Paperworld calls in the patent police

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Organisers praised for clampdown on counterfeit cheats as seizures jump by almost 50 percent.

There was a significant jump in the number of booths raided by customs officials at this year’s Paperworld, as part of an initiative by the organisers to catch patent cheats.

Now in its third year, the Messe Frankfurt Against Copying initiative saw the number of raids increase to 100 booths in 2008, up from 77 in 2007, but still a long way behind 2006’s mammoth figure of 140.

Two teams of ten customs officers known as Mobile Control Groups (MCGs) scoured the booths of non-EU exhibitors at the beginning of the show on the look-out for products that fail to respect intellectual property rights. The teams include members of the fairground’s own customs officers who have the experience and product knowledge to hone in on potential offenders, said senior customs officer Stefan Pranzas.

Patent holders also accompany the customs officers, ready to produce the relevant paperwork, should an exhibitor be challenged about any of its products on display. "We only act if there is a reasonable suspicion of an infringement," said Pranzas. "The final decision rests with the patent holder because, once we confiscate a product, formal criminal proceedings will commence with the German police, with legal implications for both parties."

Despite writing instruments being the most problematic segment overall, Pilot Pen’s secretary general Pascal Gay saw a drop in the number of patent infringement claims regarding Pilot products this year. "We issued seizure documents on eight companies," he confirmed. "But the number is dropping for us each year and we are very satisfied with the efforts of the German customs authorities and of Messe Frankfurt to reduce this problem."

One trend noted by Fellowes is the increasing speed in which infringing products are being brought to market, with certain manufacturers quick to adopt features without first investigating whether there are related intellectual property rights. "Historically, it was probably safe to assume that an innovation wasn’t patented," said the company’s general consul Steve Carson. "That business model is much more perilous these days."

Carson also praised the efforts of Messe Frankfurt. "Paperworld has taken admirable steps to discourage infringement of patents and trademarks at the fair in Frankfurt," he said. "Its procedures are reasonable to ensure that both the accuser and accused are treated fairly." However, he added that these efforts are only effective in the simplest of cases and that intellectual property owners need to rely heavily on the courts. He also confirmed that Fellowes filed a suit against a Chinese manufacturer at Paperworld 2008 and that it currently has similar suits pending or anticipated in a number of other countries.

Contrary to popular opinion, exhibitors that have their products seized do not have their passports confiscated nor are they fined on the spot. "For legal reasons we have to establish exactly who it is we are talking to," explained Pranzas. "If someone does not have their ID card or passport with them, we allow them two hours to return to their hotel to fetch it. If they refuse, we have the authority to take them to the police for an ID check, but so far this has never happened. We use the passport for an ID check only; we do not write anything in the passport itself."

Once a seizure document has been presented, a representative of the alleged offender is required to leave a €1,500 ($2,317) bond in the event of a fine being imposed by the district prosecutor. "Fines ranging from €500 to €1,500 are usually only given to repeat offenders," added Pranzas. "First time offenders usually get away with a warning. If an exhibitor is not fined, or if the fine is less than €1,500, then the money is returned."

MCG officers are uniformed, making them easy to spot in the aisles and allowing exhibitors time to remove products from their stands. But not enough time, in the case of one suspect. "We did apprehend one suspicious-looking young man with two trolley suitcases who claimed they contained personal belongings, but when we opened them we found them to be full of counterfeit goods." added Pranzas.