Who is Aiwa?
Recently, some of our customers have noticed different Aiwa products in other countries and asked us - “Is this your stuff? Is this you? Who is behind Aiwa, really?”, In the US and many European countries, the answer is simple - it’s us, the Aiwa Corporation you already know. We make the Exos-9 and we’re headquartered out of Chicago. Other companies own the Aiwa brand in other regions, and we’re independent from those companies - for the time being, we don’t sell their products, they don’t sell ours.
To be more specific: We are Aiwa in the US, many European countries and Australia. In Canada, Latin America and Asia other companies are behind the Aiwa name. In the Americas, we have mutual agreements not to sell in or ship to each other’s territories.
As some of you reading this may know, Sony used to own Aiwa, but discontinued using the Aiwa brand in 2007. Rather than selling it or licensing it to someone else at the time, they simply stopped using it. By law, trademarks fall into the public domain after a period of non-use. In plain english, trademarks are “use it or lose it”. The exact rules on when and how trademarks expire varies from country to country, but this limit is a key feature of trademark rights. As with all intellectual property, a limited duration is a fundamental aspect of the monopoly position such intellectual property affords. Because the trademarks primarily expired instead of being sold or licensed, more than one company has taken up the Aiwa name. For more on that, see below, “Why do trademarks expire?”
In the case of Sony, it should be noted that they behaved honorably and honestly when the trademark was due for expiration. They did so by acknowledging that they neither were using, nor intended to use, these trademarks again, and for that reason, the Aiwa brand fell into the public domain.
In the ensuing decade after 2007, like autumn leaves falling from a tree, various national trademarks expired. A variety of entrepreneurs laid claim to these expired Aiwa trademarks, each with their own vision for the brand. In 2016 and 2017, Sony sold the remaining un-expired trademarks they held, but by this time around a half dozen entrepreneurs had already laid claim to various marks around the world. By the end of 2017 the process of the leaves falling seems to have concluded, but there remain some swirling of leaves on the ground as they find their places. Ownership of the Aiwa trademarks in many places outside of the Americas is still being argued in courts and trademark offices at the time of writing. Please know that we are investing considerable time and money in protecting the Aiwa brand through this process. As of February 2019, the first four decisions in Europe (from Norway, Germany, the UK and Finland) all came in our favor and making clear our ownership of the marks in those countries. Many more are on the way over the next 12 months.
To some, this seemingly chaotic process is at odds with how brands usually change hands. And indeed, it does seem more common for a brand to be licensed out to other companies, to be put on different products, and stay on the market in a new form, rather than being shut down entirely. Having seen both processes, I have to say there are exciting aspects to the prospect of a variety of smaller entrepreneurs independently producing products under a global brand while being small, nimble and (hopefully) close and attentive to their customers.
Importantly, this process vests regional ownership in the brand. Both words in the phrase “regional ownership” are important. When it comes to global brands, we know that one size does not fit all. Different markets have different demands. Every brand that has successfully expanded globally has adapted to fit the local culture. The McDonalds and Starbucks experience varies throughout the world, and for good reason. Many a global brand has failed owing to insufficient flexibility in face of regional differences. As such, there’s no reason to think we don’t have anything to learn from the other regional owners of the Aiwa trademark.
The ownership part of the phrase is equally important. Unlike a brand that is simply licensed and applied to pre-existing products, the regional distributors for Aiwa actually own the rights to the name. They have long term vested interests in making the brand a success and building its reputation. We often say this is like the difference between owning a car and renting it. You can certainly expect the owner of a car to take more interest in maintenance than someone who rents it for a weekend.
Won’t there be confusion?
Probably not as much as you expect, due to language differences and shipping barriers. The products in Latin America, USA, Europe, Asia and Australia will often be quite different, but they shouldn’t affect each other much. We won’t ship our products to those regions, and they won’t ship theirs to ours. That’s the agreement, as it stands today.
What if I want one of your products and I’m outside of your regions?
The short answer is we’re working on it, but there is no above-board way to acquire Aiwa products from outside your region today. Over time, we hope to form agreements so that pioneering, beloved products like the Exos-9 are available throughout the world. And if Aiwa products from other regions prove to be strong, we would likewise love to be able to give our customers access to them in some way. We believe that everyone would benefit in this situation, but for the time being, we have to honor our agreements not to sell outside of our territory, just as we expect our peers will honor theirs. As such, unfortunately, products from one Aiwa region will not be made available in any other Aiwa region until further notice.
Who is the Real Aiwa?
The legally-minded answer is that the real Aiwa is whoever currently owns the trademark in your part of the world. Meaning that there are actually a few companies that can truthfully claim to be “the real Aiwa”. But there is a more practical answer.
You, the customer, will decide who is real and who is not.
In practice a brand is always held in the hearts of its customers. No matter how a brand was acquired, or who owns it, all companies ultimately earn their reputations in the market, and any business that doesn’t live up to expectations won’t survive long. This is especially true today in a world where consumers are more empowered and knowledgeable than ever. You can learn more about our products in an hour today than you could in a week of research in 1998. Every product we release, every feature we create - we put our hearts into making sure we satisfy your expectations for our brand. In the long run, It is in this way, and only in this way that we can remain in business and succeed.
Likewise, you can be sure that if the company behind a brand seems to disrespect that brand, that company will not make it very far. For the true Aiwa fan, the split ownership of the brand around the world is a form of insurance. No one entity can destroy Aiwa. If one regional owner departs from the meaning of the brand (not that we expect them to), that failure is limited and localized. We believe that the stewards of the Aiwa brand that do the best job of upholding your expectations will succeed in the end.
Why do Trademarks Expire?
First, it’s probably worth covering some basics. Intellectual property comes in 3 major categories. There are copyrights that cover creative works like books, movies, and music. There are patents, which cover useful things and inventions. And there are trademarks which cover brand names and logos. The basic idea behind these is that you get the exclusive right to that creation as long as you hold the copyright, patent, or trademark. In other words, if you have one of those things, it means nobody is allowed to copy it, and the government will back you up on that exclusive right - for a limited period of time. A time limit on this monopoly over intellectual property has been a core feature of the law from the very beginning.
Using the US as an example, the only direct reference to intellectual property in the US Constitution is the “copyright clause,”
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
These 27 words are the legal basis for all the intellectual property protections in the United States
The inclusion of “for limited times,” in such a short clause makes very clear that perpetual exclusive rights were never the framer’s intention. They rightly feared the detrimental effects a perpetual monopoly would have. Corporations have a natural desire to acquire companies, sometimes to develop their assets and promote their goods, sometimes simply to kill a competitor. If copyright, trademark, or patent rights lasted forever, some corporations might try to hoard an impenetrable treasure trove of intellectual property to squash competition. Such actions would benefit the individual company, but would be a big loss for everyone else - society as a whole.
Much ink has been spilled on the expiration of IP and how it affects the balance between rewarding “authors and inventors” and allowing new innovators to build on the the old innovations. From Walt Disney to Microsoft the pattern of new innovators building on the foundations of the old is a well worn path. The open source movement, which many of us have long participated in, has dramatically demonstrated the power of such collaboration when encouraged to flourish. The market of ideas has a powerful way of allowing the best to rise to the top.
In the case of trademarks, the fact that a new competitor can arise from the ashes of an adversary is something that reflects the founding fathers’ desire to preserve, not impede, competition.