Vortic Watch Co. Retains Rights to “Upcycle” Antique Hamilton Pocket Watches in US Federal Court

If you’re unaware of the court case in which Hamilton, a Swatch Group company, sued Colorado-based watch company Vortic for both trademark infringement and counterfeiting (the latter a felony), it’s likely because I was one among

(I believe) two writers in the watch space to report on the case. My first article appeared in the print edition of International Watch over a year ago, and we republished the story here at BTD with IW‘s permission so that there would be a digital version for people to read. International Watch‘s editor agreed that if there was a balanced telling of the facts, then there should be no reason not to publish. I applaud Gary Girdvainis at International Watch for putting reporting first, advertising second.

A handful of what will remain unnamed publications rejected my story, and the editors told me outright that they were rejecting because they were concerned about their relationships with the Swatch Group, who advertises in these publications. I bring this up to shine a light on the sometimes troubling dynamics between publications and the advertisers who support them, to show how fear of – and definitely not loyalty to – advertisers fogs clearheaded editorial decisions. This fear of Big Horology among editors is being reflected in the case itself.

Fearing Big Horology

A big, powerful, international corporation with enough funds to fuel a rather robust legal department can (obviously, and perhaps by design) intimidate smaller players in the watch space. The editors who refused to tell this story disappointed me, but they also removed the veil that typically covers the dynamics between publications and the watch companies that support them financially through ads. We in the biz refer to the ideal version of that dynamic as “separation between church and state.” Some publications are better than others at separating the proverbial church (journalistic integrity) from the state (advertising income). Some don’t separate at all.

Swatch Group HQ in Switzerland

In my estimation, the readership has a lot of be concerned with here. Why has no American publication other than BTD published about this court case? Why has only one European publication published about this case? I can only speak specifically for those editors at publications who turned my story down, but I’d guess that the general answer involves anything from “this isn’t going to excited a lot of readers” to “we can’t upset a major advertising account.”

In the final analysis, I’ll say that the facts of the story are both interesting and important enough to warrant being reported. This case points to what may be a larger shift within Capitalism, a shift away from the incessant innovation and constant manufacturing of the The Planned Obsolescence Economy toward what I will call the Reuse Economy.

Aspects of Capitalism Have Run Their Course

What does it mean culturally, economically, and historically for a major corporation (Swatch Group) to be told that their trademarked legacy products can be resold with the original branding in place by another company (Vortic)? Doesn’t that cut against the very grain of intellectual property protections upon which the entire Western Capitalist System relies? Perhaps it does.

The role of intellectual property and the legal protections around it have been shifting massively over the past twenty years or so. We’ve seen innovations like Creative Commons upturn traditional IP protections; we’ve seen digital technologies alter the epistemological basis for IP legal protections; and we’ve seen countless small businesses emerge around missions that include upcycling and recycling as environmental and social activism. The grim landscape of Late Capitalism is, however slowly, giving way to a new horizon: the Reuse Economy.

Rethinking What Constitutes Raw Materials

Within the Reuse Economy, I see a slowly emerging redefinition of raw materials. Physical products have to be made out of something, and historically that something is unformed raw materials – raw steel, brass, rubies, gold, and so on for watches. Quite a bit of recycled materials are used today, for sure, but we are also now seeing a re-purposing of fully formed products.

Discarded cellphones epitomize the raw materials of the Reuse Economy.

Everything from golf balls to ink cartridges (both relevant to legal precedents in the case Swatch Group brought against Vortic) can legally be cleaned up, repackaged, and resold with the original branding in place. Why? Because, in my estimation, the human species has made so many gazillions of industrial products that, at this point in history, we have to consider the massive piles of this discarded stuff as raw materials awaiting innovators to put to good use. The courts seem to be getting this much right.

Was This a Landmark Case for Environmentalism?

With the impact of climate change now so violently raging across the planet, as a conservationist I have a rather strong interest in upcycling, reuse, and recycling. And I’m very interested in how the laws around intellectual property might impact the willingness of innovators to work more freely with the “raw materials” of the Reuse Economy, namely: discarded industrial goods.

However, important individual legal precedents are quite rare. Rather, patterns of precedents in our court systems emerge slowly, and lawyers eventually begin to lump these precedents together in order to win cases like the one between Vortic and Swatch. In this way, a slow consensus among various court systems builds until new legal norms have emerged. To evaluate the impact of the specific decision in the case Swatch brought against Vortic, we have to set it into context and acknowledge that it is not independently a landmark case. But it is an important one in the emerging relaxation of intellectual property within the Reuse Economy.

It is people like the folks at Vortic going out to defend their turf in the Reuse Economy who are going to help transform what’s legally possible for other innovators within the Reuse Economy. With enough of these cases decided in favor of those doing the reusing and against those looking to stop it, we may see a loosening of restrictions that could inspire more innovators to eventually make the Reuse Economy into an industrial norm.

What Would A Robust Reuse Economy Look Like?

As well as using recycled materials (especially plastics), the Reuse Economy is going to trade in pre-owned industrial and handmade things. Some companies are out ahead of this trend, like Patagonia, who has been selling used Patagonia products for a few years now. Many watch companies now buy up pre-owned stock and resell it themselves. These are financially successful programs. However, most old-school corporations tend to cling to the Late Capitalist paradigm by making more and more new products and have yet to embrace the Reuse Economy.

Patagonia’s WornWear stores sell used Patagonia products.

The difference between a pre-owned product and one that has been repurposed

(or upcycled) into something new and relevant is interesting. A used Patagonia gortex jacket is going to be used as a gortex jacket; it’s fully formed for modern use. A pocket watch, however, is a thing of the past that hasn’t been in vogue for about 100 years now. Vortic re-purposing pocket watches as wrist watches takes us out of simple pre-owned sales and into a new kind of industry, one that shifts the use of the thing through technical innovation.

Another example of the Reuse Economy might be putting a Tesla motor into a vintage car. Zeltec Motors installs Tesla engines into vintage Volkswagons, and there are others following suit. TRMTAB turns discarded men’s shirts into kids clothes. Pickmaster sells you a device that cuts guitar picks out of old credit cards and other plastic things. Many of these new products will retain original branding. (My reference for these examples is here).

Luxury goods often point the way forward. 1968 911 with Tesla Engine.

It would be a shame if the big corporations that originally made branded products found ways to legally prevent – or even just dissuade – innovators who aim to reuse discarded branded goods. A shame because, as I see it, all of these industrial goods are better thought of as raw materials. Extraction and processing of new raw materials will – if we keep it up – send this planet into a state of imbalance from which we will likely never recover.

Perhaps we’ve hit a point in history where the traditional protections of intellectual property need to be relaxed so that the accumulation of what we used to call industrial waste can be thought of as raw materials. And it is exactly for that reason that I have felt it is important to report on the case between Swatch and Vortic, and it is why I celebrate the court’s findings. Admittedly a handful of pocket watches in newly fashioned wristwatch cases isn’t going to have a measurable environmental impact, but this lawsuit is one more in what I hope will be a new legal trend here in the US and abroad.