Visitors take photos in front of a copycat rubber duck in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, on Sunday.Photo: CFP
The Rubber Duck, which was designed by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, floats in Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong on May 22, attracting many visitors.Photo: CFP
When Victoria Harbor's famous big yellow duck arrived on May 2, few predicted the impact it would have on Hong Kong as well as the Chinese mainland. Although the inflatable bird will leave this coming Sunday, its legacy will remain with the many counterfeit rubber ducks, labeled "brothers and sisters" of the original artwork, which are dotted around the mainland.
The Rubber Duck, which was designed by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman and has traveled to 12 cities in 10 countries, drew around 300,000 visitors in its first weekend in Hong Kong.
Soon after its popularity spread to the mainland, Yang Min, a toy factory owner in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, received dozens of calls ordering not only giant rubber ducks, but also various toys in its likeness.
Within three weeks more than 10 ducks of the same color, albeit in different sizes, appeared in cities across China. Copyright considerations appeared to be at most, an afterthought, as these copycat ducks propelled toy versions toward becoming the most popular Children's Day gift on China's biggest online shopping site Taobao.
Yang said that the copying of the duck was just how things work in China: becoming popular, getting copied and becoming cheap, before eventually being replaced by something else.
"Businessmen smell opportunity very fast, so the point is to seize the chance and grab profit as soon as we can," he said, adding those who stop to reflect tend to be left behind.
But for artists like Gu Zhenqing, an independent curator in Beijing, it is a sad thing, meaning that China may not be able to get rid of its reputation as the "king of the counterfeit goods," which in turn means it will be tough for the nation to foster its own pop art scene.
Fowl play for cash
Over 90 percent of the copycat ducks were made for commercial promotions. One duck, which appeared in an upscale residential area of Wuhan, was put there by real estate developer Country Garden. Another one, floating on the Qiantang River in Hangzhou, belonged to property developer China Vanke.
Similarly, in Shenzhen, a yellow duck sat in front of a shopping mall to attract customers.
Country Garden claimed they had been authorized to use Hofman's design, but Hofman denied this claim. "If people want the real duck, they have to come to me," he told The Wall Street Journal.
In an e-mailed response to the Global Times, Hofman's studio said Thursday they have no agreements with Chinese companies, but they are talking to some mainland cities about bringing the duck to those locations and will make a public statement soon.
Meanwhile, Yang's factory has sold more than 20,000 soft duck toys of various sizes wholesale. His clients ranged from wedding planning companies to kindergartens, where teachers give out yellow ducks as a Children's Day gifts.
"We couldn't think of any other things that would attract attention," a manager surnamed Li who works in a supermarket at Foshan - which has a duck next to it - told the Global Times, adding that they just wanted to create the right atmosphere before Children's Day.
"The rubber duck is a yellow catalyst. Right now what it is showing is that there is a lack of trust in China, and that is an enormous problem," Hofman said, adding that he might take legal action.
Although the imitation ducks have been criticized by some media outlets like the Xinhua News Agency and the People's Daily, law experts said it was a complex problem in terms of legal procedures.
"The original designer's copyright was infringed when other designs resembled it and made people believe the two designs were related, but for such a commonly seen image like a duck, the court might take a while to define how exclusive Hofman's duck is," Zhao Wu, an intellectual property lawyer, told the Global Times Friday.
Long Ni, a Taobao toy shop owner, told the Global Times that she did not see any copyright problem selling the yellow duck, as she has been selling small rubber ducks for use in children's tubs in her shop since 2006, before Hofman's duck arrived on the scene.
Hofman's concept of a yellow duck traversing global oceans belongs to him, but the other ducks did not copy that idea, Zhao said.
Four other popular Taobao toy shops gave the Global Times similar reasons, adding that they had registered their trademarks for the rubber duck toys at the local bureaus of commerce.
Zhang Dongguang, another lawyer, said Hofman could use trademarks or patent rights to protect his work from being copied.
"But in order to be protected as an exclusive trademark or patent, the designer should first apply and get approval from the State Administration for Industry and Commerce," Zhang told the Global Times, adding that with so many factories and Taobao sellers copying the duck image, it would not be realistic to sue every one of them.
Tastes like duck
Gu, the curator of many modern art exhibitions, went to Hong Kong to see the giant Rubber Duck.
"It could bring many people, who loved toys and animals in their childhood, back to that state of mind and it also creates a contrast with the cold and hard skyscrapers in the background," Gu told the Global Times.
A spokesperson from AllRightsReserved, the somewhat ironically named company that invited the duck to come to Hong Kong, said that those copying the duck didn't understand its meaning. "We think all these counterfeit ducks came about mostly because of a lack of understanding of this artwork and the creative intentions behind it," the spokesperson said, adding that the artwork was based on innocence and optimism.
Although Hofman said he was not amused by China's giant ducks, the two-storey high rubber duck in Wuhan, which is much smaller than the original, still attracted many visitors.
"Copying has become a habit and people become lazy because they can rely on other's work that has proven successful. They gradually lose their creativity, with more people unconsciously accepting copied things," said Zhang Yiwu, a culture expert with Peking University.
Huang Rui, a pioneer of China's modern art scene, said the appreciation for such a simple duck reflected shallow tastes. "Many young people, attracted by such a simple piece, can not appreciate complicated art like opera, paintings or literature, due to a severe shortage of art education," Huang told the Global Times. "The worst thing is we don't even have artists creating designs to meet these simple needs. Instead, we only have profit-seeking businessmen good at following successful models," he said.