Your TL;DR (Too Long Didn’t Read)
I’ve had my patent design, my intellectual property, stolen and sold back to my community at an impossibly low rate and it really sucks. I create for my community, all of you. Like many other creators like me, it takes time and financial resources. If I can’t sell my creations to my community, then I can no longer create/write/teach. I need your support to keep this going and I have solutions. I hope you take 10 minutes to read my very personal story and I hope it influences your perspective just a little.
I call it a story now, but if you asked me in early 2018, when it started, I would have called it a nightmare. I’m still living this story/nightmare right now, but the human brain amazingly learns to survive in a space of stress/anxiety/trauma over time. The highs of this stress become easier to deal with and I now find myself in a headspace where I can tell this story with almost an emotional detachment from it. It still upsets me, but I have learned to live in this story and accept its reality.
For the last couple of years, I debated writing this post about intellectual property rights. Part of me did not want to sound like I was whining. I try not to complain too much knowing I still have so much to be grateful for. Part of me did not want to put my vulnerability out there for the world wide web to see.
But I finally concluded that this story is important. I know many artists/creators who have had their intellectual property outright copied overseas only to be sold at an impossibly low price back to the exact community that they were trying to serve. Someone reading this post right now could be going through the same experience.
I hope this story impacts you in some way. Our experiences are all intertwined and my experience with intellectual property may be like yours or like someone else in your life. I hope you read to the end and take something away from it that impacts you for good in the future.
The Hair Tool
In late 2016, I released this hair tool I invented, the Roll & Go Hair Tool®, (Made in the USA). I designed it to help people in my community, both professional hairstylists and vintage lifestylers, create specific hairstyles like victory rolls. It has 2 ends with long, plastic teeth in a round configuration to help grip the hair and create a base for making uniformed sized rolls in the hair.
I designed it based on 2 different tools. One is a tool patented in the 1940s that women used to pin curl their hair. The other was a tool patented in the 1990s that was marketed as a sort of round brush blow-dry tool.
I blogged about the latter tool here on the Bobby Pin Blog several years ago, illustrating how it could be used to help with victory rolls. It was one of my most trafficked blog posts ever. After some time, the company that made the 1990s tool, stopped making it and it disappeared from Sally Beauty Supply shelves.
Then, blog readers were writing to me asking where they could find it. They wanted a tool to help them with victory rolls. They had a problem that needed solving and as a person that approaches things with the attitude of, “Let’s jump in with both feet and figure it out as we go”, I set out to solve this problem.
Working with a local Colorado plastics manufacturer, Columbine Plastics, and my personal patient angel Bill Leipold, who saw the potential in a local female inventor, the Roll & Go Hair Tool® became a reality. For lots of plastic molding science reasons, this tool is not an easy one to make. It is time consuming and a general headache for them to mold. But Columbine Plastics succeeded in producing the tool.
While they were busy making the first run of tools with the rather expensive $ plastics mold I had just invested in, I started working with a patent attorney to file for a patent in the US. I also photographed all of the images for the 30-page instruction manual and packaging for the tool.
My Invention is Now Reality
Just in time for the holidays of 2016, my invention was now a reality. Everything was coming together and I was getting very excited. The packaging and manuals were being delivered from One Touch Point, a Colorado based printing firm I use for all of my books and tools packaging/manuals. (Support your local companies!)
I started boxing up the pre-orders and shipping them out. I sent tools to some of the YouTubers and influencers I know in hopes they would like the tool and say nice things about it. I was getting great positive feedback from users and I was really happy that the tool was doing what I had hoped.
It was a slow and steady process. I was selling enough tools that I could start paying off the credit card debt I had accrued to produce the first run. Then I was starting to save to do another run of tools, packaging, and instruction manuals for when I ran out, which would take about a year. I felt secure that my gamble was going to be a success.
Early 2018, When I Felt the Floor Fall Out from Under Me
Early in 2018, my friend Celia directed me to a Facebook post in one of our vintage beauty community groups and I felt the floor fall out from under me. Someone had shared a link to something I could not have imagined, but looking back now I should have totally expected.
It was someone selling a knock-off of my invention for $2 with free shipping from China. I do not remember if that first listing I saw was on Amazon or AliExpress, but I remember being shocked at what I saw. The photographs in the listing were an exact copy of my tool, my instruction manual, and my packaging with my trademarked logo badly photoshopped off of the front of the box.
A manufacturer in China had reverse engineered my invention and essentially photocopied the packaging and instruction manual. And as I started digging, I found more listings. They were all over. Alibaba, AliExpress, Amazon, Ebay…
And here I was looking at a Facebook post from someone in the community that I’ve worked so hard to serve bragging that they found someone selling this problem solving tool so cheap. That was a hard pill to swallow. I felt like this project I had worked so hard on was being stolen out from under me. In reality, that is what was happening.
My Fight Begins
My fight began that day, first with a nicely worded email to the group moderators asking them to take the post down, because the tool listed broke many intellectual property laws of copyright and trademark.
Notice I did not say laws of patent. I did not have my patent yet. I had filed for it the year before, but the patent process is not a fast one. Everything I read online claimed a simple design patent like mine should take 12-18 months to get approved. My patent took 24 months. A little further down I will share my patent process story.
So I am staring at these listings for these overseas sellers and I only have trademark and copyright on my side. For each single listing, I am required by the various websites to file a complaint electronically with proof as to why the listing is illegal and then wait for someone to review and take the listing down.
At first it wasn’t very difficult; very time consuming, but not very difficult. I filed reports comparing images on the listings of the packaging and manual to images of my own packaging and manual. After a few days, I would get an email for each of my complaints letting me know the listing had been removed or that I was missing some piece of proof and would need to re-file a complaint.
The Fight Becomes a Full Time Job
This went on for a couple weeks, but I felt like I was making some headway. Then it started to become a full time job. Days after I got listings wiped clean from a website, more would pop up with a different seller account on the same site. That’s how this works. The same warehouse will have many seller accounts, and when they get their hand slapped for selling an illegal item, they just relist the item from a different seller account even though it is the same overseas warehouse. They use the same photographs. Everything is the same, but the seller’s account.
And I am fighting counterfeiters that are essentially sanctioned by their government because it hurts us in the Western world and it gives them more financial power. Here are some articles to give you some perspective on this:
The Fight Gets Even Harder
Then the sellers did something that made my intellectual property fight even harder. They keep getting penalized for violating copyright and trademark in their listings, so they start wiping out the photos of the packaging and manual and only show the tool….the tool that still isn’t patent protected yet.
So my strategy now has to shift to actually buying the tool, now supporting the overseas counterfeiters, waiting for the tool to arrive and then photographing what arrives, which has the copyright and trademark violations on the packaging and in the instruction manual. And sometimes these tools would take 4-6 weeks to get delivered.
Meanwhile, I am still dealing with people in my community sharing these listings online. It was a nightmare. And sometimes even finding out that shops in my vintage community were buying the counterfeits and selling them to their customers.
My Patent Still Wasn’t Approved So I Started Getting Desperate
It was September 2019 and I still did not have an approved patent. And there is no real way to see in the US patent portal online where your application is in the review queue. The process requires that you wait until they send you a notice that your patent is finally under review and that takes a long time. I had been waiting 22 months at this point and have heard nothing. My patent lawyer was powerless as well. The system is not friendly for those of us on the applicant end.
So I reached desperation and found out that, fortuitously, there is a patent office here in Denver, my home city! There are only 3 or 4 offices in the entire United States and I have one here!
So I marched down there. But I would not recommend anyone else doing this. What I got when I arrived did not look hopeful. Someone very nicely met with me when I first arrived and listened to my sob story, but she said there wasn’t anything she could really do. She then went to talk to someone else and they invited me into their conference room while he looked up a few things.
GREAT NEWS! What I did find out at that visit…They were able to tell me that my patent was now in the review process. The letter notifying me was literally in the mail/email. My lawyer got the notification a day later, dated 2 days before I had marched down to the patent office.
Two months later I would have my patent and a new tool in my toolbox to fight the overseas counterfeiters. If a seller is offering the counterfeit tool for sale to United States purchasers and there is a photo of it online, I can file a complaint based on my patent ownership and have the listing removed. At least, that is how it is suppose to work…
I Wish I Could Tell You I Prevailed
I do really wish I could tell you that after all of this I have finally prevailed over it. I wish I could.
The reason I finally wrote this post was because I received an Instagram message from a community member informing me that they had seen another shop selling a counterfeit tool with their own packaging they had created.
I had dropped the ball on doing my monthly searches for counterfeits and so I used my search tools like image search to find some. I can’t really search keywords anymore because sellers are now using such vague search terms to throw me off the scent.
In my latest search I found about 30 listings from Chinese suppliers between AliExpress, Alibaba, DHGate and Amazon UK. I spent about 4 hours Friday night and 3 hours Saturday filing complaints. That’s when I decided it was finally time to come out with all of this.
It’s now just become a part of my monthly business maintenance. I really wish I could use that time to produce content for my audience, but, honestly, the Roll & Go is the main thing keeping my business alive. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to do this anymore.
But Who Am I Really Hurting?
People generally do not bat an eye at hurting large corporate profits. But… not everything that looks mass produced came from a faceless corporation. Some of these things came from independent minds and credit card debt and tears.
We…the creators, the designers, the writers…consume our daily thoughts with putting out the ideas we have to make the lives of people in our respective communities better, easier, more fulfilled. Without supporting the creators, where are we going to be?
I know for a fact, without the financial support of selling my creations to my community, my creations would never have the funding to come to life. No 3rd Edition of Vintage Hairstyling. No Bobby Pin Blog. No Roll & Go Hair Tool.
And then we can get into talking about the small mom and pop shops and websites that buy wholesale from me and dress designers and shoe designers to add to the collection of items they sell to their local communities. I work very hard to keep the stuff I produce off of discounted sites, so that these small independent shops do not have to compete over price.
Ever wonder why you can’t buy my books or tools to be delivered directly from an Amazon warehouse? Years ago I use to sell my books wholesale to Amazon back when they were still a bookstore online. They sold it at cover price for about a year.
One day the price dropped on Amazon 30%. I wrote them asking them to increase the price back to full cover price. I did not want the small retailers I worked with to compete with their discount model. Amazon’s response was, “We’re still paying you your requested wholesale price, so it shouldn’t really matter to you.” But it did matter to me. So they changed the price to full cover price for about 6 more months and then dropped the price again and at that point refused to bring it back up. So I pulled my books from their wholesale program. I believe our community deserves a chance at this, not just giant websites.
Now what can be done? If it is so difficult for me as an intellectual property owner to fight against overseas counterfeiting, how can the average consumer make any difference? How can we support our community creators in the capacity that we are capable of?
I am not trying to shame anyone who has purchased from Chinese websites. That is not what this post is about. This post is meant to shine a light on a problem that I feel hasn’t gotten enough attention.
I want to help with the solution, not just complain about the problem. Remember…I’m a problem solver. There are so many ways to support community creators…with $ and for free!
1. Stop buying counterfeits:
No matter how sophisticated or prudent creators’ strategies are to fight these counterfeits… where there is a demand there will also be a supply. The only way to fight the market for counterfeit products in China is to get consumers to stop purchasing counterfeits in the first place.
2. Shop the Creators Directly or the Shops That Sell Their Legal Creations:
If you aren’t sure if what you are buying is real or if it looks like there is something off because it is really cheap or something…ask. Ask the seller where they source their products. There are a ton of dress makers in our community that are getting their designs ripped off and sold on websites for prices that are impossible to compete with for small businesses.
Some of My Retailers
I have 2 pages I try to maintain on my website. One is a list of stores that carry products from VintageHairstyling.com, Roll into Retail Shops.
The other page is devoted specifically to shops that carry the original Roll & Go Hair Tool®. Follow this link.
3. Watch the Commercials All the Way Through:
Do you have a favorite YouTube creator and you would like to help them. Help them by not skipping the advertisement. It’s only a few seconds of your life and the YouTube creator that funds their creations partly through YouTube monetization can make more $ if you actually watch the entire commercial that plays at the beginning of the video and watch at least 40-50% of the video.
4. Support Creators on Social Media:
Follow, Like, Comment, Tag, Share… Tell your friends on social media about the creators. Do not assume that one of your friends knows about all the wonderful things you know about. There is so much out there and no matter how popular you think a creator might be, I promise you that you still have friends who haven’t discovered them yet.
5. Click on Those Advertisers:
Blogs and content creators have those little ads to independent stores that might have a great something special that you could use or could make a great gift for a loved one. Click on them. Those are affiliate links and they help support the websites. And sometimes those websites will have links to the websites we love to hate, but if you get there through a link on a blog, that blog gets credit for the traffic and it helps them if they are monetizing those links. We are all part of the internet ecosystem, good and bad, and we might as well do something good with it.
Thank you for reading until the end. Thank you for giving me a voice. Thank you for supporting me and all of the other creators that make our community so great.