Asian Tiger or Copy Cat: Why Unlocking Innovation in Vietnam Requires Lawyers, Not Schools
Vietnam needs more intelectual property lawyers and a strong enforcement system. Sounds boring? Perhaps so, but data from the World Bank 2011 report imply it may be the only way to rocket Vietnam from a third-world manufacturer to a global competitor like South Korea. Yes, it’s even a higher priority than new schools.
Asian Tiger or Copy Cat
What’s the difference between the Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore) and the rest of Asia? If you invent something in a Tiger Country, you have reasonable assurance that your invention won’t be stolen and copied thanks to an army of lawyers, strict and robust IP laws, and a cooperative enforcement agency (the government) that will fine or jail anyone stealing your trade secrets. As a result, the Tigers enjoy the highest living standards in the world and is home to major brands like HTC, Samsung, HSBC, and LG.
In contrast, step into China or Vietnam (or most places in Asia, for that matter) and you’ll find that nothing is sacred. A walk down to the Saigon Centre will reveal imitation Louis Vuitton purses, fake Northface backpacks, and yes, even Google branded toilet paper. There is little concept of branding as anything can be copied. Businesses compete by driving prices to rock bottom, cutting corners and quality along the way. Who can blame them? What’s the use of wasting time on building a quality brand or innovating when you can just wait and copy the guy next to you without repercussion? As a result, Vietnamese consumers demand foreign products and domestic brands are relegated to compete at the bottom for razor thin margins.
It’s simple: protect people’s ideas and they’ll find it worthwhile to innovate. Innovation means a stronger economy. It is no surprise that the ten countries with the highest standard of living are also the ten countries with the toughest IP laws and enforcement agencies, according to the Taylor Wessing Global Intellectual Property Index and Doing Business 2011, World Bank.
IP Protection More Important Than Schools
We live in the Internet Generation. With a population averaging 26 years old, Vietnam embodies this generation more than any country in the world. Saigon is young, tech savvy, and hungry. They can learn from anywhere. Stanford, Harvard, and Berkeley have online video courses. There are tutorials on just about subject on web. There are countless stories of art majors who become star developers by learning to code online.
The Internet generation is not as reliant on traditional schools as the generations before them. What the Internet Generation in Vietnam needs most is a system that will protect their ideas and innovations. They need to be able to openly innovate and partner with each other without having to jealously guard every idea.
There are faint signs of a start-up community building in Vietnam, but I fear that it is in danger of collapse if the IP system is not fixed and enforced. The next few years will determine if Vietnam will grow up to be an Asian Tiger, or just another Copy Cat.