Have you ever wondered how technology gets pirated? Even if you've never traveled, you're probably aware of things like knockoff iPhones or fake G-Spot Vibrotron 5000s. You might even have heard about websites like Alibaba.com, which is basically one big digital market for stolen ideas. They had to de-list 114 million items in the first nine months of 2013 alone for copyright violations. And that's just a drop in the bucket. Over in China, you can find entire unlicensed "Apple" stores selling fake products.
If you're like me, you probably assumed these knockoffs were all reverse-engineered from the original products and then churned out by some shyster factory. But how it actually gets done is much more ridiculous, much more infuriating, and -- sometimes -- much more Vegas:
4 Spies Attend Trade Shows Just to Steal Ideas
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The Consumer Electronics Show is one of the world's largest trade shows. Picture Comic Con, but with less cosplay and an actual coherent theme. It's held every year in Las Vegas, and it gives tech companies huge and startup alike a chance to show off their next year's worth of gadgets. Many of them take this opportunity to put review units in the hands of retailers and journalists. Also attending are hundreds and hundreds of tiny Chinese manufacturers, most with names you wouldn't recognize. Many of them take this opportunity to put review units in the hands of retailers and journalists. Also attending are hundreds of Chinese spies.
"No matter how many Greek women I must bed, I will discover the secret of Amazonian fire."
It makes a lot of sense when you think about it: CES is full of unreleased gadgets, still waiting on FCC approval, passing their final few safety tests, etc. But China is the Wild West for technology, and manufacturers there don't have to worry as much about, say, whether their new smartphone charger might electrocute people to death. If they can find and copy a great idea at CES, they can have their knockoff on the market before the original even launches.
I first picked up on this at the booth for a company named Onanoff. The company owner, Petur Olafsson, was giving me his standard product pitch when a Chinese man with a camera crept up to the booth and started taking very close-up photos of a speaker case Petur designed for the iPad Air.
"Blasphemy! If your iPad was meant to have a kickstand, God -- er, Steve Jobs would have put one on it!"
Petur got pissed, and shooed this iPhone-wielding James Bond away. He explained that this was not an isolated incident. Similar men had been coming up to his booth all trade-show long, taking detailed pictures and then scampering off, like some kind of weird electronics-based sexual predators. Their badges identified them as "Exhibitors" and not "Press," and none of them ever asked him questions about his mechanical baby. It was clear to Petur that they meant to steal his brainchild.
"You put three years of your life into a product, and they rip you off."
While you studied engineering, like a dipshit.
This set the Journalism Lobe of my brain a-tinglin', something that doesn't generally happen without a pint of hard liquor or a good solid ether binge. My camerawoman/fiance Magenta in tow, I set off down the little strip of booths nearest to the convention hall designated for Chinese exhibitors. My goal was to find anyone else who'd had a product abducted at CES.
It took about two minutes.
3 You Might Wind Up Competing With Your Own Stolen Products
That thing on the bottom is the IN1CASE Juice Case. The thing above it is the same case, but made using shittier materials and sold at CES just a building away from the people who own the actual copyright. An eagle-eyed fan pointed this out to them and they went down and bought a copy. Their one consolation is that it was made with way cheaper, shittier materials than the original -- and that it cost only $5. Which is like saying, "Man, this baking soda was soooo much cheaper than the cocaine you paid for!"
But hey! At least ripping off an original product with a poorly-constructed knockoff is a time-honored capitalist tradition. If that's all I'd found, you wouldn't be reading this article. Fortunately for my ability to stay employed, things quickly got much, much weirder.
You are now craving soft-boiled eggs.
This is the Bass Egg. It's a nifty little gadget that turns any table or wall you set it on into a massive speaker, allowing you to carry around a lot of potential sound in a very portable package. I call it "The Library Ruiner." I met pne of the engineers behind it, got a review sample, exchanged business cards, and walked away impressed. I've seen a lot of pitches for a soul-aching number of different gadgets in my career, and most of them stand out about as much as a white dude in Portland. The Bass Egg was unique, which is why it surprised me when literally ten minutes later Magenta spotted one sitting on the shelf of Shenzhen-based trading company, Potranda's booth. It was seated on a shelf full of other (presumed) knockoffs, less than a quarter of a mile away from the actual Bass Egg's booth.
When you crack it open, all the circuits have evil goatees.
Portranda's employees -- none of whom spoke English -- had no answer for me when I asked what the hell was going on there. This was no cheap replica. It appeared to be the exact same product, sans branding, on sale a few hundred feet away from one of the Bass Egg engineers, Zaki Moustafa. He was incredibly surprised when I told him:
"This is crazy ... we manufacture overseas, but [Potranda] isn't our manufacturer."
Here's him looking over their brochure.
Unfortunately, he did not flip out and start spin-kicking dudes in the neck, but sometimes my dreams overpower my sense of reality. So how the hell did this happen? As we learned ...