Singapore is an excellent intellectual property hub for those who have the cash and are able to fight to the legal death
“This is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice.” What American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr said back in the early 1900s is as applicable today as ever. Dr. Ting Choon Meng, inventor of a mobile medical station called the Station With Immediate First-Aid Treatment (SWIFT) vehicle, will surely agree with this sentiment, given that the patent rights to his invention are on the verge of being revoked following a drawn-out court case with Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).
The SWIFT vehicle was invented by Ting and his partners in 2001, following which he applied for – and successfully obtained – patent rights in several countries and regions, one of which was Singapore. His application to the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS) was approved in 2005.
The court case first arose in 2012 when Ting and his partner Dr. Mak Koon Hou sued MINDEF for copying their SWIFT vehicle, which was produced by the latter’s vendor Syntech Engineers. Unlike the Singapore Civil Defence Force, who used the vehicles in 2004 and paid the duo royalties, MINDEF skipped this step entirely and brought it to the public stage in a National Day Parade in 2011, where Ting spotted the vehicle.
What came next was two years of legal back-and-forth. According to Ting, MINDEF had lawyers from the Attorney-General of Singapore and the infamous Wong and Leow LLC fighting the case for them, and they “kept delaying the case, claiming their witness was not available.” As the legal fees accumulated, Ting eventually could not bear the costs and dropped the case in January 2014.
Here, MINDEF turned the tables on Ting. Their terms: he was to drop all claims to intellectual property and surrender his patent for the SWIFT vehicle in Singapore and the seven other countries the patent is registered in. In addition, Ting was to pay for MINDEF’s legal costs too – Wong and Leow LLC’s bill would come up to about S$580,000 (US$464,000).
A long way to go
This development is very worrying for future of entrepreneurs in Singapore, especially in light of the country’s 10-year master plan to become Asia’s intellectual property hub. Clearly, there remain several loopholes in the system that require mending.
Since the court case was never concluded, it is unsure whether the verdict of Wong and Leow LLC’s lawyers that Ting’s patent “lacked novelty and/or inventive step” was really true. Curiously, instead of using this point to fight on legal grounds, MINDEF’s counsel chose to drag the case on for two years, eventually “winning” what Ting calls “a war of attrition.”
Assuming that its lawyers’ verdict was correct, it is strange that MINDEF neglected to go through the official process as outlined by IPOS and revoke Ting’s patent, which would have been fair. Instead, both MINDEF and the Defence Science and Technology Agency – which is under the former – went ahead to call a tender for a “Mobile First-Aid Post,” while not mentioning Ting’s patent at all.
This also questions the approval process conducted by IPOS’s Patent Search and Examination Unit. The patent examiners on this unit are charged with the responsibility to – according to the IPOS website – “investigate whether an invention is new and judge whether the invention has a technical and legal basis to be granted a patent in Singapore.”
It also seems that IPOS has no power to defend its patent approvals. Once the case goes to court, it is out of the hands of IPOS entirely, according to a statement from its representative:
“This case in question is a civil suit. Parties who wish to pursue their case against granted patent have chosen to present them in the Court. The Court is the authority to administer a fair and just hearing to parties in dispute.”
Through this incident, MINDEF has demonstrated how easy it is to bypass local intellectual property authorities – by going straight to the courts – and the danger now lies in whether private companies with deep pockets might follow suit. If so, then Singapore will start to become a very dangerous environment for fledgling startups to be in, with the looming threat of a large corporation swooping in and grabbing their innovations willy-nilly.
The only other way to avoid such shenanigans altogether would be if you’re an entrepreneur with deep relationships in government, because it would be extremely awkward for drinking buddies to take each other to court or rip off ideas. For Singapore’s many robotics companies that are dealing with government, one wonders if they’re worried that MINDEF might pull a similar stunt one day.
So yes, Singapore is an excellent intellectual property hub for those who have the cash and are able to fight to the death (legally), or are well-connected. For startups with neither, though, it is the complete opposite, and I won’t be surprised if local innovation takes a downturn in the near future.
This post was originally published on Tech in Asia