NYC bill would criminalize buying knockoff goods

Susan Scafidi in lohud.com, April 27, 2011

Media Source

Written by Karen Matthews

NEW YORK — A city lawmaker said Tuesday she'll introduce a bill to criminalize the purchase of counterfeit designer goods including handbags and watches.

The bill proposed by City Councilwoman Margaret Chin would impose penalties of up to a year in jail or a $1,000 fine for buying knockoffs.

"I urge visitors that come to New York to come for the authenticity, not to buy these fake bags or electronics," Chin said. "We have local designers that create unique items at affordable prices, and they're available. So don't just come here for the knockoffs."

A 2004 report by then-city Comptroller William Thompson found that about 8 percent of the approximately $287 billion in counterfeit goods sold in the United States annually is sold in New York City, resulting in more than $1 billion in lost tax revenue.

It is already illegal to sell fake designer goods, but Susan Scafidi, head of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University, said that if Chin's bill passes New York would be the first U.S. city to criminalize their purchase.

Scafidic said France and Italy have passed laws against buying counterfeits and have succeeded in curbing their sale.

"We've known for a long time that demand drives sales, especially when combined with the unfortunately exciting experience of an illicit transaction on Canal Street, but New York City has previously been reluctant to arrest guests in the city," Scafidic said. "Now, the cheap tourist thrill of buying a fake bag may come with free accommodations — behind bars."

Chin, a Democrat whose district includes Chinatown and other neighborhoods where knockoffs proliferate, said that if the law passes, warning signs will be posted to alert would-be purchasers of fakes. But she said most shoppers know what they're doing.

"If they buy it from the back of a van or a back alley or some hidden basement somewhere they know they're buying counterfeit goods," Chin said at a news conference on the steps of City Hall.

She added, "We need to deter people from purchasing these items. ... Substantial fines are something people understand."

Tourists browsing among Chinatown stalls selling $5 "designer" sunglasses and cheap pocketbooks stamped with Louis Vuitton logos were not supportive.

"That's like saying you can't buy a print of a Picasso," said Ross Schexnayder, of Alexandria, La.

Schexnayder and his wife, Karen Burns, were in New York with a group of 15 students from the theater program they run. Burns said the group included Chinatown in its itinerary to shop for fakes.

"They've gotten knockoff jewelry, purses, watches," she said. "That was definitely our main reason for coming to Chinatown."

Chin said she would formally introduce her bill on Thursday. The bill would need the backing of a Council committee before going to the full 51-member Council for a vote.