Olivia Briggs was almost flattered the first time she saw her keycap designs imitated by another manufacturer.
“At first I was actually very excited,” Briggs tells me over a video call. “I had that ‘made it’ feeling. Like ‘wow, my thing is popular enough that other people want to produce it!’” It was a nice change from when the New York-based designer produced her first set of keycaps and feared that “no one” would be interested in them.
But over the past two years, these clones have become more and more prominent, and now, if you search for two of Briggs’ popular keycap sets, Olivia and Olive, Google will often show you clones ahead of the originals. Briggs says a recent sale for her keycap set Olive didn’t perform as well as she’d hoped, and she suspects that the ready availability of clones may have something to do with it.
“At first I was actually very excited”
“There’s frustration that the demand [for Olive] didn’t match my perceived understanding,” Briggs says, “and that perceived understanding was, to a certain extent, fulfilled by the proliferation of clones.”
Briggs is part of a growing movement of artists and designers who produce alternatives to the stock keycaps sold with most mechanical keyboards. The small plastic blocks are easy to detach from their switches using simple pulling tools, and changing them can give a keyboard a radically different look, feel, and sound — not to mention turn a generic computer accessory into something much more personal. Swapping out keycaps for aftermarket alternatives has become so commonplace that it’s not uncommon to see premium keyboards sold without keycaps in the box.
But as designer keycaps have become more popular, so have cheaper knockoffs. These keysets use the same color schemes and often even the same names, in an apparent attempt to piggyback off the popularity of original designs. To a casual observer it’s rarely obvious that they’re produced by an unrelated company, without any input from the designer, and may be capturing sales that could have supported the original creator.
“As a creator, it is frustrating to see a copy of a project you invested hundreds of hours in, designing your own graphics and stuff, being ripped off,” says Biip, a keycap designer known for sets like the colorful DSA Milkshake and abstract GMK Dots. “It’s not even the fact that it could impact the sales of the original but more that someone just raised his middle finger in front of me and stole [from] me.”
Keycaps are uniquely vulnerable to knockoffs because of the complicated process many of them go through to get made. Most keycap designers and sellers don’t have the cash to pay for the manufacture of a set of keycaps up front. Instead, an ad-hoc system known as a “group buy” has emerged, where interested members of the mechanical keyboard community can effectively preorder keycaps, contributing money to pay a factory to produce a run as small as a few hundred sets featuring original color schemes and designs.
The problem is that this approach requires designers to make their work public months in advance of actually being able to produce and ship their work, leaving the door open for diligent copycats to swoop in and produce knockoffs before an original design is ready to ship. Biip says this is exactly what’s happened with several of his own designs, with sets like DSA Milkshake and GMK Awaken getting cloned even before their respective group buys started. And Briggs saw an Olivia clone called PBT Blush appear during her group buy process.
Clones have speed on their side, if they’re prepared to cut corners and avoid some of the more painstaking steps in producing an original set of keycaps. One such step is known as “color matching,” and is crucial if a designer wants the unique color of a set of physical keycaps to match their original designs.
“You have a design in your brain of wanting pink keycaps, but there are literally millions of shades of pink,” explains Kevin Mak, who heads up keyboard-focused retailer Drop’s original product lineup. “[Manufacturers] have to figure out how to make the right ‘recipe’ of that keycap color.” The resulting process often takes as much as five months, with samples being sent between a designer and factories in different countries as many as five to 10 times. “It’s a very, very, very time-consuming process” to do right, Mak says.
“As a creator, it is frustrating to see a copy of a project you invested hundreds of hours in ... being ripped off”
Even once a design is ready to go, it can take a year or more before some popular factories have the capacity to handle a production run. So even when a place like Drop is reordering keycaps based on existing designs, they might not be ready for as many as 18 months.
Clones get out the door quickly and cheaply by cutting these corners, and it shows. HipyoTech, a mechanical keyboard-focused YouTuber who’s in the process of producing his debut set of keycaps, tells me that when he’s compared clones side-by-side with original keycaps, he’s found they’re typically made of thinner plastic and suffer from fit issues when trying to install them on top of switches. Their lettering might also appear fuzzier, and colors can be inaccurate. “In general, you’re getting a worse product when you buy a clone,” the YouTuber tells me.
But there’s a big reason many people turn to these knockoffs: “Price and availability,” Biip says.
Original keycaps are expensive, even by the already premium standards of mechanical keyboards. A designer set can cost anywhere from $70 to over $100 depending on what kind of plastic it’s made out of, while some clones are as cheap as $20.
Perhaps more importantly, though, clones are often readily available in a way that many original designs simply aren’t because of the limited production runs inherent in their group buy process. It’s difficult to find an original set of Olivia keycaps today without diving into aftermarket sales, where prices can be inflated by 2x or more, but you can get a similar looking knockoff delivered in two days on Amazon.
It’s hard to quantify exactly what impact keycap clones are having on the market. Drop’s chief operating officer Jeffrey Holove tells me that the overall health and growth of the keycap market makes it hard to work out the negative impact imitators might be having. “When the overall trend is steeply up, it’s hard to say how much it’s been impacted here and there by clones,” he says.
Making it even more complicated, there isn’t widespread agreement on what qualifies a set as a clone. In the case of Briggs’ and Biip’s designs, many of the clones are shameless, lifting entire color schemes along with their search-critical names. Other creators are accepting of keycaps that use similar colors to existing designs, but think they cross a line if they copy “novelties,” keycaps with unique designs that deviate from typical key lettering.
“It’s hard to say how much it’s been impacted here and there by clones”
HipyoTech agrees with this latter definition. “Broadly, my hardline stance is that if something copies novelties, then that makes me upset,” he tells me. “That’s fundamentally stealing traditional artwork and then selling it for your own gain.”
But in other cases, the ethical lines are more blurred. Multiple companies now produce versions of 9009, a design based on a 20-year-old Reuters terminal keyboard. And much of this hobbyist community is made possible thanks to an expired patent for Cherry’s MX switch, which allows numerous companies to produce their own cross-compatible switches.
Keycap imitators I spoke to seem broadly unconcerned with facing any legal repercussions for apparently copying existing color schemes. 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.
This brazen attitude might be because, despite the potential for lost sales, many of the original designers I spoke to weren’t interested in going after clones of their work. In fact, Briggs told me that imitators can actually be useful for her as a designer, giving her not just an indication of the demand for her designs, but also the kind of quality that’s possible from alternative factories at cheaper price points.
“If anything, it’s good for me, because it incentivizes me to look for alternative manufacturers to run future sets with,” Briggs says. The designer added that if she ever runs Olivia or Olive again, she’s more motivated now to find a more affordable manufacturer to offer “something that people can still get a good amount of quality in, but at a much cheaper price point.”
Others pointed out that the kind of person who buys a more affordable clone might never have bought an original set of keycaps in the first place. Original keycaps can be expensive and vanishingly difficult to get. And although clones are frequently lower quality, and often ethically dubious, they’re affordable and readily available — two qualities that matter a lot when you’re just getting into a niche hobby.
“It’s okay that people can’t or don’t want to buy an expensive keycaps set”
“I remembered the moment I entered the hobby, when I didn’t wanna spend $300 on a keyboard, $100 on switches or keycaps,” Biip says. “It’s okay that people can’t or don’t want to buy an expensive keycaps set. There must be some attractive cheap options so anyone can be happy.”
Mito, another popular designer behind sets GMK Laser and GMK Pulse, agrees. “I think people hold material possessions with too high of a regard and forget that not everyone can afford $100+ for decorative keys,” he tells me in an email. “If by chance people can afford them that’s ok, but if not, just get what you can.”
One exception is designer BroCaps, who produces single, intricate “artisan keycaps” rather than complete sets. In 2015 he unveiled “Tru-Bro ID,” a system that involved printing serial numbers on his keycaps that would be prohibitively expensive for a company to fake.
“Tru-Bro ID has been quite effective, in that it’s an expensive, time-consuming, and tedious process,” BroCaps tells me. “People out to make a quick buck are not going to invest so much time and resources when they can more easily copy another maker’s work.” Although he says most enthusiasts would be able to tell originals from fakes without the system, “some collectors also like the art element of the ID cards.”
The market for clones seems unlikely to disappear anytime soon. But as the industry matures, there are hopes that original premium keycaps could become more accessible. Drop, for one, is investing so that more of its keycaps are available at launch, rather than having to wait for a group buy to complete. Mak says that as of last year around 25 to 30 percent of Drop’s products were in stock and ready to ship at launch. Other players like Kinetic Labs are also investing in this approach.
In the meantime, designers like Olivia Briggs say it can still hurt a little to see people, particularly popular streamers, buying clones of their work. “I have talked with plenty of people that have, in the past, bought fake Olivia keysets … for the most part I’m pretty understanding about it,” Briggs tells me. “A little part of me is hurt, but not in a way where I would resent them or fault them. I very much appreciate where they’re coming from, which is a genuine appreciation and enjoyment over what the colorway looks like and the aesthetics of it.” With any luck, these imitators can at least play a role as an entryway into a flourishing community.