Christian Zierhut is the “German pirate hunter”, who tracks down counterfeits and protects brands from exploitation
Rooting out and destroying counterfeits, collaborating with partners from all over the world: Christian Zierhut, a lawyer with in-depth knowledge in the field of anti-piracy, well-known and respected by his peers, which helps him to cope with his difficult task, as coordinator of global brand protection programmes and investigations and actions against online and offline targets.
He has been protecting widely recognised and famous brands for years, and does everything he can to reduce the brand risk of his clients and increase brand performance. This ranges from fake Baby Born ® and Frisbee® discs, to slavishly imitated vehicle parts to model couture, comic superheroes and merchandise from Formula 1 and MotoGP world champions. In this interview, the 46-year-old brand protection expert reveals how he identifies counterfeiters and why trademark owners should talk with him.
Mr Zierhut, please introduce yourself, and how did everything start for you?
I’m 46 years old and I studied in Würzburg, where I also completed my first and second state examination. I probably started my law career in high school. I completed the “Business Law” course and discovered that with the German Civil Law Code – in its abstract, generally applicable norms – you can solve almost any case. I found that fascinating.
My parents ran a number of consumer electronics stores. During my school days, I was already solely responsible for one of these stores, with everything that went with it: purchasing, planning advertising campaigns and managing employees. So I was familiar with economic issues, and there was also this fascination for law. Enrolling to study law was only logical.
Mr Zierhut, you seem to be committed to justice. Where does this passion come from?
I always develop a particularly great passion when the chemistry is right between me and my client. I know exactly how it is when you have to fight as a creative entrepreneur against envious imitators and freeloaders. Perhaps one in ten persons is really creative. This one person gives everything, sits down and develops a design, a new product, invests a lot of time, energy, money and lifeblood. And then there are nine others around, who make it easy for themselves by simply copying them and saving all the development costs. A quick profit is more important to these people than anything else. And that is unacceptable.
As a man with a certain love of principles, do you approach some things in an unconventional way?
Values such as conscientiousness, diligence, reliability and loyalty are important to me. This is how I measure myself, but also my team. I have to be able to rely on the word of my colleagues without having to set up a hundred-page contract for everything. I think a healthy mix makes work successful: principles and values provide a solid framework, but instinct for new situations, a gut feeling – that has to fill the frame. The courage to find unconventional solutions lets me tackle things and push them forward.
You were the first to found a law firm in the form of a joint stock company. That made you a pioneer in your field
In 2002, the joint-stock company was the only company form for lawyers that gave me the freedom to implement my corporate goals. That was unconventional, but right. My corporate concept was awarded 1st place by the “BJU Young Entrepreneurs” in 2003. Today this law firm is one of the world’s leading law firms for trademark protection.
20 years as a pioneer and lawyer – what were your milestones?
If I count the years, I’ve been an entrepreneur for nearly 25 years! During this time, the most beautiful professional moments were: the letter with my exam results, founding a law firm, the first interim injunction and lawsuit I won. And a big disappointment that in retrospect turned out to be a stroke of luck – the separation from my law firm partners. Only then could we really take off.
My work for Precisport, the licence manager for Formula 1 and MOTOGP world champions, has made us well known among the big brands. Within a year we managed to create a real “X-ray image of piracy”, uncover its causes and take countermeasures until, after a short time, the market in Europe was completely “clean”, and it was possible to maintain this situation for many years. Then the proceedings for a German publisher against one of the largest publishers in the world, Axel-Springer AG. It was like David versus Goliath, and in the end we came away victorious. I am also proud of my work for Toni Rieger. At that time it was a turning point, when our opponents wanted to flood the German market with professionally produced vehicle parts from China. We confiscated entire shipping halls full of goods. I looked after Christian Audigier and his brand family “Ed Hardy” until his death. It was probably one of the largest anti-piracy mandates ever in Europe. My personal meetings with Richard Rawlings at SEMA Las Vegas, Mika Häkinnen and Walter Röhrl. The traditional American company Wham-O with over 70 years of history (Frisbee®, Hacky Sack, Hula Hoop), and the Israeli luxury couture label GALIA LAHAV and brands such as Zapf’s Baby Born and Stan Lee’s comic superheroes, which are known all over the world.
To put it simply, we are looking for counterfeit products. And we intervene if our clients’ trademark rights are infringed. We work closely with the customs authorities, search warehouses and seize containers and take the counterfeit items out of circulation as soon as possible. Even though I spend a lot of time at my desk, I still like to roll up my sleeves and get into a container to look for fakes
What tasks do you expect at your desk?
The tasks vary widely. We look into reports when our agents or our clients themselves have been informed of legal violations. We research counterfeit products online and if we find what we are looking for, we consider the right strategy. We always have to consider the local jurisdiction and legal situation, because you cannot always proceed according to the same pattern. I can’t imagine a more exciting job!
Why is it worth taking action against product piracy?
Some companies are aware of the phenomenon, but do not worry about the effects, and some are even happy to be faked and thereby become even better known. This joy only lasts until loss of sales and damage to their image occur and they are sued for damage to property or health. Counterfeiters use the “good reputation” of a product to deceive buyers about its origin and quality. Counterfeiters do not have to spend money on research, development and market introduction. The goods are sold through long and opaque distribution chains. Buyers who believe they have purchased the original attribute poor quality and early wear and tear to the original manufacturer. If counterfeits leads to damage to health, manufacturers may be held liable even though they did not produce the counterfeit themselves.
What property rights are available to your clients?
Registered property rights, i. e. patents and trademarks, copyright and competition law are the protection system for intellectual property. Property rights can be differentiated according to what they protect. We have patents and utility models available for technical inventions; brand and title for identifying goods and services. Protection of creative services is via copyright and design law. Competition law ensures that services are not unfairly exploited.
What do you ask of the counterfeiters?
In addition to prohibition, removal and information, we also demand compensation. In practice, it has proved useful to determine a fictitious licence that the counterfeiter would have had to pay the rights holder for use under normal market conditions. Licence fees that the rights holder obtains from licensees can be used as a guide for the assessment. A number of consequential claims, although rarely asserted in practice, can be highly effective in certain cases. The claim for recall or removal of the goods from distribution; the claim for surrender of the manufacturing tools; the claim for production of banking, financial and commercial documents, the claim for publication of the judgment in daily newspapers and trade journals at the counterfeiter’s expense, and the right to have counterfeit goods destroyed at the infringer’s expense.
Is there a “king strategy”?
There is no single universal strategy. We combine various strategic approaches depending on the situation. When it comes to legal measures, a basic distinction must be made between three areas: preventive, detective and repressive measures. Preventive measures are the registration of industrial property rights, which creates barriers to market entry against imitators. In addition to border seizure, detective measures include monitoring the registers for competing industrial property rights applications. Repressive measures are a combination of civil law, administrative and criminal law measures, tailored to the individual case, as well as the involvement of the customs authorities for border seizure.
You are specifically committed to the European market. Are there any special features here?
Most counterfeit products are sold in Europe, followed by the USA. My goal is to prevent counterfeit products from crossing the EU’s external borders from China, Pakistan & Co. or even from leaving the port, or better still, from ever leaving the country of origin.
How is your team made up?
Our team consists of IP lawyers, product and IT experts. We are in constant contact with our clients.
What motivates you in your job?
That we make the world a little better every day.
Thanks for your frank words.
The interview was conducted by Melanie Roth.
About Z I E R H U T * I P * Attorneys for Brand Protection in the global market
At Z I E R H U T * I P we specialize in intellectual property protection and defend brands on the global market, using a combination of our experienced IP attorneys and proprietary technology. Technology is an important factor of our protection solution, it employs high efficient algorithms that scan the internet and identify IP infringements. We then validate and remove the infringements and ask the infringers for information about trade channels, sales and profit and we seize and destroy the counterfeits and claim damages, all while reporting the infringements in real time to our clients.