Duped or Duplicated? The Difference Between A Counterfeit And An Accessible Homage

By: HR Fitzmorris

Even non-legally versed consumers know that counterfeit or fraudulent products are illegal. In fact, some may have even experienced the euphoria of getting what they thought was a steal on a new designer product only to find out that it was a different type of ‘steal’ altogether. 

But what about “dupes”?

Unlike counterfeit products, which are copies of trademarked consumer goods meant to be passed off as the real thing, dupes (short for duplicate or duplication) are products that mimic other companies’ popular products without seeking to trick the consumer into thinking it’s the real deal. Dupes usually mimic high-end, in-demand goods and are sold at a much lower price-point—essentially the Gen Z version of a “knock-off.” Dupes have become extremely popular with the rise of social media advertising aimed at younger demographics. Teens that may not be able to afford a wildly trendy Cartier ring ($2,995) certainly may be able to scrounge up the change for the Amazon dupe ($12.99, with free next day shipping!).

The “Real” Fakes

To the everyday consumer the distinction between a counterfeit and a dupe may seem dubious, but in legal terms it’s significant. Counterfeiting is a concept used to “indicate an infringement of intellectual property rights, namely acts (use, manufacturing, or sale, for example) carried out without the consent of the intellectual property right holder.” “Counterfeiting” is the “act of making or selling fake products with the intent to deceive consumers. In the United States, it is illegal to produce, distribute, or sell counterfeit goods.” 

There are more issues with counterfeit goods outside of intellectual property infringement and their morally dubious nature. There are also possible health and safety issues with fake products that flout FDA or consumer protection standards.  There’s of course, the economic harm to legitimate businesses that lose money when their customers are lured away. The ever-present environmental harms associated with the flood of mass-produced, easily discarded items lurk behind the scenes. There’s even concern that counterfeit goods play a role in funding broader criminal enterprises.

Dupes: Duplication or Duplicity?

One of the important elements of counterfeiting is the “intent to deceive,” and this element is a significant piece of what separates dupes from counterfeits. Dupes do not claim to be the real-deal. In fact, part of their allure is that purchasers are getting the same or similar quality and functionality of the original without the original’s branding (and the associated price mark-up). As Claire Kane put it in her article for online publication MIC: 

While “fake” is a dirty word in fashion and “counterfeit” sounds unethical, the more neutral-sounding “dupe” suggests making savvy purchases and “somehow cheat[ing] the system” to get the look for less.

Companies hoping to crack down on dupes and knockoffs face an uphill battle in court. Without distinctive, trademarked branding that makes counterfeits fall within the reach of traditional trademark infringement, brands find little sympathy in the law. The current state of U.S. copyright law as it pertains to clothing and accessories has significant gaps. U.S. copyright law does not fully protect items defined as useful articles, which are “objects having an intrinsic utilitarian function” and “clothing” is the very first example of what counts. So, without the direct, obvious infringement on the branding, companies are unlikely to prevail.

Can You  Smell the Difference?

An especially interesting sector of dupes gaining popularity are designer fragrance dupes. Most dupes, like a certain handbag or shoe dupe, the knockoff brand doesn’t need (or want) to explicitly refer to the original product—it relies on the consumer to ‘get’ the reference. Not so with replica fragrance brands such as Oakcha, Dossier, or ALT Fragrances, which directly rely on references to their designer counterparts in their marketing. In fact, they often list the fragrance they were “inspired by” right on the bottle, or in the product description. So, what makes fragrance such a fertile ground for direct and blatant knockoffs without running afoul of trademark or copyright law? 

The answer is a combination of technology and law. First, new technological developments have made it extremely easy to reverse engineer specific fragrance formulations. Also, while the branding or packaging of a perfume may be eligible for copyright protection, a perfume’s scent is not because the scent serves as the “functional purpose of the product.” This makes it, under trademark law, ineligible for registration with the USPTO (functionality is a bar to registration). Perfumers can look to other avenues of protection such as obtaining a patent over the perfume formula, or trade secret protection, but these protections are difficult and costly to obtain and have drawbacks like disclosure. 

The legal landscape concerning dupes is unique and developing. It is inconsistent across products and complicated across industries. Whether you think dupes are simply knockoffs with a moral makeover or a legitimate industry that provides consumers with accessible choices, the law is unlikely to be the force that stems the tide.