Tim Lince

E-commerce giant Amazon has confirmed that it is expanding its anti-counterfeiting programme to allow rights holders to register their logos and intellectual property to expedite the removal of counterfeit listings. The move follows criticism over a perceived increase in fakes sold by third parties on the Amazon platform in the last 12 months. However, recent claims have emerged that Amazon itself has counterfeit products as part of its own inventory.

The expanded anti-counterfeiting programme was announced last week, with a brand registry to be launched that will database logos and IP (including registered trademarks) to reportedly allow Amazon itself to take down listings and even suspend seller accounts when counterfeits are flagged. The exact method of how this will work is unclear (World Trademark Review contacted an Amazon spokesperson for more information but has yet to receive a response). It is understood that the new programme has already gone through testing and could launch in North America as early as next month.

The move comes at a time of high tension between some major brand owners and Amazon due to the alleged sale of counterfeit goods. For example, Birkenstock decided last year to yank permission for third-party merchants to sell its sandals on the site. This was due to a complaint that it was hard to gain Amazon's support to battle against fakes unless it sold its entire range on Amazon. A few months later, Apple filed a suit against a US firm for selling bogus Apple-branded power adapters and cables on Amazon.

Reflecting on the problem of counterfeiting during the announcement of the new brand registry initiative, Amazon Marketplace’s vice president Peter Faricy said: “I don't think it's the kind of thing where you ever feel like there's a clear ending, it's a journey.”

It appears, though, that some sellers on the Amazon Marketplace have been finding that journey particularly turbulent in recent months. One such example is Bill Pollock, founder of No Starch Press. He wrote on Twitter last week that fake copies of one of his books are being fulfilled by Amazon, posting comparison images between the real and fake product. “Unfortunately, these counterfeits come directly from Amazon's inventory,” he said, when asked if the book was purchased from a third-party seller. “Amazon printed and sold the last one. They are the seller.”

Responding to Pollock’s claim, posts by users on Hacker News (a respected social news site run by startup incubator Y Combinator) allege that the prevalence of counterfeits has increased significantly – especially with orders that are “fulfilled by Amazon”. One user stated: “Counterfeits in commingled inventory has become pretty common on Amazon these days; ‘Fulfillment by Amazon’ has led them to commingle inventories on common products, meaning every seller's product gets jumbled together. I've gotten counterfeit Huggies diapers from Amazon (invalid serial number for Huggies 'points' and different build quality), Mach 3 razor blades, GE MWF water filters, [and] even a counterfeit baby bath. I no longer trust Amazon for anything health related – it just seems too easy to get counterfeit products into their system.”

With users (consisting of both buyers and sellers) posting further anecdotes about their experience of counterfeits traded on Amazon, others voiced their distrust of the site. “Amazon is due for a reckoning, they've let this get completely out of control,” one user claimed, with another saying “it is ridiculous the amount of energy and effort you have to waste in order to find a product that you don't suspect as being counterfeit on Amazon these days”. Overall, users expressed confusion about why Amazon hasn’t stepped up to the plate: “It's impossible for me to believe that it's part of Amazon's strategy to encourage, or even allow, counterfeits – it might be fine for a smaller company, but it appears to be doing real brand damage at this point. Yet Amazon shows no signs of stopping it, this has been going on for years. I still can't wrap my head around why Amazon would commingle [Fulfillment by Amazon] merchandise with merchandise Amazon bought directly from the manufacturer, and thus unknowingly sell counterfeits directly.”

One characterised the whole situation as “unsettling”, explaining: “Not only are many counterfeit goods being sold through Amazon, but Amazon's policies (co-mingling inventory, lack of ability to signal counterfeit goods in complaint, lack of ability to review a counterfeit seller of a [product] instead of the good itself) are directly encouraging this situation. And Amazon's response seems to be a collective shrug. The news media's response is probably just as much to blame – they're more interested in writing fluff pieces about Amazon's hypothetical drone delivery than in informing the public about the current major threat to consumers posed by Amazon's policies. I'm willing to bet a lot of customers have received faulty counterfeit goods and don't even realize it.”

The upcoming brand registry may go some way to ease the burden that rights holders are currently experiencing, but some users clearly feel that there are fundamental issues at the core of Amazon’s anti-counterfeiting approach. Efforts to improve the efficiency of trademark policing should be welcomed by both brands and consumers, but Amazon needs to urgently ensure that all product lines face the same scrutiny. 

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