China—an awakening IP giant

Commissioner Tian Lipu of China

Commissioner Tian, with Robert Lindefjfeld, chair-elect of the ABA Intellectual Property Section, and Jeff Lewis, president of the AIPLA.

When Commissioner Tian Lipu from SIPO (the Chinese Patent Office), visited the SIPO/US Bar Liaison Council Conference at Cardozo School of Law on June 3, 2013, his remarks  explained many of our common conceptions of IP in China, and also dispelled many misconceptions.

The most common misconception is that China disregards or doesn’t protect IP rights. Counterfeit goods originate from China, and the belief is that little is done by the government to prevent this, or to respect IP rights. This is no longer true. But historically, not only were IP rights disregarded, they were nonexistent!

The way in which the Chinese people view IP is rooted in history and in culture. While China has one of the oldest civilizations, ironically, the patent system in China is only 30 years old. On March 20, 1983, the state counsel established laws that provide the basic legal function of patent protection within China.  Commissioner Tian noted that “initially the system was introduced from outside to inside,” heavily influenced by principles of patent law in other jurisdictions.

The problem, he said, is that the public are not educated about IP. People in China do not customarily think about ideas as something they can own—and profit from.

If the concept of owning a idea was nearly nonexistent in Chinese culture, then it makes sense that people would not consider it stealing to copy an idea. It also makes sense that it would be difficult to change the public perception—both to prevent them from stealing ideas and to help them to think in terms of profiting from their own ideas!

Tian said, “I ask a traditional company owner, ‘Do you have a patent?’ The owner says, ‘I don’t have a patent, I have a technology.'”

So traditional Chinese companies are just beginning to understand how patents work—how IP ownership is going to work in the market. They are starting to look at how to protect themselves, and how to use patents as a global tool for competing. “In this way, China has not reached that level yet, but it takes time,” Tian said.

But in just 30 years, some businesspeople have begun to change their mindset. Especially with the influx of foreign investors, Chinese companies are beginning to consider IP in their business planning.

In addition, he explained how, contrary to popular belief, the government is very aggressive in pursuing IP rights, and in prosecuting offenders. The SIPO website notes that China investigated 44,000 cases of counterfeiting last year alone.

While inside China the culture is slowly changing, in recent years the number of patent applications from foreigners has skyrocketed. China’s patent office is experiencing growth unheard of in other patent offices around the world.

“This shows that people have confidence in the Chinese system,” remarked Tian. “30 years ago, people could not accept this system. But after only 30 years, we have realized the importance of IP. This is quite an accomplishment.”

Indeed, cultural shifts take time. And no cultural shift requires changing the minds of more people than the shift taking place in China right now!

Commissioner Tian accepts Tiffany apple

C. Frederick Koenig III, the Council Chair of the ABA Intellectual Property Section, presents Commissioner Tian with a ‘big apple,’ from a prime example of strong branding—Tiffany.

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