? What have you done that is so innovative that you should be granted sole rights to exploit the idea?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

This is something that anti-counterfeiting arguments have never made sense, short of counterfeiting operations relying on illegal East Asian sweatshop labor.

The whole point of marketing expensive luxury shit is to sell the privilege of telling other people "I have money to spend on garbage that is functionally identical to yours, but costs more to justify a placebo effect of superiority over you peons". Exclusivity is a major draw. Countless knockoffs are not going to suddenly make the plebeians capable of affording the real thing, and even if they could afford it, luxury companies won’t want to increase supply because of exclusivity.

Seriously, anti-counterfeiting arguments often come off as rich people bitching that less affluent people get to look a little similar to them for a shoestring budget.

Anonymous Coward says:

Copying and Inovation are 2 completly differnt things. Copying is just that, you see something someone has done that is popular and your flat out COPY it.

Inovation, on the other hand, is seeing something and then making it BETTER. Making it your own. Improving upon what was done in the past.

There are copiers and then there are Innovators. Copying is easy.

John85851 (profile) says:

Fact-free reporting?

Instead of arguing whether people copy Allbirds shoes, why aren’t we talking about how "tech journalists" simply jump on the "Amazon is a mean big bully" narrative without doing any research. I thought doing research and gathering facts was part of being a journalist.
And if these "journalists" skip on the facts for this story, are they skipping on facts for their other stories? And should we trust the editors of the websites that let un-researched stories get through?
Or should we talk about how good journalism is dying and too many sites just want clicks, no matter what the actual facts may say.

Anonymous Coward says:

Looks like

It might look the same, but that doesn’t mean it is the same.

A great example in the movie Snatch:
A replica gun is used by one of the villains to try to intimidate another (far more villainous) villain, but doesn’t work simply because the ‘real villain’ happens to know that the replica can do little more than make a loud noise, but his Desert Eagle can do far more…

Just cause it looks the same, doesn’t mean it works the same.

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