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Protecting IPR

April 2, 2012

IACCM member Gregg Barrett forwarded an article that features a story of corporate espionage and a commentary on the scale of intellectual property theft by Chinese firms.

There can be few who are unaware of the threats to IP that arise when doing business with China. The aspect that makes it especially worrying is the feeling that, far from condemning such espionage or IP theft, the state authorities actively condone it. In the case featured within the article, the CEO of the US victim had taken steps to look beyond the contract and, in his opinion, developed a strong and trusting relationship with his Chinese counterparts. We must wait to see whether the Chinese courts take meaningful action in what appears to be a clear-cut case of theft.

However, before leaping to judgment, I believe we must also place IP protection into an historical context. First, it is important to remember that the entire concept is relatively recent – less than 300 years. Second, we must acknowledge that emerging countries have rarely paid great respect to the concept of intellectual property rights. As nations seek to improve their economic wealth, there is always a delicate balance between collaboration and aggressive competition in their international dealings. While on the one hand there is recognition of the benefits of trade, on the other there is a hunger to equal or better the position of rival nations. Even in established economies, this friction remains – for example, the debates over free trade or protectionism.

If we go back to the 1800’s, there are certainly many examples of US entrepreneurs ‘borrowing’ ideas from elsewhere. In those days, it could take years before the original owner was even aware that their IP had been stolen and the chances of them launching a successful prosecution were few. The acceptance of IP principles tends to come only when a country has passed a point of equilibrium – when it has more to lose than it has to gain. This comes about in two ways. One is through the development of its own inventions and the other is through its hunger to export and trade in foreign markets. In the first case, having its own inventions creates a desire for protection (both domestic and foreign) and therefore a more effective legal system. In the second case, the wish to export creates an exposure to action in foreign courts which may not share the benign view of their Chinese counterparts.

Since the chances of concerted world action against China seem remote, it appears that companies must in large part rely on themselves for handling the threat of IP loss. They must carefully consider the extent and nature of their trade with China. They must think of ways to limit access to the full specification of their products. They must increase vigilance over employee hiring and loyalty. And they must continue to invest in security products that prevent access an create alerts against attempted IP theft. Perhaps most of all they must hope that China soon reaches that point of equilibrium where it starts to share the view that IP should be respected.

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