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.

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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/

 

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

 

South-East Asia IPR Basics Series: Protecting Trade Secrets in Thailand

CaptureIn today’s fast paced and information reliant world of business, trade secrets can make or break a company’s chances for success.

Now everybody knows that the best way to keep a secret is… well to keep it secret. But if you absolutely have to tell somebody, this article should give you some pointers on how to protect your business against information leakage in Thailand.

At the Helpdesk we always advise that SMEs seek professional legal advice when dealing with complex issues, and this is never more important than when drafting contracts and Non-Disclosure Agreements etc. However, if you need some help finding appropriate legal help, or just need some pointers as to what you should be looking for, get in touch with our experts today!

Continue reading “South-East Asia IPR Basics Series: Protecting Trade Secrets in Thailand” »

Writing a good manufacturing non-disclosure agreement in China

shangwushuxie2_344In China, even searching for a manufacturer can be perilous. Revealing too much information off the bat can allow a prospective manufacturer to appropriate your IP and leave you with little recourse. To prevent this, a solid non-disclosure agreement is essential.

In this article, we cover some things which should be included in any non-disclosure agreement you sign with Chinese manufacturers before your partnership begins. For more information, send our experts a message and get personalised advice.

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Basics of manufacturing non-disclosure agreements in China

MP900438585Benjamin Franklin once quipped that, “Three [men] can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Fortunately for SMEs, more sophisticated methods for protecting trade secrets are now available; however, the importance of closely guarding valuable information remains.

SMEs seeking manufacturers in China can use non-disclosure agreements to meet those secrecy protection needs. In this article, the Helpdesk’s Samuel Sabasteanski talks about some fundamental considerations when preparing such agreements and signing them with Chinese manufacturers. As always, for more information, send us an email or drop us a line and hear back from our experts within three days.

Continue reading “Basics of manufacturing non-disclosure agreements in China” »