China is one of the world’s worst offenders when it comes to intellectual property (IP) theft. As such, it may come as a surprise that it nominated a candidate to head the United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) that administers the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP).
UDRP basically allows copyright holders to seize web domains. It has been criticized by several internet rights organizations as being a tool used to crack down on legitimate criticism and parody. If a pro-China person were to lead the WIPO, it could pave the way for the seizure of domains in line with Beijing’s interests, thus censoring the Internet. The candidate that China has put up for the post, Binying Wang, is at present the director general of WIPO’s Brands and Designs sector.
Those who work for Wang are said to be fond of her. However, the problem is that she could face pressure from her government to support actions that would not be conducive to Internet freedom. The current director-general of the agency, Australian Francis Gurry, will be stepping down by September next year. Wang will be competing against candidates from six other nations — Singapore, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Ghana, Japan, and Argentina.
James Pooley, a former deputy director-general at WIPO, expressed concerns at the possibility of a China-supported person being appointed as the head of the organization. WIPOs rules mandate that all patent applications be kept strictly confidential for a period of 18 months before being made public. With a pro-China person at the top, the risk of Beijing stealing cutting edge technology is very high.
According to estimates, U.S. companies lose about US$50 billion per year on counterfeit Chinese products, theft of IP, and unfair trade practices. President Trump squarely called out China for this “theft on a grand scale” at the UN General Assembly in September. “Protecting the applicants’ trade secrets was a core part of what we were doing… The Trump administration’s view of China is that it is a thief. Why would you want to put the fox in charge of the henhouse?” Pooley said to Foreign Policy.
New IP guidelines
China’s state council recently announced a new set of guidelines aimed at curtailing IP theft. This is seen as a move to allay America’s concerns about protecting its IP and to smooth out the ongoing trade talks between the two nations. The document recommends “speeding up the introduction of a punitive compensation system for infringements of patents and copyrights, and strengthening the protection of trade secrets, confidential business information and their source codes.” (MarketWatch).
The document also asks China to improve its international cooperation with regard to IP protection. However, this is not the first time China has made such declarations. In prior instances, no strict action was ever implemented by the state. As such, it is doubtful whether Beijing truly intends to honor its commitment to IP protection this time. There is one reason to trust China in this matter now: The country itself is increasingly becoming a producer of IP.
As such, Beijing, just like Washington, will eventually have to take a pro-IP protection stance if it wishes to protect the cutting-edge technologies that domestic firms will put out over the next decades. Last year, China saw a 40 percent increase in intellectual property cases. This was the second straight year that the cases have risen by more than 40 percent. Foreign parties were involved in 15,000 commercial and civil IP first instance cases in China in 2018.