Why Increasing Numbers of Chinese Companies Steal IP from Foreign Companies


Intellectual property (IP) theft is a growing concern for many foreign companies operating in China. The increasing number of Chinese companies involved in IP theft has been damaging to the global economy and has raised questions about the ethical conduct of business in China. 

This article will explore the history of IP theft in China, the factors contributing to this phenomenon, the role of the first-to-file system, and the impact on foreign companies. We will also discuss potential solutions to the issue.


History of Intellectual Property Theft in China

Early stages

IP theft in China has a long history, dating back to the 1980s when the country first began opening up to the global market. At that time, China lacked the technological expertise to compete with Western countries and sought to acquire foreign knowledge and technology through IP theft.

Development of the current situation

As China’s economy has grown and modernized, the extent of IP theft has also increased. This growth can be attributed to several factors, including rapid economic development, pressure to innovate, weak enforcement of IP laws, and the first-to-file system.


Factors Contributing to IP Theft

Rapid economic growth

China’s remarkable economic growth has pressured its companies to maintain a competitive edge in the global market. Acquiring foreign IP can provide a shortcut to technological advancement and help Chinese companies stay ahead.

Pressure to innovate

The Chinese government’s emphasis on innovation and technological development has driven companies to seek new ways to stay competitive. Stealing IP from foreign companies offers a quick way to obtain cutting-edge technology without investing in research and development.

The first-to-file system 

China’s patent system follows the “first-to-file” principle, which means that the first person to file an application for an invention has the right to the patent, regardless of who created the invention. This system encourages Chinese companies to file patents for foreign innovations before the original innovators, thereby stealing their IP.

This system stands in contrast to the “first-to-invent” principle, which awards patent rights based on the actual date of invention. The first-to-file system incentivizes companies to submit patent applications for foreign innovations before the original inventors and steal their IP. This practice, known as “patent trolling,” can lead to the illegitimate acquisition of patent rights, stifling innovation and creating legal disputes.

The system’s emphasis on being the first to file may divert resources from actual research and development, as companies prioritize securing patents over fostering genuine innovation. Those with inside knowledge of a company’s inventions, such as employees or contractors, exploit the first-to-file system. 

By filing patents before the actual inventors, someone can unfairly claim ownership of the IP, leading to legal disputes and damage to the company’s reputation. In this system, smaller entities and individual inventors struggle to compete in the race to file patents, as they typically have fewer resources and less experience navigating the patent system. This can result in larger corporations dominating the patent landscape, further hindering innovation and competition.

China’s first-to-file patent system has both advantages and drawbacks. While it can simplify the patent application process and expedite the granting of rights, it also has the potential to encourage IP theft, stifle innovation, and create an uneven playing field for inventors. 


Methods Used for IP Theft

Industrial espionage

Industrial espionage is a common method used by Chinese companies to obtain foreign IP. This involves infiltrating foreign companies and stealing sensitive information, including trade secrets and confidential data.

Reverse engineering

Reverse engineering is the process of taking apart a product to understand how it works and then recreating it. Chinese companies often use this method to replicate foreign products and gain access to proprietary technology.

Patent infringement

Chinese companies may also infringe on foreign patents, producing and selling products that violate international IP rights.


Impact on Foreign Companies

Loss of competitive advantage

IP theft can result in foreign companies losing their competitive advantage in the market as Chinese competitors replicate and use their proprietary technology. This can lead to decreased market share and a loss of potential revenue.

Financial repercussions

Foreign companies often invest heavily in research and development to create innovative products and technologies. When their IP is stolen, these companies suffer financially, as they may be unable to recoup their investments or profit from their innovations.


How to Combat IP Theft

Strengthening of Chinese IP laws

China has made efforts to improve its IP laws and enforcement practices in recent years. This includes increased penalties for IP theft and the establishment of specialized IP courts to handle related cases.

Implementing strong internal security measures

Foreign companies operating in China should also consider implementing robust internal security measures to protect their IP. This may include investing in advanced cybersecurity technologies, conducting regular security audits, and training employees on IP protection best practices.

Protect your IP as soon as possible

The importance of protecting your intellectual property (IP) in China cannot be overstated, particularly when considering the country’s unique “first to file” system. Securing their IP should be a top priority for businesses looking to enter the Chinese market. Otherwise, you risk losing their competitive edge or even facing legal disputes, as unscrupulous entities may file their IP first, claiming ownership and potentially causing irreparable damage to their brand and market share.

It is essential to see the protection of IP in China as an ongoing process. You should monitor the market to see if someone is using your IP. As you develop in China, you might have new services and products that must be protected.

Ultimately, protecting your IP ensures that you maintain control over your creations and innovations and helps establish your brand’s reputation and credibility within the Chinese market. On the other hand, failing to protect your IP in China properly can lead to unauthorized use, counterfeiting, and even the loss of rights to your creations.



The increasing number of Chinese companies involved in IP theft from foreign companies is a growing concern for the global economy. Factors such as rapid economic growth, pressure to innovate, and the first-to-file system in China contribute to this issue. By understanding these factors and taking appropriate measures to protect their intellectual property, foreign companies can minimize the risks and maintain their competitive advantage in the global market.



  1. How does the first-to-file system contribute to IP theft in China? The first-to-file system in China encourages companies to file patents for foreign innovations before the original innovators, effectively stealing their IP.
  2. What are the primary methods used by Chinese companies to steal IP from foreign companies? Industrial espionage, reverse engineering, and patent infringement are the primary methods used to obtain foreign IP.
  3. How does IP theft impact foreign companies? IP theft can result in a loss of competitive advantage, decreased market share, and financial repercussions due to the inability to profit from their innovations.
  4. What steps can foreign companies take to protect their IP in China? Foreign companies can implement internal solid security measures, invest in advanced cybersecurity technologies, and train employees on IP protection best practices.


Contact us if you need help with protecting patents, trademarks, contracts, or other legal challenges that you have in China.

If you require our assistance or have further questions about our services, please do not hesitate to contact our Customer Relationship Manager, Jan Erik Christensen, at janerik@ncbhub.com. We look forward to hearing from you and helping your business succeed in China.

Contact us if you need help with drafting of contracts that follows Chinese laws and are enforceable in China, background investigation of Chinese companies, protecting patents, trademarks, verification of contracts to the law in China, or help with other legal challenges that you have in China.

If you require our assistance or have further questions about our services, please do not hesitate to contact our Customer Relationship Managers Jan Erik Christensen, at janerik@ncbhub.com . We look forward to hearing from you and helping your business succeed in China.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace professional legal counsel. The information contained herein does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Reading this article does not establish an attorney-client relationship between the reader and the author or the author’s organization. Our website aim to provide general information for educational and communication purposes.