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Intellectual Property Protection In China - Articles Surfing

If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then the Chinese can be very sincere flatterers indeed. But if you prefer prosperity over flattery it would be wise to take precautions against losing your shirt (or at least the rights to it) in one of the world's most dangerous IP jungles. It isn*t that the legal regime is deficient * it's enforcement that's lacking. For the present at least, China is a net importer of intellectual property. A relatively lawless IP environment is advantageous to China's short-term interests, just as a strictly enforced IP environment suits the interests of net IP exporters such as the United States. This issue has been constant irritant in relations between China and Western nations, as well as Japan. Nevertheless, China's enforcement of intellectual property has steadily improved in recent years.

Protecting intellectual property (IP) in China requires a multi-pronged strategy including registration, workplace security, employee contracts, commercial contracts and enforcement.


China's IP registration regimes are more or less consistent with international standards.

Trademarks - are protected on a first-to-file basis, with an exception for well-known trademarks. Do not rely on the *well-known* exception, however (unless you are Coca-Cola), because whether a particular trademark is *well-known* or not is a time-consuming argument that keeps IP lawyers in business all over the world. If a trademark uses words, the Chinese language equivalent should also be registered.

China has adopted the international Classification of Goods and Services under the Nice Agreement, and has also adopted the international registration regime under the Madrid system.

FIE Business Names * must be in Chinese and registered with the local Administration of Industry and Commerce before an application to set up a Foreign Invested Enterprise can be submitted (see this site's Company Startup Guide for details on company name registration). Since China does not have a national register of business names, registrations are valid only within a particular locality (and an FIE business name cannot be registered in any location except its location of establishment). Trademark registrations offer better protection in this respect.

Patents & Designs - are protected on a first-to-file basis. China is a member of the Paris Convention, so filings in a member country within applicable time limits can also gain priority in China. More ominously, compulsory licenses may be granted (i) to qualified enterprises if the owner of the patent fails to license the patent on reasonable terms, and (ii) in the event of a national emergency. Because of this, many foreign companies do not register patents for sensitive technology in China. See Technology Transfers and Licensing for related information.

Copyrights - Copyrighted material may be registered with the China National Copyright Administration. As in the United States, copyrights are not granted on a first-to-file basis. Registration does serves as useful evidence of ownership of a copyrighted work, but it is not a legal precondition to enforcement.

Software * is considered copyrighted material and may be registered with the China National Copyright Administration. Registration requires the filing of source code (with some code blacked out). As a consequence, many foreign companies refuse to register their software in China.

Domain Names - are protected on a *first-to-file* basis. A foreign company must have an FIE or Representative Office in order to register a *.cn* domain name in China.

Workplace Security

It is strongly advised to create a *plumbing* system to control IP leakage in the workplace.

IT systems and any hard copies of IP should be kept in an access-restricted, secure location.

Confidential information should be distributed on a strict *need to know* basis.

Confidential material should be marked *Confidential Information* in Chinese in anticipation of possible litigation in Chinese courts.


Independently investigate the reputation and trustworthiness of applicants for sensitive positions during the recruitment process.

Labor contracts should be prepared carefully. You should consider including the following in all labor contracts:

Confidentiality obligations

Non-compete clauses - Post-termination non-competition clauses should be limited to a reasonable geographic area and time limit. Compensation is also required to be paid during the period of non-competition.

Assignment * Although China recognizes the work-for-hire principle, the labor contract should clearly assign ownership of intellectual property created in the course of employment; otherwise IP rights may prove practically impossible to enforce against an employee who creates an IP-related work for hire.

Product Selection

Despite the additional tax breaks and incentives available, think carefully before manufacturing products that require new and sensitive technology in China. Components requiring new and sensitive technology may be imported into China in a secure manner for integration with the rest of the product.

Commercial Contracts

Since many commercial arrangements, even sourcing materials and components, can necessitate an exchange of intellectual property, adequate protections should be included in the contracts and associated documentation.

Administrative Enforcement Action

Various government organs have the power to take administrative action against IP infringers:

National Copyright Administration - The NCA is the *big gun* of the Chinese IP enforcement arsenal and is endowed with broad enforcement powers. They may order cessation of the infringing activities, confiscate illegal income, confiscate and destroy illegal copies, and impose fines.

State Administration of Industry and Commerce - The SAIC and its local AICs have a reputation for efficient trademark enforcement action, including investigations and raids. The SAIC also handles disputes regarding business names, registered trademarks, trade secrets, and passing off activities.

Customs - may confiscate products that infringe trademarks, copyrights and patents.

China Patent Office - may help with patent enforcement through investigation, mediation and raids.

General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine - may get involved if product quality and health issues are at issue.

Administrative enforcement is a relatively inexpensive and efficient alternative to litigation, and it is easier to win a conviction.


If administrative action fails to bring the desired result, litigation may have to be resorted to. Chinese courts can issue injunctions and award damages, although in practice their enforcement powers are typically weaker than in Western nations.

Criminal Prosecution

Criminal liability, including imprisonment, can be imposed for IP violations, although successful prosecutions are rare. Financial thresholds that must be met before criminal liability can be assessed can be difficult to prove. These thresholds include:

RMB50,000 turnover for knowingly selling goods with counterfeit registered trademarks

RMB50,000 turnover or RMB30,000 profits if trademarks are applied to goods without authorization

International Enforcement

Products that infringe intellectual property rights can be interdicted by customs at the destination port. It is also possible to seize the overseas assets of infringers located in China.

Technology Transfers and Licensing

Foreign investors often license technology and intellectual property such as trademarks, patents, copyrighted material and trademarks to the FIEs they invest in. A foreign party may also license technology to unaffiliated Chinese companies, such as in manufacturing or management contracts. Unlike joint venture contracts, licensing contracts can be governed by foreign law.

Proper licensing will help the foreign party control its technology and secure the payment of royalties (registration is required for the latter). Only the brave, however, will dare to license sensitive technology to an entity which the foreign party does not control.

Technology transfers are understandably less common than licensing and are usually used as part of the foreign investor's contribution of technology to a Foreign Invested Enterprise as Registered Capital.

Technology Restrictions

Chinese foreign trade law recognizes three categories of technology: Permitted, Restricted, and Prohibited. These are contained in a catalogue that lists specific technologies.

Permitted technology is simply technology which has not been classified as Restricted or Prohibited.

Restricted technology may not be imported without a license, and is generally related to the chemical, petrochemical, biochemical, biological, and petroleum refining industries.

Prohibited Technology is technology that is considered to endanger national security, the public interest, or public morals by placing people's lives or health at risk or destroying the environment.


A license for restricted technology must be approved by and registered with the Commission of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation (COFTEC). COFTEC will adjudicate a license application within 30 days. Licensing contracts for Restricted technology are effective only after COFTEC issues the corresponding Technology Import License.

Prohibited technology may not be brought into China.

Certain types of Permitted technology, while not subject to licensing requirements, are still subject to filing with COFTEC.

Technology transfers relating to certain major projects must be registered with and approved by the Ministry of Commerce. Trademark licenses must be filed with the China Trademark Office within three months of execution in order to remit royalties out of China. Foreign trademarks must be recorded at the China Trademark Office in order to remit royalties out of China. Trademark recordation takes about a year and a half.


A foreign company may not prohibit a licensee from improving the licensed Technology, and these improvements become the property of the improver.

Technology as FIE Capital Contributions

Technology may be contributed as part of an FIE's Registered Capital; however, the FIE will then become the owner of the technology and the foreign contributor will have to license the technology from the FIE if it wants to use it.

Technology contributed as capital is required to be appraised upon importation and should also be appraised by the Ministry of Commerce or the relevant local COFTEC as soon as the FIE is approved.

Since the Company Law requires 30% of the Registered Capital of an FIE to be contributed in currency (20% of the initial installment of Registered Capital), it follows that alternative forms of contribution, including technology, cannot total more than 70% and 80%, respectively.

Submitted by:

David Carnes

David Carnes is licensed to practice law in California. He speaks and reads Mandarin Chinese and has several years experience working with Chinese law firms and Sino-American joint ventures. His website, China Legal Bulletin, is at http://www.lunaticwisdom.com/blog1.



Copyright © 1995 - Photius Coutsoukis (All Rights Reserved).


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