When the INTA Daily News caught up with Toe Su Aung she was
spending a rare few days in London, between attending the
Global Anticounterfeiting Congress in Istanbul (where she
shared a stage with the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan)
and leaving for the INTA Annual Meeting in Dallas, where she
will today welcome attendees as this year’s
President. Such globetrotting has become routine for Aung: in
the past year alone, she has also been to India, Indonesia,
Japan, Korea, Myanmar, Russia and Singapore on behalf of
The international travel comes naturally to someone who was
born in Japan, spent five years of her childhood in Myanmar and
later grew up in Singapore, before moving to London about 20
years ago. She says the UK capital is now the place she
considers to be home—"it’s the place
I’ve lived in the longest" but adds: "I also feel
at home in many parts of the world." Aung works for an
international tobacco company (BAT) based in the UK (but with a
Brazilian CEO) and also spends a lot of time in the Americas.
And she still has a Singaporean passport.
Aung’s global heritage makes her well-suited to
lead INTA this year, as the Association steps up outreach to
both governments and brand owners in Asia. "It’s
important to talk to governments and see that they understand
what INTA can do to support them. We’ve had some
good conversations with governments and in particular national
IP offices," she says. In Myanmar, for example, INTA has been
helping the government, which is writing its first IP laws.
"We’ve been very impressed with the openness and
willingness to listen. They’re determined to pass
the law sometime this year," says Aung. "They see it as a way
of attracting foreign investment. It’s a
prerequisite to have IP laws and we’re keen to
support what they’re doing."
Aung identifies countries such as Indonesia, Korea and
Vietnam where there are brand-owning companies that could
benefit from joining INTA: "We want to recruit local brand
owners, to make sure they add their voice." She adds that,
though companies in Asia might have different ways of working
compared to those in Europe or North America, their interests
are essentially the same.
One of these interests is fighting counterfeits - something
that Aung has been particularly focused on for the past five
years, since she took on the role of General Counsel,
Anti-Illicit Trade, at BATMark Limited (she was formerly head
of IP at the tobacco company, which owns some 90,000 trademarks
and more than 2,000 patents). The role covers not just
counterfeit goods but also smuggling and tax evasion, and
involves dealing with everything from investigations and
intelligence gathering to international advocacy. She heads a
global team comprising investigators, forensic technicians and
commercial specialists. "Actually," she says after a pause,
"I’m the only lawyer in the group."
Aung admits she was "reluctant" to move away from a pure IP
role when offered the opportunity, but says she enjoys it:
"It’s a much broader role, more commercial and
very diverse. There is the criminal and law enforcement side,
and a lot of engagement and advocacy work." For example, BAT
has signed an agreement with the 27 EU member states and the EU
Commission to tackle illicit trade in tobacco.
But Aung acknowledges that tackling counterfeits requires "a
multi-faceted solution" involving not just legal action, but
authentication technology and awareness-raising: "There is no
silver bullet." She notes that some of the most useful weapons
in the battle against counterfeits are actions over money
laundering and the proceeds of crime: "This has worked well in
the UK and we should promote it in other countries."
Promoting public awareness
The fight against counterfeits has become harder because of
what Aung describes as the "backlash" against IP protection.
This peaked last year with the campaign against ACTA in Europe.
"That was quite a frightening thing," she says. She also warns
trademark practitioners against complacency: "As trademark
owners, we have to fight the battle with everyone else. We
can’t say it’s just a copyright issue
and stand back … The issue of plain packaging is one
example. It’s about making sure people understand
the impact on IP. It’s about balance and
The solution, she suggests, is two-fold, First, IP owners
need to promote a positive image of IP. Second, they need to
"The debate has moved on: it’s not about
counterfeits being bad—governments get that. In terms
of increasing government goodwill, it’s about
appreciating the fundamental IP rights. For example, in
Istanbul, WIPO ran sessions on building respect for IP. At some
level you need to say these rights themselves are important,"
she says. This means promoting public awareness, for example by
researching the economic benefits of IP, including its role in
job creation. Aung welcomes research done by the USPTO and that
being worked on at OHIM’s new Observatory in this
She also notes that there is "a lot more cooperation within
law enforcement (Customs and police) and between the private
sector and law enforcement" than in the past and that there are
significant benefits in "doing things collectively." Following
this year’s Seventh Global Congress Combating
Counterfeiting & Piracy, she says: "Some people say
we’re still talking about the same things but I
believe the debate has moved on and the Global Congresses have
been important in that."
INTA of course has a key role to play in that work, and Aung
identifies some initiatives underway, including her own visits
and those of other Board members, the recent launch of the INTA
blog and plans to make the Board members more visible at
various events during this year’s Annual Meeting.
She also urges trademark practitioners to participate in
INTA’s work: "I don’t want them to
see INTA as just a big party they go to twice a year, or just a
good networking opportunity, though it is both of those things.
The more you get involved, the more you get out of it."
But Aung also acknowledges that no one organization can
provide all the answers and that INTA must collaborate with
other IP and related associations and people where it can: "We
don’t just want to barge in." In south-east Asia,
for example, INTA has a good relationship with the ASEAN IP
Association, which has helped to promote reform in the region,
which will hopefully lead to more countries acceding to both
the Madrid Protocol and the Hague Treaty on designs. "We need
to get the message out to the IP bars about the Madrid
Protocol," she says. "There are concerns about work, but if you
talk to attorneys in countries that joined recently such as the
UK and United States they say work has changed but they have
more added-value work so it hasn’t diminished
their revenue—in fact the contrary."
How the INTA President relaxes
One of Toe Su Aung’s hobbies (she calls it an
"addiction") is body combat. She describes it as "martial arts
movements to music" and adds swiftly: "There’s
lots of punching and stabbing but no contact." Aung has been
taking classes whenever she has time for about five years and
says: "It’s very cheesy but really fun. You should
try it sometime."
Other interests are probably more conventional for an INTA
President: theater, opera ("Puccini is probably my favorite
composer"), good food, wine and the English countryside.
Aung’s President’s Dessert Reception
this week will combine some of these passions, with an operatic
sound track and a new cocktail devised in honor of the
President by her friend, trademark lawyer and professional
winemaker Marion Heathcote. "I think it’s
gin-based with kaffir lime and lime leaves, and
I’m really looking forward to trying it," says