Alibaba, the Chinese answer to Amazon and eBay, touched off a firestorm last month when it was admitted to the Washington-based Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition. That spurred a wave of defection, notably including fashion house Gucci, which described Alibaba as a "dangerous and damaging adversary" for allegedly tolerating widespread sale of counterfeit designer goods.
China has been a frequent target of criticism over the theft of intellectual property, with knock-offs of designer handbags and DVDs readily available online and on the streets of cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou.
But the problem also extends to automobiles, as was readily apparent during the recent Beijing Motor Show, at which dozens of Chinese-made clones vied for attention alongside the original U.S., European, Japanese and Korean models.
One of the most blatant copies is the Jiangling Land Wind X7. A sharp eye might spot a few subtle changes, including the badge on the grille, but in China it's easy to get a copy of the original Land Rover logo that makes the X7 indistinguishable from the original Range Rover Evoque.
And with the Jiangling version carrying a price barely half that of the real SUV — and gaining sales at a rapid clip — British maker Jaguar Land Rover has decided to go to war.
"We are … confirming we have taken legal action," said company spokesman Stuart Schorr.
Though he declined to discuss specific details, JLR has already won an injunction blocking Jiangling from exporting the X7 to Brazil, where it recently set up a local distribution network. The British maker — which is owned by India's Tata Motors — is also believed to be pressing Chinese courts to block the sale of the X7 there, as well.
JLR isn't the only automaker frustrated by the blatant rip-offs China's domestic automakers routinely bring to market. Recent clones include the Zotye SR8, all but indistinguishable from the Porsche Macan SUV, and a sedan from JAC that not only borrowed the design of a popular Audi model, but also called its version the A6. The BAIC X424 is all but identical, meanwhile, to the Jeep Cherokee.
The problem is far from new, but seemed to go into high gear a decade ago when China's domestic automakers decided they wanted a bigger piece of a booming auto market all but owned by foreign makers like Volkswagen and Toyota.
The folks at General Motors were upset enough when one local company renamed itself Chery, but it got worse when the Chinese firm rolled out the QQ. It was more than just a dead-ringer for the Chevrolet Matriz; even the doors of the two models were interchangeable.
Yet, despite GM's attempts to fight Chery, the QQ remained on the market — at barely half the price of the Matriz, a difference that helped the Chinese clone outsell the original by almost four-to-one. The one modest victory for GM was that its rival agreed not to use the Chery name in the U.S. market.
Other makers haven't done much better in court. Honda spent a dozen years going after a Chinese company that cloned its best-selling SUV, the CR-V. It eventually did win compensation — 16 million yuan, or $2.43 million, compared to the 300 million yuan it was seeking. Ford, meanwhile, had no luck blocking Kawei Auto from duplicating the look of its F-150 pickup, down to the details of its headlight assembly.
JLR is hoping to have a bit more success, and it is borrowing a trick companies in the fashion and entertainment industries have adopted by filing suit outside China, where courts are proving to be more sympathetic to copyright claims. But considering China is the world's largest car market, the real test will be getting China's regulators and courts to also take action.