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Counterfeiting Is Cheating

Scott Gaeta
United States
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Board Game Publisher
@playrenegade on Twitter
@scottgaeta on Twitter
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Board Game Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
(This article by Scott Gaeta, owner of Renegade Game Studios, first appeared on his personal blog on Sept. 25, 2019 in a somewhat different form. —WEM)

Fake copies of popular consumer goods have been a problem for decades. It seems that if something is popular enough, people will counterfeit those items and try to pass them off as the real thing. Handbags, trading cards, perfume, toys, watches, jackets, shoes, shirts, and many more items have been counterfeited over the years. I had dealt with these issues before when making collectible card games, and the sports card industry was plagued by it for years. Upper Deck came into existence largely because they had a solution to counterfeit sports cards back in the late 1980s.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Sometimes consumers of these items know they are buying fakes and don't even mind. They rationalize it by saying they can't afford a real one or they are saving money this way. Others never know they've been taken, often paying top dollar for something and getting a fake.

With the recent rise in boxed game sales, this has become a huge problem in our industry. Most games are made from simple materials such as paper, card stock, and wood. Plastics are tougher and more expensive to knock off, but if the demand is high enough, it's not out of the question.

In 2018, we had one of our games counterfeited and being sold online. The first indicator was that the price was ridiculously low. When we looked at the seller, it was a third party with no history, a brand new account. We first discovered this on Amazon and ordered copies to inspect.

At first glance, the copies were pretty decent, but once you looked closely, you could see glaring differences in quality and production. We immediately contacted Amazon, and they shut the seller down. Then the seller popped back up under another account. We shut that one down, too, and the game of whack-a-mole was on. Our strategy here was to be so diligent in policing this and shutting them down quickly that we wouldn't be worth it. We shut down a few more, and this went on for a couple of months.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

We also put out messaging to the gaming community, where news was circulating of this bargain price, that these were not real copies of the game. The old adage "If something is too good to be true, it probably is" was certainly relevant here.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
In working with Amazon, they made us aware of a new program they were testing and invited us to participate. The program is called Transparency. The way it works is that we print unique codes on our games. These codes are issued by Amazon in advance and tied to a specific game. Every copy of the game has a unique code. Any game without a code will never make it to a customer through their platform. Customers can scan codes to verify the product is authentic no matter where they purchase that item.

We have rolled out this program on many of our games, and so far it has worked very well. Other platforms can still be a challenge, but when you cut off the world's largest online retailer from the options these counterfeiters can use, it makes our games a much less attractive target. Any platform that allows third-party sellers has potential for abuse. We've even heard of counterfeiters reaching out to individual brick-and-mortar stores to try to sell them fake games. I don't think this practice is widespread in North America or Europe, but in other parts of the world, many products are sold openly on the streets and in stores.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Another factor that has made these counterfeits viable is the agreements between global postal systems. The short explanation is that underdeveloped countries are not upcharged by wealthier countries to move mail that originates overseas to their final domestic destination. A counterfeit seller in China can advertise their fake on eBay and get away with charging only a few dollars (or free shipping) for a package that weighs less than 4.4 pounds all the way to New Jersey. In turn, shipping that same item back to China would cost $25-$100 depending on the service you choose. The original intent of this program was for mail to move easily and freely around the world, for lesser developed nations to be able to communicate and not be locked out because of their lower economies and personal incomes — but with the rise of e-commerce and online selling platforms, it has facilitated a pipeline for fake goods. Luckily, this program is going away and its demise should help curb the flow of fake goods being shipped directly from the source to consumers.

Counterfeit prevention and policing is also much easier when we have proactive customers. Our original problem was verified quickly by our customers. We were able to gather information from those who unknowingly purchased fake copies. For that, we are thankful that they came forward and helped in our investigation to identify the source.

My advice to publishers would be to look into programs like Transparency and Brand Registry on both Amazon and eBay. Your intellectual property and trademarks can be protected only by you or your agents. As gamers, it's on us to do our due diligence and report these fakes when we suspect them.

After all, counterfeiters are cheats, and gamers hate cheats.


Additional reading:

• "The End of Cheap Shipping from China", from The Atlantic (Oct. 2018)
• "Fair Competition in International Shipping", a transcript of a hearing in the 114th Congress from June 16, 2015
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