A minister in China's government has expressed his support of domestic innovation while simultaneously suggesting that knockoff products should be encouraged.

Yang Xueshan, vice minister of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), is reported by Chinese media as having said that the "innovative elements" of copycat products should be protected and encouraged. Yang made the remarks at a government press conference on IP enforcement. News stories so far have not acknowledged Yang's separation of original components from whole fake products in general.

"Yang was not defending copycat practices," stressed Lucy Nichols, Nokia's global director of IP rights, reacting to the comments. "It is clear that he believes that the copycats need to pay for IP rights owned by others. I believe that he was merely recognising that there are, in some copycat products, additional 'innovative elements' that could conceivably be entitled to IP protection."

This is a more difficult argument for a minister to make - not least because the general public and the media often lack a deep enough understanding of intellectual property. It is not clear from news reports or government releases whether Yang was addressing the public or business, or both. But his speech did acknowledge that manufacturers should pay for using others' intellectual property.

Danny Friedmann, an IP rights consultant in China and author of IP Dragon, supports Yang in this, but disagrees with his reported statement that knockoff products should not be labelled as piggybacking on another's intellectual property without proper assessment. "If you base your innovation on existing proprietary technology or design or a brand, it is piggybacking," said Friedmann. "That does not say that the innovation is not of a high standard or not sorely needed. If you steal paint and canvas and then paint a beautiful piece of art, you are both a thief and an artist. Yang wants to stress only the latter."

So the debate over China's approach to domestic innovation rolls on. As observers analyse the proposed indigenous innovation policy, considered by many members of the international IP community to be an unreasonable protectionist measure, it will surely pick up pace.

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