Face it: you’re old-school if you remember the TV game show, “To Tell the Truth.” Its climactic catch-phrase, though, could easily be applied to the debate that’s lately been roiling the waters of swimbaiting: “Will the real inventor please stand up?” The feud extends beyond whether any lures are truly originals. Imitation is so commonplace in the tackle business that some not only expect it but applaud it as part of our free-enterprise system.
Where you come down on this issue has a lot to do with your personal beliefs as to how the money-making side of the industry should work. For a variety of reasons, the decision is seldom made in our court system with attorneys arguing before judges over the finer points of patent law. Instead, average anglers vote with their wallets as to which lures succeed and which ones fail based on their own senses of fairness, pricing, availability – and just how well they believe the things will catch bass.
Into this swirling controversy, currently raging at an e-forum near you, stepped BassWest USA. Both sides of the aisle were given a chance to present their viewpoints free of the chatroom point/counterpoint vitriol we’ve come to know and love so much. Two of the perceived swimbait innovators, Matt Servant of Mattlures (mattlures.com) and Bruce Porter of Basstrix, offered their thoughts, as did two of those considered by some to be imitators, Fred Ward of Money Lures (moneylures.com) and Rick Quade of Reaction Strike (reactionstrike.com). And for good measure, Bobby Uhrig, founder of MegaStrike (megastrike.com), weighed in with his comments. Although not a swimbait maker, Uhrig is highly regarded as a cutting-edge designer and is well-acquainted with the challenges faced by tackle entrepreneurs.
Building That Better Mousetrap
Whether you think a new lure is actually an innovation depends partly on how old you are. There are some crusty types who think today’s new-fangled swimbaits are little more than glorified versions of 1980’s-era Mister Twister Sassy Shads®. But whether you scoff at them or line up to buy them, there’s no getting around the fact that swimbaits not only catch big fish, but they put numbers in the livewell and win big-money tournaments, too.
There is little doubt that most lures now on the market borrow elements from preceding models. Let’s be honest – swimming tails, weedless designs and ultra-realism weren’t discovered yesterday. Nevertheless, there are baits that come along that just have something special about them, that seem to be that “better mousetrap” for which we anglers are constantly searching.
Matt Servant believes that truly innovative lures are the result of painstaking design and extensive on-the-water testing. He notes that it often takes him one to two months to create a new model, a year to fully field-test it, and another two months to get it into production. “I try to build up a little stock to stay ahead of demand before releasing a new bait.” Servant stresses that the time put into testing and fine-tuning is one of the things that separates the wheat from the chaff. “The knock-off companies don’t do the testing. They don’t know why the lures they’re trying to copy catch fish. And they don’t test their imitations enough to know if a fish will even eat them.”
According to Fred Ward, lure production is not a snap for anybody. His Money Minnow took eight weeks and eleven different molds before he was satisfied with its tail and body configuration, and then another 2 ½ months to get it to market. He is also quick to note that “my version of the Basstrix is different in every way [from the Paddletail], from the way it is made to the shape, tail and colors, and it’s my firm belief that it both looks and swims better, too.”
Furthermore, originality lies largely in the eye of the beholder, at least in Rick Quade’s opinion. “I’ve been fishing for many years now. I can’t think of any lure that I haven’t seen in a similar variation. The reason most consumers view a lure as original is because THEY haven’t seen it before.
“One of the most realistic trout swimbaits I’ve ever seen was manufactured around 1940,” continues Quade. His company, Reaction Strike, has been a major player in the musky market for years. “Originality is a regional thing. We’ve shown 40-year old musky lures to some of the best California swimbait fishermen and they’ve told us, ‘Man, bring that lure out, it’s totally original!’ On a national basis, almost everything has been done already, at least as far as lures go.”
The Sincerest Form of Flattery?
When it comes to baits, how much imitation is too much? And, if they truly possess enough unique qualities to be patented, why aren’t their designs consistently defended in court?
Bruce Porter of Basstrix thinks the public has been misled on the subject. “Most people don’t understand the patent or copyright process and believe that a patented product cannot be copied. That is so wrong and the knock-off guys know it.”
Porter feels that U.S. patent laws are tough to apply in the real world. “The government patent office will not go to bat for you in a contest involving your product rights of ownership. That is up to you and generally the guy with the most money to pay attorneys wins. Even if the case goes uncontested, it still costs a bundle to drag it through the legal process. There just isn’t enough money in this business for smaller outfits to constantly fight it out in court.”
Ward is a veteran of the tackle industry and has found himself on both sides of the debate. In 1990, while working as a guide on Florida’s fabled Lake Okeechobee, he developed a topwater that was highly effective in drawing bass out of the lake’s thick weedgrowth. Before he could get it to market, a client smuggled a prototype to a major tackle company that recognized its potential and quickly put it into production. Blindsided and beaten to the punch, he realized his golden opportunity was lost when he saw a story about his brain child advertised on the front page of a major newspaper.
Ward now sees his mistake as obvious: “I didn’t keep my bait secret enough. When you bring something to the marketplace, you had better be prepared to fill the pipeline and promote it, because if you don’t have a patent, it’s ‘common knowledge’ and it’s known that you cannot supply the demand, someone will fill that pipeline for you.”
The rule-of-thumb is that a product must be 10 – 15% different from a similar, patented item to avoid infringement. Bobby Uhrig sees pros and cons to the process. “A patent is only as strong as the bankroll backing it,” he says. The formulation of his MegaStrike Fish Attractant isn’t patented but is complex enough that it can’t be easily copied by shadetree plagiarizers. More importantly, with a product that doesn’t readily lend itself to imitation, they can actually work against an inventor. “A patent tells the world what you’re doing.”
On the other hand, his Evolution Jig and elements of his Cavitron Buzzbait are patented. Both have features that Uhrig feels will stand up in court as being unique. And clearly, it wouldn’t take a criminal mastermind to find ways to copy a buzzbait or jig.
Imitations abound in the fishing industry. Name the bait, and most companies have their own version of it. Rick Quade doesn’t buy the notion that the similarities are a sign of some sort of ethical crisis. “The main reason most lures aren’t patented is because they can’t be patented. They’re almost identical to what has been done already. Patents work in just about every industry. The problem isn’t with the patent process. The problem is with our perceptions. Most of what we consider to be brand-new is very similar to older products. Any serious lure collector can show you all the latest lures – except that they were made decades ago.”
If look-alikes are inevitable, then how much is too much? “Copying a product’s ‘trade dress’ – in other words, it’s ‘dressing’ or packaging – in order to create confusion in the marketplace is wrong,” Quade states. “So, in fishing, making a similar lure with a similar name is over the line.”
Matt Servant judges this on a case by case basis, and with swimbaits, he concedes that there are only so many ways to make them swim. However, “some lures are almost exact copies of the designs of others,” he says, “and that’s wrong. The copycats say that they offer different colors, but the truth is, they just don’t have the talent to invent their own swimbaits.”
Servant goes on to point out that the top designers have a great deal of self-pride, even ego. “Most of the guys have their own names on their baits. If you have to copy someone else, you’re admitting defeat. The core designers don’t necessarily even like each other, but we respect each other.”
Supply and Demand
Many of the most exciting breakthroughs in fishing aren’t generated by multi-million dollar corporations. Instead, they’re born in the garages and workshops of men and women who love to fish and are passionate about their craft. With this in mind, is it possible to accurately predict if a lure’s popularity will suddenly blast into the stratosphere so that adequate supplies can be stocked in advance?
Two years before it made bassin’ headlines, Porter recognized that his Paddletail was going to be good. “Right away, I knew it was one of the best lures I had ever used,” he says. “A few anglers in Northern California were winning tournaments with it, but they were keeping it a secret. It was a great bait, sales climbed steadily, and we were producing plenty to meet demand.”
Everything changed after the lure played key roles in several Delta tournament wins and then Steve Kennedy’s blockbuster March 2007 victory at the BASS Elite Series Clear Lake event. “The roof fell in, and nobody could have been ready for that,” states Porter, “at least not in the hand-made market. But, it could have been done it in the injection market.” The problem with injection-molding? Mass production would mean compromising some of the quality-control aspects that are so important to the bait’s effectiveness. And, just as importantly, by moving the process to a larger-scale operation, possibly overseas, American jobs might be lost and there would be a greater chance that others could copy the nuances of design that separate the Paddletail from the wannabes.
As you’ve probably guessed, there is another side to the coin. Fred Ward is an unabashed proponent of our free enterprise system. “I’m now marketing the ‘Money Minnow.’ I thought this type of bait had great potential, but every store I talked to said they had not seen any for sometimes up to six months. I also knew there were others coming out, even an exact duplicate from China, and there would be more.” Ward, however, does not fault the system that is allowing the field to fill with competitors. “As long as a bait is hot and the pipeline is not being filled, it’s an open market and it is the American Way.”
It’s difficult not to sympathize with small-time inventors. Yet we’re also all about choices. Call it a contradiction, but we Americans love a bargain and a wide selection to boot. “Imitation is bad for the ‘inventor’ but great for the consumer,” states Rick Quade. “This is the essence of a free-market, capitalistic society. Imitation removes the monopoly, creates competition and drives down prices. Big corporations hate imitations, but it almost always benefits the consumer by giving them more choices and lower prices.”
Tackle shops are like adult toy stores for many of us, and naturally, we’re going to choose from the selection that our favorite retailer has to offer. And it’s to be expected that retailers want to make a profit. So, it stands to reason that selling the cheapest product isn’t always in their own best interests. “Most retailers will not support a flagrant copy,” Quade says. “Companies that create novel lures, deliver quality products, charge fair prices and don’t play games with retailers are pretty much immune to knock-offs. Dealers simply have no reason to stock their shelves with copy product unless the original product manufacturer breaks one or more of the cardinal rules of retail.
“If a retailer supports a knock-off,” continues Quade, “then it is only because the retailer has been given a reason to do so by the creator of the ‘original’ lure. That can come in many forms: the original manufacturer can’t meet market demand; they’re selling direct to the public and bypassing the retailer; or it can simply mean that there’s a bad relationship between the retailer and the creator of the original.”
David v. Goliath
OK. We’ve established that we love the underdog and cheer for new lures that offer better solutions to fishing problems. We also demand instant availability, fair prices and several models from which to choose. It’s a tall order, and American free enterprise has delivered it better than any other economic system in human history. With all that said – how can the clever but unsophisticated Davids of our economy survive against the street-smart Goliaths?
Bobby Uhrig believes that small companies must strive to create products that become synonymous not only with a general category of bait but a technique as well. We’re talking Senkos, Rat-L-Traps, Spooks and Chatterbaits. Their names become implanted in our lexicon, like buying Kleenex or making a Xerox, and we associate them with a specific style of fishing. Even though knock-offs may flood the market and dilute demand for the originals, over time anglers often return to “them that brought ‘em” because they’re so consistently productive.
Staying ahead of the game is another key. “There are a lot of good baits out there,” notes Matt Servant. “You have to keep working on coming up with something even better. And if you have something good, you have to build up enough stock to beat the copycats.”
“It’s tough to gain the confidence of fishermen,” Bruce Porter adds. “I’ve worked hard so that people who use my lures know their getting a good product.”
Uhrig also mentions the importance of finding ways to get your product to the markets where anglers can buy them. “Big companies have the power of advertising and distribution channels. You may have the greatest product in the world, but you have to find a way to get it out there.”
In addition, Porter feels that both the fishing industry and John Q. Angler should remain loyal to the innovators in the sport. “Buy the real thing and you won’t be disappointed. By doing so, you are pretty much ensuring the future quality of fishing lures.
“Years ago, folks got behind Rapala and helped them to improve,” Porter continues. “Their lures are still reasonably priced. Once someone proves that he or she is a good designer, get behind them. Inventors have the knowledge to figure out what works. The fishing tackle industry should pull together, form coalitions and support designers.”
Porter concludes his argument on this point: “The knock-off artists aren’t going to stop Bruce Porter. But somewhere there’s a guy with a new idea that is going to catch more fish. He’s unaware of the copycat problem. And once he gets knocked-off, he’ll lose all incentive for putting more new stuff out there. It’s like someone stealing your girlfriend.”
Does Originality Matter?
Once we get used to a product, it’s easy to forget who came up with the original. As Rick Quade notes, “Nike didn’t invent the shoe. Chevy didn’t invent the truck. Mercury didn’t invent the outboard.” The question often boils down to a lure’s effectiveness. If it catches fish better than its competition, we’ll pay almost anything to get it. There’s a subtlety to this point, though, particularly when talking about swimbaits. They generally cost more than standard lures and anglers aren’t as apt to try various models if their first forays with them are unsuccessful.
“You’re better off buying proven baits,” says Matt Servant, “and not focusing so much on the price. Swimbaits are made to catch the fish of a lifetime. They’re tough for beginners to use, especially if they’re not getting bit. Beginners need every edge they can find. Don’t buy something cheap to start. You probably won’t catch anything and you’ll end up giving up on them.”
Bruce Porter echoes a similar thought: “The knock-off guys cut so many corners trying to make the bait cheaply that they end up leaving off just about everything that makes it work. It’s deception. Consumers think it looks just like the original, but when it doesn’t work they’ll quit trying it.”
Mass production, however, does have its advantages – namely, uniformity and lower prices. “We use a machine in our process that costs $50,000,” says Quade. “Every piece it makes is identical. Hobbyists and small artisans are often the worst in terms of quality – the variability of their products is just too extreme. There’s not enough consistency.”
Although it might appear from reading this article that animosity is simmering just beneath the surface of the tackle business, that’s really not the case. For example, Bobby Uhrig mentions how lucky he’s been and how much others have helped him along the way. “Only about one to two percent of the people in the fishing industry are just in it for the money,” Uhrig states. “The other ninety-eight percent are good, genuine people.”
Where will it all end? No one can say with certainty. It may be settled in the courts. The free market may decide. Or it could be that the entire controversy will fade with time. The half-life of lure popularity seems to diminish with each passing season. In the future, by the time the cycle of imitation begins, it may already be too late, as bass anglers will be on to the next big thing. Whatever the outcome, it will be difficult to predict but fascinating to witness.