This is the final part of a series arising from a speech I gave last month at a biotechnology conference in Washington DC.
In How To Protect Your IP From China. Part 1, I mostly looked at the risks China poses to intellectual property and very generally on how companies can determine how those risks should influence their actions.
In How To Protect Your IP From China. Part 2, I mostly focused on what I, as a lawyer, look at in trying to protect my clients’ IP from China and what you, the company, should be looking at and doing to protect your own IP.
In How To Protect Your IP From China. Part 3, I looked at the negotiating tactics Chinese companies so often employ in an effort to take advantage of your intellectual property.
In How To Protect Your IP From China. Part 4, I wrote on the basics of what goes into Chinese contracts, particularly those related to protecting your intellectual property.
In this part 5, I discuss some of the most common situations companies face where they must focus on protecting their IP.
Confidentiality agreements. In China, unlike in the United States, it is the norm to have a written employment contract with all employees. This is because not having a written agreement can lead to having to pay a year or more in salary to anyone you terminate. You should use the written contract to your advantage by putting in a confidentiality provision that sets out your company information that must be kept confidential. Confidentiality agreements can protect company information that may not rise to the level of a trade secret, but they cannot be so broad as to protect everything. China actually has very sophisticated trade secret laws — they come the US’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act — and the courts there are not bad at all in ruling favorably in favor of employers on confidentiality and trade secret cases. But for you to be able to prevail, just as in the United States, the information you are seeking to keep confidential must have commercial value and you must make a reasonable effort to keep it away from the public.
Non Compete Agreements – These generally work in China only with very high level employees. Very high level. And even then, they are enforceable only if they are: (1) not too long in duration and no longer than two years; (2) not too large in terms of geographic scope: and (3) do not restrain too much the employee’s opportunity to pursue his or her occupation. Now here’s the real kicker on these: you must pay your employee for the non-compete after his or her termination. Limited to two years. Typically, you must pay 20 to 50% of the employee’s salary, with the amount depending on the location in China.
Nonsolicitation agreements. Nonsolicitation agreements prevent employees from soliciting customers, former co-workers and/or agents upon separation from the company. These are usually enforced by China’s courts so long as they only prevent solicitation of the employer’s customers or accounts that existed at the time the employee left and so long as they are limited in duration and in geographic area.
It can be critical — especially for your employees doing R&D — that your employee contracts set forth who owns any intellectual property your employees help develop. You want a provision in your contract making clear that all IP developed by your employees belongs to the company and you want that because in China you run the real risk of your employees claiming ownership of what they developed. We also like to see a provision in the employee manual saying that any IP developed by company employees belongs to the company.
Contracts with your Chinese Distributers, Manufacturers, Joint Venture Partners, and Licensees should include the same sort of provisions relating to non-compete, non-solicition, and non-disclosure and they also should be clear about who owns what with respect to any IP.
- Licensing Contracts
Three things you should be thinking about if you are licensing your IP to a Chinese company.
- Be careful about getting paid based on sales, unless you have some really good way of knowing what the sales really are.
- Get what you need to do the deal before you relinquish the technology. Figure that the Chinese company will stop paying you after it has secured your technology.
- Register your licensing agreement with the proper governmental agency. If you don’t, you run the risk of not being able to sue on it.
- IP Registrations
Just as in the US, you should register your IP in China to protect it. There is no way can I go into great detail on what you can and should do to protect your IP in China through registration, but what I can tell you is that it almost always makes sense to do something. Earlier I talked about how bad China is on IP and that is true, but if you have not done the proper registrations, you pretty much have zero chance of protecting your IP. If you have done the proper registration, your chances are considerably better.
China’s IP registration and protection system is in many ways not all that different from that in the US. Just as is the case here, China has patents, trademarks and copyrights.
Patents. China has invention patents, utility patents and design patents. Invention patents are thoroughly reviewed before they are granted and so they can take quite a while. Because of this, many companies will secure a quicker utility or design patent while waiting until their invention patent comes through. Couple things you need to know about patents in China. First, if you do not file for your patent in China within a year of filing for it in the United States, you will be too late. China is a signatory of the Patent Cooperation Treaty and the Paris Convention, but Chinese patent lawyers tell me that it is better to file your patent in China.
China has had compulsory licensing of patents since 2001, but earlier this year the Chinese government came out with detailed criteria for the granting of compulsory licenses and that threw many into a panic, believing that the government was instituting compulsory licensing for the first time. These new rules really did not change much of anything and as far as I know, China has not in the last ten years required any company to compulsorily license its IP.
Trademarks are unique names, symbols, or logos. Can include colors. We trademarked a particular color of screws for a client. Don’t underrate trademarks in China. These work in China. China is a first to file country, not a first to use country, so generally, whoever files first for a trademark gets it. Trademarks cannot be place names. This is a bigger problem than you might initially think. Another problem is that the people at China’s trademark office usually view acronyms as images and so if your company name is something like EVO and someone else has already registered the company name ECO, there is a very good chance your EVO name will be rejected as conflicting with ECO, because to someone who cannot read English, the two names look too much alike. What this means is that if you have a two or three letter company or brand name, you had better try to register it now because it will only get tougher. We used to get these approved all the time, but in the last year, we are succeeding only around 50 percent of the time.
Copyrights. A lot cheaper and easier to obtain than patents and they last a lot longer. Very similar to the US. You do not need to file for a copyright in China to have a China copyright, as they arise automatically upon creation of a work created or first published in China, but you do need to have a registered copyright to sue on it and that’s the catch. In China, it takes so long to secure the registration of a copyright that if you are going to want to protect your copyright in China, you should file for it right away, because if you wait until you have a problem to file for the copyright, you may have a one-year lag before you can do much about it. Just like in the US, you don’t have to reveal all of your material in the copyright filing. This is particularly important for something like computer code.
Stopping IP Theft. If you have registered IP, and someone in China tries to use it without authorization, you can seek an administrative remedy by trying to get the Chinese government to do something about it or you can sue for damages. You also can try to get Chinese customs to stop any violating goods from leaving the country and, if you have your IP registered here, you can try to get US customs to stop it from entering into the US.