19 Oct 2023

New Zealand beer cooler company Huski battles Chinese counterfeiters

From Checkpoint, 5:07 pm on 19 October 2023

In a rare joint statement, bosses from the Five Eyes intelligence alliance yesterday called out China for alleged large scale theft of intellectual property and using artificial intelligence for hacking and spying. 

Following a security summit at Stanford University in California, FBI director Christopher Wray said the "unprecedented" joint call was meant to confront the "unprecedented threat" China poses to innovation across the world. 

That includes stealing from the quantum technology, robotics, biotechnology and artificial intelligence sectors.

A boutique NZ company describes a constant battle against China-based counterfeiters it says are stealing its intellectual property as "whack-a-mole".

Huski, a husband and wife company set up in 2017, makes award-winning wine and beer coolers, tumblers and flutes.

Founder Simon Huesser told Checkpoint the copycat designs "overwhelmingly" came from China.

Manufacturers there would track best-selling products - such as Huski wine coolers - on websites like Amazon.

They would then buy the products, take them back to their factories, deconstruct them and build their own copy, often with inferior materials, he said.

"Going into it, we always knew there was the risk of copies or our designs being taken and replicated.

"The more successful we've got  - especially on the international stage - we've started to see products that look incredibly like ours.

"We've invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to come up with innovative designs then someone takes that and goes, 'That's selling well, we'll replicate that.'"

The copycat designs were popping up on websites with increasing frequency, Huesser said, with more than 70 discovered this year alone.

He said the company in the same time frame had issued a similar number of cease and desist letters.

However, Huski had been successful in having the listings removed, because it had put in the initial effort to protect the designs through intellectual property protections, registered designs and utility patents. 

"It's an ongoing thing, because you shut one down and the next one pops up. It's hard to track the factories - or know whether it's one factory or ten factories producing them."

The company had processes in place each month to spot them and shut them down, but it was an "expensive game" costing "tens of thousands" to set up plus ongoing legal fees, he said.

"If you don't do it early, then factories get these products to resellers and it becomes more expensive (to police). You've got to tackle it early to minimise the loss as much as possible."

The company's designs cost both time and money to develop. Huski's newly launched champagne flute tumblers, for example, took 18 months and up to $100,000 to design and bring to market, he said.

There was a risk to the firm's reputation if copycat products were being sold under the Huski brand, he added.

"It's massive for us - we invest a lot of time and effort to make cool products and it can hit us really hard if somebody then doesn't received our own products.

"Over time, if we don't tackle it, we think we'll pay the price. That's why we put the effort in up front to knock it on the head." 

Huesser warned any start-up that while protecting your design or brand could be a big up-front cost, it was worth it in the long term.

IP Lawyer Narly Kalupahana said there were three main types of protection - trademark, design and patent.

If a business took out all three to protect itself globally it could easily cost upwards of half a million dollars, depending on the technology field. He said most companies would seek global registration of one or two of those protections, depending on their product.

In response to the Five Eyes allegations, China said it "opposes the groundless allegations and smears towards China" by the Five Eyes members.