Perfume clones: The ethics of fragrance copycats

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.

8 thoughts on “Perfume clones: The ethics of fragrance copycats

  1. Great post! I don’t buy clones or obvious dupes. I do enjoy finding well-made fragrances that riff off another, usually more famous and more expensive, fragrance. Some are legit fragrances created for a different house by the same perfumer who is working through some of the same ideas. Some are inspired by fragrances that are no longer obtainable, having been discontinued by their owners.
    P.S. A meaningful difference between medication and fragrance is also that medications have often been developed with significant financial subsidies from tax dollars for the underlying research.

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  2. Terrific points, Old Herbaceous. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I’m also interested in this notion of “riffing,” in part, because it’s such a reminder that the line between being inspired and copying can be pretty damn blurry. And what you say about the meds being subsidized is also to the point, I think. This part of the conversation could shift, I guess, depending on whether or not a society meaningfully invests in its artists…..

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  3. I think that my comments about clones might be common knowledge. That as a Perfumer, I consider ALL CLONES to be purely and simply THEFT of intellectual property. “Inspired by” is simply a euphemism for Theft. Medicines are and most often ARE protected by intellectual Property laws and patents, for a prescribed period of time. This is to PROTECT the originators and INNOVATORS of this drug, to recoup their very high development costs. But since there is an egregious lack of intellectual property protection for Perfumes, DUA and other less than reputable houses shill their clones, as their replacement/inspired by creations. And they are proud of the fact that they are thieves. Even claim occasional “originality”, which is an utterly laughable contrivance.

    The USA is in an international Trade War with China, the world’s Copycat lawless pirate kingdom of Xi Jinping, over Intellectual Property rights for the Creators of many things that the USA and it’s citizens makes, originates, and patents. Of COURSE, clones are theft, by ANY definition of original artistic creation.

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  4. Thanks for you (important) comment, Paul. One of the several things you’re reminding me of is that these issues can’t be looked at without considering the much broader social, political, and economic context. Individual artists are very much up against it when it comes to protecting their creations and livelihoods especially when, as is the case in the U.S., so little is done to nurture and support artists’ development and capacity to make a living. Individual creatives really do seem to be left to fend for themselves for the most part. I do still think there are questions to be explored, e.g., about how one defines more “ephemeral” creations, say, scents and foods as compared to skyscrapers, but certainly all discussions should keep in mind that the the lives of very real individual artists are at issue here. Thanks again for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

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  5. I must disagree with Paul Kiler. Perfume is not medicine. It is not even engineering or invention any more. It is a well-established collection of ingredients, a collection of best-practices, and infinite ways of combining such ingredients with creativity.

    As such, the closest analogy that exists is the art of food – haute cuisine. The ingredients are known, the appreciation is sensual and very subjective, the product is meant to be consumed, not kept and stared at, and reputation and marketing count for MUCH of the markup after the cost of ingredients and cost of creative time are accounted for.

    1. If an up-and-coming chef replicates a famous secret recipe created by a celebrity chef, and perhaps even improves upon it, she is celebrated for her skill. Few would deride her as derivative, because that is not commonly a paradigm that we associate with food culture.

    2. If a famous chef in a 5-star restaurant invents a dish that people enjoy, it will surely be copied by every aspirational 4-star who can do so. The 5-star chef maintains her reputation by continuing to serve the “best” version of that dish – the fact that she invented it becomes a historical footnote that matters as much as trivia ever matters to consumer demand for a particular sensory experience (a lot to an elitist few, not much at all to the masses).

    True innovation in perfume, as in food, is rare, and when it occurs (and is actually appealing, and not just experimental), it often becomes a trend. Think of the aquatic accord that appeared in Creed’s Green Irish Tweed. Aquatics are now an entire classification of scent. In this category, I prefer Davidoff’s Cool Water. Many people classify Cool Water as a GIT clone – how much of a clone is it if it is different enough that I can prefer it to the original?

    This is where it gets interesting. Some clone houses cheaply reproduce expensive perfume so that it smells vaguely similar at 1/15 of the cost. Those of us who enjoy perfume are unlikely to be persuaded by such adulterated garbage, and people who do buy from these purveyors are equally as unlikely to ever be willing to buy the original in the first place. If such houses were not permitted to print “If you like White Diamonds, you’ll LOVE Blank Crystals,” right on the bottle label, I doubt they would sell much at all.

    However, what happens when a house clones an existing scent, and actually does it better, with high-quality ingredients, rich complexity and better longevity? See the example of the chefs above. Having one’s work “stolen” and reproduced poorly seems unlikely to do much harm, in an industry where the product must be consumed and enjoyed in order to matter. But if one’s work is stolen and improved upon… now that is a threat. The question is, are such people thieves or innovators?

    In food, we celebrate them, because each innovation brings those who eat greater joy, and anyone with taste-buds and the right tools of the trade has a shot at being able to replicate a recipe once they have experienced it. It is similar with perfume. This reaching for ever-increasing excellence and creativity is good for everyone – except those who would rather ride the coattails of a previous creation than continually improve upon their own work. There is a thick vein of snobbery, manufactured mysticism and entitlement remaining in the perfume industry. (Tania Sanchez writes about a suburban mom receiving legal threats from a perfume house over her small-time perfume review blog). Having a great idea is a wonderful thing, but feeling entitled to total control over that idea, once the rest of the artistic community is exposed to it, is ludicrous. Such control is frankly unenforceable, and would be as bad for perfumery as it would be for cuisine.

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  6. Thanks for being so generous with your thoughts, AMC. I am cutting and pasting it into my reference file because I have no doubt I will be returning to it again and again. Your examples, in particular, are compelling. I especially appreciate your comments because I continue to suspect a liberal framework (i.e. individual property rights) is too limited to capture everything that’s relevant here. Context matters, including the nature of the artistic/engineered product, how its enjoyed/consumed, etc. Again, thanks!

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  7. You said so succinctly what I took multiple paragraphs to attempt to articulate: “I continue to suspect a liberal framework (i.e. individual property rights) is too limited to capture everything that’s relevant here.” That’s the crux of it, well done. To me, haute perfumery is now where the French wine industry was in 1976: about to be embarrassed on an international scale by California’s Napa Valley, in a blind taste test now infamously known as “The Judgment of Paris.” If quality ingredients and a dizzying price tag cannot be smelled, why should they be paid?

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  8. I cannot edit my comment, but if I could, I would change the last sentence to: “If a dizzying price tag cannot be smelled, why should it be paid?” Quality ingredients can often be smelled, and often cost more, but seldom do they cost as much as the price we pay for the imagined prestige of the brand.

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