The EU–Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) and intellectual property (IP) protection: What EU SMEs should know

WRITTEN BY XUAN NGUYEN

Vietnam is a thriving economy with a GDP of USD 340.821 billion – the fourth biggest in South-East Asia (after Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines), a population of 97.406 million people and a GDP per capita of USD 3 499 (in 2020)[1]. Despite the challenges of Covid-19, Vietnam has remained resilient, it expanded its GDP by 2.9% in 2020 – one of the highest growth rates in the world[2].

(Photo source: https://pixabay.com)

The European Union (EU) and Vietnam have enjoyed robust commercial relations in recent years. Vietnam is the EU’s 15th most important trade partner worldwide, and the EU’s largest trading partner in South-East Asia in 2020[3]. The EU is also one of the largest foreign investors in Vietnam, with a total foreign direct investment of EUR 6.1 billion in 2019[4].

The EVFTA, which entered in force on 1 August 2020, is one of the important strategic enablers for boosting the economic growth of, and the cooperation between the two parties through the elimination of customs duties and non-tariff barriers, driving a boom in exports and imports as well as encouraging investment flows. The EVFTA also includes a dedicated chapter on IP protection (Chapter 12) that requires Vietnam to implement substantive changes to improve their current IP system.

According to the South-East Asia IP SME Helpdesk, the major commitments related to IP protection under the EVFTA that EU companies should know about are as follows:

Photo source: www.pexels.com

Photo source: www.pexels.com

  • Geographical indications (GIs). A total of 169 European GIs (full list here) have been automatically recognised and directly protected in Vietnam since the EVFTA came into effect. Champagne, Feta, Parmigiano Reggiano, Rioja and Roquefort are some examples of EU GIs now being protected in Vietnam. EU farmers, businesses or associations producing and distributing products labelled with these GIs can now take action to stop illegal activities that sully their reputations through counterfeiting, misuse or other acts of unfair competition.

 

  • Patents. Pharmaceutical products are subject to a marketing authorisation procedure before being allowed onto the Vietnamese market. When there are unreasonable delays (i.e. if the Vietnamese authority fails to respond to an applicant without justifiable reasons after more than 24 months from the date of filing for marketing authorisation), the pharmaceutical patent owner is entitled to claim compensation by deducting the fee for using the patent. To be entitled to deduct the fee, the patent owner must submit a document confirming the delay (issued by the marketing authorisation authority) to Vietnam’s IP office within 12 months of the marketing authorisation being granted. Please note that Resolution No. 102/2020/QH14 (dated 8 June 2020) currently provides the legal background for this specific issue, and will remain applicable until an amendment to the existing IP law comes into effect.
  • Trade marks. Vietnam will apply the WIPO recommendations on the protection of well-known trade marks, which take additional parameters (not restricted exclusively to a trade mark’s degree of prominence amongst relevant consumers in a country) into consideration. In addition, a registered trade mark can be revoked if it misleads the public, particularly as to the nature, quality or geographical origin of a product. Thus, if EU companies notice that their trade mark has been registered in Vietnam by others and its use is misleading the public, this can be grounds for cancelling the infringing registered mark. Please note that this additional basis for revocation was included in Resolution No. 102/2020/QH14 (dated 8 June 2020) and will remain applicable until an amendment to the existing IP law comes into effect.
  • Copyright. Vietnam will accede to the WIPO Internet Treaties (the WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty) to address the challenges associated with unauthorised access to and use of creative works on the internet and other digital networks. Phonogram performers and producers gain additional rights through the EVFTA, including the right to a single equitable remuneration for broadcasts and communications to the public.
  • Industrial designs. Following a commitment made in the EVFTA, on 30 September 2019 Vietnam deposited its instrument of accession to the Geneva Act (1999) of the Hague System for the International Registration of Industrial Designs. EU design applicants can now seek protection for their designs in Vietnam by using the Hague system (a practical business solution for registering up to 100 designs in 74 contracting parties, covering 91 countries, through the filing of a single international application).
  • Undisclosed information. If undisclosed test results or other data regarding pharmaceutical or agrochemical products are required by government agencies for marketing approval, the protection of such data against unfair commercial use or disclosure will be set for 5 years from the approval date.
  • Enforcement. Customs officers will be able to act ex officio – in other words, they can actively target and block shipments containing IP infringing goods without having to wait for a complaint. If needed, the IP rights holder can ask the authorities to apply provisional measures, such as the precautionary seizure or blocking of the movable and immovable property of the alleged infringer, including the blocking of his/her bank accounts and other assets. The authorities may consider ordering pecuniary compensation to be paid to IP owners in certain cases of unintentional infringement, instead of applying injunctions or corrective measures.

Vietnam’s government and relevant agencies are currently working on numerous changes to leverage the existing IP protection system, such as an amendment to the IP law (the draft amendment to the IP law has been published on the official site for public examination since November 2020 and will be submitted to the National Assembly for comments in October 2021), updating the Decree on E-commerce (to include stricter provisions related to IP infringement online), improving the online registration system and strengthening the effectiveness of IP enforcement measures (customs checks, investigations, the imposition of sanctions, etc.). These are positive steps from the Vietnamese government to align their entire IP protection system with international standards. This, in return, will enhance Vietnam’s competitiveness by creating a favorable environment for EU companies to safely access and operate in Vietnam’s markets.

The South-East Asia IP SME Helpdesk will continue monitoring the IP landscape in Vietnam to provide EU SMEs with further updates and practical IP advice. Check out our infographic on the EVFTA and IP protection here for further information.

South-East Asia IP SME Helpdesk (website here).

The South-East Asia IP SME Helpdesk is an initiative of the European Commission to support EU SMEs to protect and enforce their IP rights in the 10 South-East Asian countries. All services offered by the Helpdesk are free of charge.

In a nutshell, the Helpdesk’s services cover: (i) enquiry helpline (tailor-made confidential advice to EU SMEs on IP related to South-East Asia within 3 working days), (ii) IP guides and country factsheets and (iii) onsite and online trainings.

[1] https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/weo-database/2021/April/select-country-group

[2] https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/vietnam/overview

[3] https://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/countries/vietnam/

[4] https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/isdb_results/factsheets/country/overview_vietnam_en.pdf

Intellectual property protection in the e-commerce era: What has changed recently in South-East Asia?

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WRITTEN BY XUAN NGUYEN

 

Over the past few years, South-East Asia (SEA) has witnessed a huge shift to, and booming expansion in, online shopping platforms. As a result, counterfeiters have also quickly adapted to the new trade environment, making large profits by flooding the digital marketplace with a huge amount of counterfeit products. At the same time, governmental agencies need months or even years to update their regulations and rules to catch up. In this article, we will update you on how regulatory authorities in SEA are stepping up to tackle intellectual property (IP) infringement issues in the e-commerce market.

Global consumer shopping habits have changed considerably over the years. According to research conducted by Salesforce, 87% of customers conduct online searches while making decisions on purchases[1]. This has driven brand owners to embrace this trend and shape consumer habits in a way that is favourable for their growth. For example, nowadays live-streaming tactics or the opinions of influencers are very effective solutions for leveraging product sales. In a new report from Payoneer[2], since the height of Covid-19 (March–April 2020), the live-streaming sector has grown by 45% and the live-streaming market is expected to be worth USD 184.3 billion by 2027.

Photo source: https://www.pexels.com/

Photo source: https://www.pexels.com/

More importantly, the Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the most influential factors ever to accelerate digitalisation and shift businesses and consumers online. The new e-Conomy South-East Asia (SEA) research program[3] by Google, Temasek and Bain has revealed significant changes in the digital life of the region. In 2020 alone, 40 million new users joined the internet, making a total of 400 million internet users (which now accounts for 70% of the South-East Asian population). On average across SEA, one of every three (~36%) digital service consumers are new to the service due to Covid-19, and 94% of those intend to continue with the service post-pandemic.

From a legal perspective, the thriving evolution of the digital market has also created a fertile ground for listings that infringe on IP. Let’s take a deeper look at the development of the counterfeiting market online in some SEA countries and analyse the government reactions to these threats.

In Vietnam, during 2020, the national market surveillance agency carried out a high number of raids and seized fake products bound for the market through online sales. Many Vietnamese sellers are willing to pay to advertise their products in order to reach a large audience on Facebook, YouTube, TikTok or Zalo (a widely used messaging app). Live-streaming is used to present products to consumers and encourage them to commit to purchases in a short time. This quickly increases sales of overwhelmingly counterfeit products. For example, vendors in Lao Cai Province (located near the border with China) sourced products from China to sell online, and have made approximately USD 28 million within the past two years[4].

Photo source: https://e.vnexpress.net/

Photo source: https://e.vnexpress.net/

In December 2019 Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade (MoIT) launched a portal http://chonghanggia.online.gov.vn/ to deal with e-commerce disputes and counterfeits. Individuals and businesses can now access the portal and report infringing activities, such as fake products, brand violations, fraudulent websites or apps, etc. After receiving the information, the respective agencies (such as the eCommerce and Digital Economy Agency, the Market Surveillance, Competition and Consumer Authority, and the Department of Industry and Trade) will work together to settle the case and inform the complainant about the result.

Moreover, a new e-commerce decree has been drafted and is expected to be released soon. This will restrict the sales of fake goods on e-commerce platforms and monitor online trading activities. The decree states that e-commerce platform operators are required to proactively prevent prohibited goods and services, remove them within 24 hours of receiving a request from competent agencies, and to co-operate with relevant rights holders to take-down IP-infringing content or products[5].

Another interesting country to observe is the Philippines, which has witnessed an unprecedented surge of IP-violation complaints during the pandemic. The IP Rights Enforcement Office (IEO) of the IP Office of the Philippines (IPOPHL) received up to 135 complaints in only 9 months in 2020, surpassing the total complaints received in the previous 5 years (2015–2019)[6].

Photo source: https://www.ipophil.gov.ph/

Source: https://www.ipophil.gov.ph/

Among the 135 complaints, 79 are related to online activities. With the alarming increase of IP-violation reports on digital platforms, the IPOPHL set the IEO the task of proposing updates to the 2013 Rules and Regulations on Enforcement as a high priority in order to help the agency to effectively monitor infringement online.

In addition, the IPOPHL is working on an agreement between e-commerce platforms and representatives of rights holders related to requests to take-down IP-infringing content or products. The IPOPHL also strongly supports the adoption of the solidary liability principle in order to improve the online environment by making platforms and service providers entirely accountable for the infringing acts of their client vendors.

Thailand saw a sharp increase in seizures related to IP violations over the course of 2020. According to IP enforcement statistics from the Royal Thai Police[7], the Department of Special Investigation, and the Customs Department, the number of seized items from January to November 2020 (compared with the total amount of seized items in 2019) increased dramatically, by up to 3 427.01%. The majority infringed trade marks and copyright.

IP Enforcement Statistics (Calendar Year) (by the Royal Thai Police, the Department of Special Investigation and the Customs Department) January – November, 2020 Source: https://www.ipthailand.go.th/

IP Enforcement Statistics (Calendar Year) (January – November 2020)
(by the Royal Thai Police, the Department of Special Investigation and the Customs Department) 
Source: https://www.ipthailand.go.th/

To encourage the fight against online counterfeiting, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the protection of IP rights on the internet was signed between the major online platforms operating in Thailand (Lazada, Shopee, and JD Central) and the representatives of IP rights holders on 11 January 2021[8]. This MOU is expected to facilitate the take-down process on e-commerce platforms, and reduce the amount of fake products being sold online in Thailand.

According to a recent report from the European Commission (the Counterfeit and Piracy Watch List[9]), Indonesia has three e-commerce sites (Bukalapak, Shoppee, Tokopedia) that are to be included in the watch list. They allegedly sell high volumes of counterfeit goods such as electronics, clothing, fashion items, accessories, books, films, mobile phones, cars, spare motor parts and industrial goods. These sites are the top three most popular B2B platforms in the country – Shopee is the most clicked e-commerce site, followed by Tokopedia and Bukalapak. The proactive measures for filtering and detecting infringing offers on the above-mentioned sites are allegedly ineffective, and their processes for removing counterfeit listings are still unreasonably long.

While online counterfeiting is becoming a critical issue in Indonesia, the government has made some initial progress in addressing concerns about it by recently issuing Regulation No. 80 of 2019[10] and Regulation No. 50 of 2020[11]. These regulate several aspects of e-commerce trading, and includes obligations for protecting consumers. The regulations state that e-commerce businesses must provide a complaint service for consumers, must have proper complaint procedures, and must set out a time period for resolving complaints. Moreover, e-commerce operators have to establish a consumer complaint service including the contact details of the Directorate-General of Consumer Protection and Trade Compliance. In addition, consumers can make complaints about online ads that are not in compliance with the relevant laws and regulations through the Director-General of Consumer Protection and Trade Compliance.

Due to SEA’s geographical proximity to China (known as a hotspot for counterfeiting goods but also as a booming centre of online trading), significant efforts are required from governmental agencies in SEA to improve regulations, enhance the effectiveness of their enforcement agencies and establish user-friendly complaint systems to deal with thriving IP-infringing listings in the digital trading environment.

Importantly, IP rights owners should proactively monitor e-commerce and social media platforms to detect counterfeits and quickly proceed with the most appropriate resolution such as take-down notices, warning letters or informing the competent authorities so they can remove the IP-infringing items.

The SEA IP SME Helpdesk developed and published a Guide on How to Remove Counterfeit Goods from e-commerce Sites in South-East Asia, which can be downloaded here.

For more information about IP in SEA, check out our website at https://www.southeastasia-iprhelpdesk.eu/.

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

[1] https://www.salesforce.com/blog/customer-retail-statistics/

[2] https://register.payoneer.com/the-state-of-live-streaming-in-2020/

[3] https://www.bain.com/globalassets/noindex/2020/e_conomy_sea_2020_report.pdf

[4] https://e.vnexpress.net/news/business/economy/vietnam-unhappy-with-facebook-s-lack-of-support-for-tackling-fake-goods-4135371.html

[5] https://www.vir.com.vn/new-draft-decree-tackles-e-commerce-drawbacks-77765.html

[6] https://www.ipophil.gov.ph/news/jan-sept-2020-reports-complaints-on-ip-infringement-surpasses-2015-2019-total/

[7] https://www.ipthailand.go.th/en/ipr-enforcement-operation/item/total2020.html

[8] https://satyapon.com/mou-on-protecting-ip-rightd-on-the-internet-signed/

[9] https://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2020/december/tradoc_159183.pdf

[10] https://www.aseanbriefing.com/news/indonesias-law-on-e-commerce-clear-guidelines-and-compliance-by-november-2021/

[11] https://www.aseanbriefing.com/news/indonesia-issues-implementing-regulation-e-commerce-sector-key-features/

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/

 

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.

black-android-smartphone-on-top-of-white-book-39584

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

 

Supply Chain Relocation and Intellectual Property Protection after COVID-19: Why Vietnam and What to Watch Out For?

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WRITTEN BY XUAN NGUYEN

The global economy has recently witnessed unprecedented blows due to the US–China trade war and COVID-19. Many countries (especially in Europe and the USA) have struggled against the pandemic, but Vietnam has managed the crisis effectively — an official count of 327 cases and zero deaths to date. Local authorities have eased social distancing measures, and most business activities, including shops and restaurants, are back to normal. However visa controls are still in place and international flights are still banned.

How businesses think about supply chains is changing. This article reveals our latest insights on the evolving situation; how it is turning Vietnam into a new manufacturing hub for the global economy. We also provide some useful tips and things to watch out for to help protect your intellectual property (IP) in South-East Asian market like Vietnam. Let’s explore.

The US–China trade war and the COVID-19 crisis: Urging businesses to diversify their supply chains

Photo source: https://www.pexels.com

Photo source: https://www.pexels.com

The trade war between the US and China (often seen as the factory of the world) has made production in China more expensive due to increased tariffs. This has driven companies to look for safer and more competitive options. HSBC economist Yun Liu pointed out that, ‘Likely due to the trade tensions that have accelerated multinational corporations’ relocation decisions, many tech giants, including Apple, Google, Nintendo, and Kyocera, have now followed in Samsung’s footsteps and plan to move parts of their production to Vietnam’[1].

At the height of the trade war tensions, COVID-19 broke out on a global scale, affecting millions of people. Governments have intervened, applying numerous safety measures that forced many businesses to close. Amid this chaos, companies with supply chains mainly dependent on China have started to realise how vulnerable they are.

In a recent article on CNBC[2], Mark Mobius, founder of Mobius Capital Partners, said the pandemic was already prompting a rethink as businesses sought to mitigate supply shocks from any future events of a similar scale: ‘A lot of buyers and a lot of the people depending on the supply chain in China are now having second thoughts, and are beginning to diversify their supply chain as much as possible to be closer to home’. ‘But at the end of the day, I think there’s going to be a diversification where these supply chains get moved into places like Vietnam, Bangladesh, Turkey, even Brazil, so that these companies can have a more diversified supply chain,’ he added.

Meanwhile, IMA Asia’s Richard Martin said that, although manufacturers across several industries had begun moving operations out of China before COVID-19, the pandemic was adding ‘a nationalist spin’ to considerations around supply chain restructuring.

EU Commissioner Phil Hogan declared that ‘we need to look at how to build resilient supply chains, based on diversification, acknowledging the simple fact that we will not be able to manufacture everything locally’[3].

When the pandemic ends, people will get back to work, businesses will be reopened and factories will operate again, but the world will not be the same as before. It will be a ‘new normal’ era. No one knows exactly what will happen. But one thing is certain: businesses must learn the importance of altering their supply chains to avoid similar shocks in the future.

Why Vietnam?

  • Dynamic economy with stable growth
Photo source: https://www.pexels.com

Photo source: https://www.pexels.com

With a population of about 97 million people (15th in the world) and based on decades of stable growth, Vietnam has one of most dynamic economies in the region. Supported by a robust manufacturing sector, GDP expanded by about 7% in 2019[4]. According to PwC’s ‘The World in 2050’ report[5], Vietnam is expected to be among the top 20 economies in the world by 2050.

  • Young population and competitive labour cost

Vietnam has a young population (70 % under 35)[6] and a large workforce (52 % are of working age)[7]. The middle class has been quickly expanding; it currently accounts for 13 % of the population and is expected to reach 26% by 2026[8].

According to Statista[9], labour costs in Vietnam are more competitive than in China. Manufacturing labour costs per hour are estimated at USD 6.5 in China, more than double that of Vietnam at about USD 3. In the ‘new normal’ after the COVID-19 crisis, when the global economy has slumped and consumer incomes have declined, manufacturing costs are expected to be one of the critical factors influencing investors.

  • Free trade agreements (FTAs): Shaping stable and open economies

Vietnam has shown a strong willingness to integrate into the global economy through numerous FTAs (13 signed and ratified, 3 more under negotiation).

The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CTPPP) and the EU–Vietnam FTA (EVFTA) are two major advancements. The CPTPP took effect in January 2019, covering 11 member countries and accounting for about 14 % of global GDP[10]. CPTPP members are bound to comply with a number of commitments, from tax removal to improvements in legal frameworks that encourage sustainable investment and protect labour, environment and IP.

The EVFTA[11], signed in June 2019, is expected to be approved by the Vietnamese government in early summer 2020. It will eliminate 99 % of all tariffs on goods traded between the two sides. It also includes important provisions related to environmental protection, labour rights, IP protection and climate change. Vietnam will protect 169 Geographical Indication (GIs), such as Champagne, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, or Feta cheese, at a comparable level to EU legislation.

These FTAs are expected to mitigate protectionism and encourage openness, cooperation and coordination, creating a favourable and stable environment to do business in Vietnam.

  • Pool of opportunities

When the supply chains shift, the supporting sectors and services will go with them. In the PWC report, ‘Doing Business in Viet Nam’[12], the sectors that will provide the most opportunities for companies entering this market are: manufacturing, retailing, e-commerce, tourism, modern agribusiness, food, solar and wind energy. As an emerging manufacturing export hub, total export revenue was estimated at USD 244.7 billion in 2018, up 13.8 % from 2017. FDI companies contributed 71% of it (equivalent to USD 175.5 billion), up 13% from 2017. Retailing is expected to reach USD 173 billion by 2023, an increase of 61 % (USD 108 billion) from 2018.

IP protection in Vietnam: Things to watch out for

An IP protection strategy is essential for any plan to relocate your business to prevent others from copying or using your IP assets and eventually enable you to take enforcement actions against the infringers. Even if you don’t plan to establish your physical business in Vietnam, technology transfers and licensing are good ways to increase revenues. However, they also expose your intangible assets to certain risks.

Photo source: https://pixabay.com

Photo source: https://pixabay.com

To comply with the binding commitments in the CPTPP and EVFTA, Vietnam has been working on amending its IP law and the relevant guiding documents, and enhancing the effectiveness of enforcement agencies. Stronger and stricter measures against IP infringers will soon be put into practice.

The first step in the transition is to understand what your IP rights are, and see how to get the best out of them in the new market.

  • Why and when should I register my IP in Vietnam?

Counterfeiting, piracy and cybersquatting are quite popular in Vietnam, especially in the thriving e-commerce era. Like other Asian countries, there are already many local counterfeit manufacturers available in the market and significant trade exchange with nearby China. Vietnam is very high risk in terms of counterfeits and its anti-counterfeiting agencies still need improvement.

IP protection is national. Even if you have already registered your IP, it doesn’t mean that it is protected in Vietnam. To proceed with an enforcement action in Vietnam, local registration is a must.

Similarly to China and other South-East Asian countries, IP registration in Vietnam operates under a ‘first-to-file’ system; the first person to file an IP application in the jurisdiction owns the rights once the application is granted. This encourages bad faith registration: a local company, or even your distributor, may file an application to register your IP (especially trade marks) before you, and then become its legitimate owner. They may start doing business with your IP or offer to sell it back to you. Taking legal action against these infringers is expensive and, without owning the IP registration, not always easy. This time-consuming process threatens your reputation and decreases your economic benefits. You can even find yourself excluded from the market.

Registration is the prerequisite step for the protection and enforcement of your IP rights. You may prioritise exploring the market and prefer to postpone registration until your business is well positioned, but spending a few hundred euros to file a patent, trade mark or a design application before entering the market is strongly advised. The table below summarises the basic registration costs (excluding services and legal fees) and timelines.

Type Government fees Average time
Patent VND 2 130 000 (approx. EUR 84) 36–48 months
Trade mark VND 1 360  000 (approx. EUR 54) 15–18 months
Industrial design VND 1 810  000 (approx. EUR 71) 12–15 months
Copyright VND 100 000 to VND 600 000 (approx. EUR 5 to EUR 25) 15 days

It is also advisable to run a pre-filing search to establish the availability of your IP. You can search a national databank at the IP Vietnam portal (http://iplib.noip.gov.vn/WebUI/WLogin.php) and access the WIPO IP Portal for international registrations designated Vietnam.

  • Should a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and IP clauses be included in the contract?

While exploring business opportunities in Vietnam, you are likely to present innovations and ideas to potential local partners for purpose of technology transfer, licensing or research and development (R&D). Disclosing your technology and know-how (e.g. manufacturing processes, technical drawings, and specifications) to local partners exposes you to risk.

A rule of thumb rule is to always sign an NDA and include IP clauses in contracts with local companies to secure your IP. For more information, you can check out our relevant guides, such as Technology Transfer Guide, Research & Development (R&D) Activities and Using Contracts to Protect your Intellectual Property.

  • Is it compulsory to use a local agent to register my IP in Vietnam?

IP protection is national and the laws and practices are not the same as in the EU. Seeking advice from a local lawyer with expertise on the topic is strongly recommended. Please note that, if an applicant doesn’t reside in Vietnam, appointing a local agent to file your application and work with the IP office of Vietnam is compulsory. You can refer to our list of local experts here — they can guide you through the legal procedures and provide strategic advice.

  • Can I register my IP from my home country?

Apart from registering your IP directly with the IP office of Vietnam, there are some international treaties that can help companies to obtain simultaneous protection in multiple countries:

–  Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT):   The PCT system helps applicants seeking patent protection internationally for their inventions. By filing one international application, applicants can simultaneously seek protection in a very large number of countries, including all ASEAN countries except Myanmar. The biggest advantage of the PCT procedure is that you have up to 30 months from the earliest filing date of your initial application to decide which countries you wish to enter for protection.

– The International Trademark System – Madrid: A convenient and cost-effective solution for registering and managing trade marks worldwide. Under the Madrid system, you can file just one application in one language through your home office, and pay one clear set of fees to seek trade mark protection in up to 122 countries. All South-East Asian countries (except Myanmar) are members.

– The Hague System for the International Registration of Industrial Designs provides a practical business solution for registering up to 100 designs in 73 contracting parties covering 90 countries, through the filing of one single international application. Four South-East Asian countries (Brunei, Cambodia, Singapore and Vietnam) are party to the Hague System.

Now supply chains are being relocated, Vietnam is a promising destination for business expansion. Investing some time in exploring IP protection and having a well-prepared strategy are critical factors in your success and sustainable growth in Vietnam. Neglecting IP protection might cost you more than you imagine.

For more information about IP protection in Vietnam, you can check out our IP Country Factsheet or contact us for free IP advice.

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.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/us-china-trade-war-seen-boosting-vietnam-growth

[2] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/21/supply-chains-will-move-away-from-china-after-coronavirus-mark-mobius.html

[3] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/hogan/announcements/introductory-statement-commissioner-phil-hogan-informal-meeting-eu-trade-ministers_en

[4] https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/vietnam/overview

[5] https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/world-2050/assets/pwc-the-world-in-2050-full-report-feb-2017.pdf

[6] https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/vietnam/overview

[7] https://www.pwc.com/vn/en/publications/2019/pwc-vietnam-dbg-2019.pdf

[8] https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/vietnam/overview

[9] https://www.statista.com/statistics/744071/manufacturing-labor-costs-per-hour-china-vietnam-mexico/#statisticContainer

[10] https://www.pwc.com/vn/en/publications/2019/pwc-vietnam-dbg-2019.pdf

[11]  https://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/in-focus/eu-vietnam-agreement/

[12] https://www.pwc.com/vn/en/publications/2019/pwc-vietnam-dbg-2019.pdf