Apple should sue Xiaomi for its blatant copying — but it won’t

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Xiaomi Mimoji look very familiar.
Mimoji is one of many products Xiaomi has ripped from Apple.
Photo: Xiaomi

Xiaomi has a history of shamelessly ripping off bigger brands, and nine times out of ten, its chosen target is Apple.

The Chinese company has previously cloned the iPhone, iPad, MacBook, and more — without a single shred of fear that it might one day feel the wrath of Apple’s legal department.

Xiaomi’s latest ripoff is its own version of Memoji, and it brazenly stole Apple’s own commercials to promote it on a number of retail channels this week.

Here’s how Xiaomi gets away with it.

I mentioned in my story on the stolen Memoji ads that I can’t imagine a scenario in which Xiaomi accidentally mixed up its own promotional content with Apple’s. This just doesn’t happen unless your product is so identical to a competitor’s that even your own staff and partners can barely tell the difference between the two.

The reality is that Xiaomi almost certainly used Apple’s ads intentionally — likely because it knew the move would make headlines. Any exposure is good exposure when you’re selling a product, and this comes at an ideal time.

We forgot about Xiaomi

Until Mimoji was revealed this week, it had been a while since Xiaomi was criticized for copying. Ripping off Apple was a shortcut to success in the early days, and it helped Xiaomi become one of the world’s largest smartphone vendors. But we’re used to it now.

Xiaomi hasn’t stopped copying Apple. It currently sells an iPhone XS clone, and its flagship laptop still looks like a MacBook. But when it launches a new product that looks like it was designed in Cupertino, it no longer surprises us. We largely ignore it.

Xioami-MacBook-clone
Xiaomi clones are no surprise anymore.
Photo: Xiaomi

Mimoji helped drum up some attention that had been missing — particularly in the West. It’s one of those ripoffs that’s so close to the real thing that we can’t help but be amazed by it. And we have to wonder how Xiaomi gets away with it.

If Xiaomi was located anywhere other than China, it would have almost certainly been slapped by Apple lawsuits by now. But because it’s a Chinese company, it’s almost untouchable.

It’s a China crisis

The problem stems from China’s blatant disregard for copyright laws. Infringement is incredibly common there because regulators frequently turn a blind eye to it. This allows companies like Xiaomi to copy U.S. rivals and get away with it.

A March 2019 report from CNBC revealed that one in five American corporations had intellectual property stolen by Chinese companies over the previous 12 months. That’s despite numerous promises of a crackdown on IP theft from the Chinese government.

“Since the mid-1990s, it has become a ritual for the Chinese authorities to announce some sort of “strike hard” campaign (usually with a cool name) focused on wiping out copyright infringement,” explains the China Law Blog.

“But none of these cool-sounding campaigns have had any real impact and China remains the most significant infringer of copyright in the world.”

It’s not just smartphones, tablets, and other consumer technology gadgets that Chinese companies replicate, either.

China will copy anything

Anything that will generate a profit is a target for Chinese copycats. And there are no boundaries.

Chinese companies have been known to plagiarize international news outlets by directly translating their content and republishing it. They have stolen and sold photographs from international image agencies. They have ripped off popular websites like Facebook.

Xioami-iPhone-X-clone
Xiaomi’s iPhone XS clone.
Photo: Xiaomi

If you buy a knock-off Rolex watch, Gucci shoes, Prada glasses, or a Louis Vuitton handbag, it was almost certainly produced illegally by an unknown Chinese vendor. Other counterfeiters will clone prescription medicines, chemicals, artwork, and food.

China has even ripped off entire towns.

A 2012 report from The New York Times detailed how a medieval Austrian town — complete with market square, church, and other historic buildings — was studied by Chinese architects and property developers and cloned in Boluo, Guangdong province.

Copycats can be incredibly damaging

IP theft can be incredibly damaging to some. A corporation as big as Apple can take it — to an extent. That’s partly because Apple has plenty of cash, but also because an Apple product is more than just its hardware; it’s the software and services, too.

Other companies aren’t so lucky.

What if you’re a small startup, or an entrepreneur trying to make it alone? If a Chinese company steals your idea, manufactures it faster, and sells it for less, you won’t last long. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Xiaomi-iPhone-5c-clone
Xioami’s answer to iPhone 5c.
Photo: Xiaomi

Some Kickstarter users have learned this the hard way. In late 2015, Israeli entrepreneur Yekutiel Sherman started a Kickstarter project that he hoped would make him rich. His product was a smartphone case with a built-in, retractable selfie stick.

Sherman spent a year designing the case, and used funds donated by his family to build prototypes, shoot promotional videos, and launch a crowdfunding campaign. But just one week after his project went live, it was dead in the water, Quartz reports.

Sherman was devastated to find that Chinese companies had ripped off his idea and were already selling exact replicas of his product on AliExpress — the massive online marketplace where international retailers can buy in bulk from Chinese vendors.

Sherman had planned to sell his case for around $47, but some of the clones were available for as little as $10 apiece. A number of vendors even stole the Stikbox name Sherman created.

Why won’t Apple fight back?

Apple acts quickly to put a stop to copycats that infringe upon its intellectual property in the U.S. and other countries. You might remember it fought a massive legal battle with Samsung after suing the South Korean firm for copying the original iPhone.

You might wonder why Apple doesn’t do the same with Xiaomi. The primary reason is that it would almost certainly be an incredibly expensive waste of time.

Chasing a Chinese company for IP theft is usually a lengthy and expensive process — one that rarely pays off for international firms. And in the case of Xiaomi, which doesn’t have a massive presence outside of China, it is simply not worth Apple’s attention.

Xioami-Magic-Trackpad-clone
Xiaomi’s old router looked just like a Magic Trackpad.
Photo: Xiaomi

More importantly, there is a chance Apple would face retaliation from the Chinese government.

Xiaomi has become something of a trophy company for China — at least in the technology sector. It has been one of the country’s top five smartphone makers for years, and it raked in a whopping 174.9 billion yuan (approx. $26 billion) in revenue in 2018.

Should Apple do anything to harm Xiaomi’s business and its bottom line, steps could be taken to make it harder for Apple to do business with Chinese companies. That would be catastrophic for a U.S. corporation that manufactures almost all of its products in China.