Woollies and the copied baby carrier – Lessons for creative entrepreneurs

By now you would have heard of the plight of Shannon, the entrepreneur behind the Ubuntu Baba baby carrier. If not you can read the original article here…

Dear Woolworths, you have some explaining to do.

It appears Woollies sourcing personnel bought a couple of her carriers, went to a different manufacturer to create a modified version, produced it in retail numbers and stocked it on their shelves at a third of the price. This must still be proven or admitted, but the sequence of events seems to suggest it is so.

That’s horrible for Shannon and Ubuntu Baba. I’ve met her, and I’ve even worn the product as a friend of mine works with her. Shannon is right, it is beautifully made and well designed. Impressive.

But what has Woollies done wrong?

Is it illegal to copy someone else’s creation in South Africa? Yes it is, if the invention is patented, subject to copyright, or an officially registered design.

South African copyright law only offers protection to the following categories of creations, under which the baby carrier doesn’t fit:

Literary works; Musical works; Artistic works; Cinematograph films; Sound recordings; Broadcasts; Programme-carrying signals; Published editions; Computer programs.

One can also protect a functional design in South African law, where this product may fit, but to do so you have to officially register the design and renew it annually. I can only assume that if this has been done Shannon would have mentioned in her article. Similarly I imagine if a patent had been registered she would have mentioned it.

I feel sorry for Shannon, and I hope she wins the PR battle here. This kind of poor sportsmanship by Woollies leaves a bitter taste.

But let’s not forget that Woollies is big name retailer whose primary goal is to sell reasonable quality clothing and accessories at an affordable price. Their stores are actually full of seemingly benign copies when you look a little closer.

Woollies doesn’t owe Shannon anything. They had no existing trade relationship with her, nor do they appear to be infringing on any intellectual property.

Entrepreneurs in similar situations should realise they have options they should exercise before it’s too late:

  1. Take active steps to safeguard inventions by seeking official IP protection. When an inventor has something that can be protected, but doesn’t do it, one has to ask why?
  2. Have a retail strategy if your product has mass market appeal. If Woollies can get the product to market at a third of the price, surely that means there are significant opportunities to reach economies of scale, and open up your product to a much wider audience. Why wouldn’t you want to structure your business so that the likes of Woollies would come to you and give you mass market access?

In my opinion Woollies should do the right PR thing here, and give Shannon and her business an opportunity to create a mass produced version for sale on their shelves at an affordable price.

Let’s see…

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