Shapeways, The Community

I love Threadless & IP rights

I love Threadless, a lot. Threadless (just in case you missed them) is a community site where people can submit designs for t-shirts and vote for them. Winning designs get produced, the winner gets $2500 and everyone else gets to buy fun, funny and creative T-shirts. 

So, Exactly how much do I love Threadless? To the right you can see a
picture of most of the Threadless t-shirts I own. There are about 50 in
that picture (taken in Amsterdam, where I live) and there are more in
Eindhoven (where I also live).

Indeed Threadless has a lot to do with why I came to work for Shapeways. What Threadless is for T-shirts, Shapeways will be for all other stuff. Which is what makes what happened to me the other day quite interesting indeed. 

A friend of mine lives in Chang Mei, Thailand and was in Amsterdam to visit his family and friends. As a present he brought me a T-shirt. He talked about markets in Chang Mei where you could get the funniest shirts for next to nothing and gave me one that combined my love of reading for my love of cool t-shirts. 

I can be an idiot at times and was so immediately after he gave it: exclaiming in short order that not only did my girlfriend have the very same shirt but that it was a Threadless shirt, making it abundantly clear to everyone that his gift was pirated. This was a complete surprise to him, and just one more incident of me ruining something by blurting out what I’m thinking. To the right you can see both t-shirts side by side, with the Threadless shirt on the left and the Thailand one on the right. You can see the shirt on Threadless here.

This incident has many far reaching and interesting implications for communities such as Threadless and Shapeways as well as the future of “peer production”, mass customization and intellectual property in general and is interesting to me for 9 reasons:

1. Usually pirated materials are bought with the buyer knowing fully
well that it is pirated, ie “look there is a Puma logo on those $10

My friend was unaware that the shirt was in fact
copyright infringement. He just saw a fun shirt that was perfect for
his t-shirt mad friend and bought it.

2. Usually it is the big brands, the recognizable brands names and logos
that are copied, indeed the element of brand recognition is the reason
why the person buys the pirated item. ie “A Louis Vuitton bag for $15,
wow, this is my chance to prentend that I own one.”

In this case the
Threadless logo does not appear anywhere on the T-shirt. This pirated
shirt stole the designers idea and used the idea and the attractiveness
of the design an sich to sell the item.

Usually copyright infringement happens precisely because a product is
expensive. “What $700 for Windows? That’s like a month’s rent. I’ll
download it instead”

Threadless T-shirts are from $5(on sale)
to $15, without shipping, so are very affordable. I’m not sure how much
he paid for the T-shirt and knowing South East Asia it might have been
cheaper, lets say between $2-$5. But, all the above price points are
very cheap and should be well within the means of an average developed
nation consumer.

4. Usually piracy happens to big “boring” companies who are refusing to abandon their old broken business models.

Threadless is a hip “new” internet business with an even “hipper” business model revolving around co-creation and community. 

Usually piracy happens to big billion dollar businesses or
multimillionaire recording artists who could cry all they want from
their private jets and personalized basketball courts but can not
really count on much sympathy from the general public. In this case the
victims were Threadless and Josh Kemble, the designer.

Although Threadless has revenues of $30,000,000 it should be able to garner more sympathy than the truly huge companies (check out how Google now returns the result to the query ‘Threadless revenue” by the way).

And Josh Kemble
who is a freelance illustrator, born in “a small speck of dirt in
California” and working on a graphic novel is someone I feel instantly
sympathetic towards. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have a 24 carat gold
dome above his bed, yet, anyway. 

6. The prated Threadless
shirt example above really puts “power internet users” in a bit of a
bind. Usually the RIAA, DRM, copyright protection companies and closed
source software companies are the bad guys. Intelectual Property(IP) and copyright in general
is seen as the “old way” and a mark of evil boring companies who do
not get the internet and want to monopolize. To them downloading a movie
from the Pirate Bay can be seen as defiance in some way.

In this
example the Intellectual Property rights are represented by Josh Kemble,
who with his creativity and skill makes his money using an internet
business. Good IP protection in this case would seem to be neccessary
in order to usher in a new era on the internet whereby many more people
than is now the case could make their money directly from the net
itself. IP in this case would seem to be much more of a neccessity in
propping up the little guy rather than a tool of the large corporates.

7. Threadless makes money off of the ideas, IP and skill of Josh and
all the other contributors to Threadless. When you upload to Threadless
your IP becomes the property of Threadless(Shapeways
is different: your designs will always remain your IP when you upload
them to Shapeways
). I would assume that they strive to protect this IP
(as we strive to protect Shapeways users’ IP) but how much can an
online business do against some guys on a market in Thailand? Indeed a forum question on Threadless pointed me towards a picture gallery from the Glastonbury festival in 2007
where several pirated Threadless T-shirts where on sale(making me feel
kind of daft for writing this huge post about what I thought was a unique

8. There would seem to be a huge business
opportunity here for an online business that would effectively protect
the intellectual property rights of small businesses and freelancers

9. We need to, as Shapeways, keep listening to our community directly as to how they view their IP and want to protect it. We need to also join the IP debate with other companies, people and groups. We need to be a part of it in order to make sure that people such as Josh Kemble can protect their IP and can continue to make money online. At the same time we have to guard against companies that abuse IP legislation in order to stifle innovation. The thin line of IP is going to be challenging to walk on.     

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