IPR, Trade Barriers and Open Document Formats: China Learns its Lessons Well

One of the topics I'm behind writing on is the state of IPR concerns and standard setting in China in general, and the current status of UOF – China's "Uniform Office Document Format" entry in the document format sweepstakes – in particular.  I recently spoke at two conferences in Beijing, and got back up to speed in this regard direct from the source. 

While ODF and OOXML continue to generate news and heat, the progress of UOF has proceeded with much less fanfare and reportage.  I gave a keynote presentation called the Beijing 2007 Open Standards International Conference, and also moderated a panel on IPR and interoperability.  That conference was organized by the dominant software industry standards association in China, the Changfeng Open Standards Platform Alliance, and was co-sponsored by the China National Institute of Standardization and the China Electronic Standardization Institute.  Several panels were dedicated entirely or in part to open document formats.   

The most interesting presentation by far from my perspective was given by Mr. Wu Zhigang, the Secretary General of national E-government Standardization, General Working Group, and the Vice Director of the China Electronics Standardization Institute.   Mr. Wu reviewed the progress of UOF since its development had been commissioned in 2003, as well as the strategic importance multiple national Ministries and Councils attached to the format.  Those bodies include the Standardization Administration, State Council Informatization Office, Ministry of Information Industry, Ministry of Science and Technology, National Reform and Development Commission, and Ministry of Finance.

Now completed by a diverse group of private and public working group members, UOF (“Biao Wen Tong,” in Chinese) has been adopted as a Chinese National Standard, and is intended to be a cornerstone of the “national e-government standardization system” now being constructed.  As with OOXML and ODF, UOF describes word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and more.  It also supports certain existing global standards, including the ISO 10646 character set.  That said, its architecture diverges in meaningful ways from both ODF and OOXML.  As described by Mr. Wu, its technical characteristics and design goals include:

  • Separation between content and pattern:  convenient for data exchange
  • Simplification of descriptions
  • Object application:  convenient for management
  • Domain application:  convenient for unified management on content module
  • Module reuse:  decrease the document size as much as possible
  • Compressed document data format: provide definition of compressed document format
  • Secondary development support:  convenient for providing integrated secondary development interface

Mr. Wu also presented charts showing the impact of these differences on the feasibility of converting documents between UOF, ODF and OOXML.  Overall, approximately 80% of the functions captured in documents created in any of the three formats could be reasonably maintained using converters.  However, only about 60% could be handled with ease, with a further 30% being manageable with varying degrees of difficulty, leaving 10% as impractical to retain in a converted copy.

While the total conversion potential was roughly equal in the case of both UOF/ODF and UOF/OOXML, conversions in either direction between UOF and ODF were found to be significantly easier to accomplish than with UOF and OOXML.  The slides for all of the presentations can be downloaded here.

The second conference I spoke at was much more China-centric, with almost all speakers and attendees coming from local industry, universities and government.  Held annually, it bore in translation the rather unwieldy title of:

IP china 2007 – Integrated Circuit & Software Intellectual Property Summit Forum and Summit Forum on Intellectual Property & Technology Standards of Information Industry in China

and was sponsored by the Ministry of Information Industry and the Ministry of Science and Technology. The panel I spoke on discussed the proper balance the government should seek between private patent owners and standards users.  This is a topic of more than usual urgency in emerging countries, as I discussed in great detail in a recent issue of Standards Today titled Globalization, Standards and Intellectual Property Rights.

Throughout the morning key note addresses, high ranking speakers from various ministries made the same points over and over, voicing Chinese dissatisfaction once more with a standards regime that effectively creates standards-based barriers to trade that dramatically favor First World countries and vendors over Chinese interests.  Key points included:

  • In many industries, China is trapped in the role of a low-margin manufacturer, due to market requirements for standards-based technologies protected by First World patents
  • RAND policies effectively discriminate against Chinese interests and create “non-tariff trade tools”
  • Foreign controlled standards limit Chinese innovation
  • China needs to analyze the WTO rules to play the game as well as its global competitors
  • International standards organizations should adopt “ex ante” disclosure policies to flush out patent claims before they become embedded in standards
  • Both the party and the state are in agreement that China needs to patent more IPR of its own to play the same game in self defense – and China is already doing so, especially in information technology, where c. 30% of all patents are being filed
  • China needs to create and control its own standards as part of a rational strategy, ideally requiring implementation licenses to domestically owned patents

The landscape as the Chinese see it, and the strategy they are evolving, was most succinctly summarized by Wang Shuanglong, of the State Intellectual Property Office, who asked, “How do we make use of the double-edged sword of IPR in our IT economy?”

Overall, the progress of UOF has been quite consistent with the messages and morals of the morning.  China has always resented Microsoft’s dominance of software even as in the past it almost universally pirated those same programs.  Now that China has acceded to the WTO and also has its own emerging IT industry to protect, piracy is becoming a less attractive means of dealing with such issues.  Instead, China  is taking predictable actions intended to level the playing field, both for its end users and for its ISVs.  And, lest I forget to mention it, implementation of UOF would infringe upon seven patents owned by the Chinese developers of the format.  Touche.

Thus far, First World interests have primarily tried to draw China into the global standard setting process, encouraging China to simply become part of the standard setting club.  The problem with that approach, however, is that no matter how well China may learn to play the game, traditional interests abroad will continue to own vastly more patents for many years to come, leaving China unable to ever be as successful at “playing the game” internationally as it can be setting its own national standards.

So what can be done?

The most obvious way to avoid an unending series of standards wars – assuming that there is still time to do so – is for IT standards development organizations to try much harder than many have to date to avoid the adoption of standards that require onerous financial and other licensing terms.  The best way to do that, as well as to set China’s mind at ease, is of course to adopt IPR policies that come as close to guaranteeing that result as possible.

Updated:  Later the same day, the China Peoples Daily reported a follows:

The country will compile 10,000 new standards to meet the standard vacuum in certain fields next year. Meanwhile, some 11,000 outdated national standards will be revised, the Standardization Administration chief Liu Pingjun said, according to today’s People’s Daily.

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Comments (3)

  1. China’s concerns are valid, however, ODF should satisfy their concerns.

    From memory, there are some areas where UOF was superior to ODF and vice versa. There’s no reason why the best of UOF can’t be merged into ODF, even if that means obsoleting some ODF features that are overlapping ODF attributes in favour of more flexible UOF tags. It compromise is needed because makes no sense to have two standards, and I hope that both sides are working together to arrive at a unified ODF-UOF standard. With such an upgrade, both ODF and UOF should be converted to ODF nextgen with 100% fidelity.

    Do you have any knowledge about if anyone is working on this?

  2. Sitting in the UK, in general I welcome China as a productive trading partner in the world.

    "Low-margin manufacturing" only happens in commoditised/saturated markets. If it’s a growth market, manufacturing will command relatively higher prices.

    Most of the UK manufacturing industry has gone to China. Not sure if that is good or bad, but it has happened. UK claims to be a ‘Venetian Economy’ … financial services and tourism.

    In the UK and USA (and I think the rest of the Western world), we keep being told that there is a shortage of engineers and physicists; actually, a shortage severe enough that the qualified ones go into ‘industry’, and there aren’t any left over to teach the next generation. Plenty of biologists; and plenty of financial-services types (who head for London and New York)

    Then there’s the question of ‘Peak Oil’, and unsustainable climate change.

    Changes happening, all over the place. I wonder if my local university teaches Chinese evening classes ?

  3. IPR is a problem in the Western world, too.

    Patents seem to be designed as a commercial tool, for one corporation to establish a right, and hold out against another corporation (or control a collaboration with another corporation) for the purpose of developing and marketing a product.

    But inevitably as well as establishing a right against a rival corporation, it establishes that same right against an individual … who may be a hobbyist, a teacher, a university student who will shortly be a prospective employee, or an employee of a competitor doing voluntary work in non-business hours.

    All of that can bring an individual into commercial conflict with a corporation; can also bring one corporation into commercial conflict with another; where the management of the corporation presumably have no interest in the commercial conflict. Or maybe can accelerate or trigger a commercial conflict which is inevitable anyway.

    Like it or not, we now have http://www.openoffice.org/ OpenOffice.org ; mostly a collaborative product of US academia ; and that’s likely to depress the sales of Microsoft Office and Lotus SmartSuite, in the way that DVDs depressed the sales of both VHS and Betamax videotapes (can you buy either kind of videotape deck now ?)

    So how should the individual contribute ? Assuredly he or she should contribute; but being the one that lobs the ‘grenade’ that initiates the ‘commercial war’ is not necessarily an enviable position to be in.

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