Unsurprisingly, speakers from Chinese companies with
real-life experience of protecting and enforcing their rights
overseas got the most enthusiastic response (one adjunct
professor in the audience repeatedly implored Alex An, the CEO
of JK Sucralose, to go and speak to her students about his
company’s successful defence of an ITC
The event encapsulated many of the questions about
innovation in China: are Chinese companies doing it, and if so,
how, where, and how are they protecting it? Of course every IP
professional knows that telecoms companies
ZTE have been racing up the PCT top users’
list over the past decade, but how many can name a dozen
IP-rich companies in China?
Haier, of course, but neither company is (nor has
positioned itself as) a cutting-edge international innovator.
Instead, they specialise in making dependable products for the
mass market. There are also companies that largely mirror
innovations going on beyond the Great Firewall,
as the FT said this week: Baidu is to Google what Renren is
to Facebook. Then there are the behemoths of Chinese industry:
the utilities, banks and construction companies (often
state-owned) where innovation has traditionally played a less
important role than market share and economies of scale
– China Mobile, Bank of China, Bao Steel, China Life
Insurance and so on.
Below these, however, are a growing number of companies,
often private and almost always young, that are doing much of
the most innovative work. Many are in the pharmaceutical and IT
sectors, and they are often connected to university research
universities dominate the list of the biggest filers at
But here’s the problem for foreign lawyers
wanting to advise these companies as they plan their strategies
for overseas expansion: Not only do the language barriers make
it difficult to find out who they are and what they do
(it’s not that these businesses are always small:
smartphone maker Xiaomi, for example, whose in-house counsel
spoke at the Forum, has sold more than 7 million MI phones
within three years of its launch), it is that the business
culture is confusingly unfamiliar.
Most in-house counsel in European and US companies worked
for years in private practice before making the switch
in-house. Some might have moved back and forth across the
divide throughout their careers. In-house decision makers are
usually senior and generally look the part.
That’s often not the case in China. The IP
profession is young and IP lawyers are in demand. That means
that it isn’t unusual to find twenty-something
professionals in charge of managing their
company’s IP portfolio.
Nor can non-Chinese lawyers rely on the usual sartorial
clues to identify their Chinese counterparts. There were few in
the audience last month wearing business suits – and a
colleague reports that one in-house delegate at our
Shanghai event last year arrived wearing what she describes
as pyjamas and slippers. It turned out he was a senior patent
lawyer at one of China’s biggest IP filers.
All this makes it difficult to navigate China’s
fast-moving IP scene. But that doesn’t mean that
overseas firms wanting to win Chinese work should be deterred.
Finding China’s next Huawei or ZTE might be
difficult, but there are plenty of small, increasingly
innovative companies in China whose IP portfolios are only
going to grow. Foreign lawyers just need to challenge their
preconceptions if they want to cultivate a long-term
relationship with them.