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Image: Alibaba

Alibaba seized a whopping $536.2 million worth of counterfeit goods from third-party sellers in 2018. More than that, the Chinese group says that thanks to its 2-year old Anti-Counterfeiting Alliance, it has had a hand in helping to ensure the arrests of 1,277 individuals suspected of engaging in sizable counterfeiting scheme and the shutdown of 524 manufacturing and distribution locations. Not bad for an entity that formerly faced strong criticism from fashion brands and the U.S. government, alike, for its alleged failure to sufficiently monitor and rid its platforms of fakes.

Now, Alibaba says that its Anti-Counterfeiting Alliance – which sees big-name brands like adidas, Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Valentino, and Louis Vuitton, among others, partnering with the Zhejiang-based internet conglomerate to crack down on infringing and counterfeit items –  is “part of the solution” in the fight against the more than $1.2 trillion global market for counterfeits. Alibaba senior vice president Michael Yao says the program, itself, is “the benchmark and model for brand protection in China and around the world,” and at least some agree.

“Alibaba has significantly improved its standing within the international community,” according to Fred Mostert, the former president of the International Trademark Association and the current head of the Luxury Law Alliance, which honored Matthew Bassiur, Alibaba’s vice president and head of global intellectual property enforcement, at its annual summit this month.

In the past three years, alone, Mostert says, Alibaba – which boasts a web of e-commerce sites, as well as a payment processing arm and logistics capabilities – “has gone from being criticized for its efforts in intellectual property protection to being viewed as a leader and innovator in the field.”

“Alibaba has grabbed the flag on intellectual property rights protection and is running with it,” American Apparel & Footwear Association (“AAFA”) President and CEO Rick Helfenbein said this week, quite notably after the same group called on the U.S. government to take action against Alibaba’s key rival, Amazon, for not consistently doing enough to fight fakes on its marketplace platform.

Somewhat strikingly, the AAFA – the prominent Washington, D.C.-based trade organization that boasts members, such as Calvin Klein, Jimmy Choo, Marc Jacobs, Stuart Weitzman and Ralph Lauren, among others – has recommended that Amazon’s international arms be added to the U.S. Trade Representative annual blacklist of “Notorious Markets.” At the same time, though, it has not, for the first time, suggested that Alibaba be included on that same list, citing “improvements in online enforcement on Taobao and other Alibaba platforms, as well as an ongoing and productive dialogue that we have conducted with Alibaba.”

The move underscores the looming question of how the two e-commerce mega-giants match up in terms of their enforcement of others’ intellectual property rights in connection with their respective $1 trillion (Amazon) and $768 billion (Alibaba) businesses. The growing number of brands that are opting to partner with Alibaba sure does seem telling

But more than that, it speaks to the rather remarkable transformation in perception that Alibaba has managed to achieve in less than three years time.

 It will be interesting to see how how much goodwill Amazon will be able to garner as a result of its newly-announced Project Zero anti-counterfeiting initiative. In its early days, the new effort has caught some flak for largely putting the onus on individual brands to separate the real from the fakes on its platform.