Copying - The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

The subject of copying other products or infringing patents and copyrights, has been around for as far back as most of us can recall. Every few years or so, it seems to come to the fore in the industries we cover, usually when a new supplier or group of suppliers are accused of copying existing products, or when a well-established manufacturer claims a competitor has infringed one it its patents.

Patents were intended to provide protection to a person who came up with an original design, idea or breakthrough innovation, thus encouraging and rewarding progress by providing protection against ‘copycats’ stealing the idea - at least for the first few years - enabling the innovator to recoup their original investment and profit from the invention before everyone else piles in.

Patents are especially important for companies at the leading edge of research and development that spend vast amounts on new products, of which only a minority might will make it through the test and approval stages, as is the case for pharmaceutical companies that carry out a lot of original research.
However, we can never get away from patent abuse which comes in several forms, such as well-established companies with deep pockets copying a smaller company’s idea, and then outlawyering and outspending them and thus getting away with it. Defending a patent infringement can be expensive and time consuming, with no guarantee of success. So small companies often give up and let the bully get away with it.

Then there are companies that spot a good idea from a niche supplier before the product has had any wide exposure and where a patent has not been applied for. If they succeed in patenting it for themselves, they can potentially exclude the inventor from their own idea. Yes, it has and does happen - usually unintendedly, when two people have a similar idea at the same time.

On the other side of the coin, there are those that manage to obtain a patent on an overall concept or something that is obvious, such as the wheel or the automobile. Officially an obvious solution cannot be patented, but it has happened. However, a patent for an overall concept can be very hard to defend if challenged.

If we look at our industry there have been some classic cases over the years, such as Superlift systems for telescopic crane booms, over centre front axle steering on scissor lifts and rear axle weight sensing on telehandlers.

Aside from patents, new manufacturers - at the moment they tend to be Chinese - are often accused of copying existing products. And yet, in some ways, this is almost inevitable, especially as products, such as small scissor lifts become more alike. But there are specifics, for example Skyjack came up with the idea of swing-out trays for all of the componentry on a scissor lift. Now everyone has it. UpRight invented and patented over centre, front axle steering on scissor lifts to maintain a fixed-width fulcrum - even though the latter had a valid patent, now everyone has it. Those that copied these ideas were not new ‘infiltrators’ they were well established competitors.

Newcomers accused of copying often turn to innovating their new ideas once they gain a foothold in a market. In my lifetime I have seen American, Japanese and now Chinese companies in the access industry accused of copying - it’s nothing new. But would it stop you buying from a manufacture which you think has simply copied existing producers?
A great deal will depend on the quality of the ‘copied’ product and the trust and confidence you have in the company producing and selling it. No one wants a cheap and nasty copy, which is just a ‘fake’.

Let us know what you think in our online poll.


Copy, pile 'em high, flood the market & sell them cheap seems to be the 'modus operandi' for many of these new manufacturers. The danger being that the hirer can drop the rental price as his new machine is cheaper than established brands. Hence the now race to the bottom with rates.

Mar 11, 2024

Very interesting and relevant subject at a time where we see more and more automation, influence of AI and innovations to further safety and efficiency in our industry.
As stated in the article, copying has always been an issue, and while Oscar Wilde commented that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” it remains no excuse for blatant copying of technology that others have spent time and money to develop. It was never acceptable in the past; it is not acceptable now and it should not be acceptable in the future.

First, proprietary rights and means to protect them are the simple key to justify R&D investments. It is based on very simple principles than makes up the difference between being the honest originator of a concept or a filthy thief.

How we address the issue depends on which side you’re on, - do you think it is fair to take advantage of other people’s efforts and take a free ride by copying. Or do you respect the ownership of a concept, and acknowledge that it may mean that someone has technology you do not have (which instead should inspire you to also focus more on R&D as a company).

Secondly, if not addressed vigorously to the maximum extent of the law, it can lead to exnovation (the flipside of innovation). While we all know that innovation too can kill companies or entire industries (think phone booths, phone books, typewriters etc.), it has always been replaced with an alternative technology that has proved either better, more accepted or representing entire shifts in cultural paradigms (think internet). However, lack of innovation has the same effect, but with a rather darker consequence. Instead of being replaced with alternative solutions, at best it leads to status quo, but for most parts, it leads to stagnation, which will lead to degeneration. At that point, the delta between industries that thrives on innovation and those that do not will become not just very evident, but fatally wider. When that happens talent (on all levels) will be attracted to the innovative industries, leaving the degenerated industries even further behind. And remember, industries feed off each other’s evolution rate (construction methods, for example, are driven my innovation in construction equipment and new building materials).

So, exnovation will not just hit one industry, but many industries will be impacted like a domino effect. In extreme situations, where core principles for innovations are left entirely unattended it can lead to the shortfall of an entire country. Czechoslovakia that was a leading nation in mechanical technology and innovation in Europe before WWII. While it was the following socialism (or rather communism) that killed their industrial innovation, the result was the same and a stark reminder that once a nation goes into exnovation mode, it can lead to very grave consequences.

The aerial lift industry has seen tremendous innovation in a remarkably short time. Look at the rate of innovation in the past three decades from 1990-2020, and compare that with the six decades before them! Today we can provide workers the best solutions ever to work safely at height, and mind you at work heights that would have been considered a fairytale (or drunk pub) comment even back in the 1980’s. We have developed systems where AI and advanced computer technology takes the guess work out of applications, and replaces it with precise, efficient and – again – maximum safe solutions.

Bringing the comments back to the article and the indirect question: Is it OK to steal other people/companies’ ideas and get a free ride? The simple answer is no! Coming from Texas, the answer would have to be: Hell no! We MUST protect patent and trademark rights to the utmost of its abilities to ensure that companies and individuals will continue to come up with better ideas and be rewarded for their efforts. That is the epic source of evolution since the start of mankind that brings prosperity to all elements of life.

In closing, if you buy copy products, you are no better than the company that offers them: A simple thief! Make your choice wisely as your customers may judge you on the different scale of justice.

Feb 22, 2024