Is Cloning Pedals Ethical?
Recently a customer wrote me an email asking whether companies like Joyo were paying royalties to the companies their pedals seem to be copying Here's the original email:
I have a question for you. I was discussing the Joyo pedals and someone brought up the point that if they are ripping off someone's design without paying that there is an ethical problem here. Do you know if Joyo has an arrangement with MXR or the others they are cloning? If they are simply a subsidiary that is good but if they are stealing design then I will not likely buy another pedal from them.
I think this is a very valid question for a lot of customers and want to finally address my take on this issue.
Most Pedals are Clones
The big secret in the pedal business that most manufacturers never want you to know is that most pedal companies are cloning existing designs. Ever notice how each company has at least one of each kind of pedal? Do you really think these companies are starting with a blank slate each time they produce a new pedal? No. Most of them use some existing design or schematic freely available on the internet. I would hedge that at least 50% of the overdrive pedals on the market are some sort of classic Tube Screamer copy. Most standard pedal effects have been figured out. There's only so many ways to make an analog delay repeat your original guitar signal. So many of the companies who are making a big fuss about cloning, if you open up their pedals and truly look at the circuitry, you'll find it remarkably similar to someone else's before them.
The Line Between Cloning and Modding
There is a very fine hazy line between cloning and modding pedals. For example, the Fulltone OCD pedal is simply a hot rodded Tube Screamer with more gain and different EQ. Does Fulltone or any other company pay Ibanez? No. Keely Mods are another example. They take an existing classic pedal and make a small modification to it, which they claim to improve it. Good business model, and perfectly valid. So what if a company like Biyang does the same thing? Their OD-10 overdrive takes a Tube Screamer, adds a toggle switch to give three modes of overdrive, and changes the EQ bit. Is this a mod or a copy? Why are people so clear to distinguish what Robert Keeley does as "good" versus Chinese pedal company? Because it is Chinese or because it is inexpensive? In fact many boutique manufacturers do the exact same thing and charge you $200 for that privilege.
Only with Pedals is Copying Even an Issue
With most consumer goods, cloning isn't even an issue. For example, look at guitars; there are a million Fender Stratocaster copies out on the market. Same body shape, same single coil pickups, 5 way toggle switch. But do people ever make an ethical fuss about this? No. Because Fender is still the original and makes a lot of money because they still make great guitars, and the resale value of the original is better. Likewise, in the pedal world Ibanez still makes a ton of money from their "reissues" of the Tube Screamer. Each year there are more and more of these reissues, and collectors and enthusiasts continue to throw money at them. And how can you even claim exclusive rights to something like an EQ pedal?
Where Does Your Money Go?
So what mostly what one is paying for with originals is the brand name and resale value. With boutique pedals you pay for the added cool factor, fancy pedal case, and possibly point to point wiring. You may be paying for some added value such as smaller sized pedals like Mooer pedals or some component upgrade. You are paying for many things, but very little of it is for use in designing the pedal. With some exceptions such as Devi Ever who creates some unique pedals and gives away her designs freely, most pedal manufacturers do little R&D.
Understandably, my opinions can be claimed as biased or at least a conflict of interest. But just consider my points. If you still disagree that's fine. It's a free country. It's a free market. You spend your money where you want. I think it's important for all of us to vote with our pocketbooks.