Trademark, copyright and intellectual property (IP) laws can vary greatly in foreign markets, so it’s vital to seek local legal expertise before doing business internationally, says Michael J. Ioannou, a partner at Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley.

“Local law firms know the system, including the politicians and judges,” Ioannou says. “It’s no different than doing business here. If a Florida company has a problem in San Jose, they could send someone, but they would most likely hire an attorney here. It makes sense to have someone like me who has practiced law here for 32 years and worked in the local courts.”

Smart Business spoke with Ioannou about how companies can avoid legal problems when expanding into foreign markets.

What are some important issues to consider before entering a foreign market?

From a general standpoint, you need to understand the business environment. You can accomplish that in India, for example, through the National U.S. India Chamber of Commerce, Confederation of Indian Industry or the National Association of Software and Services Companies, which caters to high-tech companies.

You also should be checking local laws with the help of a local lawyer in the country or near where you want to do business. So, if you’re going to mainland China, there are good attorneys in Hong Kong that can advise you or connect you to counsel in mainland China that they know well.

What mistakes do companies make when doing business overseas?

They might rush into a market without checking other companies’ rights and get sued for infringing IP rights in the foreign country. Apple thought it had acquired rights to the iPad trademark in China from a Taiwanese company, but courts said a subsidiary of that company still owned the rights in China. Apple paid $60 million in a court-mediated settlement. So one route is to buy the trademark, but you still have to ensure that what you’re buying is legitimate.

It’s the same situation with foreign companies coming into the U.S. A client with a chain of Indian restaurants wanted to expand here and found a restaurant on the East Coast that used the name in interstate commerce first — that’s the test for trademarks, first use — but the restaurant didn’t have the trademark registered. Instead of spending money to argue in federal court that the restaurant didn’t have first-time use, the client bought the restaurant and trademark. It was cheaper than paying legal fees in a later dispute over the name.

How can businesses protect themselves from legal problems?

When entering a country, you want to secure trademark rights for your product there. If you can, obtain patent protection, register and apply for a patent in China or India, for example. A patent in the U.S. is not enforceable in India or China. You can stop someone from shipping goods into the U.S. that infringe on a patent here, but you can’t stop a sale occurring in India or China based on a U.S. patent.

Pharmaceutical companies are having problems getting inventions patented in India because there’s a huge market there for generic drugs. India doesn’t even recognize software patents. One client in India was threatened by a U.S. company for IT support services offered here. It was a U.S. patent, so as long as the function that was within the patent claim was being done in India only, the U.S. company couldn’t claim infringement.

What can companies do to fight patent infringement?

In India, for example, you could file a lawsuit in civil court, but that could take 15 years to reach a resolution. However, the entity that’s infringing laws in India may be doing business in the U.S., which would provide another angle to file a lawsuit here for unfair competition. You also may be able to intercept their goods from coming into this country, depending on the nature of the IP rights being infringed.

But if you have a counterfeiter in Shanghai that’s only selling goods there, you have to use the local courts. Things are getting better in terms of that kind of infringement — that’s why you’re seeing a lot more activity to enforce rights in China, for example. Just be cognizant that you can’t expect a perfect day in court as a foreign company coming into these jurisdictions.

Michael J. Ioannou is a partner at Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley. Reach him at (408) 287-6262 or mioannou@rmkb.com.

Learn more about Michael J. Ioannou.

Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by Ropers Majeski Kohn & Bentley PC

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