Changing perspective: why you should never underestimate trade secrets’ power

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If you heard about a threat that had already caused a loss of EUR60 billion in economic growth and almost 289000 jobs in Europe alone, that could lead to the loss of one million jobs by 2025, you’d try to do something about it, wouldn’t you?

Those are the estimated losses caused by the theft of trade secrets due to cyber-espionage only. From states to single companies, no one is doing enough to stop this problem.

It is important to change our perspective, to understand what trade secrets are and why they are so relevant, so you and your company can put adequate protection in place, especially when doing business outside Europe.

Starting with the basics: a trade secret is a piece of confidential business information that can be of considerable commercial value and can provide an enterprise with a competitive edge.

In other words, a trade secret can be anything from manufacturing processes or sales or distribution methods to consumer profiles, from advertising strategies to lists of suppliers and clients — as long as it is relevant for your business and you are keeping it secret.

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Most of the legislation used to protect information as a trade secret (and to prosecute infringers) requires companies to put some form of defence in place to protect the confidentiality of the information.

Trade secrets do not need to be registered to be protected and, as long as they are kept as secrets, the legal safeguards last forever.

A recent study commissioned by the European Commission (complete text here, executive summary here) shows that companies, especially SMEs, underestimate both the value of their trade secrets and the chances that they might get stolen due to cybercrime.

Consequentially, companies, especially SMEs, tend to underestimate the impact of a breach in their security. A stolen trade secret can lead to at least four kinds of economic damage.

  • Opportunity costs: the loss of business opportunities and market shares.
  • Negative impacts on innovation: companies lose their investments in R&D when their knowledge is stolen and given to the public.
  • Increase in the cost of cybersecurity: if the company has been attacked the costs of cleaning up the system can be very high, as can increases in cybersecurity insurance.
  • Reputational damage: if the fact that a company has been hacked becomes public knowledge, this will reduce the trust of investors, business partners and even consumers.

The report highlighted the importance of awareness among companies in terms of preventing the loss of trade secrets. A solid legal framework is not enough, you have to do your part, and put necessary protections in place.

SMEs are the main target of cyber thieves and make up the majority of cyber-espionage victims because their cybersecurity protocols are weaker than those of big companies.

Cyber-espionage mostly involves external perpetrators. This is a large part of the problem, but it’s not the only issue. Especially when you are doing business in South-East Asia.

Other kinds of barriers must be taken into consideration. The most basic protection is probably afforded by physical barriersstore the secret information in an undisclosed physical location that only some employees have access to.

Physical barriers can seem outdated now, and they probably are when it comes to documents (who doesn’t store them on a computer nowadays?). However, they are still relevant when you admit potential partners, or indeed visitors in general, to your premises. Make sure that they cannot take pictures of your innovative products and have them sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

Technical barriers are the most relevant against cybercrime in general and cyber theft in particular. They consist of various information technology (IT) systems that safely store your secrets. They can be expensive, but, as the experts stress, the lack of adequate protection is exactly what makes SMEs the perfect prey for cyber-attacks. There are some basic steps you can implement yourself, from a good password system to basic encryption. However, it’s even more important to develop an IT strategy (for example, you should make it impossible for documents to be shared via the internet or saved on physical devices like USB sticks), possibly with the help of a specialist, and prepare a written technology policy agreement. Make sure that all your employees have read and signed NDAs.

gold-padlock-locking-door-164425Written agreements are among your best weapons when it comes to protecting your trade secrets. Having people sign an NDA will make them conscious of their actions and ensure they think twice before betraying your trust. Having an NDA in place will also make them legally liable for sharing a secret.

When you’re doing business in South-East Asia, it’s of great importance to have your agreements in the local language. This prevents the other party from claiming that they did not understand their confidentiality obligation.

Having a solid NDA in place is not only important for your relationship with your employees and partners (or potential partners), but also for your relationship with your suppliers and subcontractors.

NDAs are essential in a well-drafted trade secret strategy, but they are not the only element of it. Alongside the technology policy agreements already mentioned, a role can be played by non-competition and non-solicitation clauses in employment contracts. These kind of clauses prevent your former employees from using your list of clients in their new position. Singapore and Malaysia are the most favourable countries for these kind of agreements.

You can also upgrade your NDAs, following the Chinese practice you can draft a non-disclosure, non-use, non-circumvention (NNN) agreement. The idea is to bind your counterpart to strict confidentiality. They are not allowed to disseminate the information (as in an NDA), and nor can they use it for their advantage or circumvent the agreement with anticompetitive practices. The idea is to combine secrecy and non-competition elements.

Even in Europe, trade secret thieves can be hard to prosecute due to the difficulty involved with supplying adequate proof. It’s better to put prevention safeguards in place. After all, prevention is better than medicine.

An even higher level of caution needs to be in place when doing business in South-East Asia. Keep in mind that most ASEAN courts tend to favour a local labour force using knowledge acquired in their previous jobs to make a living, without paying too much attention to the fact that the information might be a valuable trade secret belonging to a former employer.

Many countries (such as Brunei and Cambodia) do not have proper protections for trade secrets in place, and in others (like Myanmar), trade secrets are only protected under contract law, so there is no protection without a contractual relationship.

In Indonesia, trade secrets are protected only when an unlawful appropriation can be proven. To prove an unlawful appropriation you have show that there was an NDA in place and that it was breached, or that your IT or physical protections were abused.

At the moment, the law in Thailand imposing registration on trade secrets is suspended. However, if you are doing business in the country, it’s better to keep a very close eye on this.

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Even in countries like Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam, where relatively sound protections for trade secrets are in place, it can be difficult to protect yourself in the absence of a contract.

To sum up: trade secrets are valuable intangible assets that do not need any registration and potentially last forever. However, you have to learn how to protect your valuable information from cyber thieves, unfaithful partners or greedy former employees.

The first step is to recognise what your secrets are, and then draft your strategy accordingly.

If you have any doubts or questions do not hesitate to reach out to us. The South-East Asia IPR SME HD offers free support to all EU SMEs.

 

Marta Bettinazzi

IP Business Advisor

South-East Asia IPR SME Helpdesk

E: marta.bettinazzi@southeastasia-iprhelpdesk.eu

W: www.southeastasia-iprhelpdesk.eu

 

The role of Intellectual Property in the development of a green future in the ASEAN countries

The COVID-19 pandemic hitting the entire world has provided big challenges for 2020. But this new problem should not make us forget the bigger picture, and the even bigger challenges: Climate change is now a reality, and we are all called to act to prevent the worst scenarios.IPday2020_Profile_picture_Social_Media_2

This is why this year the WIPO has decided to dedicate their World Intellectual Property (IP) Day 2020 to a green future, focusing on innovation — and the IP rights (IPR) that support it.

The IP community should work together to foster green innovation, especially in developing countries.

In this examination, we are going to try to understand the current role of green technologies in the ASEAN countries, and at the same time, see how IP can fit into the picture.

It’s no secret that in recent years, Asia has based its economic growth on a ‘grow now, clean up later’ model. Economic success has come at a high environmental cost. Taking Indonesia as the main example, we can see that deforestation and peatland burning are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions and drivers of biodiversity loss. While an increasing number of countries have committed to phasing out unabated coal use, Indonesia’s 2014 National Energy Policy envisages nearly doubling it by 2025 (compared to 2015 levels) to achieve an affordable electricity supply for all.

Pollution is not just putting pressure on the natural capital of the country, but could ultimately put the economic development and the wellbeing of its citizens at risk.

This is not just unacceptable from a moral standpoint, it’s also highly inconvenient from an economic point of view.

This is why we are starting to see a slight change in attitude towards green technologies from the peoples and the governments of the ASEAN nations.

According to a report by Clean Energy Pipeline (quoted by Intern Asia), investments in solar projects in Southeast Asia increased at an annual growth rate of 8 % between 2010 and 2014.

Since there are still 70 million ASEAN citizens without access to reliable electricity, the potential for renewable energy is huge — and solar energy is one of the best solutions.

Energy production is one of the main focuses of green development, but it’s not the only one. Waste management, water purifying, clean building and smart cities are among the top priorities. There is also an increase in demand for ‘green’ products from consumers that are developing an environmental consciousness.

This huge demand for new technologies and innovative solutions also provides an opportunity for SMEs to contribute to a greener future.

As the WIPO suggested, ‘Transitioning to a low-carbon future is undoubtedly a complex and multi-faceted endeavour. But we have the collective wisdom, ingenuity and creativity to come up with new, more effective ways to shape a green future and the IP system has a pivotal and enabling role in supporting us on this journey.’

IP alone cannot ‘make the innovation happen’, however, without IP an innovation framework would be doomed to collapse.

It cannot be doubted that fostering and protecting innovation is one of the main functions of IPR. Without IP protection, investments in intangible assets would be less secure; these assets could not be claimed, protected or traded. In other words, if any competitor can use intangible assets without an investment, no investor will be willing to risk their capital.

This is especially true for patents. Patents ensure inventors have the exclusive right to exploit an invention; this form of commercial reward can potentially encourage companies to invest in new, clean and efficient technologies. On the other hand, patented technologies are disclosed to the public, this ensures that the technical knowledge surrounding invention research is publicly accessible and can inspire further innovation. The WIPO and many IP offices around the world, including the European Patent Office (EPO), have implemented better databases to promote the dissemination of information regarding green tech and, in the end, the development of new inventions.

Patents are also pivotal in the business strategy of many green companies; they do not just attract and secure funding, they are also a source of revenue (through patent licensing and technology transfer agreements, non-commercial licenses and other arrangements).

Collaboration between government and startups has been seen to help meet climate challenges while growing small businesses. It’s not a huge surprise, but it’s still worth noting, that US-based startup patents in green-tech development tend to rise by 73 % when there is a collaboration with government behind them.

However, when it comes to the international exploitation of patents, some caution is needed.

IP protection is territorial, this means that your patented invention is not automatically protected in the world, while it’s disclosed worldwide. Therefore, preparing a good international patenting strategy and/or putting in place additional protections, for example wrapping your technology in Non-Disclosure Agreements, is of paramount importance.

Also keep in mind that free technology transfers are not always encouraged by ASEAN governments that prefer to keep some form of control over them, for example by imposing registration obligations on contracts.

Moreover, according to the TRIPS Agreement (here), national laws can provide exceptions to the exclusive rights conferred by a patent, as long as they are not unreasonable and properly balance the expectations of the patent owner and those of third parties. Some countries, including Indonesia, have taken advantage of this provision to impose some form of compulsory licenses.

As mentioned, instead of patents you can rely on trade secrets to protect your new technologies. This is particularly useful for SMEs as trade secrets don’t need to be registered, so they don’t have cost implications or time limitations. However, trade secrets provide weaker protection, and the best strategy is probably to combine patents with trade secrets.

As a general rule, a good IP strategy is not limited to patent protection — and the green sector is no exception.

Design protection can, for example, play a very important role in providing protection from copycats and cheap reproductions. A small change in the design of a product can significantly change its performance in terms of energy use (for example in vehicles or aircraft). In ASEAN countries, protection for industrial designs is quite sophisticated and is usually less constrained and easier to obtain than patent protection.

Software and, in particular, Artificial Intelligence have, and will have, an important role in the development of new solutions for a green world (for example, helping to measure and regulate demand, and offering energy-optimizing resource use).

From the traditional viewpoint of IP law, software is protected as a literary or artistic work under copyright. This is not the time nor place to discuss if copyright is the best way to protect software and the problematic topic of the patentability of computer-based inventions. Let’s work with what we have.

The good news is that thanks to the Berne Convention copyright does not entail any formal registration process and arises automatically upon the completion of the work. This protection should be ensured in every country that is a member of the convention (including ASEAN ones). However, registration is advisable as it provides proof of ownership in potential conflicts.

As mentioned, the green economy also means that greener options are available to consumers. In ASEAN countries, the middle class is developing an interest in healthier foods. This includes many European Geographical Indications (GIs), as they are perceived to be natural and good. GIs, as well as attracting consumers, also provide a good way to uphold sustainable production standards.

Finally, do not forget the power of branding! Your trade mark is your value and your reputation, if you manage to build a strong bond with your consumers and market yourself as a legitimate ‘green brand’ you will acquire more and more customers that share your values.

However, do not forget that the best trade marks are the distinctive ones. Simply adding ‘green’ to your name might convey a good message, but it can be deemed to be a descriptive element and hinder your trade mark protection. It’s always better to choose trade marks that, as well as being connected to green topics, have a more distinctive flavour. Think about plants, animals or even rocks … be creative!

It’s worth noting, that if you claim to be green and clean you should be. Otherwise, you will not just be betraying the consumers’ faith, but also breaking consumer protection laws.

Protecting your brand and registering your trade marks is even more important when doing business in areas like SEA where counterfeiting is rampant. Registering a trade mark early is the first, and sometimes also the most effective, step towards protecting yourself.

To sum up, a good IP strategy can foster growth in every sector, in particular in fast-developing industries like green tech. Be ready and do your bit.

Happy IP Day!

 

South-East Asia IPR SME HD: https://www.southeastasia-iprhelpdesk.eu/

 

WIPO World Intellectual Property Day 2020 – Innovation for a Green Future: https://www.wipo.int/ip-outreach/en/ipday/2020/green_future.html

 

AIPPI Report on Intellectual Property and Green Technology, 2014: https://aippi.org/enews/2014/edition38/images/reports.pdf

 

OECD Green Growth Policy Review, Indonesia 2019: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/1eee39bc-en/index.html?itemId=/content/publication/1eee39bc-en

 

ASEAN fast becoming a renewable energy hub: https://theaseanpost.com/article/asean-fast-becoming-renewable-energy-hub

 

Eurocham Vietnam Greenbook: https://www.eurochamvn.org/node/16988

 

The Role of IP Rights in Green Technologies Innovation: http://metispartners.com/2019/11/22/the-role-of-ip-rights-in-green-technologies-innovation/

 

Green technology in Asia: https://www.internasia.com/Green-technology-Asia

 

Environmental issues are top priority for Asia’s youth: https://www.eco-business.com/news/environmental-issues-are-top-priority-for-asias-youth/

 

Compulsory Licensing Procedures in Indonesia Revised: https://www.rouse.com/magazine/news/compulsory-licensing-procedures-in-indonesia-revised-again/

Online IP Infringement in South-East Asia: How to protect your business

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WRITTEN BY XUAN NGUYEN

 

The South-East Asian internet economy has witnessed a striking increase

According to the latest report by Google, Temasek and Bain & Company, the number of internet users in South-East Asia (SEA) has increased rapidly, reaching 360 million in 2019 — 100 million more than in 2015. Powered by rapid adoption and changing consumer preferences, the South-East Asian internet economy has leapt nearly 40 % from last year to exceed USD 100 billion, and is on track to hit USD 300 billion in 2025. The region has seen booming development, especially in the e-commerce sector. In 2015, 49 million people bought or sold items online. Today, that number has tripled to 150 million.[1]

Photo source: https://pixabay.com

Photo source: https://pixabay.com

The internet is fueling a dramatic rise in counterfeit and pirated products

It is obvious that the internet has brought enormous opportunities for companies, especially Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) to develop and expand their business internationally. However, on the other hand, digitalisation also creates fertile ground for online intellectual property (IP) infringement, such as counterfeiting products, pirated goods, cybersquatting, stolen trade secrets, etc. As a result, it has caused various negative impacts on the sales, profits and reputations of affected companies as well as having broader adverse effects on the economy and public health, safety and security.

‘The Economic Impacts of Counterfeiting and Piracy’ report from Frontier Economics pointed out that the estimated value of total counterfeit and pirated goods in the world was USD 923 billion – 1.13 trillion in 2013 and is forecasted to reach an astounding USD 1.90 – 2.81 trillion in 2022.[2]

As it is now easier for everyone to buy and sell goods online, fake and pirated products are booming in SEA, across various e-commerce platforms, social media channels (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok) and a number of local websites. Consumers are offered a wide variety of counterfeit and pirated products. These items can be labelled with a counterfeited trade mark or just replicate the appearance of the original goods, and they are sold at any price-scale. Products majorly exposed to online counterfeiting are fashion retail, electronics, perfume and cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, FMCG, baby products, alcohol and automotive.[3] The origin of the fake products being sold in SEA varies, they can be produced locally or imported from  other countries notorious for manufacturing counterfeits, such as China, India and Turkey.

Online counterfeit and pirated goods have caused serious damage to the sales and profits of IP owners, jeopardised brand reputations and rendered the consumer less interested in authentic products. Vendors often use pictures of the original goods to attract consumers and then provide a counterfeit product. Ultimately, customers start to lose interest in affected brands.

An even more serious concern is connected with the use of fake products in the pharmaceutical, chemical, foods and beverages sectors. These products are not subject to controls like the original ones, and can seriously affect the consumers’ health.

How to combat online infringement

Online IP infringement is growing exponentially in SEA, for many reasons. IP rights are territorial, however online IP infringement is borderless. ‘While there is a degree of harmonization of the laws and regulations governing IP rights and their enforcement, these are not unified. Varying laws and practices in different jurisdictions make it difficult to navigate the legal landscape, fuelling legal uncertainty about outcomes.’[4] In any jurisdiction, the internet itself makes it harder to track down infringers effectively and stop them, but it is particularly difficult in SEA. The effectiveness of IP enforcement in the region is still a major concern. As a result, online trading is quickly becoming more and more attractive for IP infringers as they are less likely to be caught in SEA. In addition, although laws and regulations in South-East Asian countries generally prohibit the sale of counterfeit and pirated products, they do not specifically deter the sale of these products online. There is a lack of effective laws against online IP infringement, and the authorities have little experience in dealing with it.

The majority of the online trade in counterfeit products and pirated goods is at the retail scale, it means there is a huge number of infringers that companies must monitor in order to combat them. The internet makes it easy for anyone to set up a new online business. This means that even if  the culprits agree to stop their infringing actions after receiving a warning from the IP owner, e-commerce operators or enforcement authorities, it is still possible that they will quickly set up a new shop to continue with the illegal selling.

However, taking no action is inadvisable for companies seeking to safeguard their business in SEA. If your products have been infringed and sold in various places, a ‘no actions’ strategy will have a negative impact on your global business and jeoparadise your reputation.

To protect IP effectively, a company should build up a proactive and multi-faceted strategy to act swiftly and effectively against online infringers. The following options can be considered.

  • Actively monitor the online marketplace, and shopping and social media platforms, to identify infringement: Companies can do this by themselves or hire service companies with expertise in the field. In addition, today there are many advanced technological tools for searching and detecting sources of IP violation.
  • Conduct an investigation and gather facts: Don’t make a groundless claim, it will cost you both time and money. Once you have found a suspected infringement on the internet, the first step is to collect evidence on the infringer, e.g. basic information (name, address, other contact details, the scale of their business and the origin of their products).
  • Take-down Notices and Warning Letters: The majority of online infringers in SEA are small businesses, therefore sending a Warning Letter to online infringers has often proved to be a time- and cost-effective option. Also, submitting a Take-down Notice and Infringement Complaint to the e-commerce platform and social media operators can be another effective approach. Read and understand the IP policy against online infringment of each platform so that you can provide the appropriate information and documents as required to ensure the take-down is fast and effective.
  • Work with local enforcement agencies: Companies should be well prepared, with at least a basic understanding of the enforcement agencies available in each country in SEA and of how companies are eligible to use the enforcement options in the jurisdiction. It is worth noting that to enforce your rights in SEA, you are usually required to register your IP with the IP office of the country where you seek enforcement. Raid actions to seize infringing products, filing a claim to a court, or using customs to block counterfeit and pirated goods are also enforcement options that companies may consider in specific cases.
  • Seek advice from local experts: There are still many differences between IP laws and practices between the EU and SEA, and even within SEA inconsistencies abound. As many of the counterfeit and pirated products for sale are advertised in local languages or posted on local websites, monitoring by detection software or searching tools (usually in Roman characters) doesn’t work effectively. Therefore, companies should always seek advice from local experts who are familiar with local cases of infringement and who have close relations with enforcement bodies such as the courts, police and customs authorities.

SEA is a promising destination to expand your business in. However, there are still major concerns there relating to IP protection, especially in the digital era. European companies should be aware of the risks and prepare their IP strategy before going abroad. A proactive and well-prepared IP protection programme will secure sustainable business growth in SEA.

By Xuan Nguyen – Project Officer, South-East Asia IPR SME Helpdek

[1] e-Conomy SEA 2019: https://www.bain.com/insights/e-conomy-sea-2019/

[2] ‘The Economic Impacts of Counterfeiting and Piracy’ by Frontier Economics: https://www.inta.org/Communications/Documents/2017_Frontier_Report.pdf

[3] Industries exposed to online counterfeiting: https://www.group-ib.com/brandprotection/anticounterfeiting.html

[4] ‘IP Infringement Online: the dark side of digital’: https://www.wipo.int/wipo_magazine/en/2011/02/article_0007.html

 

Blockchain and Copyright Protection

shutterstock_107811341Blockchain is quickly becoming the hot topic also for IP protection in China. Today’s blog post, which has been kindly shared with us by Nancy Leon from Ferrante Intellectual Property, will be focusing on how new technological solutions like blockchain can be used in China for copyright protection. 

The recent IP summit hosted in Shenzhen included the Copyright summit.

Experts highlighted the importance of new technologies including blockchain, which will be widely used to protect Intellectual Property in China; this will improve efficiency and accuracy as well as lower costs.

The blockchain is an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value. In this way blockchain can secure the safety of the original work and prove an efficient and economical way to protect the intellectual property for large number of contents.

Xiamen Anne Corp is among China’s first groups that have applied blockchain technology into Copyright protection, which can verify the author’s creative work start date, grant authorization when the work is used and safeguard the rights when infringement is detected. Continue reading “Blockchain and Copyright Protection” »

IP Enforcement Litigation in Taiwan: Some Basics

courtToday’s blog post has been kindly shared with us by our external experts Mr. John Eastwood and Ms. Eve Chen from Eiger. In this article, Mr. Eastwood and Ms. Chen give a basic overview of IP enforcement litigation in Taiwan. You will learn more about the options you have in Taiwan to take action against the infringements of your IP rights and how to prepare to defend your rights. The article first appeared on Eiger website.  

INTRODUCTION

Rights holders looking at Asia-Pacific enforcement budgets often have to make hard decisions about where to take action. Although Taiwan’s population is small (about 22 million), it has a big role in financing massive overseas infringement in China and Southeast Asia and it is still a major manufacturer of fake optical-media products (CDs, DVDs, CD-ROMs), auto parts, and high-tech products involving infringements of patents and misappropriation of trade secrets. Fortunately, the Taiwan court system offers some solid options to rights holders who want to take action.

PREPARING FOR ACTION

Rights holders need to prepare evidence and documents establishing their rights and the facts of infringement before they take action, as the Taiwan police, prosecutors and judges involved with authorizing raid actions are sticklers for details. As a preliminary matter in trademark and copyright cases, it is important to assemble copies of the Taiwan trademark certificates (front and back sides) and any supporting documentation needed to establish copyright protection. Continue reading “IP Enforcement Litigation in Taiwan: Some Basics” »