China has long been known as a source for affordable labor, where products can be made and shipped around the world for a fraction of the price of making them in the market where they will ultimately be sold. It has also been known a place where new products can be copied in a heartbeat with practically no development cost, and where intellectual property enforcement is often perceived as a long shot, especially for foreign companies. A common (but fading) perception is that enforcement in China is limited to the occasional televised raid of an unlucky counterfeiter. Sure, it's fun to watch a steamroller press fake Rolexes into asphalt once in a while, but that hardly put a dent in the problem.
It's 2015 and China's economy is the largest in the world. Its appetite for consumer goods is already enormous and increasing at an incredible rate – it passed the U.S. in automotive sales way back in 2009. Chinese wages and manufacturing costs are also on the rise, and China recognizes that providing meaningful intellectual property protection for domestic and international companies is an investment in its economic future. Part of this recognition is reflected in the upcoming establishment of new specialized intellectual property courts in the heavily industrialized areas of Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai.
When committing resources to research and development of a new product, companies want confidence that their efforts will be rewarded with exclusivity, in addition to the increased sales and market recognition that comes with developing a superior product or brand. It can be a relief to know that a U.S. patent offers protection not just from would-be copycats in our own backyard, but also protects against the importation of infringing goods from China and any other country into the U.S. So is U.S. protection enough? For many, it still is.
The U.S. still provides good bang-for-your buck when it comes to the cost of obtaining a patent or registering a trademark or copyright, so if the U.S. represents a major market for you, start here and worry about the rest of the world later (but not too much later, since you may be time-limited). Enforcement anywhere is expensive and can be unpredictable, but at least the U.S. system is well established and, with exception to a few art areas, is not currently undergoing rapid change.
If you have business operations and relationships in China or plans to develop them, or if China represents a major manufacturing base for competitive products or is already a major consumer of those products, this is a good time to evaluate what protection may be available. There may be several options; China even has three different types of patents. The cost for securing protection may be lower than you think (but don't expect a Chinese attorney to work for $3 per hour), and filing a lawsuit in China is not the only enforcement option.
You cannot protect yourself everywhere – even global companies don't do that - but if you have dismissed China up to this point, it may be time to reconsider.