Lack of originality
Piracy, poor product variety threaten creative fairs
Since their introduction 10 years ago, creative fairs have become a staple of China’s arts and crafts retail scene by offering unique, home-produced goods, such as objets d’art and exotic foodstuffs produced by independent craftspeople. Now, though, their success is being threatened by the very thing they were set up to avoid — a lack of creativity — and poor legal awareness that has seen piracy of popular items become rife.
Many designers and organizers are concerned that the lack of diversity will undermine creativity and quality, as they have in more-traditional craft markets.
“There is a joke that says every Chinese city has a ‘culture street’ where ‘creative’ local souvenirs are sold. In fact, it doesn’t matter where tourists buy these items, they all originate in the same place — the wholesale commodity markets in Yiwu, Zhejiang province (a city famous for cheap reproductions),” said Zhang Zheng, an associate professor at the school of journalism and communication at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Creative fairs originated in the United Kingdom, and were introduced to China by CityZine, a magazine in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, in 2006. The name of the market, which was devised as a side project for the magazine, is a pun on both “idea mart” and “I’m art” and is intended to emphasize creativity.
The idea caught on, resulting in similar fairs being established across the country, but that initial success is declining as an increasing number of replicas of a few popular items appear on market stalls nationwide.
Wang Wentao, founder of cn-imart, a classified ad website for creative markets, said the fairs have moved away from their original stance and are now a reflection of the infamous culture streets, offering the same limited range of items, such as notebooks, T-shirts and canvas bags, regardless of location.
Lack of regulation
According to Wang, a lack of regulation and oversight means it’s difficult to establish whether a piece is an affectionate pastiche of an existing style or a straight copy that has been reproduced for sale.
“Almost every major city has famous creative fairs for locals, although some are known across a wider area. It’s natural that both intentional and unconscious copying occurs — after all, a certain famous writer never apologized for plagiarism that was apparent to others — and issues are resolved by simply paying a fine, which is usually far less than the amount the counterfeiters made,” he said.
The lack of originality and replication of popular items have seen the number of events organized by iMart, the oldest player in the field, shrink toone per month from its heyday, when it hosted about 10. In the past year, iMart’s page on Douban, a major online channel for designers applying to participate in creative markets, has registered just one newpost.
Meanwhile, Big Fish Market, a renowned organizer in Xi’an, the capital of the northwestern province of Shaanxi, has announced that it will hold its swansong later this month. A post on the company’s social media account reads: “Because we can’t stand the unchanging nature of things, we don’t like being the same as other people. Right? This is also why you love us. We will bid farewell on Oct 22-23”.
Piracy and punishment
Wang, from cn-imart, said regulations and tougher punishments for counterfeiters are the only way to eradicate piracy and safeguard designers’ rights, but a number of organizers say the designers are part of the problem.
“Many designers lack awareness of intellectual property protection,” said Zhang Lei, CEO of Nautilus Fair, one of China’s biggest creative fair organizers. “Most of them only begin to look at the law once a problem has surfaced.”
Yan Shengxue, a professor from the School of Fine Arts at Central China Normal University in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, said the long production and promotion processes are exacerbating the problem because they allow counterfeiters time to produce their copies.
To tackle the problem, some organizers have adopted a proactive approach. “We evaluate the items before they go on sale. Most of us are experts, and we are usually able to determine whether an artifact has been pirated, based on the maker’s style and qualifications,” said Xiao Xu, organizer of iMart Pingyao Ancient City, a fair held in the UNESCO heritage site of Pingyao Ancient City in Shanxi province.
“We hold design competitions and invite experts to select the best items, the ones that show true originality,” he added.
Stricter selection protocols have been introduced at many fairs, and organizers carefully assess the qualifications of potential participants before issuing entry passes. Moreover, so-called hitchhikers— designers who fail to make the cut, but illicitly share booths with friends who have passed the selection criteria — have been banned because they often sell unauthorized merchandise.
“We can’t condone this type of behavior, sowe fine the registered designer they hitchhiked with,” Zhang Lei said.
Legal support to combat piracy has also been updated. “We are negotiating with legal firms about cooperation to better protect intellectual property rights,” he added. “Designers need to raise awareness, too.”
To counter the lack of product diversity, fair organizers and government departments are devising ways of further developing the industry, rather than the market itself. In some cases, settling down, instead of organizing regular gatherings, has proved a popular solution.
“We have been trying to establish permanent brick andstores and even zones for distinguished designers,” Zhang Lei said. “In this way, we are looking at things over the long term, so designers can devote themselves to their trade and not be distracted by other issues.”
Yu Jianguo, deputy director of the Hangzhou Cultural and Creative Association in Zhejiang, said the government has helped to promote creative fairs and upgrade the sector. “Many organizers have received subsidies for holding events, especially in major cities. With this help, we have been able to send some of our best designers overseas tomeet with their foreign peers.”
Since 2014, the government has promoted a campaign of mass innovation, resulting in the creative industries enjoying favorable policies, such as generous subsidies, to aid development.
Experts have also suggested new ways to help designers,
Many designers lack awareness of intellectual property protection.”
Zhang Lei, CEO of Nautilus Fair, one of China’s biggest creative fair organizers
“One plausible way would be through government purchases of goods from creative markets,” Zhang Zheng said, referring to a proposed policy that would see government departments buying items for display or practical use, thus providing designers with some sort of income.
In the end, it all comes back creativity, according to Wang: “Despite theproblems, themost significant thing for designers is the original purpose of creativity and the consistency of staying true to that ideal.”
Visitors stroll around a courtyard where the White Bazaar, a creative fair, was held last month during the annual Beijing Design Week, cosponsored by the Ministry of Culture and Beijing Municipal Government.
A seller displays his potted plants at a stall during a creative fair in Changchun, Jilin province.