I made a post on Instagram last week about the current TWSBI situation. There hasn’t been — that I’ve seen — an update from TWSBI. So, I’m writing this under the impression that, as of yesterday, TWBSI “…will no longer conduct business with any business affiliates/partners who offer these copy products for sale…” Any future updates will be available on the #twsbigate tag page.
I’m not going to go into major detail here. If you want that, you can listen to The Pentertainment Podcast (TPP) episode 114, Tokyo Inklings (TI) episode 53 (starting around 31:00), and The Pen Addict (TPA) episode 505 (starting around 38:00). When referencing information specific to one of the podcasts, I’ll credit it using the initials in parentheses.
I’m also not going to spend much time on how this whole situation affects retailers, as I think all three podcasts have done that far better than I could. Instead, I’d like to share my thoughts as a TWSBI enthusiast.
From what I understand, this situation came to public notice on March 9, 2022 with a now-deleted post on Twitter from Pure Pens which TWSBI commented on (TI).
Pure Pens: Guess the pen! Have an idea of what this pen could be from the close up? Let us know your guesses! 😊
TWSBI: Narwhal!! Who copied our piston assembly completely. 👍👍
Sometime before March 18, 2022 — but presumably after March 9 — TWSBI sent out an email to businesses that carry their own pens and Narwhal and/or Moonman pens. This email threatened to cease business with any retailers “…who offer these copy products for sale, including but not limited to Narwhal and Moonman.” This threat was based on TWSBI’s assertion that both companies have copied their piston mechanism.
I have independently confirmed that this email does exist.
TI shared a partial screenshot of the email (see link “TWSBI: Policy changes”which I have included below, along with a transcript, in case TI removes the image for any reason.
...exactness in dimension and shape. Their first "Original" fountain pen contains an almost exact copy of our 580/ECO piston mechanism design. The same mechanism is now used in their Nautilus and Schuylkill line up. Moonman has done the same copying our piston mechanism in their T1 with the addition of a knock-off Kaweco cap. Piston fillers and caps are not proprietary technology; several companies have piston mechanisms. However, copying a design down to every dimensional spec is unethical and a design infringement.
In order to uphold our own integrity and years of hard work; effective May 1st. 2022 TWSBI will no longer conduct business with any business affiliates/partners who offer these copy products for sale, including but not limited to Narwhal and Moonman.
We value the many years of mutual business relationships with each of you and hope to continue many more years forward. Thank you for your understanding and continuing support.
Holidays: Apr. 02-05, 2022
[TWSBI Logo] 三文堂筆業
TWSBI Co., Ltd.
Tel: (02) 2223 3008
This email also, apparently, included measurements comparing the two systems. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate screenshots of that section of the email. And I don’t feel comfortable asking someone to send it to me to share.
According to TPA, though, the included measurements of the TWSBI piston mechanism and the measurements of the Narwhal piston mechanism do not match.
“There’s different measurements on the same parts.” (40:24) “Can you take out a Narwhal mechanism and stick it in a TWSBI…are the pistons swappable. And the answer’s no.” (40:30)The Pen Addict #505: Aggressively Debossed (March 18, 2022)
However, I found a post on Reddit that links to a Narwhal Schuylkill review video on YouTube. That video includes a comparison of the piston mechanism with a TWSBI Eco mechanism, and the two are interchangeable, although, technically, not identical.
TI has, unfortunately, deleted their Instagram post covering the piston mechanisms, including the similarities to Pelikan’s mechanism.
Narwhal has responded to the allegations with their own email explaining the differences between the two piston mechanisms (PA). I have not independently confirmed the existence of this email as, ultimately, it doesn’t much matter in this situation.
TWSBI had not, at the times that the various podcasts had been recorded, responded to any requests for comments.
… Is Pointless…
Let’s start with the easiest point first. This whole situation is pointless. I don’t know anyone who buys a pen for the way its piston mechanism looks or works. On top of that, TWSBI’s piston mechanism is the least exciting part of their pens. People have lauded their nibs — including me — price points, ink capacity, and colors. However, I have never seen or heard anyone laud the function of their pistons.
Further, TWSBI invalidated their own argument. You cannot “[copy] a design down to every dimensional spec” and come up with “an almost exact copy.” And, assuming TPA is correct and the measurements of the two piston mechanisms don’t match, that’s further invalidation of TWSBI’s argument within their own email.
Beyond this TWSBI situation, I have never known a knock-of to truly damage the salability of the original — unless the knock-off is better, which is an entirely different situation. Knock-offs are pervasive in fashion, toys, inks, knives, pens, etc. People who want the original are unlikely to buy the knockoff just because it exists. If anything, the knockoff is likely to lead people to buy the original out of curiosity. If the knock-off is good, how good is the original?
The fountain pen market is big enough to sustain multiple companies, even companies that make similar pens. The explosion of indie manufacturers in the past few years proves that. To quote TPP, “Have you ever met a fountain pen enthusiast? They can’t stop buying pens!” (41:46)
… Possibly Hypocritical…
TPP mentioned that Redditors have rediscovered an old Fountain Pen Network thread where “Speedy” — apparently the owner of TWSBI — acknowledged that there was no “new patent involved” in the mechanism of their Diamond series.
Granted, that was 13 years ago, so it’s entirely possible that TWSBI has made changes to their piston mechanism. But, the video “Speedy” posted on YouTube around the same time shows a piston mechanism that looks — to my untrained eyes — identical in shape and components to the photo from the Reddit thread. Given the Reddit photo shows the 580ALR Pink Punch, which is fairly new, it’s a good representation of the current piston mechanism.
The jury is still out, in my opinion, as to whether TWSBI “stole” or “copied” Pelikan’s piston mechanism, so I’m not going to go into any detail about that discussion. However, if true, it would make TWSBI major hypocrites.
… And Illegal.
TPP states, “This act is actually a violation of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Antitrust Law, specifically the Sherman Act of 1890. Their act is actually illegal.” When reviewing the FTC’s The Antitrust Laws page, TWSBI’s act seems to fall more under the FTC act, which bans “unfair methods of competition” and “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.” TWSBI’s email is definitely an unfair method of competition. And, considering that their claims appear to be untrue, they could be viewed as deceptive as well.
Which brings me to my next issue.
The way TWSBI is doing this all behind-the-scenes, it reeks of a company that doesn’t feel like they are right. It’s underhanded, bullying, and ridiculous. And, it makes me wonder what the real problem is. Several sources have suggested it may be an increase in tensions between China and Taiwan. It may also be that TWSBI feels threatened by Narwhal and Moonman. But, if that’s the case, they should improve their products to make them more appealing.
If this was truly an intellectual property issue, they’d be taking Narwhal, Moonman, etc. to court. At the very least, they would issue an official cease and desist letter with accompanying facts, figures, etc. Instead, they’re doing their best to destroy a business behind the scenes by forcing retailors to choose between themselves and smaller, less-established companies. They are bullying not just Narwhal and Moonman, but retailors as well.
If TWSBI truly believed they are in the right, they could take the issue to Narwhal and Moonman. Then, if — and only if — Narwhal and Moonman were unresponsive, dismissive, and/or unresponsive, they could publicly announce their issue with facts, etc. to allow the court of public opinion to aid them. Instead, they’re trying to impose their will on everyone.
I’ve seen similar situations in the makeup world. The difference: it’s usually the big companies stealing ideas from the little guys and passing it off as their own. The small companies then have to fight to get the recognition or to stop the larger company’s infringement.
I’ve yet to see a larger company claim a small company stole from them. Likely because it doesn’t really make much difference to the big dogs who have name/brand recognition.
… And Have Made Some Decisions.
So, what does this mean for someone who’s been singing TWSBI’s praises for the last two years?
Well, #1, I’m not going to get rid of my TWSBI pens. That doesn’t help anything. I already spent the money, I may as well get the use of the pens. And, I still love the pens.
#2, I’ve added a note linking to this post to every post that mentions TWSBI. It’s at the top of the page, so no one who sees one of those old posts can be unaware of my current reservations. If you come across a post I missed, let me know.
#3, I won’t be buying any new TWSBI pens. I won’t rule out secondhand ones, as those don’t put any of my money in TWSBI’s coffers. This will be difficult for me, especially when they release the next mini, since I’ve been collecting those. But I need to stay strong.
#4, my TWSBI boycott will last until TWSBI makes an apology. While I, personally, feel it should be a public apology, since their complaints were originally behind the scenes, I could accept a behind the scenes apology.
Phew! That was a LONG one. If you made it this far, thanks for reading to the end.
What do you think of this situation. Does it affect your opinion of TWSBI? Will you be boycotting them? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.