Blog: Dave LeggettChina's copycat MO

Dave Leggett | 1 June 2007

The Chinese automakers’ propensity to ‘borrow’ designs from others is pretty widespread. The practice slashes product development costs and if the car is going to be on sale in the domestic market only, the company that has had its intellectual property raided will probably not want to object too strongly. 

Even if it does decide to do something about it, that means negotiating the arcane Chinese legal system, which will take time and might not yield a meaningful result anyway. It could also cause political difficulties and many firms, understandably, decide on a do nothing strategy.

Just how widespread is the practice of duplicating foreign firms’ designs and technology in China’s auto industry? That’s hard to say as there will also be IPR infringements under the skin that are more difficult to see than the vehicle body-shell examples of the practice.

However, Western manufacturers might be hoping that the Chinese copycat modus operandi will eventually give way to genuine indigenous innovation. The expectation is that as the Chinese automakers develop, they will increasingly look to design and engineer their own vehicles (or get a foreign design house to do it for them, as is already happening in some cases), especially with an eye on higher export volumes. The more blatant rip-offs will gradually disappear, the thinking goes, as the Chinese auto industry grows in global terms.

But that will be a long process and I suspect that there will always be some divergence between Western firms and Chinese ones in terms of attitudes to intellectual property rights. It’s partly a cultural thing.

When visiting China a fun game to play is spotting the copies. Sometimes they are ‘Frankencars’ that pay tribute to Chinese reverse engineering capabilities coupled to an improvisation or make-do mentality. You can imagine the conversations that go on in the product engineering departments. “The full Honda CR-V two-way tailgate is just too expensive for us to make – let’s re-do the whole rear end from the B-pillar back…. isn’t there an old Kia truck with very similar proportions? Check the backlist. Cut’n’shut.”

My attention was drawn to another vehicle doppelganger last week. I don’t know how well the (Toyota owned) Scion xB is doing in California, but it always struck me as a strange looker, more like a domestic appliance than a car. However, its boxy appearance is very, very distinctive. Copying that model isn’t exactly a discreet move that would keep the copying under the radar. The Great Wall Coolbear looks like a pretty straightforward rip-off. It’s right in Toyota’s face and begs the question: what will Toyota do about it, if anything?

What a splendid name for a vehicle though. You can see the Coolbear in all its glory in the image gallery accompanying this article – another ‘Bursa special’ (and I might just start calling him Coolbear – not that he’s a copy, that lad’s a definite one-off).

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