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WTO suit brews; China establishes patent centers

Maya Alexandri 09.07.07 post.jpg
Mark Cohen just might have IPR superpowers.
On August 31, a World Trade Organization (WTO) committee met to consider the US request for an expert panel to arbitrate its suit against China over lax intellectual property rights (IPR) enforcement.

A Xinhua/Reuters report reflects a range of responses. Professor Zhang Naigen, of Fudan University's IPR Research Center, seemed resigned to US suit going forward: "Since the US persists in wanting to establish the expert panel, the WTO will establish the expert panel." Wang Xinpei, spokesperson for the Ministry of Commerce, expressed China's "regret" at the US request, while a World Intellectual Property Organization spokesperson reassured reporters that establishing an expert panel is just a WTO procedure and nothing to worry about.

The most interesting response came from Mark Cohen, US Embassy IPR Attaché in Beijing. Recognizing that major problems still exist in many areas of IPR enforcement in China, Cohen advised that the most important step China should take is to protect its own patents. After all, Cohen cautioned, the US is suing China in the WTO on behalf of American companies, like Microsoft, that are multinational corporations; China is part of their market. "If China doesn't learn to protect the IPR of its own companies, then ultimately the biggest impact will be felt in China's own markets."

From his lips to ear of the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO)? Five days later, Xinhua published a report that SIPO would be establishing "patent work stations" in 73 of China's state-owned enterprise (SOE) and institutional work units. The work stations will be served by a rotating staff of patent examiners, agents, attorneys and other IPR experts. The head of SIPO's business coordination department, Ma Weiye, explained that the main purposes of the work stations are to: (1) advance the development of IPR, (2) coordinate China's IPR strategy policy with its enactment, and (3) promote industry's IPR management capability.

As a non-adversarial approach to IPR enforcement that transforms the Chinese from "bad guys" into stakeholders, these in-house patent resource centers seem promising. Of course, that promise could be dissipated in the implementation. In addition, these patent resource centers shouldn't be limited to SOEs. China would probably do better to support its private sector - the source of much of its innovation - rather than reinforcing the old-style overlap between government agencies and SOEs.

Still, even if the patent resource centers go nowhere, they reflect thinking outside the box, which is a welcome development in response to US pressure about IPR. And given the extent to which the patent resource centers dovetail with IPR Attaché Cohen's advice, it's possible that they also reflect some cooperative brainstorming between the US and China on IPR issues. If that's the case, it would be a truly welcome development.

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