U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers in Cincinnati have seized what they claim are “tens of thousands of earbuds” that appear to be AirPods knockoffs. Three large shipments of “fake AirPods” from China were discovered, bound for an address in Dayton, Kentucky.
Each case had a declared value of $5,280, and contained 12,000 earbuds. Had they been legit AirPods, the total 36,000 units would have been valued at $7.16 million at retail price.
“Counterfeit products can be deceiving at first glance,” said Cincinnati Port Director Richard Gillespie in a statement. “They’re often cheaper and can appear very similar to the real thing. However, inferior products can end up costing consumers more than if they purchased the genuine item because of the high likelihood of substandard materials and malfunctioning parts. Supporting legitimate businesses is the smart choice, and buying from trusted companies protects against potential human rights violations and damage to our economy.”
Counterfeit goods purporting to be Apple products is nothing new. AirPods are particularly alluring to counterfeiters. They are supremely popular and, as with many Apple products, priced at the high end of the market rate for their product category. That makes them a prime pick when it comes to a product for nogoodtniks to try and rip off.
The really interesting part of this story, however, is that the knockoff AirPods did not come in packaging claiming to be official Apple devices. But they looked close enough to the real thing that Customs considered them in violation of Apple’s legal protections. The report from Customs and Border Protection notes that:
“After consulting with an import specialist from CBP’s Center of Excellence and Expertise, the items were found to be in violation of CBP trademark and copyright codes and were declared seized on May 11 and 13.
Apple has configuration trademarks on their AirPods and has recorded those trademarks with CBP. Furthermore, a company does not have to put the ‘Apple’ wordmark or design on their products to violate these trademarks. In this instance, further inspection of the earbuds revealed that their shape and design replicated the protected Apple configuration.”
Infringing on Apple’s trademarks?
A similar case took place last year when Customs and Border Protection in the U.S. seized shipments of OnePlus Buds. Initially it seemed like these had been mistaken for counterfeit AirPods. However, it was later revealed that they had, in fact, been seized because they appeared to “violate Apple’s configuration trademark.”
You would expect Apple to defend the integrity of its trademarks and patents in court as fiercely as it can. But the fact that Customs and Border Protection will play a role in this is a fascinating twist in the tale. Stopping counterfeit goods is one of the things Customs is there to do. However, in some cases, trademark and patent cases can be supremely complex. This can be seen by the number of court cases that drag on for years. It would be interesting to know more about the fine-grain detail involved with this kind of seizure.