Cape Town – The owner of Ubuntu Baba is not impressed with Woolworths’ public apology after the corporate admitted their product had “striking similarities” to hers.
Shannon McLaughlin is pushing Woolworths to publicly disclose more information about the incident, in which she claims they copied her baby carrier design.
Meanwhile, the retailer has admitted to buying Ubuntu Baba baby carriers "for inspiration" when creating their own product.
In her original blog post about the alleged plagiarism of her designs, McLaughlin said her business records showed that two Ubuntu Baba baby carriers were ordered and delivered to Woolworths head offices earlier last year. Initially, Woolworths claimed that employees ordered these in their personal capacity.
“Those carriers were ordered by two pregnant employees who work in pet foods and financial services respectively,” Woolworths posted on its Facebook page.
Then, in the statement sent to the Weekend Argus on Friday, Woolworths said the baby carriers were in fact ordered to do design research.
“Our suppliers bought a number of baby carriers, including the Ubuntu Baba carrier, from which to get inspiration and create our latest product,” the statement read.
“Our designers also drew on and learned from previous iterations of our own baby carrier that we have been stocking since 2011.”
McLaughlin said the saga had taken a toll on her and her family.
“It’s been incredibly difficult. I’ve had a lot of anxiety, I haven’t been able to sleep properly, my 4-year-old child can see my attention is elsewhere.”
However, there has been a silver lining for her business.
“We’ve definitely had an increase in sales,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve had a massive increase in inquiries, and we’re struggling to get back to everybody. I think people want to support local, so it’s definitely had a positive twist.”
There’s a silver lining for some disadvantaged mothers too, as Woolworths has taken all current stock of the baby carriers off shelves, and plans to donate them to under-resourced communities – after removing the Woolworths branding.
While McLaughlin supports this, she said that the public apology Woolworths posted on its Facebook page was insufficient.
“A lot of people commented on that and were happy; I got congratulations that I’d won,” McLaughlin said. “But I’m not happy and this is not finished. There’s some information missing.”
She was further incensed when Woolworths sent her a link to a YouTube video about how much work they do supporting local entrepreneurs.
McLaughlin spoke directly to Woolworths chief executive Zyda Rylands on Friday morning and asked that Woolworths add some crucial information to their public apology – exactly what information, she could not yet disclose.
“One of my main concerns is that the public is informed as to how this is being resolved and how Woolworths plans to make sure this never happens again,” McLaughlin said, pointing out that this is not the first time Woolworths had copied intellectual property. “The public needs some more answers.”
It has been reported that Ubuntu Baba had patented the baby carrier design, but McLaughlin said that was not the case.
“I don’t have a patent for the product,” she said. “Corporates know where the weaknesses are in SMEs and they know how to take advantage of that.”
Patent and trademark attorney Bastiaan Koster said that legally, Ubuntu Baba had no protection against other parties copying the design.
“People looking at social media think copying is wrong, but you can in fact do it,” Koster said. “The law is clear – you can copy as long as you don’t infringe on a patent or a registered design. If a patent or registered design is not in place, a third party can buy it, take it apart and copy it.”
McLaughlin said she plans to use this experience to educate other small business owners about the dangers of having their designs stolen, through writing on her blog about intellectual property law.
“I don’t have any regrets. I’m happy this happened, because Woolworths gets to learn a lesson, I learn a lesson, and other SMEs get to learn as well.”
The first steps in protecting yourself, according to Koster, is to use the law to formalise your intellectual property.
“Entrepreneurs should look at ways to protect new products and inventions,” he said. “Patents and designs should be considered. And if it is not possible to obtain a patent or a design very often the best form of long-term protection is to obtain a registered trademark.”
McLaughlin said she’d been contacted by about 15 attorneys, offering to do pro bono litigation for her, but she is not considering legal action.
“I don't think its going to be necessary,” she said. “I feel like they’ll take it more seriously now.”