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Interview – INTA President Toe Su Aung



James Nurton, Dallas


Toe Su Aung of BATMark, this year’s INTA President, spoke with James Nurton about anticounterfeiting, public views on IP—and body combat.

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 INTA.

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.

Asian push

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 proportionality."

The solution, she suggests, is two-fold, First, IP owners need to promote a positive image of IP. Second, they need to work together.

"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 area.

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 Aung.


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