[Article, Verge] Designers Spend Months Making Custom Keycaps, Then the Counterfeits Arrive

Article from Verge here: Designers spend months making custom keycaps, then the counterfeits arrive - The Verge

I think it’s worth the morning read :slight_smile:


I am not a designer and but does it really take months to design keycaps set? Aren’t people doing this as their side projects?

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Yes and Yes.

Often a big part of the design process is color matching. The main reason it takes months at times, is because designers must wait for GMK (or whatever manufacturer they go with) to send them color samples of the plastic so they can verify they have the right color before moving to manufacturing. This back and forth as the color is matched perfectly can take time.

Obviously these people aren’t just twiddling their thumbs waiting for the mail, but usually are balancing their normal job, family, etc. For many designers, keyboards are part of their side projects


Wow, the author certainly knows his stuff. I can’t imagine someone outside of the community being interested enough to read through the whole article. It’s crazy how much this mechanical keyboard hobby has changed in the past few years!

The “clone” market is fascinating. I’m also curious how the landscape is changing with companies moving more and more toward in-stock items. I see both good and bad from it.

It’s great that designers can get their original products to the market quicker and reach more people at a lower price point. It’s worse because designs don’t go through any sort of interest check and lousy sets show up in stock… and sit in stock.

My favorite part of the hobby is watching ideas come to life, tracking them, helping to support the ones you love (in discussion forums and with my wallet), and finally having them become a reality.

There’s nothing close to that sort of satisfaction when buying an in-stock set that just popped up and is available by the hundreds.

I’m not saying that cheap, in-stock options are bad… they just aren’t for me. And that’s totally fine, right? More options for everyone! It’s a win-win situation.


Good read. This is a dicey topic for sure.

I guess we’re all a little guilty of clone support. I mean, Gateron (and all the rest) wouldn’t be what they are today if Cherry’s patent didn’t expire back in 2014.


Oh DSA Milkshake? Nah, don’t you mean:

HK Gaming GMK DSA PBT Gamer-Allover Milkshake Dye-Sub Gamer GK61 Keyboard Keycap Olivia Striker Tfue Gamer Gateron Switch Kailh Cherry Profile 105 Key ISO Nordic set


Ask Omnitype about color matching. Their Dracula set literally took years and their Redline set is heading down the same road. GB closed 11/2020 and color matching still isn’t complete. At least OT is being responsible and reaching out to other markets instead of pumping out more GB’s that will take forever to fulfill.


Mmmm, keyword salad

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Clone sets are like face tattoos. Lets you know who the crazies are without having to talk to them. I’m a big fan.

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I noticed that the author of that article, Jon Porter, has been writing about keyboards pretty regularly. He also wrote about Drop Mythic Journey, some Logitech boards, and the Keychron Q2.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say mechanical keyboards are mainstream now, I think it’s fair to say mechs are mainstream for techies and other early adopters. Like smartphones in 2009.


Epomaker, a company that produces several clones of popular keycaps that it sells under the same name as the originals, called the similarities “a coincidence,” while another company accused of making clones, Akko, said it believed itself to legally be in the clear so long as it doesn’t copy novelties. “There is probably no way to patent color in any industry,” the company’s business manager tells me.

While he’s not entirely wrong, he’s not entirely right either. There are plenty of examples of trademarked colors. Now, whether Olivia could trademark her colors within the context of mechanical keyboards is another question entirely. Followed by the “should she” variant.

My take on the whole matter lands right in the middle. There are all kinds of people and they will buy all kinds of things. Group buys were successful for years while scrounging to make MOQ, and they will continue to be successful even when clone sets copy them. It’s two separate markets. If designers want to adapt, I’d say options like NicePBT and PolyCaps are great. Run your high end ABS buy and a couple months later, chase it with a buy or in-stock run of budget PBT. Look at what CK did with British Racing Green for example.

I’m not saying I condone it (heck, I’m too critical of quality to be satisfied with most clones), it’s just a fact of life moving into the mainstream. You can either fill the void, or someone else will.


I completely agree with this take on it. I as you would not be happy with the quality of a clone set, but do realize we’re in the minority with that take. There will always be plenty of people who would rather opt for a cheaper “close enough” set for many reasons. So it just makes sense for designers that are really worried about clones of their designs popping up. Should be looking for other manus that can pump out decent quality caps at a much lower price point than the highest quality manus. That way they can satisfy both ends of the spectrum of people who would be interested in buying their caps.


These are usually done by organizations/entities which stake most of their business on the color:- Tiffany Blue, Barbie Pink, Vantablack. They operate on the size, scope and scale that completely dwarfs any keycap designer.

Designers can choose to work with other faster and cheaper keycap manufacturers. This creates a win-win-win scenario:

  • Designer gets their designs out quickly and earn from keycap sales
  • Faster and cheaper keycap manufacturer can release at the speed and price of clone factories, rendering clone factories much less appealing
  • Customers would choose to go for designer’s original versus clone kit, given same/similar price and speed

We see designers already doing this. With PBT Taro, British Racing Green, Milkshake etc


Any artist/designer getting ripped off isn’t something I support.

And I’m not a huge fan of the “that’s Capitalism” defense, but I can’t help but think about “Supply and Demand” simple economics here.

When your product starts to approach the $200 mark and take 12-18 months to get in to the consumers hands, that market void is going to be filled by those that can do it faster and cheaper.

If you play this out a little, maybe it pushes artists/designers to start to move away from GMK and others that take over a year to produce their designs. Maybe it push GMK and others to increase efficiency or put out an additional option to fill that void itself.

Hopefully it leads to a good outcome for everyone.


GMK’s core business isn’t enthusiast keycaps. They’re a much larger company focusing on many other product lines. Besides, it doesn’t make business sense for GMK to actively invest in enthusiast keycaps - here’s a good video by TechAltar explaining the issue with building a brand around enthusiasts. If anything, GMK would rather have a long backlog that ensures their manufacturing equipment are constantly running (most cost effective for them, as idle machines are a loss generator)

There have been plenty of competitors vying to be suitable alternatives to GMK, but many of which seem to fall short of quality according to many enthusiasts. There’s JTK, Infinikey, Domikey, among many others

For example, here’s Shurikey themselves making a direct comparison against GMK to prove their keycaps are of a similar quality: Shurikey compared to GMK

Personally, I think this is pointing to the large issue with this market: group buys are not a sustainable business model. It’s a system that is designed to really only appeal to a small niche group of people who are often willing to overlook the numerous issues with it.

For example, if you are buying a $500 keyboard, but it takes 18 months to produce, you are losing money on the interest that $500 could be accruing in savings, or better yet, in investments. If you think you are “investing” in the producer of that keyboard, ask yourself what are you getting for your investment? You’ve essentially given that person a loan without any interest, or you’ve invested without getting any say / ownership over the “company” (for lack of a better term). And worse, there’s no guarantee of a return on your investment as the product may never actually be completed, and you don’t know if you are going to get a refund if it doesn’t complete.

Honestly, the whole thing is just baffling to me. At least if you back a project on GoFundMe or Kickstarter there are terms applied that you don’t pay the funds until there is some kind of milestone met. That doesn’t mean that the project will be successful, but there’s less of a chance of getting ripped off.

Getting back to keycaps: honestly, I think GMK is one of the worst scams out there. Yes, I get it that they are a premium product, and yes there is a lot more investment into research and development of their products than their competition. Great, that does mean that they should be able to charge a premium price.

However, I had a random thought some time ago about producing some one-off key cap sets, but I wanted them professionally made. So I checked a couple of places, and found out that it was going to cost $500-$800 for a single set of key caps. Why so expensive? The overhead is in the setup and tooling for producing the key caps. It’s more expensive for a company to produce one set of key caps than it is to produce a few hundred or a few thousand sets.

So, when we look at a company like GMK, yes they are spending more to get the materials needed for a production run, but they are producing enough to offset that expense. The R&D portion is generally assumed to be a sunk cost by the company, their risk for producing a successful product. So where does that leave us?

Well, the actual cost per key cap is typically around a penny for a decent production run (say 1000 units), for something custom, this is more likely around 3-4 cents per cap. That makes the production cost for a set of key caps around $3.30-$4.40. So basically, many of the GMK sets are marked up by %4500.

I’ll gladly pay $50-$80 for a good set of key caps. I believe the company should be making a profit, and that profit should be shared with the designers. But, a %4500 markup on a product is not something I’m willing to spend, even if the quality is better…it’s not %4500 better.

Finally, getting to the color argument: as a general rule colors are not something that is covered by copyright or patent law. Where that changes is when a color is used as part of a specific brand, a specific logo, or in a special case in a specific market segment.

British Racing Green was a color used specific for automobiles. That color could be used in other market segments outside of the auto industry without issues. Similar with Tiffany Blue or Barbie Pink, a company couldn’t use those names on their products, or on a product in the same market segment. But, if I want to produce a key cap set that used Tiffany Blue and Barbie Pink I could do so, I just couldn’t use the words Tiffany and/or Barbie, and I could market them to kids or to Tiffany’s audience.

The exception to this comes from things like Vanta Black, or the MIT Black. Those are colors that have a specific, unique physical property that can be described as unique, and would fall under the patent system as they are unique and cannot be produced without copying the production process.

The whole color matching argument is, honestly, baffling. Colors are generally matched by computer these days. You can use a device that is calibrated, get a series of pigment codes, and mix a set of pigments to produce the desired color in a few hours. If the designer knows the colors they want, they should be able to provide copies of them to the manufacturer. The manufacturer should be able to analyze them and produce samples quickly. Yes, there may be some back-and-forth to fine tune them, but it shouldn’t take more than a few weeks to a month.


The TechAltar video is pretty on the nose about all of this… The term he uses “Enthusiast Market” is a specific form of what is largely known as “niche” or “vertical” markets. They are small groups with specific needs or wants that aren’t large enough to build a sustainable business model around.

Typically the approach taken by other companies take is to build their business around the larger market, and then add lines of products that cater to niche / vertical markets. Perfect example of this in the keyboard world is Logitech. The main production is keyboards that appeal to the masses (office, HTPC, mobile), but they have lines that appeal to niche markets like gaming, and life-style products like the Craft.

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The main problem with this is that many of the “faster and cheaper” Chinese factories will not hesitate to just cut the designers out of the profit chain altogether. Cannonkeys tried this and then people found the keysets they were selling on taobao for half their list price direct from the factory. There definitely are more reputable brands that vendors can work with (as far as I can remember CK is now working with enjoypbt for their “cheaper” sets) but it’s not like you can just go to someone who has no moral qualms about selling clone sets and expect them to do honest business with you.

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These are usually done by organizations/entities which stake most of their business on the color:- Tiffany Blue, Barbie Pink, Vantablack. They operate on the size, scope and scale that completely dwarfs any keycap designer.

I think what’s important to note is how those color Trademarks work. Tiffany has their blue copyrighted, but only when used in the context of certain packaging. Otherwise it’s just a color. Vantablack was only protected because some artist dude bought up the formula, but nothing prevented anyone from coming up with a similar product using a formula of their own which has already happened.

Another example; John Deere won a lawsuit over their green color, but only because another farm equipment manufacturer was using it on their equipment. So don’t go manufacturing farm equipment and painting it in the same shade of green as John Deere, but you can paint literally anything else in that green and it’s okay.

I think it would be possible for a designer to copyright a color in the context of keycaps, but it seems like it would require them to come up with an entirely novel shade and not one out of a standard color formula book.

It’s not only expensive and time consuming to trademark a color (or color combination), but astronomically so to defend that trademark.