23 October 2016
Muji USB fans (inset) cost HK$220, a lot more than their Miniso counterparts (background picture). Photos: HKEJ,
Muji USB fans (inset) cost HK$220, a lot more than their Miniso counterparts (background picture). Photos: HKEJ,

To buy or not to buy a copycat: That is the moral question

It’s a moral question and has nothing to do with economics: If you had a choice, would you buy a USB fan five times the normal price?

In fact, the more fashionable version will set you back a whole lot more.

Japanese designer store Muji sells it for HK$220 (US$28.37) compared with HK$39 for the best-selling brand in Miniso, a Chinese accessories shop.

You’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference because they are strikingly similar down to noise, power, air volume — even form. 

On the MTR, in the streets, in offices — even in homes — people couldn’t live without them at the height this past, excessively oppressive summer.  

But you can be sure one of them is a copycat.

Muji launched the USB fan in 2012, a year before Miniso opened its first shop in mainland China.

Consider what has happened since.

The stylish no-brand store under the Japanese-listed flagship Ryohin Keikaki has 284 stores and 117 outlets in Japan and 303 international stores including several in Hong Kong.

Miniso has 1,400 outlets and has been opening an average of 100 stores per month, with a target of 6,000 by 2020.

With time, it would probably overtake Uniqlo, another Japanese fashion giant competing with similar products such as underwear.

And in the long run, who can tell which one will be the most established chain?

The English website of Miniso states that Japanese Miyake Jyunya is the founder but the Chinese version has Ye Guo Fu, the company president, as a co-founder.

Miniso is not the only copycat here.

According to Apple Daily, USB fans were as widely available in computer stores such as those in Sham Shui Po as on Taobao.

In other words, all were non-branded.

But unlike the fans and other street items Miniso sells at basically the same price, the rabbit head handkerchief is priced differently.

The red Miniso handkerchief costs HK$20 but the blue handkerchief from the street sells for HK$25 for three pieces, according to the Chinese paper.

The blue product comes from Hubei while the red one has no origin.

But has anyone taken any legal action? Not likely.

The problem lies in a grey area — whether the design is patented.

No matter how similar they are in appearance, it’s hard to tell whether the followers were inspired to make a similar design.

So if intellectual property rules don’t apply here, the question is still a moral one.

Would you buy a copycat at a much cheaper price?

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