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Zhang Qin, China Association for Science and Technology: The future of IP




The theoretical justification for intellectual property rights is consistent with China’s explosive economic growth, argues Zhang Qin.

Zhang is likely to influence how IP is seen in China

Zhang Qin is no starry-eyed academic. A nuclear engineer and computer scientist by training, he served as deputy commissioner of China's State Intellectual Property Office from 2003 to 2009. As the second highest official at SIPO, he was the key organiser and drafter of the Outline of National Intellectual Property Strategy of China (ONIPSC) issued by the State Council in 2008, and is credited for formulating the more than 200 action goals it took to implement the Strategy.

Zhang has stayed involved in the development of IP rights in China as the executive secretary of the China Association of Science and Technology and vice president of the China Intellectual Property Society. He is also playing the role of public intellectual. In April, he published his book, The Basic Theory of Intellectual Property Rights, which lays out the philosophical justification for IP and its role in China's national development.


"Intellectual property is different from physical property, because there is no scarcity"


The goal of his book is to outline the purpose of intellectual property and IP rights to a Chinese public is relatively unfamiliar with these concepts. The starting point of this understanding, Zhang says, is that "intellectual property is different from intellectual property rights".

"Property is a concept of economics," Zhang explains. He argues that property has two fundamental qualities; it is useful in some way, and it has scarcity. In this way, intellectual property is different from physical property, because there is no scarcity to a piece of IP once it is created.

Zhang points out that IP rights create a monopoly, and thus address this issue of scarcity. Patents and copyrights, he argues, are a "legislative right to create scarcity". Having scarcity is what allows IP to be traded and controlled like other property rights.

"Intellectual property is not a natural right," he emphasises. Rather it is a human-created right with a very short history in China.

"China has only had IP rights for about 30 years," said Zhang. "For thousands of years, China did not have an IP system, and it was normal. But people eventually began to realise that technology and innovations were useful, just expensive. IP rights were invented to address the risk of bearing this expense and avoiding the tragedy of the commons."

Zhang sees IP rights through the lens of national interest. He believes that an IPR system must be designed to benefit the people of each country and the needs of each nation, and that is why each country has their own intellectual property laws.

He explained that when China's economy was less developed, it was not in its interest to have a strong IP system that many felt just protected foreign companies. At that time, he said, most Chinese companies could not afford to purchase or license the technologies and just wanted them for free.

However, now that China is creating more and more of its own intellectual property, the scope of its IP protection will likely increase to reflect the changing interests of its people, Zhang said. "China will want stronger protections for its intellectual property, and will want to sell our own technologies." Because China is becoming a creator of IP, he said, he believes that it will continue harmonising its IP system with those of countries such as the United States.

Despite the value Zhang places on IP rights and his belief that harmonisation will continue, his vision for China is uniquely his own. In the future when China becomes a supplier of IP to less developed countries, he believes that there are situations where rights owners should share their technologies without receiving the full price in return. He cites medical patents as an example, and situations where a new technology can save many lives in a developing country that cannot otherwise afford to pay for a licence.

Further reading:

China releases National IP Strategy
SIPO responds to China's critics
China IP court on the cards

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