It’s easy to be blasé about China’s lax attitude to intellectual property (IP), when it’s just pirated DVDs and Lego rip-offs. But if your child’s image is used in advertising without your knowledge or consent, then it becomes very serious indeed.
That’s the situation faced by Beijing resident Elisabeth Koch, and perhaps what’s most shocking is that there’s a prestigious European brand involved: Caran d’Ache, the Swiss pencil makers.
“If it was some tiny Chinese company, I don’t think there’s very much you could do,” Koch told beijingkids, “but this is a big heritage Swiss company that goes back a hundred years, that prides themselves on quality.”
The image featured in a huge billboard poster, prominently displayed at The Place in CBD, but the first Koch knew about was when friends contacted her to tell her about it.
“I said, ‘could you send me pictures?’ because my daughter’s school has permission to use her picture, and I thought maybe it was advertising the school.”
Instead Koch recognized a photograph which had been taken in 2014, when her daughter was only 5 years old.
“She won an art award for her fantastic drawing, in a competition organized by Caran d’Ache,” Koch said. “The picture was taken at the event. I was sitting right next to her, and by no means did we give permission for them to use the photograph.”
The poster, Koch learned, had been up for five months, and she still does not know whether there were others.
“Immediately I jumped onto Linkedin,” she said, “because I found the award my daughter got, and it was signed by two CEOs: one is the CEO of Caran d’Ache Switzerland, and the other is the CEO of the Chinese partner company, called China Nobleness International. So I knew which names to look for, and the CEO in Switzerland took it seriously, and put us in touch with her Chinese counterpart.
“The very first thing I said was I just want to settle this amicably, but the Chinese CEO put us in touch with her brand director. We had two meetings, and the CEO never turned up at all. They admitted they had made a mistake, but the brand director just blamed the distributor.
“They did take down the poster after some time, and offered us a box of pencils and a ballet lesson. I thought, I don’t want my daughter anywhere near you and your classes, and your crayons, or whatever! Our lawyer said it’s a total joke. We called the CEO, but she said she didn’t have time, and we should talk to her lawyer. So now we have come to the stage where we have signed a contract with lawyers, and our lawyers are talking to their lawyers, and we’ll see what happens.”
We asked Koch what advice she had for other parents, to avoid similar exploitation.
“I’m not sure there’s much you can do,” she said. “I think they probably thought we’d left [China], because most foreigners do leave in that time span, but we’ve been here for 11 years. I just think they really don’t care.
“It’s not a picture of a bunch of kids, it’s just my daughter, just her face, and she was only little. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”
Photo: courtesy of Elisabeth Koch