The Economist ran a story about counterfeit handsets in China lately. Counterfeiting and piracy is not exactly all imitation and no creativity but it does actually hurt the economy, or so claimed by original manufacturers because it affects their incentives to innovate. The difficulty lies with assessing whether the consumer would even consume the good in the first place if the imitation is not available. As a matter of fact, I think the best way for these problem to solve themselves is for consumers to realise which one of the products (real or fake) offers them the utility they need. In most cases, people may just be satisfied with imitations then so be it; the original manufacturers simply may not have profited from these group of consumers who would otherwise not be able to afford the real thing.
It is only when the utility functions of these products coincide and people switch from using original to fakes that matters (but the difference should be made up by the disparity in quality or the time lag in introduction of imitations) and becomes a huge problem. And it would be a bad thing if manufacturers ends up engaged in the competition of who is best able to prevent piracy – that’s senseless innovation that penalizes the society in general. Take Digital Rights Management (DRMs) for example. It sucks, everyone hates them and games like Red Alert 3 lost business because of it (though most part of its lack of popularity was attributed to its poor interface design and lame scenarios) and consumers hate big firms for them.
Perhaps intellectual property should be contained in ways that are stricter such that innovations built upon ideas that belongs to others are welcomed. In many sense, parodies are imitations, and so are fan fiction, built upon characterization or story frameworks that belongs to others. We should perhaps start treating the NPhone’s relation with iPhone like Shrek’s relation with Matrix. A joke.