Apple has been granted patents on some of the distinctive elements of its store designs in China as the US company moves to better protect itself against rampant copying of not only its products but also its sales channels on the Chinese mainland.
The three recently granted design patents cover the architecture of Apple’s stores in Shanghai and were awarded in May, according to state media reports, suggesting the company registered them after it began its expansion in China last year. One was announced on Wednesday by the state intellectual property office, covering a glass dome such as the one that is a distinctive feature of one of the company’s Shanghai stores.
Apple has a patchy record in securing patents and trademarks in this fast-growing but challenging market. The gaps in the company’s intellectual property rights protection were highlighted by the revelation in July of a fake Apple store in Kunming, the capital of the south-western Chinese province of Yunnan.
The technology company is preparing to open another Apple store in Shanghai on Friday, joining two others in the city and one in Beijing, and is also poised to open its first store in Hong Kong before the end of the month. On Wednesday, Apple started selling the 3G version of the iPad 2 in China.
In the past, Apple has sometimes been slow to register patents or trademarks in China early enough. When it began selling the iPhone there, it had to conduct lengthy negotiations to buy back its trademark from Hanwang, a Chinese technology company that had already registered it in the country.
“The majority of Apple’s key patents are not registered in China,” said Li Hongjiang, a lawyer at Unitalen, a law firm in Beijing. He said this was the case particularly for patents frequently cited as components of other patents.
“Therefore, these patents can be used without compensation in China. This has left room for Apple’s competitors to develop in China, and something resembling the patent wars between Apple and Samsung might well occur in China in the future.”
Apple is not alone in having relatively weak IP protection in China.
Horace Lam, an IP expert at law firm Jones Day in Beijing, said: “People criticise the China IP environment, and I am not saying China has the perfect system … but [with] a lot of really big listed US companies – their IP protection is a joke.”
China has written new patent and copyright laws in the past several years and a new trademark law is in the pipeline. They are broadly in line with those in other countries. “Most of China’s IP laws comply with China’s WTO and Trips obligations,” said Elliot Papageorgiou of Rouse & Co, the IP consultancy in Shanghai, referring to the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.
The cost of protecting IP in China is a fraction of that in the west, Mr Papageorgiou said. “You can file a patent in China for no more than $3,000-$4,000. Anybody who doesn’t spend $4,000 extending their foreign patents to China needs their head examined,” he said, noting that pursuing an infringer would cost much more than that.
Apple did not respond to requests for comment.