Glock Goes After Toy Gun Makers for Trademark Infringement
Vico Confino shows off a blank shooting gun in his warehouse.
Photo by Trevor Bach
Vico Confino is a husky 81-year-old hell-raiser with a thick Brooklyn accent and an outsized presence -- slicked-back thin white hair, piercing blue eyes, leathery South Florida skin -- that seem cut straight from a Sopranos casting. Confino tosses F-bombs at waiters over bad service. He wears four fake teeth because the originals were punched out in a high school football brawl. He once told a dog walker, after a confrontation over a legally required leash, that he was the man's "worst fucking nightmare."
But in June 2012, Confino was rattled. From his Coconut Creek office -- an unremarkable three- or four-room space where a single copy machine sits surrounded by walls plastered with dozens of gun posters -- he dialed up a top lawyer for Glock, Inc., the billion-dollar company that was suing him for trademark infringement. Confino, as he tells it, introduced himself and amicably offered to negotiate. But the big-shot Glock attorney would have none of it.
"I don't like you," the lawyer allegedly said. "And I'm going to destroy you."
Confino and his four-employee company seem an unlikely target for a suit from the multinational Glock. They sell replica and blank-firing guns used for movies or training out of a small warehouse in a generic business park. They have never sold actual firearms.
But the massive gun company's suit against Confino is representative of a larger pattern of aggression. In the past 15 years, Glock, Inc., the American arm of the Austrian company, has brought at least 11 trademark infringement suits against 20 companies -- and in all but one, the defendants were manufacturing or distributing toy or blank-firing guns. Glock has even censored video reviews of copycat guns.
"At this point, I don't really care what they do," an exasperated Confino wrote to his lawyer in August 2012. "I would rather pass on than climb into the pigsty they seem to enjoy rolling around in under the guise of practicing law."
Gaston Glock, the man behind perhaps the most recognizable firearms brand in the world, started as a plastics guy. In 1963, the Austrian engineer founded Glock KG and quickly became successful producing synthetic polymers that were used to make products such as curtain rods. In 1980, the notoriously secretive Austrian came up with his first pistol, the Glock 17. The gun held 17 rounds instead of the traditional six and could be fired much more quickly and accurately than existing pistols. It was also made in part from thin, strong plastic instead of all steel, which made it light and cheap.
The model was adopted by the Austrian army in 1982 and soon became popular throughout Europe. According to Paul Barrett, the author of Glock: The Rise of America's Gun, it entered the market at the same time U.S. cops were searching for a new weapon after several incidents in which their American-made guns had proven ineffective in gang shootouts. Glock, Barrett says, outperformed companies such as Colt and Smith & Wesson in the same way that Toyotas were proving more reliable than Fords.
The gun rapidly overtook the law enforcement market -- Glocks are now used by two-thirds of American police departments -- and was also quickly adopted by pop culture, appearing in productions such as Die Hard 2 as early as 1990. In 2011, a Glock was used to shoot Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
But as it continued its meteoric rise, the company also started going after copycats. In 1994, Glock sued Smith & Wesson for patent infringement after the American company produced a pistol that incorporated polymers. After three years of legal wrangling, Smith & Wesson agreed to pay a settlement and change its trigger design.
Several years later, Glock cracked down even harder, suing companies like Confino's Maxsell that sold airsoft or blank-firing guns -- an entirely different industry. In the year 2000 alone, Glock, Inc. filed five trademark suits against nonfirearms companies: Bruni, Sportsman's Guide, Gamo USA, Academy Toy Company, and Daisy. All sold airsoft models that looked similar to Glock pistols and allegedly caused confusion among potential customers. "The shape of various items would be there because that's a feature of the Glock pistol," explained Tony Askew, the lawyer who represented Glock in the suits. "It wouldn't be operational."
All of those cases, and those against seven other companies in 2001, were settled, the defendants agreeing to stop selling or producing the models in order to avoid a trial against Glock. (The specific terms of the settlements, including whether monetary damages were paid, are protected by confidentiality agreements.) In 2010, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office sued Glock for allegedly "marking its Glock 23 automatic pistol as protected by patents that are not in force." But the case was eventually dismissed, and Glock has remained undeterred in its aggressive trademark defense.
The suits, though, represent only a small fraction of the company's trademark complaints. Glock has sent numerous letters asking manufacturers to quit making or distributing replicas, says John Renzulli, a lawyer who has frequently represented the company. "Most of the time, people realize and they say, 'Oops. We're sorry,'" Renzulli says. "I find that most people are very apologetic and they move on."
In summer 2013, Michael Kaye, who runs ReplicaAirguns.com, based in Vancouver, received a notice that he was in violation -- for posting YouTube videos that reviewed some of the alleged airsoft copies. Kaye then posted a video explaining why he had suddenly removed so much content from his site: "Glock approached me... and sent me some legal documentation asking me to cease and desist these videos, photos, and reviews... And [there's] not really much of a choice, because what are my options? I'm kind of a little guy. They're kind of a big guy."
Glock first went after Ken Wu, an owner of AirSplat -- a California-based maker of realistic-looking plastic guns that shoot harmless plastic pellets -- four years ago. But that case fizzled, and now Glock is going after the 100-employee company again. Wu says the big gun maker is using underhanded tactics aimed at intimidating, such as naming eight AirSplat aliases as defendants. "They kind of just threw everything in," Wu says. "They're trying to add fuel to the fire."
Wu says his company produces toys and has cost Glock absolutely no damages. The corporation's real motivation with the suit, he contends, is to bully everyone out of the burgeoning airsoft market so Glock can make its own entrance. "Gosh -- you're a little late to the party," he says.
Wu sees the case as a matter of his business's life and death. A loss to Glock now, he says, would set the precedent that the entire toy gun industry is illegitimate -- an idea he views as absurd. "What we're trying to do is take a stand," he says, "not only for ourselves but for the industry as a whole."
Renzulli, the Glock lawyer, says Glock is the real victim. "This is not David versus Goliath here. It's asking for compliance." He also questions Wu's characterization of AirSplat guns as toys. "If it's such a great product," he asks, "why does it have to be in the image of a Glock?"
Glock first sued Confino for his blank pistols in 2000, but Maxsell was only a codefendant in a larger suit against an Italian manufacturer and ultimately settled without paying damages. Then, in 2010, Glock demanded he stop selling another blank-firing gun, the Turkish-made Atak Arms Zoraki M917.
"It's not a Glock," Confino says. "Everybody knows it's not a Glock."
Things only got uglier. Confino publicly questioned the credentials of a Glock lawyer and entered into personal disputes with company representatives, culminating in what he maintains was the lawyer's personal threat against him.
Emails exchanged between Confino and Glock hint at the protracted, salty exchange: "In calls with you on April 26 and June 1 you refused to discuss how to resolve this matter," began a June 8, 2012 email from a Glock lawyer to Confino, "but instead called Glock's representatives 'whores' and worse. As you know too well, no Glock representative has said anything to you like, 'I don't like you and I am going to destroy you.' For you to publicly claim so with your public notice is false, clearly retaliatory, and actionable."
The next day, Confino shot back, maintaining he had indeed been threatened and disparaging the lawyer's attack. "I was so shocked by [the] verbal threat that I was unable to sleep and kept being awakened by his statement reverberating in my head," he responded.
In August 2013, a settlement was reached. Confino would pay a total of $550,000 and agree to stop selling the guns.
Eight months later, Confino is still reeling. He was forced to turn over boxes of guns to be destroyed, and he's had problems with U.S. Customs holding his shipments. Warehouse shelves that used to be flush with replica guns now sit mostly empty. Glock's lawyers caused this, he says, by using "every dirty legal trick in the book." Their suit against him, he says, amounted to "a personal vendetta and extortion."
But Gaston Glock, the man whose company nearly destroyed Confino's business and wreaked untold havoc on his personal life? "I respect the man," Confino says. "I respect any man who has the ability to do what he has done. He has changed the world of guns. Everybody's copied him."