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

 

COVID-19 and overwhelming amounts of counterfeits online: What businesses should do — right away!

Written by Xuan Nguyen

 

According to an update from the World Health Organization (WHO), by 15 April 2020 the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) had already infected 1 918 138 people in 213 countries, territories and areas, resulting in 123 126 deaths. Various governmental interventions have been applied, including border closures, strict quarantines, travel bans, and the forced closure of many businesses. 

It is expected that a deep economic crisis will follow the pandemic (which is still evolving and unpredictable). So far a dramatic slump in economic activities has been witnessed, affecting not only the supply chain (production of goods and services) but also demand (consumption and investment). Many people are forced to stay at home, factories have stopped operating, restaurants, shops and public places are closed. Consumers are being driven toward online shopping marketplaces. While major parts of the world, including, Europe, the USA and a lot of Asia, are struggling to fight against the crisis, in China the situation is now apparently under control and factories are gradually returning to normal.

Photo source: https://pixabay.com

Photo source: https://pixabay.com

The current situation has also created fertile ground for the sale of counterfeit goods online, especially in sudden upsurge sectors such as pharmaceuticals and medical devices. According to Interpol, during one week of action (3–10 March 2020), authorities in 90 participating countries seized more than 4.4 million units of illicit pharmaceuticals, more than 37 000 unauthorised and counterfeit medical devices, and closed down more than 2 500 web links, including websites, social media pages, online marketplaces and online adverts for illicit pharmaceuticals[1].

In South-East Asia all 10 countries have reported a substantive number of COVID-19 cases. Since there was already a high number of local counterfeit manufacturers available, and a significant trade exchange with nearby China, the region is very high risk in terms of counterfeits invading the market. Recently, Thai police seized 45 000 fake COVID-19 test kits, 350 000 medical masks, and 1 200 infrared thermometers that were smuggled into the country by two Chinese men. All products sold online claiming to be COVID-19 test kits at the moment are fake, according to the Thai Food and Drug Administration (FDA)[2].  Vietnamese authorities also found that a company in Vietnam had been making masks out of toilet paper amid the coronavirus outbreak and skyrocketing demand[3].

These figures are just the tip of the iceberg. There are overwhelming numbers of counterfeit products. This article will discuss how counterfeits are being fueled by an online market and what the brand owner should do to mitigate the impact.

Why have counterfeits surged in the shadow of the COVID-19 outbreak?

  • The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a spike in demand for essential products, such as personal protective devices (facemasks, hand sanitizers and antiviral medication), vitamins, pharmaceuticals, foods and beverages, as well as non-essential products, such as cosmetics and personal care items, household products, electronics, work-from-home tools, entertainment technology and children’s toys. Meanwhile, the majority of factories are being shut down, causing the shortage of supplies of genuine products. ‘In moments of high demand and rushed buying decisions, counterfeiters can jump on the opportunity and sway buyers in their direction[4].’
  • People are shopping online much more than ever. According to analysis by ACI Worldwide, ‘The COVID-19 crisis is driving the global growth of e-commerce sales, with millions of consumers worldwide in quarantine shopping for goods, services and entertainment online. Transaction volumes in most retail sectors have seen a 74 percent rise in March compared to the same period last year.’ The dark side of this phenomenon is that people can be more easily tricked. Many sellers use photos of genuine products while offering extremely low prices to attract online buyers during a time of crisis, and then provide fake products to consumers. It can also create a backlash for brand owners, leading consumers to mistakenly believe the product quality is very low and to lose interest in the brand.
  • The crisis has caused an immediate reduction in the income of many people across the globe, and consumers are looking for the cheapest possible versions of goods because of their reduced budgets. While the pandemic is still evolving, millions of people have lost their jobs following business restrictions and closures. According to a report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), if we are experiencing a ‘“High” scenario where COVID-19 has serious disruptive effects, reducing GDP growth by around 8 percent: Global unemployment would increase by 24.7 million, with an uncertainty ranging from 13 million to 36 million[5].’ Given the current environment of uncertainty and fear, and the real threat of significant declines in income, consumers in many economies are unable to purchase branded goods and services as before; buying cheap counterfeit products can be a tempting option.
  • Many counterfeit suppliers are concentrated in China where the situation is under control and factories have gone back to their normal operations. This means counterfeiters may be in a better position to jump onto the upsurge in demand before legitimate sellers can reopen production. Amid the panic of the crisis, a lot of companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are concentrating on solving critical issues such as declines in revenue, insolvencies and job cuts, rather than keeping an eye on monitoring the marketplaces for fakes. As a result of the lack of the legitimate owners’ attention, counterfeiters can more easily flood the market with fakes.
  • Customs checks, market investigations, and raid and seize activities have been reduced following social distancing and safety measures. In the same way as many other public services during this health crisis, officers involved with anti-counterfeiting activities have been physically limited to avoid the risk of infection. This means that infringers have more opportunity to take a free ride on the market.

What should brand owners do?

During volatile market conditions and the resulting increase in online shopping, consumers easily become targets for counterfeiters. Brand owners need to stay on top of monitoring and combating fakes more than ever. Otherwise, they may lose sales to counterfeiters.

  • Focus on monitoring e-commerce and social media platforms and proactively communicate with the customers. During the current social distancing measures and travel bans, a majority of customers has been using the internet for buying stuff instead of shopping physically, you need to keep a close eye to the net to protect your revenue and maintain safe channels for your business during the crisis, and after it ends. When some sectors have a spike in demand while genuine supply chains are being disturbed, fakes become a more serious issue. Brand owners should be more protective about their communications with their consumers, guiding them to available supply channels with authentic products and warning them about fakes.
  • 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 quickly 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: Utilise the available complaint functions on the e-commerce platforms and encourage social media operators to quickly take down infringing products. In the meantime, as a legitimate brand owner, you can also consider sending Warning Letters to the counterfeiter to ask them to stop their illegal activities.
  • Inform the competent authorities: In South-East Asian countries, local governments have recently made many efforts and improvements in combating online counterfeits. Brand owners can find available complaint tools — such as hotlines, emails or complaint submissions on the websites of customs, market police departments and other relevant national bodies — to promptly notify the authorities.
  • Seek advice from local IP experts. In critical cases, companies are usually advised to consult with local experts that are familiar with infringement cases and have close relations with enforcement bodies such as customs, investigators and the police. It is worth noting that many counterfeits are advertised in local languages or posted on local websites, so monitoring using detection software or search tools (usually in Roman characters) doesn’t work effectively.

The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. Our lives, and the way we do business, have changed in recent weeks. Brand owners should swiftly adapt to the new situation to protect their businesses against counterfeiters. Neglecting this during the crisis might cost you more than you imagine, i.e. from losing your faithful customers to losing your entire share of the market. Keeping your company safe amid the chaos, and getting ready for normal business to resume, is the only way to retain both your revenue and your reputation.

[1] https://www.interpol.int/en/News-and-Events/News/2020/Global-operation-sees-a-rise-in-fake-medical-products-related-to-COVID-19

[2] https://thethaiger.com/coronavirus/big-arrest-on-price-gouging-of-covid-19-safety-gear-and-fake-test-kits

[3] https://www.insider.com/vietnam-company-using-toilet-paper-for-coronavirus-masks-faces-penalty-2020-2

[4] https://www.redpoints.com/pdfs/market-research-impact-of-covid-19-on-ecommerce-sales/?utm_campaign=HS284-market-research-survey-impact-of-covid-9-on-ecommerce-sales&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=84691783&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-_KXO0X8sOU11ZaL9gXi53LxFBQjYdtj-ZtCHwLlocKYxHxgibn05yKKsXyfyIzVAccGKAF&utm_content=84691783&utm_source=hs_automation

[5] https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_738753.pdf

EU–Singapore FTA: Highlight of improvements on intellectual property

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WRITTEN BY XUAN NGUYEN

 

Singapore and the EU are key trading partners. The EU is Singapore’s third-largest trading partner in goods, accounting for 10 % of its total trade with the world. Singapore is the EU’s largest trading partner in ASEAN, representing close to a quarter of the total EU–ASEAN trade in goods and over half of the EU–ASEAN trade in services. Over 10 ,000 EU companies are established in Singapore, and use it as a hub to serve the whole South Pacific.

The EU–Singapore trade and investment protection agreements were signed on 19 October 2018. The trade agreement entered into force on 21 November 2019, while the investment protection agreement will enter into force after it has been ratified by all EU Member States according to their own national procedures.

Photo (create by piktochart)

The trade agreement is expected to increase opportunities for cooperation, and foster future growth and progress for all the parties involved. In the immediate future, the companies will benefit from the removal of tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade in goods and services, the liberalisation of investments and public procurement, and a boost in competition and sustainable development. In addition, the agreement contains important improvements on intellectual property (IP) protection that will contribute to strengthening the position of Singapore as one of the most profitable and secure destinations in Asia for business investment and the expansion of EU companies.

Following a commitment in the agreement, Singapore has strengthened its existing Geographical Indication (GI) protection regime by setting up a system that allows GIs to be registered. The agreement contains one annex with a list of 196 European GIs that will be applying for protection in Singapore. Champagne from France, Parmigiano Reggiano from Italy, and Scotch Whisky from Scotland are some examples of iconic EU GIs to be protected in Singapore. EU GIs will enjoy the same level of protection as in the European Union. In the long run, better protection by Singapore’s authorities will also raise local consumer awareness around authentic, top quality GI products from the EU. As of 1 February 2020, a total of 139 European GIs (mainly covering wines, spirits, foodstuffs, and agricultural products) have been registered in Singapore.

Regarding copyright, the agreement provides for equitable payment for both performers and producers of recorded music played on the radio, TV or in places open to the public (such as shops, restaurants, bars). This will be implemented within two years of the trade agreement entering into force.

The enforcement chapter sets out detailed provisions on civil enforcement measures, including general obligations related to the availability and the application of these measures, provisions on preserving evidence in disputes, injunctions, damages and on the liability of intermediary service providers.

With regard to border enforcement, EU companies can now request that Singapore’s customs seize counterfeit trade mark goods and pirated copyright goods. Within three years from the entry into force of the trade agreement, holders will also be able to request that Singapore’s customs seize counterfeit GI goods and goods with pirated designs when they are being imported or exported.

Singapore and the EU also committed to putting ex officio procedures by the authorities into action. This means that the authorities may act on their own initiative to suspend the release of counterfeit trade mark goods, pirated copyright goods and counterfeit GI goods. With regard to counterfeit GI goods, Singapore will implement this commitment within three years of entry into force of the trade agreement.

The agreement aims at creating favourable conditions and a sustainable environment for EU companies to take full advantage of the opportunity Singapore provides as a business and transport hub in South-East Asia.

Singapore has a very comprehensive and robust IP framework, which is considered to be one of the best in Asia, and the best in South-East Asia. The supplementary commitments on IP protection and enforcement in the agreement will further reinforce Singapore’s competitive position, attracting more investment for innovation and start-up activities from EU companies.

Reference: https://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/in-focus/eu-singapore-agreement/

What to Pay Attention to When Registering Designs in Singapore: A Case Study

shutterstock_385731427Today’s second blog post takes a closer look at what SMEs should pay attention to when registering their designs in Singapore. It gives a brief overview of design protection in Singapore, followed by a case study demonstrating the importance of consulting with local experts or lawyers before filing for design registration in Singapore. 

Registered Designs in Singapore

A registered design is a right granted to the owner of a design to stop others from making, importing or selling, without their permission, an article to which that design or a design not substantially different from it has been applied.

In order to obtain a registered design, the design must be ‘new’ (i.e. not yet published or disclosed to the public) at the time the application for registered design protection is filed. It is possible to claim the filing date of an earlier application filed in a country that is a member of the Paris Convention or World Trade Organisation (WTO) for protection of the same design, provided that the Singapore application is filed within six months of the earlier application. Therefore, SMEs should ensure that their design is not disclosed to others until an application has been filed.

SMEs should consider applying for a registered design as soon as possible, as Singapore has a ‘‘first-to-file system’’. That is, the first person to file an application in respect of the design will have priority over others. This means that if a third party files his/her application on the design before the design owner, any registered design obtained afterwards will be in danger of being revoked for lack of ‘novelty’.

Singapore became a Member of the 1999 Geneva Act of the Hague Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Industrial Designs on April 17, 2005. The Hague Agreement makes it easier for foreign businesses to obtain industrial designs in Singapore. Continue reading “What to Pay Attention to When Registering Designs in Singapore: A Case Study” »

The Importance of Patent Ownership in Employment Contracts in Indonesia: A Case Study

patent-without backgroundToday’s blog post explains the importance of identifying patent ownership in employment contracts. The blog post gives a brief overview of patent protection in Indonesia followed by a case study demonstrating the need to be clear on patent ownership.

Patents in Indonesia

A patent is a right granted to the owner of an invention to prevent others from making, using, importing or selling the invention without his permission. A patent may be obtained for a product or a process that gives a new technical solution to a problem or a new method of doing things, the composition of a new product, or a technical improvement on how certain objects work.

Indonesia adopts a ‘first-to–file’ patent system, meaning that the first person to file an IP right in the Indonesian jurisdiction will own that right once the application is granted. Two types of patent are recognized in Indonesia – ‘Standard Patents’ (for products and processes) and ‘Simple Patents’ (for products only). The process for obtaining a Simple Patent is supposed to be shorter, however, there is a reduced term of protection in this case, as indicated below. For all applications, applicants need to specify the scope of the protection sought and to explain how to work the invention by means of technical descriptions and drawings. Continue reading “The Importance of Patent Ownership in Employment Contracts in Indonesia: A Case Study” »