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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Marta Bettinazzi

IP Business Advisor

South-East Asia IPR SME Helpdesk

E: marta.bettinazzi@southeastasia-iprhelpdesk.eu

W: www.southeastasia-iprhelpdesk.eu

 

Bodega Branding: The How, What, When, and Why of Wine IPR Protection

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In our last article we sang a song of growth and prosperity for the wine industry in China, fuelled by the staggering figures of industry growth and Chinese wine consumption in recent years. This was tempered somewhat by the somewhat tragic tales of the relatively unimpeded development of a parasitic counterfeiting industry which continues to sap the profits of wine producers, damage reputations, and in some cases harm consumers in the process1. 

Today however we’ll be striking a more positive note, and looking at how producers and distributors can utilise the established IPR protection framework maintained by the People’s Republic of China and defend the reputation of their products. 

Traditional Anti-Counterfeiting Measures 

Tamper proof seals, holograms, and other authentication technologies have long been used by vintners to identify the authenticity of their products to their consumers. Unfortunately, counterfeiters have been working almost as long to develop copies of these so-called preventative measures, and as a result they have done little more than slow the progress of counterfeiters in copying new products. 

In fact, even if consumers have the inclination or opportunity to check these identifiers, the sophistication of counterfeiters has now reached the point where even the producers themselves have difficulty in identifying fakes, and are forced to rely on laboratory testing to identify counterfeits2. 

Producers and distributors can no longer rely on traditional, physical measures alone to combat counterfeiting, and must also take advantage of the other tools at their disposal. 

Continue reading “Bodega Branding: The How, What, When, and Why of Wine IPR Protection” »

Patent Protection Case Study: The Importance of a Robust IP Enforcement Strategy

shutterstock_166598477_blueEnforcing your patent rights in China could oftentimes be challenging as counterfeiters are also getting smarter and more innovative over time. However, if a European SME has a good IP enforcement strategy in place, it is possible to successfully defend your business against patent infringers. In today’s blog post we are taking a look at a case study involving a Spanish SMEs that experienced some issues with patent infringements. This case study shows the importance of a good IP enforcement strategy for the business success.

Case Background 

A Spanish SME in the scientific research and development industry has patents around the world and in China on certain cutting edge surgical instruments. At an international exposition of surgical instruments the Spanish Company discovers a Chinese company advertising their patented products under the name of the Chinese company. The Spanish company obtains flyers and photos of the products. However, the Spanish company is also concerned that the Chinese company might have defensive utility model patents in place. Since, utility model patents are approved quickly (usually within one year) and do require official examination on novelty, inventiveness and industrial applicability, this could potentially bar the Spanish company from entering the Chinese market. Continue reading “Patent Protection Case Study: The Importance of a Robust IP Enforcement Strategy” »