Last week, like a lot of people, Corine Grant clicked on a link to watch the short film Kony 2012 by San Diego nonprofit Invisible Children.
"Everyone was posting about it on Facebook," she said. "So, I started watching it. Of course you feel moved; I kind of teared up—like, 'Wow, this is great.'"
And then somewhere around the nine-minute mark, a bracelet popped up on the screen.
"And I said, 'That looks exactly like mine.' I kept rewinding it, I hit pause, then I went to their website. Not only was it the same bracelet, but almost identical packaging."
To raise money for, and awareness about, Ugandan refugees, Invisible Children has for several years featured "bracelet campaigns," each with a different design. The bracelet Grant saw—a silver disc stamped with the words "Stop at Nothing" on one side and "Kony 2012" on the other, attached to two pieces of red cord and wrapped around a piece of cardboard—is Invisible Children's latest product. For $10, you get just the bracelet. For $30, you can "be an advocate of awesome" and purchase an "action kit"—bracelet, T-shirt, an "action guide," stickers and buttons, among other items. Described on the nonprofit's website as "the ultimate accessory," the bracelet is back-ordered until at least next month. Knockoffs are showing up on eBay.
It's a design and concept Grant said she came up with in 2007—a disc between two pieces of study cord carrying some sort of cute, quirky or inspirational message. A perpetual DIYer, she spent months trying to find just the right materials and presentation. First she tried etching on the metal, but that didn't work out. Then she took a class at Spanish Village in Balboa Park and learned how to hand-stamp metal. The owner of Studio Maureen, the first store to sell Grant's bracelets, suggested she wrap them around a piece of cardboard. Over the next few years, Grant, who's 26, hustled to grow her business, which she called Hammered. Her family took out loans to support her; friends helped her work trade shows and indie-design events like Thread. Word of mouth got her into shops like L.A.'s Fred Segal. Since 2008, she's sold her jewelry at a number of independent shops in San Diego.
In late November, and again in December, Grant had a kiosk at Horton Plaza. She doesn't remember the exact date but said that sometime in December, a group wearing Invisible Children T-shirts and passing out flyers stopped to look at her products.
"They were saying how nice the bracelets were, and they asked me if I'd ever done anything with a nonprofit or charity," she recalled. "I said I hadn't, but I would love to."
She gave them some postcards with images of her bracelets and her business card. She said one person wrote down his information on an Invisible Children flyer and gave it to her. And, on Dec. 19, one of Invisible Children's graphic designers contacted Grant to ask about buying a bracelet for his wife. Grant has the email, which she shared with CityBeat, and a record of the purchase.
After that, no one from Invisible Children contacted her, and she didn't follow up with them, either.
"I'm trying to run a kiosk, I'm trying to make pieces, I'm trying to keep up with my wholesale accounts," she said. "There was just a lot going on. Then, all of the sudden, [last] Wednesday, it's, like, Oh—they went on ahead without me."
She said she called Invisible Children and tried to explain the situation but was hung up on. She tried to call back but couldn't get through. She called the next day and was told to contact Invisible Children's attorney, but the person on the other end hung up in the middle of giving Grant the phone number. Grant said she was able to track down the attorney through a Google search and called her up.
"She said, 'So, do you mean you have bracelets that say "Stop Kony?" Are you saying you make bracelets exactly like these?'" Grant recalled. "I said, 'No, that's not what's stamped onto my bracelets.' She laughed and said, 'It's a very simple design; it was designed in-house,' and then she asked what I wanted from them. I said, 'I'd like it if you stopped selling these.' She laughed again and said, 'We're not going to do that.'"
A spokesperson for Invisible Children provided CityBeat with the following statement: "The design process for the Kony 2012 bracelet started in November 2011. The bracelet is a small part of a much larger advocacy and awareness campaign to bring Joseph Kony to justice once and for all. Invisible Children does not believe any valid claims exist, and has yet to hear from Ms. Grant’s attorney. We will respond accordingly if and when we are contacted."
Grant's attorney, Timothy O'Leary, acknowledges that this is a tough case—copyright laws don't cover ideas.
"There are certain protections out there, and sometimes some expressions of art are viewed as more of an idea as opposed to an actual piece," he said. "It might be difficult to say [Grant's bracelet concept] is not an idea, it's a piece of art, and they've totally knocked it off, [but] you have to have some unique identifiers to really go that far," he said.
O'Leary thinks those identifiers are in how Grant presents her work.
"The bigger picture is the packaging.... That's where I think these guys are totally just lifting off her business. If you look at a picture of her total package, where it comes on a card with the little slits in it to allow the bracelet to go around the card, and then you look at how they're selling the bracelet—comparing those photographs, I think reasonable people would say, 'Yeah, those look really similar' and possibly there's a confusion about who the product is coming from and whether there's any dilution of her brand from that."
Grant said she's been contacted by a handful of friends and two customers, congratulating her for being involved in the Kony 2012 campaign.
Though the Invisible Children's Kony campaign has drawn plenty of criticism and raised questions about the nonprofit's business model, O'Leary said he's warned Grant about repercussions from folks who think she's being an opportunist.
"Some people might view her as riding the coattails of Invisible Children—this company that's big and famous, she's trying to go after them," he said.
Grant said she's not doing this for exposure.
"It's not, 'Oh, they're making X amount of money and I want a piece of that.' I'm not like that," she said. "I really put so much into this. How am I supposed to continue selling these when they've basically put their name on it? I've been trying to do that for the past five years, but I don't have the money they have, or the marketing.
"I'm trying to be realistic," she said. "People copy people all the time, but the bigger guy always wins."