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Digging a Hole to China

3 Nov, 2014 By: David Gibbons

My parents told me as a child, when digging in the garden of my suburban home in Sydney, Australia, that if I kept it up, I would dig my way to China. Almost half a century later, I find myself living and working in China!  Maybe I should have listened to them.

As you know, modern China has a poor record when it comes to infringing intellectual property rights (IPRs).  I was once told by a street seller, in broken English, “Copyright means the ‘right to copy.’”  Handbags, watches, cosmetics and printing consumables are all copied.  Most of the counterfeit imaging products sold around the world typically come from China!

China, however, is now taking IPRs more seriously. More patent applications are filed here than any other country, overtaking the U.S. three years ago. R&D spending has risen 20% a year to about $300bn annually, second only to the U.S. and more than Germany and Japan combined. Funding is estimated at between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion over the next five years, contributing substantially to China’s plan to lift research and development spending from 1.9% of GDP today to 2.5%.

In our imaging supplies industry, more aftermarket patents are held by companies in China than anywhere else in the world, combined.

Guy de Jonquières, a Senior Fellow at the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) is not so convinced. “Yet, as always with China, it pays to check what lies behind the official data. And on closer investigation, the picture turns out to be decidedly less impressive than it first appears.”  He claims the current surge in patent applications is driven less by innovation than the generous incentives intended to swell the number of filings. He claims even China itself classifies only a third of the annual total as “innovation” patents. “Some Chinese scholars have warned that the patenting stampede risks devaluing the system.”

Charles Dickens

Washington, DC-based patent attorney, Steve Adkins, told me the U.S. has also ignored intellectual property rights (IPRs) in the past. So I researched an anecdote he shared relating to English novelist, Charles Dickens, who was annoyed over the “plagiarism” of his works in the USA.

Dickens was treated like “a modern rock star” on his first visit to the U.S.  He was just 30. Oliver Twist and the Pickwick Papers had already made him the most famous writer in the world. On Valentine's Day, 1842, New York hosted one of the grandest events the city had ever seen—a ball in honor of the English novelist. Dickens was thrilled with the reception he and his wife, Catherine, received.

However, as BBC reporter, Simon Watts, discloses, “the trip soon turned sour.”  He found out Americans were reading free pirated editions of his works. In 1842, there were no international copyright laws in America. The issue, as Watts puts it, “was a very modern one—intellectual property.”

Dickens saw how popular he was in the U.S., and realized he could virtually double his income if his American fans started paying a going rate for his work. A bitter dispute erupted which became known as the Quarrel with America. “I am the greatest loser alive by the present law,” Dickens complained in letters to home. At literary dinners, he argued that a copyright law would help American writers as much as him.

Americans, however, became as annoyed with him, as the novelist was with them. The country's most popular papers at the time, The New York Courier and Enquirer, said, “We are mortified and grieved that he should have been guilty of such great indelicacy and impropriety.” Dickens's visit to America ended with both sides accusing each other of being vulgar money-grabbers.

An interesting story from the pages of IPR history! 

Attorney Adkins encouraged an audience in China with the comments, “When a nation sees the merit and value in new ideas and inventions, they seek to preserve them, and pass laws accordingly.”  For this reason, I think we will only see an ongoing improvement in intellectual property right laws in China—and across the globe.


David Gibbons is Director, Publisher & Producer for the Recycling Times Media Corporation, based in China.  Recycling Times’ monthly magazine is in English, Spanish and Chinese, in addition to their trade shows RemaxAsia in China, and the RT Imaging Summit in the U.S. Visit: http://www.recyclingtimes.com for detailed information.

About the Author: David Gibbons

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