Property rights, trademarks and consumer protection

* This is my article in BusinessWorld last September 18, 2017.

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Private property rights that people and businesses enjoy are among the cornerstones of a free and dynamic society. People have exclusive rights on what to do with their private properties — use them, sell, rent out, or donate.

However, when rights to private property — both physical and intangible assets — are unprotected, society can quickly degenerate into disorder. As a result, consumers will be unable to recognize which among manufacturers and service providers are trustworthy and which are suspicious.

Measuring the extent of property rights protection across many countries is done annually by the Property Rights Alliance (PRA), a Washington DC-based think tank. It produces the International Property Rights Index (IPRI) annually and partners with independent, nongovernment, and market-oriented think tanks and institutes from many countries.

IPRI is derived by getting the score (1 to 10, 10 being the highest) of each country covered in three major areas:

  1. Legal and Political Environment (LP), covers judicial independence, rule of law, control of corruption, and political stability of a country or economy.
  2. Physical Property Rights (PPR), includes registration and protection of physical properties, access to loans.
  3. Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), includes protection of patents, trademarks and brand, and copyrights.

Countries with high scores in two or all three of these areas will have a high IPRI overall score and global rank (see table).

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Among the important insights in the above numbers are: One, the more developed the economies are like Singapore and Japan, the higher the IPRI score and global rank. Which implies that as private property is better recognized and protected, there are more economic activities and innovations that occur.

Two, the Philippines experienced some improvement in its global rank, from 77th out of 131 countries in the 2013 report. It rose to 64 out of 127 countries in 2017. Its low score in legal and political environment was compensated by its high score in physical property rights.

One emerging issue in IPR non-protection is plain packaging (PP) of tobacco products purportedly for health reasons. Besides being slapped with high taxes, tobacco products also feature graphic warnings on packaging. Advertising tobacco products have also been restricted and smoking in may areas have been disallowed, which are part of several moves to deter people from lighting up.

These have been tried in many countries but smoking incidence does not seem to significantly decline as people shift to cheaper and often, illegal, illicit products. So the next step is to prohibit the use of a tobacco brand, logo, or trademark. This has been done in Australia and there are plans to introduce legislation in Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan.

This plan does not appear to be right because a brand or logo of a company represents how effective it is in developing consumer loyalty and service. Imagine also if all ice cream, all soft drinks, all beer, all wine, etc. will simply be labeled as “ice cream,” “soda,” “beer,” etc. with no brand recognition of who produced or manufactured the products.

Or all government departments and agencies (DoH, DoF, DPWH, NEDA, etc.) will lose their logo and will simply have a generic brand “Philippine government,” it would not seem right.

I have never been a smoker nor have I been a fan of smoking but was once a fan of tobacco ads in cycling or in the F1 race. But I will not recommend the scrapping of a brand or trademark of companies in a particular industry. People who hate the companies should attack them as such and they may even use the company brand for their attacks.

Intellectual property rights like medicine patents, song copyrights, company brand or trademarks, play an important role of recognizing efficiency and innovation. Consumers look up to these brands and decide which ones to support and patronize and which ones to reject based on their specific needs and interests.

Governments therefore, should respect and protect these IPRs the same way it should respect and protect physical private properties. Moreover, people own their bodies and not the state nor NGOs.

After rising taxes, health warnings, and business regulations are in place, governments should leave individuals and allow them to seek their own happiness without harming other people.

Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. is the president of Minimal Government Thinkers, which is a member of EFN Asia and the Property Rights Alliance (PRA).

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On tobacco plain packaging proposal in Singapore

This is my letter to the HPB yesterday. The auto reply said they have received it and will look into it.
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Subject: Singapore’s plan on “Standardized packaging” of tobacco products
To: HPB_Mailbox@hpb.gov.sg

Health Promotion Board
3 Second Hospital Avenue,
Singapore 168937

Dear Sir/Madam,

I have read your campaign to control tobacco use and promote good health among Singapore citizens, it is a good objective. But I notice that you also plan to introduce or legislate “standardized packaging” or “plain packaging” in tobacco products, and I think it can adversely affect Singapore’s good image on protecting intellectual property rights (IPR).

It is true that smoking is dangerous to one’s health. I myself am not a smoker, never smoked a single stick in my whole life, never worked for the tobacco industry or its allied industries. But I think people have a choice for their body. They recognize the danger of smoking — and drinking, drugs, over-eating, sedentary lifestyle, etc. — and still they do it. They compare the health risks with the pleasure of those actions then they decide whether to continue doing it or not; if they continue, whether to smoke 1 or 20 sticks a day, drink 1 or 10 bottles of beer a day, etc.

Plain packaging (PP) is wrong for the following reasons.

  1. Singapore is known for its clear and strong property rights protection, both physical and intellectual property. Abolition or significant reduction of the trademarks and corporate logo of tobacco companies via PP will dent this image and put Singapore’s adherence to IPR protection in a question mark.
  1. If Singapore is to be consistent in its policy, then it will be pressured in the near future to also introduce PP for alcohol products like beer and whiskey, soda, chocolate bars, other high sugar, high fat content meals and snacks.
  1. People who derive pleasure in smoking will continue to smoke despite PP and they will likely shift to cheaper and illicit products. Overall smoking incidence can either flatline or even increase because tobacco companies will produce cheaper but cool-tasting products, which will attract new  smokers or entice the few-sticks-a-day smokers to become one pack a day smokers. PP will only adversely affect the sale of known and premium products of the big multinational tobacco  companies but not the cheap products of lesser known companies.
  1. If drawn in a graph, the supply curve of cheap cigarettes will move to the right as manufacturers of premium brands will soon produce lots of plain pack but cheap cigarettes. Equilibrium price goes down while equilibrium quantity goes up, even if the demand curve does not move.

Discouraging the people from smoking can be done via more public education. The graphic health warnings, campaigns by the  Ministry of Health and health NGOs or groups are part of such public education.

But some people will continue to  smoke – and over-drink, over-eat, over-sit in  sedentary lifestyle – despite learning more and new things  about the dangers of smoking, over-drinking, and so on. Government cannot micro-manage the lives of people all the  time. What Singapore should continue protecting is its image  as the bastion of IPR  protection, whether companies are in  IT, pharma, healthcare, hotels, food,  alcohol or tobacco.

Thank you very much.

Sincerely,

Bienvenido Oplas, Jr.
President, Minimal Government Thinkers
Manila, Philippines
https://ipinasia.wordpress.com/
http://funwithgovernment.blogspot.com/

TPP, medicines patent and tobacco trademark

After the 4th Asia Liberty Forum (ALF) ended in Kuala Lumpur on February 20, SEANET organized a small group discussion on “business friendly regulations”, same hotel venue. I was one of those invited. Below, Wan Saiful Wan Jan, CEO of IDEAS and Director of SEANET, spoke to explain once again what the meeting-seminar was all about.

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Aside from independent think tank leaders from some ASEAN countries, some friends outside the region were also there, like Barun Mitra, Cris Lingle, Julian Morris, Lorenzo Montanari.

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I gave a brief presentation. Brief as in 8 minutes or less.

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TPP’s liberalization agenda will:

  1. Force open members’ economic sectors such as agriculture, affect poor peasants, women
  1. Further push them into poverty, compete with giant agricultural corporations from more developed countries
  1. Increase corporations’ access to indigenous people’s lands and territories for resource extraction without their free prior informed consent (FPIC)
  1. Undermine country’s right to reject genetically modified

organisms (GMOs), subject those GMOs to prior risk assessment; ensure uninterrupted trade for GMOs to the benefit of major GMO producers and exporters like the US and Canada

  1. Permit corporations to violate labor rights by making it easier to offshore jobs to countries with lower labor standards
  1. Encourage more inflows of migrants who later forced to become undocumented migrants  to add more cheaper and docile labor

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  1. Endanger people’s right to quality and affordable healthcare due to strict intellectual property rights (IPR) on patents, data monopolies to medicines
  1. Make educational materials become expensive with strict IPR
  1. Violate internet users’ privacy rights and will stifle creativity and freedom of expression through severe copyright rules
  1. Mean death to democracy, allow corporations to use investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) to attack public interest laws to increase their profits; corporations suing governments over living wages, environmental protection , people’s access to public utilities
  1. Have knock-on effects on the whole region, have potential to be the standard that all future trade deals will follow
  1. Promote the hegemony of corporations, neoliberal regimes and political and economic dominance of the US and other powerful States over the developing and underdeveloped economies of the world.

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Among the prominent arguments why people hate the TPP and other FTAs with the US and EU is that stronger IPR protection would mean more expensive medicines, affecting even off-patent, generic drugs. Is this true?

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No. Perhaps all TRIPS flexibilities with regards to newly-invented medicines were respected by the TPPA. Like these texts, the red comments on the right are mine.

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Then I added another aspect of IPR infringement, the abolition of trademarks and brand logo for cigarettes.

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Concluding Notes:

  1. Joining the TPP has more gains than pains for member-countries, especially in exports and overall GDP expansion.
  1. IPR health provisions in TPP not scary, apply only to newly-invented medicines and not to cheaper generic drugs. Existing TRIPS flexibilities for new meds are maintained.
  1. Possible that generic pharma lobby + anti-capitalism, anti-globalization NGOs created more fear than what the TPPA actually provides.
  1. More to fear in government taxation of medicines, mandatory drug price discounts and price controls, than IPR protection.Brief presentation, I think I spoke for only 7-8 minutes, then the others gave their own inputs and insights on other topics. The full 14-slides presentation is available in slideshare.

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Meanwhile, the debate seems raging in Malaysia now regarding their government’s plan to introduce plain packaging in tobacco products too. All these news reported since last week.

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It’s now a Singapore-Indonesia-Malaysia triumvirate of tobacco plain packaging legislation. Soon it will infect the governments and stakeholders in the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, etc. And if they succeed, next would be beer, whiskey, other alcohol products? Then chocolate bars, soda and cola. The WHO should be involved in this new government initiatives. I will follow this development.

ALF 2016, Panel on property rights

The 4th Asia Liberty Forum 2016, #AsiaLF16, has successfully ended in Kuala Lumpur last Saturday night. Among the important panel discussions was the one on “Protecting Yourself Against Daylight Robbery — Current Challenges to Property Rights”.

Photo below, holding the microphone is Wan Saiful Wan Jan, CEO of IDEAS Malaysia, who chaired the discussion. The speakers from left:  (1) Lorenzo Montanari of Property Rights Alliance (PRA), Washington DC, USA; (2) Barun Mitra of Liberty Institute, India; (3) Kriengsak Chareonwongsak of the Institute of Future Studies for Development, Thailand; and (4) Julian Morris of Reason Foundation, USA.

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Lorenzo spoke about the International Property Rights Index (IPRI) annual reports, especially the latest, 2015 Report.

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Barun talked about fighting for property rights of poor rural workers and households in their tilled land in India.

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Julian talked about IPR, especially of trademarks and company branding. His paper title was witty, “Marks vs. Marx”, the former refer to trademarks, the latter refer to IPR confiscation and stealing/socialization.

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Among the slides shown by Julian. An example of a medicine whose products and corporate brand/logo was copied and stolen to sell substandard or fake medicines, which can have serious or even fatal consequences to patients.

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Plain packaging of cigarettes, the logo and brands of Winfield and Marlboro were removed, only their product name is displayed. Further below, when plain packaging is applied on softdrinks/soda and beer.

I don’t smoke, never smoked my entire life, I derive zero pleasure in smoking, but I respect other people’s decision to smoke. It’s their life, their body, they can do whatever they want with their life so long as they do not harm other people, like puffing heavy smoke in an enclosed room with many non-smokers inside.

I think people should not smoke, but if they decide to smoke because they derive some pleasure in smoking — the same way that I derive pleasure in drinking with friends, frequently when I was still a bachelor, and seldom now with a family and 2 young girls — then their freedom to choose which cigarette products or brands to take should not be curtailed by the government.

After all, the government is a huge hypocrite institution that says “promote public health, discourage smoking and drinking” on the left hand, then happily and gleefully collects billions of pesos or dollars of “sin tax” revenues every year from more smokers on the right hand.

Meanwhile, I am thankful again to EFN Asia and FNF regional office for giving me a travel grant to attend the 4th ALF. Thanks Siggi, Pett, Jules.

Plain packaging and trademark busting

Trademarks and brand logo are important to distinguish companies and producers from each other. A customer can say, “I don’t want to ride airline X because they are frequently late/delayed, nor airline Y too because they are expensive, I prefer airline Z because their fares are cheap they mostly fly on time.” That is branding from the perspective of customers.

When government or many groups dislike or hate something, this is how regulations and later prohibitions look like:

  1. Raise the tax, make it more expensive.
  2. Restrict or prohibit advertising to certain events.
  3. Mandate graphic warnings, like “Smoking kills” and show ugly pictures of dilapited lungs and mouth.
  4. Actual product restrictions to certain consumers, like “for people above 21 years old” and so on.
  5. Ultimately, plain packaging. Like all tobacco products, all beer and wine products, all  chocolate bars, etc. to be labelled as plain “cigarettes” or “beer” or “red wine” or “chocolate”.

Boring and lousy, right?

Of course smoking — and drinking lots of alcohol, and taking lots of soda, ice cream, eating lots of fatty, salty, preserved food, sedentary lifestyle, etc. etc — is bad for people’s health.

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But people — not the state or media or the health NGOs, etc. — own their body. People recognize the risks of smoking, drinking, drugs, etc. and they compare such health risks with the pleasure of smoking and drinking. Then they decide whether to continue doing it or stop; if they continue, whether to smoke 1 or 20 sticks a day, drink 1 or 6 bottles of beer a day, etc.

Too much nannyism by the state purportedly to “protect public health” is wrong, and is a clear smoke screen and excuse for more taxation, more regulations, prohibitions, more government.

Plain packaging of tobacco, beer, whiskey, chocolates, etc. in the Philippines, I do not think this kind of legislation will prosper here. Mainly because legislators themselves are among the big fans of branded tobacco, beer, wine, etc. But it is an opportunity for big time extortion by health regulators and/or legislators.

Meanwhile, the graphic photos law against tobacco consumption, the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) to be signed soon,http://www.interaksyon.com/article/123786/doh-implementing-rules-for-cigarette-graphic-health-warnings-out-before-march