Wednesday, May 09, 2018

BWorld 206, Intellectual property rights in East Asia

* This is my column in BusinessWorld last April 19, 2018.

The degree of wealth and economic size of East Asian economies generally correlate with their degree of private property rights protection, both physical and non-physical or intellectual property. While protection of physical properties like houses, cars, and land are easier to see and measure, the protection of intellectual property rights (IPR) like patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets are not so tangible.

IPRs are important because they represent the “heart and soul” of private enterprises and the goods and services that they produce.

For instance, people differentiate and choose shoes made by companies as represented by their logos such as a big check, three striped leaves, or letter F. These same people also choose products from food companies with logos of a double arch, a happy insect, or a smiling young female.

Here are some numbers showing the degree of IPR protection of selected East Asian economies. (Data and report sources are (1) Property Rights Alliance (PRA)- International Property Rights Index (IPRI) 2017 Report, (2) US Chamber of Commerce (USCC)- Global Innovation Policy Center (GIPC), International IP Index (IIPI) 2018, and (3) World Economic Forum (WEF), Global Competitiveness Report (GCR) 2017-2018. The numbers in parenthesis beside each report represent the number of countries or economies covered. The WEF’s GCR is composed of 12 pillars and pillar #1 is about Institutions; among the sub-pillars there is IPR protection).

These numbers show that East Asian tiger economies also rank high in IPR protection. Conversely, emerging economies aspiring to join the club of tiger and developed countries tend to have medium to low ranking in IPR protection. The exception is Brunei, a developed economy in terms of per capita income (thanks to its high gas exports and small population) but it is low in IPR protection.

The issue of IPR protection in the region was tackled by a symposium early this week entitled “Intellectual Property Rights in the ASEAN Economic Community: Challenges and Potentials” at Intercontinental Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The event was organized by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), Malaysia’s first and most dynamic free market think tank.

There are moves to abolish the trademark, corporate logos and branding of products deemed “unhealthy” in many countries.

For instance, plain packaging of tobacco products has been legislated in Australia and France, and is currently considered to be legislated in Singapore too. Such trademark busting policies are also considered as extended to other “unhealthy” products like alcohol, sugary food like chocolates, confectionery and candies.

IDEAS commissioned a study that was presented in the symposium entitled “Challenges in Improving Intellectual Property Rights in ASEAN: Case study of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines” by Adidarmawan, S.H. and Marolita Setiati.

In the paper, the two authors noted that:

“Trademark promotes freedom of choice and enable consumers to make quick, confident and safe purchasing decisions. Standardizing… packaging for tobacco products that would restrict the use of brands, trademarks and trade… concern is if brand marks are eroded, then consumers are not able to differentiate between inferior products and those with a reputation for reliability that may create an environment in which companies may end up competing on price instead of quality. In addition, plain packaging is easier for counterfeiters to copy and could result in an increase in inferior — and more dangerous — imitations. The counterfeiters will have an easier time duping the consumer into buying products that are sub-standard. Brand restriction sets an unfortunate precedent, opening the door for IP rights to be weakened in other industries.”

A BusinessWorld report early this week entitled “Excise tax increase triggers widespread cigarette smuggling” also underscores these concerns.

High taxes, rising regulations and plain packaging have similar effects — they make the consumption of legal and branded products like tobacco and alcohol more restricted and more costly, which open up more space and markets for illicit, illegal, smuggled, and cheaper products. This results in more smoking, more drinking, more consumption of the restricted products.

Governments should focus on protecting private property rights, both physical and intellectual. Weakening such property rights will also lead to a weakened state and strengthen the powers of smugglers and criminal syndicates who do not pay taxes and do not respect brands and intellectual property.

Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. is President of Minimal Government Thinkers, a member-institute of Economic Freedom Network (EFN) Asia.

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