The Role of Authentication Technologies in Combating Counterfeiting

April 2006

The hidden image in an embossed hologram is revealed using a simple laser pointer (Courtesy of Light Impressions)
The hidden image in an embossed hologram is revealed using a simple laser pointer (Courtesy of Light Impressions)

This article was written for WIPO Magazine by Mr. Ian M Lancaster, Director of Reconnaissance International, an expert on authentication devices as a means of detecting and deterring piracy and counterfeiting.

With the problem of product counterfeiting and software piracy now high up the international policy agenda, there is a growing need for quick and easy ways to differentiate fake products from genuine as a means of detecting and deterring counterfeits. Authentication products and technologies – the effective deployment of which requires close collaboration between IP rights holders and the organizations that inspect products – plays an important role in this area.

The function of authentication technology is to help examiners – customs, police and consumer protection agencies – identify the genuine product in ways that are not obvious to counterfeiters, who have become adept at accurately copying products and packaging. It enables the examiner to look beyond the obvious characteristics of the product in order to determine to a reasonable level of certainty whether the item is genuine. Conversely, the absence of the non-obvious characteristics will betray a fake, even though it may look exactly like the genuine product.

An authentication device embedded in a product may need to be multi-layered, so that, for example, the top layer is visible to the consumer, while a lower layer may contain a means of examination that is not apparent to the counterfeiter. The examination may be a two-stage process: the first in the field – in a raid on a warehouse or shop; the second in the laboratory, to obtain forensic proof that will stand up in court.

The layering of an authentication device is achieved through combinations of technologies which are characterized as follows:

  • Overt devices. These are visible to the naked eye under standard viewing conditions, including holograms, color-change inks, iridescent thin films and retro-reflective materials.
  • Hidden (also s emi-covert) devices. These are revealed to the human eye through use of a handheld inspection tool, such as a plastic film overlay, a UV light, a magnifying glass or a laser pointer. Includes ultraviolet/infrared-sensitive inks, microtext, scrambled images, holograms.
  • Covert devices. These require a more sophisticated detection tool or kit . They may be chemical-based, such as chemical taggants and markers incorporated in the product or the packaging; or electronic, such as a code number or similar identifier (which may require connection to a central database). Covert devices also include DNA and molecular taggants, magnetic labels and embedded codes.
  • Forensic devices.  These require laboratory analysis, which can include analysis of the composition of the product as well as forensic analysis of the authentication marker.

These elements may be found separately or incorporated into a single authentication device. For example, a hologram – the most commonly used device – is an overt feature which can contain hidden and covert images, plus the optical "fingerprint" of the original hologram, which can be examined in a laboratory.

Research conducted by Reconnaissance or by the IPR owners themselves – including case-studies on Allied Domecq, Microsoft, Chanel, Epson and the Turkish Caykur Tea Company – indicate that the properly applied use of authentication devices within a comprehensive anti-counterfeiting strategy can make an effective contribution to reducing counterfeiting and more than recover their cost.

For more information see:

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.