The story that triggered this piece reads like classic Crime Noir fiction.
A tip had come into the Feds that a massive counterfeiting ring was gaining strength. The ring's headquarters was hidden in plain sight and had been operating for some time without discovery. But rather than jump in too quickly, the Bureau did their homework, trained their equivalent of SWAT teams, and waited for the right moment to make their move.
That right moment was December 10th, 2013. On that day agents of the Philippines' National Bureau of Investigation surrounded the premises at RSK Furniture in Cavite, a town located on Manila Bay less than ten miles from the country's capital. Inside they seized over 30 counterfeit furniture items copied from internationally famous ultramodern designer Kenneth Cobonpue.
The fake Cobonpues were taken away and the bad guys were arrested. Cue the brassy 1940's music rising up as the end credits roll in the movie. All is once again well in the universe.
There is much to this that is novel. Kenneth Cobonpue, whose fiery design genius transformed the world of modern casual furniture, specializes in fantastic creations so different they stop you in your tracks on first glance. He also pulls off all this while producing them out of primarily widely available locally sustainable materials such as rattan, buri, abaca, and bamboo. (You can see examples of his stunning work in the photos displayed alongside this post.) Cobonpue's furniture has sold to the most design-savvy individuals and corporations around the planet, with some of the pieces even making it into the movie set for “Ocean's 13″ and reportedly into Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's home as well.
Throughout his company's rapid sales growth throughout the Americas, Europe, and beyond, Kenneth Cobonpue has kept his headquarters and factory located in his home town region of Cebu City, Philippines. (Cebu City is most recently famous because it is just south of where the devastating SuperTyphoon Yolanda crashed through about a month and a half ago.) He has a sizable employee base there, all of which work tightly as a team to create the distinct style, high quality, and increasing originality that have become the Kenneth Cobonpue hallmark. They are expensive, but as with other designer goods they are distinctive, beautifully crafted, and of lasting value.
It is a success story, not just of a great entrepreneurial venture but also of a change in the way the Philippines would all like to be seen some day. As creative, groundbreaking, and quality-conscious of any competitor in its field, and not succeeding primarily because it can manufacture the products for a lower cost by being based in a developing country.
Beyond this, what may surprise you is that — in spite of the unique nature of Cobonpue's goods as well as that they have been copied before — this is apparently the first time a Philippine designer has moved to prosecute those who have illegally copied their works. That is a milestone we all should support.
The Philippines, rightly or not, is often seen as a haven for Intellectual Piracy of all kinds. Until only recently it was common to see counterfeit DVDs of recent movies on sale for the equivalent of only a few U.S. dollars per copy, often in regular shopping malls rather than just via black market on the street. (This itself has subsided significantly in recent years, but it appears less because of crackdowns than because the main goods have changed from DVDs to digital downloads.) Software copying and distribution is far more rampant here than in other places around the world, though that too is finally dying down, because of better availability, more clever anti-copy technology, and also because incomes are rising enough for people to afford the “real stuff”. Copies of designer goods that go beyond furniture are also readily available, from watches marked Rolex that sell for $200 or less to cheap knockoffs of designer clothing, handbags, and more. 
The situation is getting better, agreed. The current administration of President Aquino, even though embroiled in some of its own corruption challenges, has made good strides in defending copyright, patent, and other aspects of international intellectual property law. It has been making enough inroads on this so that, combined with a stabilized more rapid growth rate for the country compared to others in the region, the Philippines has become once again a more favorable place to consider for international investment.
But even more exciting — and in the long term more significant — is seeing the seizure, arrest, and (it is to be hoped) rapid prosecution of individuals such as those that copied Kenneth Cobonpue's designer goods in his home country. Because — unlike the external investment issue — intellectual piracy can be devastating to long term business for many different reasons:
- The first and obvious is that it deprives the original designer and his company of the higher revenues they could have charged, just because there's a rip-off competitor operating out there.
- Second, it steals jobs from the original company. These include other designers, engineers who help determine the right structures and materials to use, manufacturing experts who figure out how to optimize the production lines for the goods, quality experts who help ensure every piece is as good as the last, and other clerks, shippers, raw materials inspectors, and associates who keep the company running smoothly. It also hits the many marketing, sales, and distribution people — both locally and worldwide — who help promote, sell, and bring the products from their Cebu base to the rest of the globe.
- Third, it diminishes the value of the original goods just because there are others which look almost identical. This is an unfortunate direct result of the law of supply and demand in action. More similar supply and you will eventually get less demand.
- The fourth issue is perhaps the most damaging of this group. For as a direct result of the previous three issues, if the illegal copying continues, is not prosecuted to the fullest, and is supported by the customer community at large, then the rate of innovation a company and design genius like Cobonpue's will slow or even stall. Because there is no prosecution, other manufacturers will be emboldened to make more copies, diminishing the value of every piece Cobonpue makes. And even if the designer continues creating new designs, the ripoff artists can move quickly to copy and the new product's value life (as something different from previous designs) will become shorter and shorter. Prices will drop and people like Cobonpue will no longer be able to afford to retain the incredible team of artisans, engineers, and operations experts that keep his business alive.
Without a strong defense against the counterfeiters, in the end not only will Cobonpue's innovation die but the drive for all value-added innovation will wither as well. Even sadder perhaps for those as individuals who don't even know who Cobonpue is, the variety of choice and quality of offerings we get to pick from when we buy something will also diminish.
It is for all these reasons that everyone out there ought to be rooting for Kenneth Cobonpue to prevail in his fight against the Intellectual Property pirates. Just as successfully as in his role as brilliant designer and ambassador for the creativity and innovation of his home country.
1) In writing this I don't mean to suggest by any means that the Philippines is the only place that does this. If you go shopping outside the malls in the Los Angeles area, for example, it is surprisingly easy to find copies of Kate Spade, Louis Vuitton, and other designer goods. So too in any major metropolitan area of the world. It is unfortunately also true that shoppers actively seek out the counterfeits, so even if they get squashed in one place they will likely soon pop up not far away, like a designer game of Whack-A-Mole.