Image: Muji

“Muji became one of Japan’s most recognizable brands by selling simple, practical items that it hopes will last for decades,” Bloomberg asserted this week. However, “It turns out that ‘less is more’ has its limits as a business strategy,” and one of the key struggles facing the almost 40-year old Japanese consumer goods retailer – which, despite embarking on a massive international expansion in the 2000’s and growing its revenues to $3.7 billion as a result, just reported its first decline in operating profit in nearly a decade – is Chinese copycats.

The Tokyo-based giant, whose name Mujirushi Ryōhin is translated as No Brand Quality Goods, has become known for offering up a wide-ranging stable of simple, minimally-design goods – from notebooks and bone china kitchenware to organic cotton t-shirts and French linen shift dresses. The “one unique commonality” of all of these products. As brand consultant Michael Hu notes, “They have no manufacturer branding, not even a private label brand.”

Given that its simple, minimally-design inventory is largely unchanging, and with its across-the-board no-logo or “no-brand” policy in mind, Muji has become relatively easy prey for a wiftly-growing “cottage industry of Chinese competitors, which have sprung up to offer the same aesthetic for a fraction of the cost.”  The entry of copycat creators is further bolstered by the fact that Muji’s price “are considerably more expensive outside of Japan due to taxes and tariffs.”

And there is little that Muji can really do about it, precisely for the very reasons that found it favor in the first place: its simple, logo-free designs are likely unprotectable from a legal perspective. Muji’s plain white porcelain tea pot, which mirrors the design of countless other simple tea pots, is hardly the “sculptural work” that the U.S. Copyright Act is willing to protect. After all, as the U.S. Copyright Office Practices manual explicitly states, copyright law “does not protect mere variations on a familiar symbol or design, either in two or three-dimensional form.”

Without any original print or pattern adorning the tea pot, which would be protected by copyright law (assuming it is creative and at least minimally originally), and thus, would give rise to an infringement cause of action if copied, Muji is further out of luck when its plain-white tea pot is replicated for cheap.

The state of things for Muji does not improve considering that most of its products are largely devoid of any type of branding, which enables copycats to replicate its products with marked accuracy without engaging in the unauthorized use of the Muji name, i.e. trademark infringement.

With legal recourse largely out of the question, Muji has opted to focus on further expansion in an attempt to downplay some of the financial woes that have resulted from its copycat competitors. That approach is not without problems of its own, namely, the risk that by doing too much, its efforts, per Bloomberg’s Lisa Du and Grace Huang, “may clash with [its] founding philosophy of simplicity and functionality, and risk putting off some of its fans, who are fiercely devoted to the experience of stepping into its botanical-scented stores and chancing upon items that are at once odd and practical, like right-angled socks or mattresses with legs.”