Logo debacle highlights copyright hurdles

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 December, 2003, 12:00am

When the Beijing Olympics logo was unveiled last August, officials warned the design would be a prime target for the mainland's army of peddlers of pirated goods.

The latest technology was used in an effort to make products bearing the distinctive image virtually impossible to counterfeit. Steps were taken to ensure stronger international patent protection than for previous Olympics logo designs, and warnings were sounded that violators of the copyright would be brought to justice and punished. T-shirts with unauthorised logos were soon on sale in the city's markets - but they were swiftly confiscated and officials pledged that protecting the logo was a priority.

However, as we reported yesterday, the Beijing Olympics organising committee has made what appears to be an astonishing oversight. It registered the logo and other relevant designs as trademarks, but neglected to patent them. This has allowed enterprising opportunists to grab the patents. It could, if these patents are not invalidated, lead to the absurdity of the committee having to pay for the use of their own logos.

The problem raises some uncomfortable questions. The patent system works on a first-come, first-served basis. Applicants do not need to have any connection with the design concerned. This does not appear to offer much protection for intellectual property.

It is important, however, to distinguish between design patents and those involving inventions - where stricter procedures apply. Design patents are not supposed to be granted in cases where the designs have already been published elsewhere, but checks are not carried out to establish whether this is the case. The organising committee may, on this basis, be able to have any patents for the logo invalidated, either by the patent office or on appeal to a court. Such a course, although embarrassing, is one that should be taken quickly, as the implications go beyond the threat posed by the patent issue to plans by officials to use the logo to raise up to US$1.7 billion in sponsorships.

The problem arises at a time when the mainland is coming under increasing international pressure to crack down on piracy. Owners of intellectual property with interests in the mainland market are entitled to ask: If the government cannot protect a product as valuable as the Olympics logo, what hope is there for us?

Widespread abuse of copyright is one of the key trade issues that the mainland has to tackle. Overseas estimates have put piracy rates at 90 per cent in some mainland markets, with music, film, and computer software ranking highly. Cheaper prices for pirated goods are only part of the equation. Often, it is a matter of consumer choice, with counterfeiters being able to evade the censors and offer a much wider range of products.

Some companies may welcome piracy as a means of getting their brand known in a new market, before moving in. But to many it is a source of significant losses. Some have adopted innovative approaches, such as releasing compact discs or films on the mainland at the same time as elsewhere in the world, in order to reduce the opportunities for counterfeiting. Others lower the price of their goods or offer value-added products.

The mainland has made great strides in recent years, introducing a range of new laws to better protect intellectual property, including making criminal sanctions available. However, implementation remains weak and the courts need to provide remedies for victims more frequently. The judgments must then be effectively enforced.

It is likely, one way or another, that officials will be able to solve the problem of the Olympics logo. They should act quickly, to ensure that the system is not abused.