Trust and Sound IP Systems: An Essential Component for a Nation’s Innovation Success

For years, China has been making progress in creating laws and systems that enable protection of intellectual property. Respect for IP rights is essential in creating a culture where innovation and collaborative partnerships can succeed. If individuals and companies lose trust in a government’s ability to respect such rights, the incentives to innovate are reduced (though incentives to copy may be high). Now China threatens to erode some of the trust they have been building with this week’s announcement that they are considering forcing foreign makers of electric cars and hybrids to transfer their technology to China. From today’s Wall Street Journal, we have the story “China Spooks Auto Makers.” Here is an excerpt:

China’s government is considering plans that could force foreign auto makers to hand over cutting-edge electric-vehicle technology to Chinese companies in exchange for access to the nation’s huge market, international auto executives say.

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is preparing a 10-year plan aimed at turning China into “the world’s leader” in developing and producing battery-powered cars and hybrids, according to executives at four foreign car companies who are familiar with the ministry’s proposal.

The draft suggests that the government could compel foreign auto makers that want to produce electric vehicles in China to share critical technologies by requiring the companies to enter joint ventures in which they are limited to a minority stake, the executives say.

The plan is “tantamount to China strong-arming foreign auto makers to give up battery, electric-motor, and control technology in exchange for market access,” says a senior executive at one foreign car maker.

I understand the importance that China places on electric vehicles for the future and I can understand the desire to encourage technology transfer instead of exploitation, but when the rules change midstream and companies are forced to turn over intellectual property if they wish to do business in that market, the word “spook” is appropriate. Not only will some automakers be scared away, but it sends a broader signal that IP rights may be disrespected when the economic incentives are strong. This action may result in short term gains for China, but in the long run many prospective business partners will be more reticent to share and collaborate, and innovators within China may consider the threat of lost IP rights and take their best concepts elsewhere.

The unintended consequences of China’s attempt to accelerate its prominence in electric vehicles may be a larger setback in innovation capabilities overall by signaling disrespect for IP rights.

Related problems occur throughout the business world. In many corporations, for example, corporate decisions aimed at achieving a short-term gain can lose the trust of prospective innovators and result in an empty innovation pipeline that could have been full and healthy had a culture of innovation been more carefully nourished.

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