Starbucks Pinnacle Plaza

Sucking Indian Summerbreeze

1354 hrs.

Last week I had the opportunity to moderating a panel on technology and intellectual property rights in China for a group of MBA students from the University of Notre Dame‘s Medoza College of Business.

Lawyer, Lawyer, Lawyer, Me

The panel was made up of myself and three speakers, all of whom were accomplished attorneys. I have to admit to being worried about that before getting there, but it turned into probably the most dynamic public discussion I’ve heard on the topic in ages. We never got sucked into a China-bash, but kept things focused on how you protect your IPR in the face of “what it is” in China.

All three speakers acknowledged that after three decades and an China’s IPR laws are in place, so James Luo from Bird & Bird dove into why enforcement in China is possible but not easy. James is a great speaker, and a nimble opponent when questioned. I tried to corner him with a question about how collusion between local IPR violators and enforcement authorities undermines efforts, and he dodged the bullet with grace and humor.

The other full-time attorney on the panel, Ray Moroney of Rouse & Co., focused on prevention as the best cure, underscoring that IPR protection begins long before your business arrives in China. Of all of the foreign IPR attorneys I’ve met, Ray is perhaps the most commercially-minded of the bunch. He told the group that you cannot come to China with a fixed business model around your IPR – you have to think creatively. I’d rate him as more than just an attorney, but a true counselor on the subject.

The third speaker was Eric Priest who, while an attorney by training, has given up on the practice of law to actually dive into business. He is involved in a couple of ventures, notably Noank Media, a global music licensing concern. Eric is one of a growing breed of what I would call merchant-scholars, people who combine serious intellectual pursuits with entrepreneurial tendencies. Eric actually put the whole discussion in a broad business context, explaining that China does not have just one intellectual property problem, but several.

The Takeaways

The underlying messages that the students took from the hourlong program (just before they jumped on buses to go look at the problem firsthand in Zhonguancun and the Silk Market) confounded the impressions they had taken from the media at home, to wit:

  • The IPR problem in China is much more complex – and nuanced – than it is often presented by western media and the various industry players and lobbyists for whom this is the issue;
  • You have to think creatively about solving your IPR issues: lobbying, factory raids, and lawsuits alone do not an IPR strategy make. You have to rethink your business models, your business structure, and your entire regime for protecting proprietary information when coming to China;
  • Intellectual property protection in China will make only limited progress until local enterprises and institutions are suffering from counterfeits and piracy at least as much as foreigners are. In the meantime, Hu Jintao probably does not wake up every morning worried about IPR issues.

No surprises for the initiated, to be sure, but one more indicator that much of the problem in the fight over intellectual property comes from the way executives, pundits, and policy-makers abroad perceive and frame the problem.

I walked away with a few other conclusions, but that’s the subject of another post.

The Students

The 46-odd students in the group were primarily executives working with some of the largest firms in the U.S. After a few days in China it was pretty clear that they were reaching that stage of sensory and mental overload as they tried to absorb it all. At the same time, I didn’t see the distant stares that usually accompany such whirlwind immersions. These students were all really jazzed about China and wanted more.

If I were a cynical person, I would suggest that any MBA student looking at the prospects for a robust US job market after graduation would be wise to be interested and enthusiastic about opportunities overseas. But it was not like that. It was more like they sensed something in the air – opportunity, maybe, or post-Olympic optimism, or perhaps that hum that you feel more than you hear when you land in China.

I suspect most of them will be back, and soon.

*(I will resist the temptation to create an acronym around “free and open culture movement” for fear of pronunciation issues)


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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