South Korea: Intellectual property powerhouse

The efficiency of South Korea’s national intellectual property system has contributed significantly to the nation’s rapid economic boom.

The world economy has evolved into one that has become heavily reliant on knowledge and technology, where intangible elements of productivity like ideas and know-how are quickly superseding more traditional elements such as land, labor and capital. In today’s knowledge-based society, intellectual property (IP) rights are thought to nurture creativity and as such, are widely recognized as being of vital importance for economic, cultural and technological development.

The critical role that IP rights play in economic progress has been clearly reflected in South Korea, whose economy has, over the past 40 years, seen exponential growth to become the eleventh largest in the world. Accordingly, it comes as no surprise that the country’s goal is to take their IP system to the next level to further promote and encourage the creation, protection and utilization of IP.

IP initiatives

Throughout the years, the nation’s long-standing and well-established IP system has facilitated a steady increase in IP applications. Today, South Korea ranks fourth in the world in terms of the number of IP applications filed with national IP offices. To effectively handle the rising number of applications, the country has taken steps to strengthen its IP management infrastructure.

Firstly, the Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO) embarked on a nationwide headhunting campaign, which was part of an overall effort to respond to the rapidly changing global technological environment, to recruit highly-skilled staff members with the aim of shortening patent pendency periods and enabling IP rights to be granted in a more timely and efficient manner.

Cutting-edge automation systems have also been put in place allowing applicants to file applications electronically. Most patent applications within the country are now filed online. As e-filing is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, this has contributed to their remarkable numbers of IP rights applications.

Steps have also been taken to enhance the protection of IP, identified as a major factor in attracting foreign investment and helping boost the development of new technology. The Anti-counterfeiting Division of KIPO is exclusively devoted to protecting IP rights, and has been vigorously conducting raids and other anti-counterfeiting activities together with joint investigation teams comprising prosecutors, police and customs officers and IP experts. As a result of these activities, countless acts of counterfeiting have been deterred and uncovered, culminating in numerous warnings issued and criminal charges filed.

With respect to legislation, the Unfair Competition Prevention and Trade Secret Protection Act was updated to improve the enforcement of IP rights. Crucial revisions include reinforcing the protection of trademark rights in cyberspace by regulating the increasingly common practice of “cybersquatting”. Producing ‘dead copies’, which refer to the unauthorized imitation of the design of another person’s goods, has also been prohibited. In addition, the maximum penalties for trade secret infringements have been revised; for instance, the maximum fine of 50 million won ($47,000) has now been changed to two to ten times the economic profit gained from the infringement. A new system allowing for more efficient ways of conducting anti-counterfeiting activities, by rewarding informants who provide information on the whereabouts and circulation of counterfeit products, was also introduced.

International milestones

There has also been success on the international stage. As an example, the Assembly of the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) Union agreed to include South Korean patent documentation as part of the minimum documentation under the PCT, a decision which indirectly acknowledges and recognizes the positive qualities of the South Korean IP system.

This decision obliges the twelve International Searching Authorities (ISAs) and International Preliminary Examining Authorities (IPEAs) under the PCT to include Korean patent documentation for prior art searches when examining international patent applications.

In yet another milestone, the United States and New Zealand agreed to designate KIPO as an ISA and an IPEA for international applications under the PCT. These agreements have allowed South Koreans to conduct international searches for prior art and international preliminary examinations for international applications filed by citizens of those countries.

Looking ahead

For the further advancement of IP in the country, it is imperative for South Korea to continue strengthening existing relationships while developing new strategic alliances with other national IP offices and organizations. The nation has also put itself in a good position to contribute to the improvement of the global IP system, and could do so by assisting developing countries especially in areas relating to human resource and the automation of IP offices.

There’s no denying that South Korea has become a powerhouse in this era of knowledge and technological innovation, and while this may bring new challenges, it is also a tremendous opportunity for future economic growth, development and progress.