Protecting your intellectual property during technology transfers in South-East Asia: Why is it important?

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WRITTEN BY XUAN NGUYEN

The South-East Asian region consists of 10 countries with a combined GDP of USD 3 trillion (the 5th largest in the world) and a population of 649.1 million people[1]. Over the past few years, the region has emerged as a location for manufacturing diversification, particularly as a result of the USA–China trade war and, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic.

ASEAN GDP

Technology transfers are the key enablers in the supply chain relocation process, and intellectual property (IP) is considered to be the crucial element – the factor that contributes the value. In this article, we will provide you with some tips on how to build and manage your IP portfolio in relation to technology transfers in South-East Asia.

Why is IP important in technology transfers?

A broad definition of technology will be used here, one including not only production technology, but also management expertise, marketing skills and general intangible corporate assets. Commercially exploiting technology across geopolitical borders can be managed through licensing agreements, joint ventures or by setting up your own business in order to share advanced skills, knowledge, or facilities among interested parties.

Companies most commonly transfer their technology by licensing their IP rights (such as patents, trade marks, designs, software, trade secrets, know-how, etc.). Protecting your IP before disclosing it is crucial to ensuring your monopoly on the information in question, allowing you to expand your market presence, providing you with a return on investment in research and development (R&D) and encouraging further innovation. According to the Ocean Tomo survey, today intangible assets have increased their contribution to account for up to 90% of a company’s value[2].

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Secure your IP through registration, non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and a strategic plan

The first step in managing your IP is to identify it. Therefore, in your transfer strategy, you should think about what kind of intangible assets you are considering disclosing to your potential partners. Based on your resources and target destination, evaluate the elements you want to be part of your technology transfer strategy, and consider whether it is beneficial to monetise the specific IP in question (such as the patent, trade mark, design, software, trade secrets, know-how, or a combination of the above).

For example, in a franchising deal, you not only transfer your brand and business model, but also operating manuals, quality control procedures, training policies, marketing strategies, business advisory support systems and many other confidential aspects of your business. Be aware of all the information you will disclose to your partner during the process – from commencing negotiation until entering into a deal – so that you can anticipate the possible risks and initiate a suitable protection plan.

You must be aware that IP protection is territorial. Therefore you need to formally register patents, trade marks and designs in each country you want to be protected in. An IP protection strategy must be front and centre when considering investing in South-East Asian countries. Obtaining registration before the start of a technology transfer negotiation is ideal. However, even having an application in place before opening talks is worthwhile; it strengthens your position and reduces the risk of a failed discussion ending up with the theft of your IP by your potential local partners.

In the era of digitalisation, the software is a crucial part of the IP involved in many technology transfer deals. You should pay special attention when licensing your software; there are two main ways to protect it, patent and copyright. Patents ensure extraordinarily strong protection but are not easy to obtain, firstly because it’s a long and costly procedure, secondly because not all software is deemed to be patentable.  Therefore, you probably have to rely on protection under copyright law. In almost all South-East Asian countries works are automatically protected by copyright upon their creation, however a system for voluntary registration also exists. Copyright registration is very useful when there are disputes over a copyrighted work. It’s much to better to have it before entering a tech transfer agreement.

There is no registration system for trade secrets, know-how or other intangible assets, therefore companies should always have a strategic policy in place to retain such assets, and their competitive edge. A good starting point is to sign an NDA with your potential partner before entering into any initial negotiations, and ensure that it’s translated into the local language. This is also a way to detect the intentions of your potential partners, and to test their reliability.

It’s an unfortunate truth that people won’t pay for what they can steal. Many licensees attempt to reverse-engineer your products to save costs and gain an advantage in the marketplace (i.e. they are able to sell their products at much lower prices). Under current IP legislation, there is little you can actually do about this process other than to build a strategy that prevents such activities from taking place. For example, in your technology transfer plan, you may consider having certain components of your products manufactured/assembled by different parties, or using separate locations to help reduce the risk of your IP being misappropriated.

Searching for a partner and due diligence

The crucial factor in the success of technology transfers is choosing the right partner. During the negotiation process, you are going to disclose your IP in order to attract potential partners. It is worth spending some time reviewing all the assets in question, including any registered IP belonging to your potential partners, any litigation in which they have been involved, or any issues that could arise in the future when signing a deal with them.

Entering into a contract

The risk to IP associated with technology transfers varies depending on the type of IP you want to transfer and the form of collaboration planned (such as licensing, a joint venture or setting up your own business). You should analyse the potential risks and include the necessary clauses in contracts to prevent IP violation.

pexels-bongkarn-thanyakij-3740400

First of all, make sure a confidentiality clause or NDA is a part of your contract. Taking the fact that the information may be used by your partner’s employees – or that the information might be disclosed to third parties – into account, appropriate measures to protect confidential information should be clearly written into the contract.

It is also worth having a formal procedure in place to deal with the identification of both the existing IP and IP that would arise in the future. In many cases, your partner may be able to improve on your IP and use it to develop another generation of products. Therefore, it is wise to include a clause that deals with the ownership of any potential improvements.

Importantly, companies must ensure that the contract allows local enforcement methods to stop the sources of IP violation, rather than reverting to EU legislation or systems of arbitration. In cases of infringement, you have the right to seek direct remedies from the local authorities. This resource can enable you to quickly obtain emergency injunctions, search-and-seize orders or asset-freezing orders, which are especially helpful in cases of trade secret theft by an employee or a third party. It is common practice to include an accompanying arbitration clause as a secondary means of resolving disputes. In the South-East Asian region, Arbitration in Singapore is usually recommended as the country has the advantage of excellent legal and technological expertise, a highly skilled judiciary and widespread English fluency.

South-East Asia has become a promising destination for supply chain relocation. Technology transfers are the key enablers of this process. However, the risks of IP infringement there always threaten your revenue and reputation. Companies should understand the degree of their exposure to risk and make sure to put the appropriate measures in place to protect their intangible assets when investing in the region.

For more information on technology transfers in South-East Asia, check out our latest guide here.

The South-East Asia IP SME Helpdesk is an EU initiative that provides free, practical IP advice to European SMEs in South-East Asia. EU companies can send questions to question@southeastasia-iprhelpdesk.eu and will receive a reply within 3 working days.

[1] https://www.aseanstats.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/ASEAN_Key_Figures_2019.pdf

[2] https://www.oceantomo.com/intangible-asset-market-value-study/

 

Cybersquatting in South-East Asia: What’s happening now?

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WRITTEN BY XUAN NGUYEN

 

Facts and trends

In 2005, when eBay Inc. started promoting their services online in Vietnam, they found that the domain name ebay.com.vn had already been registered by a Vietnamese company in 2003. Between 2005 and 2007 the company, with help of a team of local lawyers, filed three complaints to the Vietnam Internet Network Information Center (VNNIC) asking for the domain name ebay.com.vn to be canceled as it was an infringement of their trade mark. The ‘eBay’ trade mark was registered in Vietnam in 2002. In 2007 eBay’s regional director in South-East Asia became directly involved in pursuing the complaint to try to settle the case. Despite all these efforts, the disputed domain name is still owned by the Vietnamese company[1].

Photo source: https://pixabay.com/

Photo source: https://pixabay.com/

This is not the only case like this, in 2014 a Korean individual registered the domain name instagram.com.ph and two years later she also registered the domain name instagram.ph. These domain names led to pages displaying links to other websites, including ‘Log In Instagram’ and ‘Create Instagram’ or ‘Create an Instagram Account’ and ‘Free Download Instagram APP’. The domain name instagram.com.ph was previously offered for sale on a broker’s website for USD 5 000 while the disputed domain name instagram.ph was displayed on another broker’s website with the message ‘This domain is for sale’ and a system was provided for submitting an offer. Instagram, LLC decided to file a complaint with the Arbitration and Mediation Center of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in 2018 and two months later the Administrative Panel assigned the domain names to Instagram[2].

According to a new press release from Business Insider[3], ‘South-East Asian countries outdo most other emerging market regions in the 11th annual Agility Emerging Markets Logistics Index, a broad gauge of competitiveness based on logistics strength and business fundamentals. Business-friendly conditions and core strengths position several South-East Asian countries near the top of the Index, behind giants China (1) and India (2).’ Meanwhile, cybersquatting (also known as domain squatting) has become a critical concern for many companies doing business in this region.

Photo source: https://pixabay.com

Photo source: https://pixabay.com

While setting up businesses in the region, many companies realise that their names or trade marks, in combination with country code top-level domain (ccTLD) suffixes (such as .vn, .id, .th, .sg, etc.), have been previously registered by third parties (cybersquatters).

Cybersquatters often purchase domain names in the hope of selling them to the trade mark owners at an inflated price. The cybersquatters also use the domain names to sell counterfeit products or direct users to their own websites (often but not always containing some sort of illicit content, from pornography to gambling, etc.). Reclaiming the disputed domain name is not always easy, it is a time- and money- consuming process. There are also cases when it isn’t possible to get your domain name back (for example the case of ebay.com.vn in Vietnam).

According to the Domain Name Dispute Statistics from the WIPO, Vietnam (393 cases), Indonesia (263 cases), Thailand (244 cases), Singapore (153 cases), Malaysia (149 cases) and the Philippines (120 cases) are the countries where there are high numbers of respondents involving domain name disputes in the South-East Asian region[4].

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have fueled an increase in cybercrime. ‘As much of the world has been working from home, businesses and consumers are relying heavily on the Internet and related IT resources — whether to engage in their “day jobs”, to shop online, or to inform themselves on staying safe in the current pandemic. Many domain name registration authorities have even reported an increase in the number of domain names registered. These may be used for news/information sites, or even to provide new business offerings, but much like social media platforms, are also being used to spread misinformation and to engage in illegal and fraudulent activities[5].’

How do I protect my domain name from cybersquatting?

Here are some tips for companies to safeguard themselves against cybersquatting while doing business in South-East Asia:

  • Register your domain names in potential future markets. As domain names are assigned based on a ‘first come, first served’ basis (the first-to-file rule), invest some money in registering your domain name at an early stage to reserve your right to it. This is much cheaper than the litigation option.
  • Register your trade mark in potential future markets. Cybersquatting generally involves the bad faith registration of another’s trade mark as a domain name. Therefore, having your trade mark registered in a country is an essential step enabling you to proceed with a request for the cancelation of a disputed domain name.
  • Online monitoring to detect cybersquatting. You should proactively conduct online monitoring activities or hire service companies with expertise in the field. In fact, sometimes cybersquatters are interested in attracting people to their (illicit) businesses by riding on your reputation. This can be detrimental to the image of your company and, on a general level, makes it harder for people to find you on the web. Some things you should check regularly are:

    Photo source: https://pixabay.com

    Photo source: https://pixabay.com

Variations of your domain name. Variations may consist of adding a hyphen if the domain is made up of more than one word, for example race-horsing.com vs racehorsing.com or using the singular and plural versions of your domain, such as product.com vs products.com. Typosquatting (involving mistypes or misspellings of your domain name) is also a popular form of cybersquatting. For example, the disputed domain name ercisson.net registered with Above.com is virtually similar to ‘ericsson’ mark of the Ericsson company (the letters ‘i’ and ‘c’ are reversed)[6].

Combination of additional words. The cybersquatter may combine your trade mark or service mark with relevant products or services in either English or a local language. For example, a Guangdong-based company registered ‘googlelocal.cn’ and ‘googlelocal.com.cn’ in March 2004[7], and a Vietnamese individual registered the domain name quangcaogoogle.com (‘quang cao’ is a Vietnamese phrase meaning ‘advertising’)[8].

More than one extension. There are some common versions of generic top-level domains (gTLDs) such as .com, .net, and .biz, etc. In South-East Asia, popular ccTLDs in some countries are .vn and .com.vn (for Vietnam), .co.th and .net.th (for Thailand), .sg and .com.sg (for Singapore), and .id and .co.id (for Indonesia), etc. Check all possible extensions of your domain name and do not neglect any of them.

What do I do if my domain name is taken?

In the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP[9]) adopted by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the basic requirements for requesting a cancellation or transfer of a domain name are:

  1. The domain name is identical or confusingly similar to a trade mark or service mark for which someone holds the rights;
  2. The other party have no rights or legitimate interests in the domain name;
  3. The domain name has been registered and is being used in bad faith.

Many dispute resolution agencies use these principles as a rule of thumb to settle domain disputes. In light of the above, if you find out that someone has registered a domain name to reap benefits from your reputation, you can consider taking the following steps:

  • Collect evidence of the bad faith registration and use. As a general rule, firstly check to see if the domain name takes you to a website (sometimes no website is found). If there is a real site, these questions arise:

– Is there any offer pertaining to reselling, renting, or transferring the domain name?

– Does the website offer any products or services similar or identical to yours for sale?

– Are there any links to other sites?

Remember to save all of the evidence that you find at the investigation stage because the registrant may change any of the content displayed at any time, especially if they notice that a potential dispute is in the offing.

  • Contact the domain-name registrant and start a discussion. Before jumping to any conclusions, contact the registrant to find out if there is any reasonable explanation for the use of the domain name or if there is a way to reach an agreement with them to obtain the transfer of the domain name.
  • Bringing the dispute to arbitration. If negotiation or conciliation with the registrant doesn’t work out, you can proceed with arbitration for the cases detailed below.

Regarding gTLDs such as .com, .asia, .biz, .info, .net, .org, etc., complaints can be submitted to any of the dispute resolution service providers approved by ICANN under the UDRP proceedings. The WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center is considered as one of the most time- and cost-efficient mechanisms for resolving internet domain name disputes.

In addition to the above, the WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center currently also provides domain name dispute resolution services for 76 ccTLDs (including two ASEAN members, Laos and the Philippines). In other words, if there is a dispute related to ccTLDs in Laos or the Philippines, the claim can be brought before an arbitration process initiated by the WIPO.

For Singapore, ccTLDs claims can be submitted to the Singapore Mediation Centre, which uses the Singapore Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy to settle the case. In Malaysia, the complaint can be brought to the Asian International Arbitration Centre, the dispute resolution provider authorised by the Malaysian Network Information Centre (MYNIC).

  • Taking action through the administrative route or initiating a civil lawsuit at a court. Not all ASEAN countries offer domain name arbitration (the countries mentioned above are exceptions), therefore the complainant can consider proceeding with an administrative action or file a lawsuit with the competent court. If you have to use these routes, contacting and getting advice from a local expert is advisable.

 

The South-East Asia IPR SME Helpdesk is an EU initiative that provides free, practical IPR advice to European SMEs in South-East Asia. EU companies can send questions to question@southeastasia-iprhelpdesk.eu and receive a reply within three working days.

[1] https://www.vnnic.vn/tranhchaptenmien/thongke/tranh-ch%E1%BA%A5p-li%C3%AAn-quan-%C4%91%E1%BA%BFn-t%C3%AAn-mi%E1%BB%81n-ebaycomvn

[2] https://www.wipo.int/amc/en/domains/decisions/text/2018/dph2018-0002.html

[3] https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/southeast-asian-countries-lead-agility-emerging-markets-index-1028888255#

[4] https://www.wipo.int/amc/en/domains/statistics/countries.jsp?party=R

[5] https://www.wipo.int/amc/en/news/2020/cybersquatting_covid19.html

[6] https://www.wipo.int/amc/en/domains/decisions/text/2010/d2010-0566.html

[7] http://www.pin-dao.com/news5.htm

[8] https://www.vnnic.vn/tranhchaptenmien/thongke/google-v%C3%A0-t%C3%AAn-mi%E1%BB%81n-quangcaogooglecom

[9] https://www.icann.org/resources/pages/policy-2012-02-25-en

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/

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