IP protection in the South-East Asia region: What EU SMEs should know

Why is IP protection important for EU SMEs?

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of the EU economy. They represent 99 % of all businesses in the EU, account for more than half of Europe’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employ about 100 million people[1]. The positive association between economic performance and ownership of intellectual property rights (IPRs) is particularly strong for SMEs.

World IP Day_1200x675px

SMEs that own IPRs generate 68 % higher revenue per employee than SMEs that do not own any IPRs at all, according to the latest study published in 2021 by the European Patent Office (EPO) and the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) on IPRs and firm performance in the EU [2]. As the study shows, IPR protection has become crucial to the success of SMEs, and it is thus key for SMEs to be aware of the value of intellectual property (IP) and of the best ways to benefit from it.

IP relates to intangible assets, which comprise intellectual and industrial property. IPRs can be protected by law under patents, trade marks, industrial designs, copyright, plant variety protection, but also via trade secrets, unfair competition, civil and criminal law.

SMEs can benefit from IP protection and seize business opportunities globally if their IP portfolio is managed effectively. A strong IP strategy also helps SMEs attract funds from potential investors, enabling them to internationalise in emerging markets. According to a joint report between the EPO and the EUIPO in 2019[3], IPR-intensive industries generated approximately 45 % of the total GDP in the EU, worth EUR 6.6 trillion. Those sectors also accounted for most of the EU’s trade with the rest of the world, comprising 96 % of goods exported from the EU.

IP protection is also crucial to fostering innovation by providing a return on investment on Research and Development (R&D). Furthermore, a well-prepared IP protection strategy will help SMEs prevent others from free-riding on their IP. Importantly, an SME, being the legitimate owner of IPRs, will have recourse to enforcement actions to stop an activity infringing their IPRs.

IP protection is the key to success of EU SMEs expansion in the SEA region[4]

Southeast Asia (SEA) region is a promising destination for EU SMEs, thanks to their open policies and incentives for attracting foreign investment. The region is a thriving economy with a combined GDP of USD 3 trillion in 2018 (the 5th largest in the world) and a population of 649.1 million people[5].

The SEA region represents the EU’s 3rd largest trading partner outside Europe (after the US and China) with more than EUR 237.3 billion of trade in goods in 2018. The EU is the SEA region’s 2nd largest trading partner after China, accounting for around 14 % of SEA trade. The EU is by far the largest investor in the SEA countries with the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) stocks in the SEA region accounting for EUR 337 billion[6].

To date, the EU has two Free Trade Agreements already in force with Vietnam and Singapore, respectively – EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) and EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA) – and is negotiating a comprehensive economic partnership agreement with Indonesia. These FTAs facilitate market access through the elimination of customs duties and non-tariff barriers from both sides, as well as stimulating investment flows. Each Agreement includes a comprehensive IPR chapter with commitments to enhance IPR protection and enforcement in line with international standards.

The report of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the EUIPO published in 2019[7] shows that companies suffering from counterfeiting and piracy continue to be primarily registered in Europe. China continues to be the biggest origin of counterfeit and pirated goods, but some of the major SEA economies are also listed among the top 25 provenances. As the study shows, the exposure of EU SMEs to IPR infringements in the SEA region is high; and EU SMEs should consider this when preparing their IP strategy.

In the COVID-19 context, IP infringement in the online environment appears to be increasing in SEA countries, via e-commerce and social media platforms, due to the lack of effective regulations addressing online IP violations. IP owners are advised to seek registration for protection of their IPRs in each country of interest. Registration at the IP Offices and in the customs registers may contribute to successful enforcement.

Stay tuned to IP Key South-East Asia and South-East Asia IP SME Helpdesk for success stories of EU SMEs operating in Southeast Asia and how IPR protection supports these businesses during the pandemic.

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How is the European Union supporting EU SMEs in SEA?

On top of bilateral trade agreements introducing commitments for enhanced IPR protection and enforcement, the EU counts on IP Dialogues and IP technical cooperation programmes to support EU businesses trading and investing in the region, including SMEs.

The European Commission (EC) launched, among others, the following initiatives to support EU SMEs.

South-East Asia IP SME Helpdesk (website here)

The South-East Asia IP SME Helpdesk is an initiative of the EC to support EU SMEs to protect and enforce their IPRs in SEA. 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 SEA within 3 working days), (ii) IP Guides and Country Factsheets and (iii) Onsite and online Trainings. The South-East Asia IP SME helpdesk is part of the IP SME Helpdesk initiative which EU/COSME SMEs and researchers participating in EU-funded projects both to protect and enforce their Intellectual Property (IP) rights in relation to Europe, China, India, Latin America and South-East Asia.

IP Key South-East Asia (website here)

IP Key South-East Asia (IP Key SEA) is a four-year programme funded by the EU and implemented by the EUIPO aimed at supporting IP rights protection and enforcement across South-East Asia, with a view to creating the appropriate legal and economic environment conducive to trade and investment in the region. By contributing to the enhancement of IP frameworks and implementation of best practices, IP Key SEA aims to ensure a level playing field for both local enterprises and EU stakeholders. IP Key SEA is one of three IP Key flagship programmes that are being implemented by the EUIPO, together with IP Key China and IP Key Latin America.

Other incentives for EU SMEs

EU SMEs now can apply for assistance to protect their IPRs under the following programmes:

  • The Ideas Powered for Business SME Fund: a 20 million Euro grant scheme created to help SMEs develop their IP strategies and protect their IPR, at national and EU level (more details here).
  • Horizon IP Scan: Helping SMEs manage and valorise IP in research and innovation collaborations (more detail here).

#KNOWBEFOREYOUGO

IPR protection in SEA is crucial for EU SMEs to ensure a safe ground for their business activities. Without protection, enforcement of the IP rights will not be possible. Therefore, it is highly advisable for EU SMEs to make an effective use of the various EU initiatives to set up their IP strategy before expanding to the region. Get in touch with the SEA IP SME Helpdesk (question@southeastasia-iprhelpdesk.eu) and IP Key SEA (IPKEY-SEA@euipo.europa.eu) to learn more about the available tools.

Drafted by:

IP Key SEA & South-East Asia IP SME Helpdesk

EN IP Key SEA 1200x675_02                                     

[1]https://ec.europa.eu/growth/smes_en#:~:text=Small%20and%20medium%2Dsized%20enterprises%20(SMEs)%20are%20the%20backbone,every%20sector%20of%20the%20economy.

[2]http://documents.epo.org/projects/babylon/eponet.nsf/0/7120D0280636B3E6C1258673004A8698/$File/ipr_performance_study_en.pdf

[3] https://euipo.europa.eu/tunnel-web/secure/webdav/guest/document_library/observatory/documents/IPContributionStudy/IPR-intensive_industries_and_economicin_EU/summary/IP_Contribution_Report_092019_execsum_en.pdf

[4] The South-East Asia (SEA) region consists of 10 countries, including Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam.

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

[6] https://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/regions/asean/

[7] https://euipo.europa.eu/tunnel-web/secure/webdav/guest/document_library/observatory/documents/reports/trends_in_trade_in_counterfeit_and_pirated_goods/trends_in_trade_in_counterfeit_and_pirated_goods_en.pdf

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.

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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

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

 

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