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

 

IP exploitation strategy in South-East Asia

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Written by Marta Bettinazzi

In these changing times, we all need to find the time to prepare for the future and draft our strategy for success. This should also mean reevaluating our resources to see if we can make better use of them.

A good shift of perspective is to stop considering your intellectual property (IP) only as a cost (registration, maintenance). IP is an asset and you should learn how to make the best out of it. We will briefly look at the options that exist for exploiting intellectual property rights (IPR), then examine both the risks and the best practices to put into place in South-East Asia (SEA).

The best way to exploit your IPR depends on the kind of IP you own, but it can be summarised in two big categories: licensing and selling.man-sitting-near-fruits-723991

Selling means that you permanently transfer your IP (or better, the economic rights connected to it) to someone else. For example, you sell your patent to a bigger company that can mass-produce the invention you have patented or, more commonly, your IP is purchased as part of a merger-and-acquisition operation. In this case one company would acquire all the IPR that were part of your assets (trade marks, copyrights, patents, etc.). A famous example is the acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook for the unimaginable price of USD 21 billion (more info here).

Licensing means that you, as an IPR owner (licensor), authorise someone to use your rights (licensee) in exchange for an agreed payment (fee or royalty).

This can allow you to expand your global presence and also ensure a source of revenue. On the other hand, the licensee can manufacture, sell, import, export, distribute and market various goods or services that they may otherwise not have had the rights to.

We can group the license agreements in three categories: Technology License Agreement; Trademark Licensing (and Franchising) Agreement; Copyright License Agreement.

Often these kinds of agreements are combined with and/or included in broader contractual settings, for example distribution contracts.

Therefore, the first step in an effective IP strategy is to review the agreements you already have in place with your partners and distributors to be sure that they include clear rules regarding the use of your IP.

In SEA it’s not uncommon for local distributors to register the IP (usually the trade marks) of their international partners under their own name. This way the local company acquires de facto an exclusive license on the product(s) of the SMEs. In fact, if the local company is the owner of the trade mark, it can prevent others from using it, including other companies authorised by the SME (the original owner of the trade mark). It might be said that you are in a marriage with your partner, and you might need an expensive and lengthy divorce (judiciary decision) to be able to leave it.

Before entering any kind of distribution agreement, give special attention to the difference between the registration of the trade mark (and IP in general) and the registration of the product itself. The latter is an administrative step needed to import a ‘new’ product into a country, but it does not ensure any protection for your IPR.

In other words, if your distributor is offering to do the product registration to allow you to import goods into the country, this does not imply that he/she is also going to help you with the registration of the trade mark or patent (or any other IP).

Keep in mind that a formal licensing agreement is possible only if the IPR you wish to license is also protected in the country or countries of interest to you. Without registering your IP in the country, you are not only unable to properly license it, but you also have no legal right to put any restriction on its use by anyone else.

Despite provisions in international treaties, courts and administrative bodies in SEA seldom extend protection to well know trade marks (see, as a reference, the famous IKEA case in Indonesia). Only Malaysia and Singapore ensure some level of protection for de facto trade marks and take into account the use of a non-registered trade mark.

On a side note, do not forget to consider registering your trade mark in local scripts as well, for example in Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar. This ensures complete protection for your trade mark, limiting the possibility of cheaper copycats riding on your reputation by using a transliteration of your trade mark. pink-and-white-weighing-scale-3964619

Also, note that many countries in SEA require license agreements to be registered if they are to be enforced. Some countries, like Thailand, also require the registration of trade mark licenses, others, like Vietnam, only require the registration of technology transfers.

To recap, be sure to register your IP before entering into any agreements with local partners. If this is not possible in the immediate future at least include a clause in your agreements to prevent the local company from registering your IP ‘for you’.

Technology transfer agreements can be very remunerative, but can also put your business at risk — you could be creating your own, stronger competitor. Therefore, it is advisable to either license a technology you have patented in the country where your counterpart will operate or you license something (an idea, a technology, some know-how, a recipe, etc.) that is secret. In this case, you have to be sure that your partner is bound by the same level of secrecy.

Reality is not that simple. Even if something is patented (and therefore publicly disclosed, for example in Europe) local companies might not be advanced enough to copy it, and may be interested in entering an agreement with you to acquire the know-how surrounding the patent.

This might present itself as an unpredicted and very welcome source of revenue for you, but you are running the risk of your new partner becoming your competitor in the future.

A good way to balance this issue is to bind your partner to secrecy regarding the unpatented part of the technologies.

As mentioned, technology transfers are not always encouraged by legislation in SEA and can often be subject to registration requirements. This means that if the agreement is not registered at the public office it cannot be enforced (in cases of breach or liability). Some countries have also limitations regarding the kind of technologies that can be transferred to and from their territory.

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In short: the best strategy is always to patent all your cutting-edge technologies in as many countries as possible (including new markets like SEA); combine a good patent strategy with a high level of secrecy and be aware of local legislation.

A final thought: do not forget to prepare all your contractual documents in both English and the local language and be sure to agree and sign the local language version. Most of the courts in SEA can only accept (and understand) documents in the local language. A later translation could be not only expensive but also problematic; your counterpart could propose their own translation of the text, which could lead to endless interpretation problems.

For more information you can have a look at our guides on trade marks, patents and technology transfers, or at our country factsheets.

Do not hesitate to reach out to the Helpdesk if you have any questions on IP in SEA.

Marta Bettinazzi

IP Business Advisor

South-East Asia IPR SME Helpdesk

E: marta.bettinazzi@southeastasia-iprhelpdesk.eu

W: www.southeastasia-iprhelpdesk.eu

 

PROTECTING YOUR IP RIGHTS WITH THE CHINESE ANTI-UNFAIR COMPETITION LAW (AUCL)

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The definition of an unfair competition is given by the article 2 of the PCR Anti-Unfair Competition Law (反不正当竞争法). According to this article, an act of unfair competition is constituted when during production or distribution activities, a business operator disrupts the market competition order or infringes the legal rights and interests of other business operators or consumers.

Some unfair competition acts can be related to intellectual property such as the Article 6 which concerns the copy and imitation of brands and the Article 9 relating to the trade secrets. These articles protect an intellectual property owner from infringing of its IP rights by a competitor. The Anti-Unfair Competition Law has the benefit of protecting unregistered trademark. Continue reading “PROTECTING YOUR IP RIGHTS WITH THE CHINESE ANTI-UNFAIR COMPETITION LAW (AUCL)” »

IP Considerations for the Manufacturing Industry in South-East Asia

cool20080814_015In today’s blog post we are looking into how to protect IP in the manufacturing industry in South-East Asia, which is currently offering many opportunities for the European SMEs. You’ll learn more about patent protection and industrial design protection, but also about brand protection, as your brand is equally important to your patent. 

Manufacturing is one of the key drivers of growth in South-East Asia, with more and more South-East Asian countries winning manufacturers over from China due to lower labour costs, rising domestic consumption and improving infrastructure. Well-known brands such as Coca-Cola and Coach have so far established plants in Myanmar and Vietnam, leveraging on the cheap labour market and growing domestic demand in these countries. In Cambodia, the textiles and footwear manufacturing industry alone generates approximately EUR 5 billion annually for the economy.

In the coming years, it is expected that the manufacturing industry in South-East Asia will continue to stay strong and even expand further. The expansion of the working-age population in South-East Asia will help to boost the manufacturing sector of these countries and keep the labour costs low. The transfer of technology into South-East Asia over time will also serve to increase the efficiency of countries in this region. As such, South-East Asia offers vast opportunities for EU SMEs that are looking to expand their presence in the region. In so doing, however, EU SMEs should be aware of the intellectual property risks that they will face when operating in this region, with respect to the advanced technology that may be transferred to this region as part of the collaboration and joint venture with SME’s local partners.
Continue reading “IP Considerations for the Manufacturing Industry in South-East Asia” »

Software Protection in South-East Asia

close-up-2178341_1920In today’s blog post we are discussing how to protect your software IP rights in South-East Asia, where ICT and software sector has been booming in recent years, offering many promising opportunities to European SMEs. This article takes a closer look at the source code protection with copyrights, patent protection for software related inventions and discusses how to safely licence your software in South-East Asia. 

The Information Technology services and software sector in South-East Asia have been booming in recent years as South-East Asian nations continue to develop through many innovative technological solutions. In particular, South-East Asia is experiencing a rapid growth of Internet, digital and social media and mobile activities. With more than 320 million Internet users in 2017, increasing connectivity and therefore dependence on computer technology is to be expected in this region. This translates to growth in the software industry which leads to many promising opportunities for the European SMEs in the region, whose top-notch technology and know-how will be sought after.

Before entering South-East Asian markets, however, EU SMEs should be aware of the different IP rights and how they apply to the software industry, as well as the possible risk of IP infringement in these markets. This is increasingly important with many companies developing their own software, and software development being an ever-growing industry. European SMEs should thus have a comprehensive IP strategy in place when entering the promising markets of South-East Asia. Continue reading “Software Protection in South-East Asia” »