Winning the copyright battle in China
When it comes to protecting intellectual property in China, the United States often feels that its pleas are falling on deaf ears. Its best hope is that China recognizes that copyright protection is in its own interests. To achieve that, Washington needs to push for changes from within.
After a fruitless decade of lobbying China on intellectual property, Washington has reached for the microphone. This week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a high-profile international forum on intellectual property in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province and best known as both China’s manufacturing hub and the global centre for intellectual property theft.
Guangdong understands it cannot hold on to both titles forever. Its reforming leader Wang Yang has vowed to build an innovative Guangdong, but he and his deputies understandably do not want to be criticized in public. The U.S. delegation included high-ranking officials such as Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, but the very man they hoped to engage with didn’t show up.
Foreign pressure can help, but changes rarely happen in public. First, both parties need to agree on what they are trying to achieve. As a manufacturer for the rest of the world, China has historically seen little upside in protecting copyright. The United States needs to convince Beijing that, if it wants to develop its own products, then protecting copyright is important.
Huawei Technologies, the telecom equipment maker based in Guangdong, could be a good partner in this. In 2003, Cisco sued Huawei for copyright violations, but dropped the suit after Huawei agreed to stop selling some products. Now, Huawei has emerged as a strong protector of copyright. Last year the company filed the largest number of patents in the world.
Song Liuping, Huawei’s chief legal officer, advocates increasing the penalty for IP theft, a view shared by Americans. But he thinks the problem is not the lack of an adequate legal system or even lax enforcement, but the absence of a culture in China that values designs, patents, and copyrights.
China is likely to act when it feels others are trampling on its rights. A Chinese group recently complained that Google’s planned online library of digitised books might violate Chinese authors’ copyrights. The more China feels that its own interests are at stake, the more serious it will get. When every new movie or software program can be copied for nothing, it is impossible to develop a film business or software industry.
It is better to back Chinese movie stars and technology entrepreneurs rather than American politicians to drive this message home in China.
— At the time of publication Wei Gu did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. She may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund —