We know better than to copy the work of others, don’t we? We learn early not just to avoid sidelong glances at a classmate’s quiz, but to avoid even thinking of sneaking a peek. In many societies, though certainly not all, the premium placed on so-called “individual originality” — be it in the arena of art, invention, or displays of athletic prowess — is nosebleedlingly high. Consequently, there are few insults more damning than that one’s work process has been imitative, derivative, or otherwise sheeplike.
On the other hand, though, we celebrate traditions and schools of expression, allusions to masters, and riffs on canonical creations. Seen this way, we expect and even require newbies to walk in their elders’ steps, to prove their mettle by demonstrating mastery of what is. We function in an odd, sometimes confusing milieu, then, in which singularity of achievement and respecting current limits sometimes stand in tension with one another. In short, we are exhorted to be one-of-a-kinds, but still derivative enough that our work will be recognizable, acceptable, and, perhaps, consumable by others. Many of our everyday intuitions about the ethics of copying, then, are probably not as clear as we might initially assume.
Enter the perfume clones, some of which are, let’s face it, remarkably, or, rather, ASTONISHINGLY, good, so close to the originals that even seasoned perfume aficionados can’t tell them apart. Though such copycat lines may be labeled “inspired by” Tom Ford (or Kilian, or Clive Christian, etc.), no one doubts that the very purpose of such products is to reproduce someone else’s creative work for profit. This is made even clearer by the fact that some clones actually bear names that are fairly obvious echoes of the originals, for example, “L’Aventure” instead of “Aventus.”
Framed this way, it just seems obvious that perfume copycats, and maybe any of us who participate in the clone economy, are engaged in an unethical practice. Is it really any different for me to make or knowingly purchase a Creed knock-off than to steal, outright, from the company? And wouldn’t I be incensed if someone took one of my published academic papers and resubmitted it under their own name? From an Anglo-rooted, liberal, juridical point of view, one emphasizing the protection of individual property rights, we should probably all be on the phone to our attorneys!
On the other hand (yes, I have introduced a THIRD hand), we recognize special cases and mitigating circumstances where more abstract property rights (e.g., artistic or intellectual) might be relaxed. For example, in the U.S. there is sometimes public outrage over price gouging by Big Pharma for lifesaving drugs, despite the fact that, from a brutally abstract point of view, these greedy corporate bastards may be operating within their “rights.” Even otherwise hardcore capitalists may light up when generic versions of drugs they need become available, despite the loss of profit and prestige to the original creators and producers.
But, you will (and should) object, perfumes are luxury items, artsy extras, like songs or poems, nothing that anyone needs. And I can’t entirely disagree. High end perfume isn’t really analogous to insulin or Daraprim (needed by some people with AIDS). On the other hand (hand #4, if you’re keeping track), I can’t stomach the notion that art, perhaps some of our most sublime art, should be available only to the relatively wealthy. Besides, it isn’t as if artists drop fully formed from the heavens; they, too, have been nurtured by society in one way or another, requiring some outlay of public resources.
And it’s this consumerist question that keeps me, and lots of other perfume folks, on the teeter-totter about fragrance clones, especially when I consider the exorbitant prices charged by some of the most impersonal, corporatized fat cat perfume “houses.” While I can accept that limitations of scale, and high priced, high quality ingredients must necessarily drive up prices for some of the more niche and indie creators, I confess that I have a hard time stomaching the ever-soaring prices of some of the more corporatized “private” or “exclusive” lines. There are several lines that I refuse to even consider purchasing, not because the fragrances aren’t good, but because I almost feel insulted by the pricing strategies.
So, though I don’t go out of my way to celebrate or even recommend perfume clones in any general sense, it sure seems to me that some of the perfume giants are having their capitalist cake and eating it too. They seem both to want to identify their products as special, almost artisanal, boutique creations but also market them on a scale that would impress McDonalds. And, let’s not forget, at price points that would make Marie Antoinette blush. In fact, it sometimes seems that it’s the breathtaking prices alone that lend these brands their aura of “exclusivity.” Though I may never be fully comfortable with copycat perfumes, then, nor are you likely to find me crying in my beer for Tom Ford.
I’m curious: Do you buy perfume clones? Do perfume clones make you uneasy? Should some of the perfume cloners actually be thought of as artists in their own right? Should there be stricter laws governing the production and sale of clones? Please respond in the comments below if you’re so inclined.