Hansgrohe is a company leading the charge against product piracy.

This year’sISH Show in Frankfurt, Germanyfeatured a movement as relevant to plumbing-heating companies in the U.S. as in Europe or anywhere else. That’s combating the problem of knockoff products that are plaguing manufacturers worldwide.

ISH Trade Fair organizer Messe Frankfurt for its part operated a booth at the show situated in a prominent passageway between halls in which they distributed literature about patent protection and other remedies. For the most part, however, it is left up to individual companies to protect their interests.

A company leading the charge is bathroom trendsetter Hansgrohe. Company officials noticed at another large trade show in Europe that a Chinese company displayed a blatant knockoff of Hansgrohe’s Focus S Single-Hole faucet. Hansgrohe charges that despite nearly identical looks, the Chinese version does not come close to matching its fabled German engineering and technologically advanced features, including a flow limiter, anti-limescale function and an integrated hot water flow safety restriction. The Focus S knockoff was nominated for an award nobody wants. It’s called the “Plagiarius Prize,” awarded by European manufacturers and distributors to pirated products since 1977. It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of drawing attention to the problem and identifying offenders.

“It is always the products that are particularly successful on the market, like the Focus S, that are ripped off and copied,” said Hansgrohe Deputy Chairman Richard Grohe. “Theft of intellectual property hurts the economy and causes job losses.”

Grohe told me that “companies need a high level of energy and determination to do the job of catching (illegal knockoffs).” It starts by filing patents, even though this can be costly when done internationally.

“In the old days we didn’t file patents in markets where we were not present,” he said. “Now we see knockoffs of our products in those markets. As a company you have to challenge them and that’s a big cost factor. The second part of it is that once you notice an infringement, you must have the will and muscle to pursue your patent protection.

“Sometimes we find one of our distributors buying from these phony firms, so that puts us in a position where we have to attack our customers,” Grohe pointed out. “It takes a lot of determination to do that, but we have done so several times.”

I asked him if the Chinese government is cooperative in helping to stamp out product piracy, most of which originates within its borders. Grohe wryly replied, “There are many Chinese governments!” His point was that regional and local officials often undermine directives from top leaders of the People’s Republic. Nonetheless, “we think it’s getting better,” he admitted.

“There are many serious manufacturers in China, but also a lot of guys operating out of garages. We’re seeing fewer copies, but the copiers are becoming smarter,” Grohe said. “Now they’re making not necessarily exact copies but stealing the basic idea and altering the design just a little bit.” This skirts the border of legality and complicates the pursuit of justice.

Hansgrohe operates a factory in China, but Grohe said they operate with the same security controls as the company’s plants in Germany. “What we don’t do or intend to do is what a lot of American companies do with product sourcing from China. That’s open their doors to their know-how and R&D. I’m not talking only about plumbing companies, but even big firms like Apple. They give suppliers the plans, the box and the product. That makes it very easy for the people who are knocking off.” 

Our Hydronics Editor John Siegenthaler also attended ISH and noticed Chinese copies of Grundfos circulators on display. “It seemed the majority of Europeans shunned the Chinese booths,” he told me. “I walked by many booths staffed by a single person who was just pecking away at a laptop or smart phone. Makes me wonder if they are being subsidized to be there by the Chinese government.”

I had a similar experience walking through a section of a plumbing exhibit hall where companies from China were grouped. The exhibits were Spartan by ISH standards, little more than tabletops with a few humdrum products on display. Traffic in the area was sparse, in stark contrast to the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds encountered everywhere else at the show. I didn’t recognize any blatant knockoffs but in truth didn’t spend much time exploring these exhibits. With upwards of 2,300 dazzling displays to inspect, it didn’t make sense to linger in a slum neighborhood infested with thieves.