Head of Patent Office Complains About China’s IP Reputation

November 12, 2012

Whenever I give a lecture on China IP law and enforcement, I spend a little time on mythology and China’s image overseas. There is a significant disconnect between the reality on the ground over here and the conventional wisdom on China’s record among foreigners. This is complicated by the fact that the PRC is still home to unacceptable levels of piracy even though its IP legal regime has gone through an impressive series of reforms and upgrades over the past several years, particularly since China joined the WTO. China is the factory to the world; no one should be surprised that so much of the world’s counterfeits are also made here.

But I sympathize with frustrated government officials who believe that China’s critics have unfairly characterized its progress in enforcing IP rights. One such complaint surfaced over the weekend during the 18th Party Congress:

China’s top official in charge of fighting copyright piracy on Sunday slammed what he said was deliberate distortion of the problem by the Western media caused by the country’s poor global image, saying important facts had been ignored. (Reuters)

What facts? You name it, China has the statistics, ranging from IP registrations to the number of enforcement actions, the higher number of trained examiners and enforcement authorities, even a drop in the rate of piracy among products like software. But that positive message rarely gets out to most folks overseas, as IP officials over here know all too well:

But Tian Lipu, head of China’s State Intellectual Property Office, said the government’s efforts were being ignored.

“Speaking honestly, there is a market. People use and buy pirated goods,” Tian told reporters on the sidelines of a landmark Communist Party congress.

“To a large extent, China’s intellectual property rights protection image has been distorted by Western media.

By the way, Tian Lipu is head of SIPO, which is China’s Patent Office. He is not, as the Reuters article says, the nation’s top copyright cop. That aside, I have mixed feelings about Tian’s comments.

Have China’s efforts been ignored? Sort of. Your average person out there in the West has no clue, not to mention a good chunk of the business community that does business with China, but you can’t say the same for foreign governments. Consider for example the U.S. government’s annual report on the protection of IP rights put out by the U.S. Trade Representative. Year after year, USTR is very careful to not only enumerate China’s shortcomings but also to point out the progress that has been made thus far.

Has Western media deliberately distorted China’s IP image? Distorted, sure, although perhaps not on purpose, as some folks here like to think. Look, IP is a technical, legal subject that bores most readers to tears. It takes a big and sexy IP story, usually involving a company like Apple, to pop out and get attention. Effective enforcement of IP rights is extraordinarily dull, and most editors wouldn’t be caught dead assigning that sort of thing to a reporter. But if Apple gets into a patent fight with a Chinese company? Now that has potential.

The media is also lazy on occasion. Reporters who don’t know the difference between a patent and a trademark are routinely assigned IP stories, and hilarity inevitability ensues. Moreover, I probably see at least one story a month where some careless editor will, for example, use “trademark” in a headline that is all about patents, or vice versa. Journalists constantly rely on very questionable statistics fed to them by lobbyists and industry “think tanks,” all of whom have an agenda. But hey, everybody’s busy and trying to meet deadlines. I get it.

The resulting negative image of China’s IP record is undoubtedly skewed, but so is news coverage of South Central LA. Bad news sells; this is not a new problem.

Can you imagine a reporter trying to make the following facts, brought up by Tian, into an interesting story?

China is the world’s largest payer for patent rights, for trademark rights, for royalties, and one of the largest for buying real software[.] We pay the most. People rarely talk about this, but it really is a fact. Our government offices, our banks, our insurance companies, our firms … the software is all real.

Well, perhaps not all that software is genuine, but his point is well taken. On the other hand, when was the last time you read a story with the headline: “Local man drives home without getting into an accident”? Doesn’t exactly leap off the page, does it?

Tian has been in charge over at SIPO for a while now and well understands why there is a public disconnect between image and reality. It’s easy to demonize the press (I do it on a regular basis myself), but I don’t believe China’s IP image problem is a deliberate attempt by the West to make the PRC look bad.