21 August, 2020

What happens to seized counterfeit goods?

The damage caused by counterfeit goods to the economy, environment and even perhaps our overall quality of life should be something of a given for most people. Perhaps Intellectual Property rights-holders are those most likely to feel the true pinch of this rogue industry, but when one considers the big picture it becomes clear that everyone is liable to be affected by counterfeiting and piracy.

Starting with the consumers themselves, who will have been duped into buying low-quality and even perhaps potentially dangerous products, the rot continues to spread to the production line itself, where sweatshop workers will be toiling away with no regulation or insurance protecting them – all to deliver illegal, sub-standard products.

But even after one considers the realities of the production and distribution of counterfeit products, one needs to also confront what happens after they are in fact seized by the authorities in question. While the efforts put into securing this illegal productionare commendable in themselves, the parameters of these operations also throw various issues and concerns into relief.

The question of waste

The environmental concern is often the forgotten strand of the counterfeiting industry. While it tend to, justifiably, point and react towards the crippling commercial effects caused by the systematic counterfeiting of products, and while we should also consider its overall impact on the consumer, the environment is also another loser in this equation.

This is the case for a number of reasons, chief of which is the counterfeiting operations themselves. Naturally, such rogue operations are under no pressure to conform to environmental standards, and so the mark they leave on our planet is both expensive and indelible.

Ironically enough, anti-counterfeiting agencies have to face up to the same realities when it comes to the disposing of the materials that they have seized. The traditional way of doing things would have the authorities simply incinerating or otherwise destroying the products in question, which of course has its own environmental costs. But there are other ways of dealing with this problem that do not cause environmental damage, and that may yield more positive results in the longer term.

Recycling and charity

Indeed, the logical step forward that anti-counterfeiting agencies and other relevant authorities should be pursuing would, first of all, prioritise the recycling of seized materials. Giving the products away to relevant charities is also another potentially productive way of dealing with the problem (although defective and dangerous materials would still need to be ferreted out).  Putting in the manpower and organisational efforts necessary to ensure that the illegal production captured’ by authorities does not harm the environment is surely a step forward in that direction, whichever way one approaches the matter.

Of course, precisely because this requires a degree of political goodwill and all-round effort, the challenges become manifold. How much money are governments willing to put into a consistent effort to combat waste management associated with the disposal of counterfeit goods? What kind of diplomatic agreements would need to be signed and seen to for this to be effective on a grander scale, given how counterfeiting operations also tend to thrive by means of international networks?

All of these questions deserve an answer, but these are unlikely to be forthcoming before the authorities and legislative bodies in question get around to putting in the necessary work.

An all-round inconvenience

Like ‘leftover’ materials of all kinds, seized counterfeit products represent an inconvenience that we would rather sweep under the rug. But this will of course not solve the underlying problem, which will remain there, festering.

Beyond the real environmental concerns outlined above, there is also the matter of how the original rights holder (i.e., the person, business or commercial body whose work is being plagiarised and pirated) is affected by the process. Due to the legal tangle that comes about when counterfeit products are seized, another issue crops up: who has to pay up for the resulting mess to be cleaned up?

Of course, it does not make sense for the original rights holder, already victimised by the act of counterfeiting, to bear any of the brunt at this stage. In response to this, various governments have been drafting laws in an attempt to find an equitable solution to this issue. It stands as yet another example of how counterfeiting creates a negative ripple effect.

The final stage of an ugly problem

In the end, the realities intertwined with the disposal of counterfeit products, and their inherent problems, can all be considered as yet another stage – perhaps the final stage – of the toxic behemoth that is the counterfeiting industry.

While seizure is a logical response to counterfeiting, and can serve as an active deterrent to future counterfeiting efforts, seized products remain intact, material objects that require either storage or destruction – with both having implications on our environment and living standards.

Concerted and wide-ranging political goodwill is what is necessary for a viable solution to the problem to show itself.

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