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When does a better mouse trap turn distasteful carboncopy cloning?

Just a day ago, we published a review of the Audio Zone AMP-1 on 6moons. I knew going in that the design was closely based on the 47Lab GainCard which has inspired a small underground GainClone culture, albeit in the one-up DIY and non-commercial sector.

We received a reader e-mail questioning our ethics, in reviewing, awarding and thus endorsing a product that so clearly rides on the coat tails of another. Those not interested in reading the actual review should know that AMP-1 looks very similar to the GainCard but retails for $1,795 rather than $3,300 (or $4,800 when the GainCard is outfitted with the 50-watt power supply that would make it equal to the 45-watt AMP-1). AMP-1 currently sells direct from Canada but a dealer network is being set up.

Prior to accepting this assignment, I ensured that the IC-based GainCard architecture wasn't patented. In different iterations I know of, it's been used by Final Lab, nOrh, IRD and Jeff Rowland. PDF documents on the basic architecture of an IC-based audio amplifier are public-domain accessible from the National website, one popular manufacturer of ICs for these applications.

The remaining issue is that with the exception of the reviewed AMP-1, the other mentioned implementations of ICs in power amps don't borrow any visual design elements from 47Lab. You could perhaps say that once hip to the fact that ICs, properly used, can make a bona fide audiophile product, these firms did their own research and developed new approaches, thus "owing" 47Lab for the basic idea only, and not detailed circuit topologies.

AMP-1 is nearly blatant in its similarity to the original GainCard. While this is quite common in the DIY sector, our reader felt appaled to see it in the commercial sector.

Having been in manufacturing myself, we more than once encountered incidents where competitors "borrowed" clear design cues, cosmetic elements, outright ad campaign focus and other items. Sans patents or trademarks, none of that can be protected or enforced. Even patents become difficult to enforce when dealing across international borders, as with mainland China for example.

Having experience "on the other side" (being copied and having to "live with it") I have strong sympathies for 47Lab. As a consumer-by-proxy, I also feel a magazine's responsiblity toward its readers is to seek out products that offer "the same for less" in a nutshell.

My question to inmates concerns where you personally feel the line is crossed, from simply building a better mouse trap on the one hand, to being culpable for blatantly ripping off another design on the other hand, repackaging it, selling it for half or less and abusing the other guy's R&D efforts, marketing campaign and inbuilt desire-factor established by reviews and tradeshows.

This isn't an easy question, hence I encourage you to think about various implications before you fire away. But then do fire and give it your best shot.


Srajan Ebaen
publisher, 6moons

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Topic - When does a better mouse trap turn distasteful carboncopy cloning? - Srajan Ebaen (R) 08:59:14 07/08/03 (95)

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