The adult entertainment industry has not been immune to the impacts of piracy and counterfeits. The porn industry has suffered as a result of illegal peer-to-peer sharing and now legitimate sex toy manufacturers are troubled by cheap knock-off goods which pose serious health and safety risks to consumers.
The taboo which still surrounds sex toys means that many people prefer to make their purchases discreetly online. This has created an opportunity for counterfeiters to sell knock-off versions through retail sites like eBay and Amazon while still marketing the products under their original brand name.
Industry figures are concerned about the rising threat of adult toy counterfeits. Peter Phinney, the founder of anti-porn piracy organization Porn Guardian, is now working to launch a Product Piracy Pilot Program. The aim is make it “uncomfortable and [financially] unproductive” for sex toy counterfeiters. Phinney described the practice of counterfeiting as “just theft and it needs to be called out.”
In an email to the Daily Dot, Phinney added that “Carefully built brands are being degraded by inferior products masquerading as a genuine product,” which he claims has caused revenue losses of up to six figures for some brands.
Not only do counterfeit sex toys damage the reputation and revenues of manufacturing brands, they could also seriously damage the health of consumers. As is the case with other counterfeit goods coming from China, the production of knock off sex toys is not regulated to industry standards. Counterfeits are likely to be made with poor quality and possibly toxic materials. Speaking to Women’s Health Magazine, sex expert Dr. Logan Levkoff warned of the dangers of counterfeit sex toys:
“Because of the nature of how you use sex-related products, for external or insertive use, it is important that you know where your toy comes from and what it’s made out of...Unfortunately, some of these knockoff companies - and others in general - make sexual enhancements that have toxic chemicals in them.”
A report in Medical Daily suggests that counterfeit sex toys are produced with substituted materials including potentially harmful chemicals like melamine - approved by the Food and Drug Administration for manufacturing purposes but not human consumption. Amongst a long list of potential health problems, the FDA warns that melamine can pose the risk of kidney failure and death. Most popular sex toys are made of PVC plastics softened with a phthalates, this chemical is widely used in the manufacturing of many goods but health concerns have resulted in its use being strictly regulated in Europe. Poorly made counterfeit sex toys are likely to contain higher than recommended levels of chemical which is thought to lead to long-term health problems and can be linked to almost every major health concern, including cancer and autism.
While the problem of counterfeit goods is not unique to the adult sex toy industry, the misperceptions and stigma make it difficult to enforce IP rights for adult toy companies. Elliot Papageorgiou, an executive at a global IP consultancy in Shanghai, says that when working for clients in the business of adult toys, he faces issues even just securing trademark registration for products.
“Nobody wants to really talk about it and is embarrassed by it. For some of the goods that these adult toy companies want to protect via trademark registrations, it is therefore ordinarily hard to attain these and to explain to the trademark office why these brands deserve that protection.”
Many adult toy manufacturers are now trying to warn consumers of the prevalence and dangers of counterfeit goods being sold under their brand name. As far back as 2011, Japanese manufacturer Tenga alerted consumers of a number of highly malicious counterfeits of its products including hazardous lubricants. Zabrina Law, Trade Marketing Manager for upmarket sex toy manufacturer LELO, says her company also go to great lengths to protect its brand and “to ensure a standard of excellence is being delivered to the end-consumer.” The company engages in a test-buy programme that purchases products from sellers to track and test them for authenticity.
With most sex toys being purchased online, counterfeiters are able to deceive consumers who have little way of judging the quality and verifying the authenticity of the product. Paul Jacques, quality and technical manager at Lovehoney, told Xbiz that while many online traders are cooperative if it’s a clear case “ the onus is on you, the manufacturer, to sort all that out — again time consuming and costly. Many people simply give up trying.”
Sex toys are a billion dollar industry with an ever-growing sex-positive customer base. Counterfeit products are a major cause for concern to this industry in the same way fashion labels, sports brands and cosmetic companies are troubled by fake goods and unauthorized vendors on sites like Amazon. The stigma surrounding adult sex toys however means that brands may have to fight even harder to protect their products.