A product designer’s yearlong battle with China’s copycats shows how hard it can be to protect startup ideas

A smartphone case with a built-in selfie stick. Stikbox

Those hoping to buy a smartphone case with a built-in selfie stick could finally do so online at the end of last year — though not from the original designer.

As Israeli entrepreneur Yekutiel Sherman told Quartz in an article published Monday, counterfeiters quickly stole his design idea and put a similar product on sale months before the intended release date.

Sherman discovered that vendors across China were beginning to sell the same smartphone case, called StikBox, that his Kickstarter campaign first featured in December before he could even find a factory to manufacture it.

Sherman, along with other targets of China’s copycats, face a reality that some Chinese manufacturers are always preparing to scoop original designs or inventions and undercut the makers of genuine products. Xinhua reported in November 2015 that more than 40% of goods sold online in China the previous year were counterfeits or of bad quality.

For example, the counterfeit smartphone cases — available across eBay, Amazon, Taobao, AliExPress, and numerous online retail sites — can sell for as low as $8 for an iPhone 6 case, undercutting the original price of Sherman’s authentic product, the StikBox.

Screen Shot 2016 10 17 at 8.07.15 PM

Sherman told Quartz writer Josh Horvitz he had lost a ton of money to sales of imitation products.

Some counterfeiting operations begin with manufacturers that have deals to produce the products of large global hardware companies. After supplying parts for a particular product, some of those manufacturers realised they could “create rival products on their own, and reach customers who were too poor to buy a Nokia phone or Apple iPod,” according to Silvia Lindtner, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan with a focus on manufacturing in China whom Quartz cited.

Today’s counterfeiters, however, also target small-time innovators like Sherman. They can easily spot the next new gadgets on Kickstarter, Amazon, or Taobao and swiftly produce copies and sell them online, Quartz said.

And now, some of the more than 900 Kickstarter backers who combined to donate more than $38,000 to make the StikBox smartphone case a reality have found themselves buying fake ones from Taobao and then requesting a refund from Sherman.

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