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Exporters battling to beat the product copycats

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Export-focused businesses are reaping the benefits, but intellectual property infringers are trying to cash in.

Bradford-based Prestigious Textiles, which has a turnover of around £30m, exports to 80 countries. Last year, it set up a partner business north of Shanghai, in China, selling to retailers in the country. The venture has recorded a turnover of just short of £1m in less than a year.

Prestigious Textiles, a family-owned specialist textile wholesaler and distributor, whose portfolio includes fabrics for draperies, upholstery and accessories, as well as wallpaper and curtain poles, also recently made in-roads into South America.

But the business is battling to protect its intellectual property rights as infringers attempt to copy its designs and benefit from its web traffic. Leeds law firm Clarion says it is seeing more and more such cases.

“We’ve been export-focused for the last 15 years”, Matthew Helliwell, managing director of Prestigious Textiles, told the Yorkshire Post. Business at the moment is “tough”, he said, adding: “We are probably winning on export more. We’ve opened several new markets.”

He said: “We’ve got across the world 10,000 customers. The beauty with that is when one market is doing well, one market’s going down, we get a good spread and we’re not reliant on our own UK domestic market.” But exporting does not come without its challenges.

“We have just exhibited in Shanghai, and the problem we’ve got with the Chinese still is that there’s still a very copying market. We found at least six to eight of our collections of prints and weaves and various products that we have that have been copied exactly by Chinese manufacturers there,” said Mr Helliwell.

Meanwhile, a company based in Antigua and Barbuda recently registered a domain name which included Prestigious Textiles’ trademark. Prestigious Textiles has been working with Clarion to remedy the situation.

Esther Kirwan, a senior associate at the law firm who specialises in intellectual property, said: “It was causing our client quite a lot of difficulty because when people searched on Google for our client they were actually finding this party’s website rather than our party’s website.

“This party’s website was actually linking to a competitor’s rather than to our client. Potentially, our client was losing business.”

She explained: “If they were based in the UK you might have gone after them for trademark infringement, looked to bring court action, that type of thing, but because they were in Antigua we knew that would be difficult to do.

“Instead we took steps to take the domain name back off them. In one fell swoop we were able to get rid of the problem.” Prestigious Textiles can now use the domain name to point to its own website. “It’s a matter of making sure we protect our brand, making sure people are seeing Prestigious and buying Prestigious and not a copy that’s being produced in China or elsewhere,” said Mr Helliwell.

Mrs Kirwan said that Clarion is seeing more and more such disputes on a global basis for UK companies. “There are more UK businesses taking up those [export] opportunities.

“I guess perhaps with the global economic climate there’s maybe more infringements taking place as well.

“Companies trying to ride on the back of other companies’ reputation in a brand or a good design,” she said.

Prestigious Textiles, which employs around 150 people across its sites in Bradford and Bingley, sees its products designed in Yorkshire with most of its manufacturing taking place overseas. The business sells to independent retailers primarily, as well as big retailers such as John Lewis.

Prestigious Textiles recorded growth in turnover of about 5 per cent in its latest financial year to around £30m, with profits of about £2.5m, said Mr Helliwell.

Founded in 1988 by Trevor Helliwell – now chairman of the Prestigious group – Prestigious Textiles has partner businesses in Ireland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa and China plus trading alliances across the world.

Creative thinking can help

THINK creatively – that is the message from Esther Kirwan, a senior associate at Clarion, to UK businesses who want to protect their IP abroad.

Firms need to think about where their rights might be infringed, she said. “For example, it’s fairly well-known that a significant number of copies do come out of China.

“So you need to think about what your brand is and maybe apply to register a trademark for your brand over there if you think somebody is going to take your name.

“If you are in fabric designs for example, you can think about registering copyright in various countries, you can’t do that in the UK but you can certainly do it in China.”

Source: The Yorkshire Post, 9 October 2012