Asmodee UK’s managing director, Steve Buckmaster has a lot to say about the issue of counterfeiting in the tabletop gaming space.
The topic of knock-offs – or cheaply made versions of original brands – has become a cause of major concern in the toy industry.
Since the advent of online shopping and online distance retail, the industry has been left wide-open to the damage inflicted by a rise in organised criminal operations thanks in large to the ‘cavalier attitudes of the platforms they find a presence upon,’ but more so by the outdated and out of place legislation from both the UK and EU over digital retail.
Most recently, it was slime that stole the headlines of the national press, after a report from Which? discovered that a number of slime products being sold via the online platform Amazon contained dangerously high levels of the chemical Boron.
In previous years, we have seen issues surrounding loom bands and before that – well, the list can be backdated for as long as you have time. The truth is that counterfeiting has become one of the biggest challenges facing the toy industry in modern times.
The BTHA estimates that 10 to 12 per cent of toys in the UK today are counterfeits, with more than £400 million worth of sales being lost to the industry each year.
And if you are of the train of thought that counterfeiting is limited to the pocket money crazes, or the £10 action figures, you couldn’t be further from the truth.
Towards the end of 2016 and throughout 2017, Asmodee, the board gaming giant, began to see a surge in knock-off products imitating titles from across its portfolio of top ten selling items, rear their ugly heads on platforms like Amazon and eBay.
“It’s a testament to just how popular board gaming has become,” Becky Ottery, owner of Reading’s board game specialist retailer, Eclectic Games, explains to ToyNews.
“Where there is money to be made, you will find these counterfeiters trying to make money o the back of good reputation.”
Ticket to Ride, Catan, even Pandemic Legacy, an £80 title that is made up of “so many components that it is incredibly complex to produce,” – according to Asmodee’s Buckmaster – was subject to fakery.
The issue is, that from the outside it appears to be a non-issue to the platforms that facilitate the criminal behaviour. Amazon and eBay regularly wash their hands of responsibility to the consumer, placing it all at the feet of brand owners.
‘The current law is that Amazon is effectively like the post office,” says Asmodee UK’s Buckmaster.
“They are just handling the goods. The argument there is that there is a moral obligation that when a consumer goes on to the Amazon platform, they are expecting to buy something that is genuine and safe.
"And I am not sure how many of us in the trade can hope to resolve this until UK and EU legislation is changed to make sure that there is an obligation on behalf of platforms like Amazon, eBay or any of the other guys that are springing up. The reality is, it’s like the world’s biggest blackmarket.”
That said, it would appear that Amazon. eBay, Alibaba or more, have become a neccesary part of the toy business.
Platforms like them have, after all pushed new boundaries in retailing itself, while in the case of tabletop gaming, brought the hobby greater credence among the masses.
“If you look at this from the tabletop gaming point of view, this was a niche market ten years ago,” explains Buckmaster. “Amazon has had a huge part to play in opening up the market to consumers. The system where quality products can rise to the top, people can leave peer to peer reviews; it has been a really key component in the rise of these types of games.
“They also have the ability to get them everywhere. But there is also the unsavoury part of long distance selling.”
Wailing, screaming and gnashing of teeth helped Asmodee UK in to a healthier position regarding the action taken against bringing the counterfeiters down.
There are tools out there to help you fight them, the UK board gaming outfit’s boss tells ToyNews, but often times bodies like Trading Standards can seem out of their depths.
“They don’t really seem to be kitted up to tackling the problem of counterfeiters by online selling.”
The current chain of thought appears to rest the issue of counterfeiting on Amazon, but what if it was taken one step closer to its source origin. It’s not a secret that a large number of knock-off product is produced in China, where a vast number of firms have manufacturing processes set-up.
One industry member ToyNews spoke to said that ‘China’s unfettered access to the UK has driven counterfeiting to become the sizeable issue it is today.’
MGA Entertainment CEO, Isaac Larian has taken his own stance against the rise in knock-offs emerging from the region, not only through devout anti counterfeiting measures but with a planned process of removing some of the company’s manufacturing from China altogether.
At the end of April this year, MGA Entertainment won $1.2 million and a permanent injunction against 81 toy manufacturers found to have sold counterfeit versions of its popular LOL Surprise Dolls online.
It followed a preliminary judgement granted in December and a temporary restraining order in February that stopped manufacturers from selling the fake toys on the Chinese e-commerce sites Alibaba.com, Aliexpress.com and DHGate.com.
Last month, Larian confirmed that he was looking to move some manufacturing to the US in an effort to combat the counterfeiting and IP theft “that’s rampant in China,” while adding that the “Chinese government and Alibaba know and do nothing about it.”
Not everyone in the toy industry, however, has such an option. The majority of UK suppliers and toy companies are left at the mercy of criminal organisations in the Far East looking to make a buck o the back of their IP.
The reason, according to some, is that it is the US market counterfeiters are really going after, and the UK is, more and more, getting caught in the cross fire.
“Our sister company that does the same games in French, German and Spanish hasn’t really seen the problem with counterfeiting yet,” says Buckmaster.
“It seems to be an English speaking territory problem based on the US being the biggest market.”
Taking Asmodee’s Pandemic Legacy and Catan as examples, two titles of great popularity among the board gaming community, both have been victim of the growing counterfeiting curse.
“People couldn’t get enough of Pandemic Legacy. We sold around 12,000 copies of them, and they are an £80 game, Then with a great product like Catan, we had thousands of reviews on Amazon all five star, then suddenly we get a one star review," Buckmaster laments.
“People are thinking they are buying a copy made by us, but in fact it was crap
– the board didn’t lay at, pieces were missing, and they made their upset felt in their review. It’s not fair on the brands, because these aren’t legitimate products.
“But as it stands, it is solely in the hands of the IP owners, the companies like us, and not the platforms they are being sold on, to take responsibility. Does it seem morally unjust?”
Yes, would be answer from most in the business.
Amid the recent ‘slime-gate’ propelled by a not entirely clear cut report from the magazine Which?, slime brand owners Toys For Play called out the retail platform to do more to protect brands and the safety of children using the unregulated product it supplies.
But without a lobbying or movement from the industry, nothing is likely to change, at least not at the pace required.
The BTHA has long been in discussions with the UK government and enforcement bodies to find solutions to the issues.
“Counterfeiting has always been a concern of the BTHA but the prevalence of counterfeit toys entering the market is a serious and heightened threat to our members, and therefore the Association,” said Kerri Atherton, public affairs manager at the industry body.
“As well as the significant financial loss to reputable toy makers, counterfeit toys represent a real safety threat as it is highly unlikely that infringing products will comply with essential safety standards developed for the needs of children.
“As a priority issue of the Association, we continue to raise the problem and explore solutions with government, enforcement bodies and directly with the channels through which toys are sold on behalf of our membership to stop dangerous, non-compliant products from entering the market."
Atherton continues: “Most recently the BTHA has met with the Intellectual Property Office Intelligence Hub to discuss how the Hub can help our members protect their businesses from IP crime. All members should contact the BTHA to explore this opportunity further.”