Having been unaware that the BetterBook was a knock-off, I resolved to try to make things right by reaching out to Dan for his story. He was good enough to answer our questions--and sounded remarkably laid back for someone whose work had been knocked off (I myself would be furious)!
Below are Dan's answers.
Core77: When did you first come up with the idea for the Panobook?
Dan Provost: We had been thinking about making a notebook for at least a year prior to launching Panobook in 2017, but we were kind of banging our heads against the wall. We had plenty of ideas about how to make a "nice" notebook, in terms of materials and design details, but it didn't feel like quite enough to justify bringing the product into existence. Then one day we had a design insight: what special characteristics would a notebook that is meant specifically for your desk have? We came up with the panoramic format and we were off to the races; everything fell into place after that.
What motivated you to design it?
Nearly all of the products we design are made to scratch our own itches. We, ourselves, want them to exist, and we like making tools that enable creativity or productivity. A Panobook has sat on my desk since we launched it in 2017, and it's been a great tool for me in my everyday work life. I'm glad we made it!
How was customer response to the product?
It kind of blew us away to be honest. We had not made any stationary products at that point and didn't know what the reaction would be. It ended up being our second most-funded Kickstarter project up to that point.
How did you learn that the Panobook was being knocked off?
We almost always find out about these from our customers, who see them out in the wild and say "hey wait a second!"
What is it like seeing your work copied and on the market?
Sometimes it is a bit of a gut punch. But other times it can feel weirdly kind of good. Like hey, that must have been a pretty good idea!
Has Studio Neat ever been knocked off before? If so, what were the circumstances and resolution, if any?
Yep, many times, to varying degrees. Sometimes it is a literal copy, down to the packaging. Sometimes it is something that is heavily "inspired" by something we have made. In the early days we would attempt to contact the guilty party, but we more or less ignore them these days.
In this age of trolls, a pro-BetterBook troll would say, "Well, they added a new feature with the black border for easier scanning. So I don't think it's a knock-off." What would you say to that?
Well, we actually do firmly believe that "everything is a remix." It is impossible to design in a vacuum; every new product or idea is undoubtedly influenced and inspired by things that have existed before. That's certainly true for Panobook. Where it gets uncomfortable is moving from "inspired" territory to "copied." But we are not in a position to litigate that, nor do we have much interest in that.
Do you have any legal recourse?
Not really. We realized early on that we are much too small of a company to be getting wrapped up in patents and infringement cases. Not only would that be a waste of time, we don't have the financial resources to actually legally go after people. Patents in general seem designed for huge companies with legal teams and not the little folks. We do do some things like trademarking the brand names of our products, which is relatively affordable and does provide some protection if someone is being flat out fraudulent, which happens on Amazon sometimes.
What's a designer to do, when designs can so easily be copied these days?
It's just part of the gig. Our approach has been to just accept it, and instead focus our attention on building our brand and making great products.
Do you have any other thoughts on the subject?
We've come to terms with the fact that there will always be knock-offs. So, we focus instead on branding, storytelling, and maintaining a relationship with our customers. We are true believers in Keven Kelly's 1000 True Fans theory. As long as we have a modest fan base that continues to support us, we can keep making cool stuff.
Speaking of which, anything you'd like to plug?
I'd be remiss not to mention, we've been making lots of cool stuff since we last spoke! The pens especially (Mark One, below, and coming soon Mark Two) are very much up the industrial design nerd's alley.