South Africa – Woolworths apologise in “drawing inspiration” IP case

Is imitation flattery? What is the difference between “drawing inspiration” and deliberate copying, what are the rules? What are the ethics?

In a recent high-profile case in South Africa, Woolworths have apologised to Shannon McLaughlin founder of Ubuntu Baba for producing remarkably similar lookalike to her baby carrier product. They have withdrawn the products and customers can apply for a full refund. Remaining products will be de-branded and distributed to under-resourced communities. Read the full Fin24 story here.

Whilst Shannon McLaughlin is seeking a further resolution from Woolworths, it is interesting to note that when Woolworths were caught out, they leaked a memo to staff written by CEO Zyda Rylands to say that the matter was not in line with Woolworth’s values and goes against clear policy and creativity guidelines in place for its design process. Woolworths also indicated their intention to train their teams to prevent another incident of product copying. She reminded everyone that Woolworths has a zero tolerance for copying in their business. It is contrary to what it stands for and jeopardises all the hard work their people put into the Woolworths brand every day.

SA CEO Zyda Rylands said. “Corporate Governance is already planning business interventions and additional training for our teams. Woolworths is deeply committed to developing local, small businesses.”

Dids Macdonald OBE., CEO of ACID said, “Big brands are clearly taking note, no-one likes copyists, it’s basically stealing. IP ethics, respect and compliance should be at the heart of all declared corporate governance and I am pleased that even though this was a leaked statement, Woolworths has decided to go public on this. I hope other major retail brands will follow suit. ACID’s message to retail brands is very clear, “Commission it, Don’t Copy it”. Retail giants like Woolworths should be working positively with talented companies like Ubuntu Baba, not producing lookalikes.”   

ACID comment: The bottom line is that whether one calls it inspiration or flattery, an anti copying strategy must come from the top within major retail brands and this must permeate down through all design teams that there are no sort cuts to original design. Around the world there are thousands of talented designers, many of whom would be happy to design for retail in an agreement that would benefit both parties. Original design gives retail a competitive edge, retailers can be seen to support original design and they are also promoting a culture of ethical design. What’s wrong with that? For designers, the most important aspect of any design work is to keep an audit trail from the seed of an idea to marketplace. Basically, hard evidence of design provenance and what better way to achieve that by using ACID’s IP Databank. Independent evidence with tamper proof numbered lodgements of key stages in a design audit trail.

We all take inspiration from the world around us but there is a clear distinction between slavish copying and originality. Most who copy and produce lookalikes have intent to do so. Original designers usually want to be different and innovative and do just that. Creative talent is a combination of skills, craftsmanship and ability, copying is a lazy and deliberate act. Most honest people know the difference between the two. In a recent ACID survey 90% of those designers canvassed said that copying was deliberate. Let’s hope with this latest Woolworth’s case, the tide could be turning.

Abunto Baba website can be seen here.