IPR protection in China speaks louder about mutual learning
Updated 18:43, 21-Aug-2023
Simon Lichtenberg

Editor's note: Intellectual property rights were quite a new concept to China when its first patent law was put into force in the 1980s. Starting from zero, how to integrate this new idea into market development? How to catch up with countries with hundreds of years of IPR protection history? Doing business many years in China, Simon Lichtenberg, founder and CEO of Trayton Group, has witnessed China's progress in this respect. In China Talk, he would like to share his story and observation on the development of China's IPR protection. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily those of CGTN.

Hello and welcome to China Talk. My name is Simon Lichtenberg. I'm the founder and CEO of Trayton group. I'm from Copenhagen, Denmark. And I've been in China for 32 years.

When I came to China the first time in 1987, I came to Shanghai. I started at the Fudan University where I studied Chinese, and I got very good Chinese friends. They were really kind to me and showed me around Shanghai at that time.

It was a completely different place from now. As an example, we had to take a small ferry boat to get to Pudong. We went there for weekend trips in the rice fields. Today there are bridges, tunnels and 20 subway lines. Back then, people did not own their own houses. Today, 70 percent of people live in their own apartments, though it's really quite expensive in Shanghai today. When I came over 30 years ago, I was one of the very few foreigners. It was rare to see a foreigner walking around the street. When you walk into a store, nobody knew how to talk to you. Today in the area I live, almost half are from other countries, maybe 50 different countries.

During my time here, doing business, I've really seen China develop in so many ways. I came here in the first place, both because I was very welcome, and I also loved the sentiment and the energy and engaging spirit. I found a big curiosity and willingness to learn and grow. I think part of the reason behind China's development is exactly that attitude of hard work and big willingness to learn and to find new ways. This is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture.

Now in the West, there is a conception or at least I believe the Chinese businesses or companies are copycats and copy western products and ideas a lot. And that's probably also sometimes true, but I think it's important to understand why. In this context, it's important to understand that China as a commercial and market economic-driven society is very new.

For instance, the patent laws in Western countries have been hundreds of years of history. The U.S. had its first patent law made in 1790, and Denmark in 1890 as several hundred years ago. In China, the first patent law was made right before I arrived, just 30 something years ago in 1985. Of course, it takes time to implement.

But China has come a long way in this regard. When I started selling Danish furniture in the Chinese market, in fact, we had a lot of issues with copyrights. There were lots of copycats, Chinese companies copying our furniture. It was difficult in the beginning, but we found our ways. First, we went looking for the IP office. At the time there wasn't any real IP authority in Shanghai, but we found a small office on Hunan Road at the 6th floor at the end, with a couple of guys that were sitting and reading newspapers. That was the IP office in Shanghai at the time. Then we tried to talk to the local government of our district, and they helped us find the industry and commerce bureau. Those people together with us went out, and we did a raid of 18 furniture companies in one go. 

(With) each of these companies, we discussed and negotiated a way for them to stop copying our furniture and explained to them why they were not supposed to copy our furniture. A very interesting experience for us, but also for the local government at the time. In fact, in 2000, the U.S. Fortune Magazine wrote an article about me and all the copycats, and how we were fighting this issue. This was really early days. And I think to understand this has a lot to do with the cultural background and learning in Chinese traditional painting, for instance. Copying the grand masters in the closest possible way was the best way you could be a good painter.

From a cultural understanding and aspect of doing something really well, doing what others have done before is important. But this doesn't work in an international patent and IP law context. But it's part of the reason for why it is like that. Again, being innovating, being fast, wanting to do more business, wanting to grow the markets and so on, that eagerness is also part of this. All of this is part of becoming a more mature society with a better law system and better regulatory structures and so on.

Today, China's IP protection laws are very well developed. It has come a long way. There's even separate IP court, which takes care of IP cases. It's very well set up, but there's also place where the implementation could be done better. For instance, there's a big backlog on IP cases in the court system, but the overall development been done really well and effective. In fact, in terms of global patents, for instance, in 2021, global patent registrations were 3.4 million. Half of those were Chinese. China is today by far the biggest country applying for patents. Same thing with trademarks. In 2021, 13.9 million trademarks were applied for and out of those 9.5 (million) were from China. This has really developed very well over the past 30 years. It has come from zero to being the biggest IP application country in the world. Quite unbelievable! 

I very much believe what I learned in China about staying open and being willing to learn from others is the only way for us to promote development and make a better world.

Misunderstanding of what's going on in other countries is not unusual, but disrespecting other cultures and history, disregarding others development and not being willing to understand is very bad for collaboration.

For centuries, China has shaped human civilizations for the past decades. While I've been here, China has led an incredible economic development, which has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It's an unbelievable achievement that has never been seen before in world history. We should never lose sight of the magnitude of this transformation — modern day highly developed society and economic powerhouse, and the average people being much better off. I think China's eagerness to learn from foreign countries, especially from Western developing countries, should also be reciprocated by other countries' willingness to learn about China and to get a better understanding.

Come and understand, come and visit, come and see what's going on, and why and how the Chinese culture is shaping the way it is, and why things are happening the way they are in China. If you don't talk to each other, if you don't understand each other, you'll fight with each other. That's the world history, and it's been like that for thousands of years. Misunderstanding leads to estrangement and clashes, while cultural exchange and mutual learning promote peaceful coexistence and common development. Finally, I like to quote a poem: 

Alone, I can 'Say' 
but together we can 'Talk'. 
Alone I can 'Enjoy' 
but together we can 'Celebrate'. 
Alone I can 'Smile' 
but together we can 'Laugh'.
That's the beauty of human relations. 
We are nothing without each other. 
So stay connected.

Thank you!

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