Who is responsible for fixing the e-commerce problem surrounding counterfeit products?

Written By: Laura Odujinrin

The Rise of E-commerce

E-commerce sites, like Amazon, eBay, and Etsy, provide huge opportunities for small and medium business (“SMB”) owners to reach customers and grow business in a way that would be nearly impossible with traditional brick and mortar. These e-commerce sites also allow consumers to choose from a much larger pool of products and producers to find exactly the product they are looking for.

In 2018, Amazon, the world’s largest e-commerce platform, [1] had nearly two million SMBs using its e-commerce marketplace platform to reach and sell to customers. [2] Those SMBs sold nearly 4,000 products per minute, [3] totaling $160 billion dollars in sales. [4] The e-commerce industry is only continuing to grow, with sales expected to reach nearly 15 percent of total retail spending and more than $4 trillion dollars in spending in 2020.” [5] But, with increased access, growth, and opportunity for business owners and consumers alike, comes a challenge: counterfeit products.

The Rise of Counterfeit Products

A counterfeit product is a product “made in imitation of something else with intent to deceive.” [6] In 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized 33,810 counterfeit products that violated intellectual property rights and were worth an estimated $1.4 billion dollars. [7] The number of seized counterfeit products has more than doubled since 2009, and the retail price of seized products has continued to increase year after year. [8]

Many counterfeiters advertise their counterfeit products using language [9] and images copied directly from the original product’s page, [10] leading to many consumers unknowingly purchasing counterfeit goods. To make matters worse, counterfeit goods, unlike authentic goods, often do not adhere to any health or safety regulations, which can lead to the purchase of potentially dangerous and life-threatening products. [11] For example, a CNN investigation found that a counterfeit version of a popular car seat sold on Amazon “broke into pieces in a 30-mph crash test …, failing to meet the basic standards set by U.S. regulators.” [12]

To make matters worse, the burden of finding and reporting counterfeit products currently falls on the small business owners themselves, costing them precious time and money. [13] While a few of the e-commerce sites, like Amazon, offer services to help manage counterfeit products, fighting the counterfeit problem is akin to a never-ending game of “Whack-a-Mole” for many business owners, who successfully get one counterfeit product taken down only to find a new one pop up days or weeks later. [14]

Government Action

E-commerce sites have largely avoided legal liability by claiming that because the copyright products are sold by third party sellers and not by the site itself, the site is protected because it is not the seller of the counterfeit product, but merely a marketplace provider. [15]

In early March of 2020, the House proposed a bi-partisan bill, the Shop Safe Act, which aimed at “address[ing] the problem of the sale of unsafe counterfeit goods by incentivizing [e-commerce] platforms to engage in a set of best practices for screening and vetting sellers and goods, penalizing repeat offenders, and ensuring that consumers have the best (and most accurate) information available to them when they make their online purchases.” [16] The statute would provide clarity where case law has remained obscure, namely addressing the question of “when a platform can be held contributorily liable,” [17] by ensuring that e-commerce platforms who follow the Shop Safe Act’s best practices will not be held legally liable.

Problem Solved?

The Shop Safe Act is a great step in fighting the counterfeit products problem, but since it only pertains to “goods that have a health or safety impact … on consumers,” [18] it leaves many SMB owners, like  artists, creators, and designers whose products do not pose a threat to consumer health or safety, left to grapple with the problem on their own. Whether the Shop Safe Act or other programs developed by the e-commerce sites themselves will help is left to be seen. If all the stakeholders, like the government, e-commerce platforms, business owners, and consumers, can work together to combat the problem, a solution to this ever-growing problem can hopefully be found.


[1] Pamela Boykoff & Clare Sebastian, Fake and dangerous kids products are turning up for sale on Amazon, CNN BUSINESS (Dec. 23, 2019, 8:25 AM), https://cnn.com/2019/12/20/tech/amazon-fake-kids-products/index.html [https://perma.cc/B2DY-9N9P].

[2] 2019 Amazon SMB Impact Report, AMAZON at 2, https://d39w7f4ix9f5s9.cloudfront.net/61/3b/1f0c2cd24f37bd0e3794c284cd2f/2019-amazon-smb-impact-report.pdf [https://perma.cc/F6Y9-VD33] (last visited Mar. 17, 2020).

[3] 2019 Amazon SMB Impact Report, supra note 2, at 7.

[4] Id. at 3.

[5] SHOP SAFE Act of 2020, 116th Cong., 2d Sess. (proposed Mar. 2, 2020).

[6] Counterfeit, MERRIAM-WEBSTER, https://merriam-webster.com/dictionary/counterfeit [https://perma.cc/KDU9-KVPC] (last visited Mar. 17, 2020).

[7] U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Trade, Intellectual Property Rights Fiscal Year 2018 Seizure Statistics, U.S. CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION at 6, https://www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/assets/documents/2019-Aug/IPR_Annual-Report-FY-2018.pdf [https://perma.cc/N4J5-QVHW] (last visited Mar. 17, 2020).

[8] 2019 Amazon SMB Impact Report, supra note 2, at 7.

[9] SHOP SAFE Act of 2020, 116th Cong., 2d Sess. (proposed Mar. 2, 2020).

[10] Nicole Nguyen, Stolen Artwork Is All Over Amazon – And Creators Want The Company To Do Something About It, Buzzfeed News (Jan. 23, 2019, 12:02 PM), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/nicolenguyen/amazon-counterfeit-art-sellers-fakes-copyright-infringement [https://perma.cc/9FA7-G5P6].

[11] Boykoff & Sebastian, supra note 1.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Alan Rappeport, Lawmakers Propose Making E-Commerce Companies Liable for Counterfeits, The New York Times (Mar. 2, 2020), www.nytimes.com/2020/03/02/us/politics/counterfeits-bill-china-amazon.html [https://perma.cc/RWH6-7LXH].

[16] SHOP SAFE Act of 2020, 116th Cong., 2d Sess. (proposed Mar. 2, 2020).

[17] Id.

[18] Id.


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