ASEAN and the AEC have been appearing with increasing frequency in the international press. But what is it all about and how will it impact your business and the IP world?

"One Vision, One Identity, One Community."

ASEAN and the AEC have been appearing with increasing frequency in the international press. But what is it all about and how will it impact your business and the IP world?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was established back in 1967 and now has 10 member countries; Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Brunei, with a combined population of 625 million people. ASEAN has looked outside its geographic boundaries towards China, Japan and South Korea ("ASEAN Plus Three") and the creation of the even larger "East Asia Summit" encompassing India, Australia, New Zealand, United States, and Russia. Its main purpose is to promote economic, social and cultural cooperation between its member states. Its headquarters are in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Why has it moved up the news agenda?

Now ASEAN plans to establish a common market called the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) to ensure the free flow of goods, services, skilled workers, capital and investment similar to what exists in the European Union. Taken together the AEC would become the 7th largest economy in the world and with an increasingly important consumer class.

What does the AEC mean for IP rights holders?

Individual ASEAN member countries historically had their own IP standards and protection. Attempts to harmonise have however been attempted for some time.  The ASEAN Working Group on Intellectual Property Cooperation (AWGIPC), made up of national IPO office representatives drives this harmonization. It has also established cooperation programs with WIPO, the EU and Japan.

The AEC IP Action plan for 2011 -15 had 5 strategic goals and areas of focus (summarized here):

Goal 1: A balanced IP system that takes into account the varying levels of development of Member States.

Goal 2:  Legal and policy infrastructures that address evolving demands of the IP landscape.

Goal 3: Promotion for IP creation, awareness, and utilization to ensure that IP becomes a tool for innovation and development, technology transfer and access to knowledge and preservation and protection of indigenous products and services

Goal 4: Active regional participation in the international IP community  

Goal 5: Intensified cooperation among ASEAN member states

At non-governmental level there is also an ASEAN IP Association - comprising mainly private practitioners from the region. Its last conference was in Myanmar in 2013. ASEAN has also established an IP information service at to provide more information on IP in the region.

Stumbling blocks

These lofty but vague goals demonstrate how hard it is to harmonise states as disparate as tiny developed Singapore, massive diverse Indonesia and rural Laos. But the region as a whole is developing at a terrific pace, although development between member countries is much more disparate leading to questions as to whether true unification can really take place. Added to this is a history of wariness, different languages, cultures and currencies.

A time for change

The current AEC IP Action Plan expires in 2015 - so they are preparing a new plan now due out in August. WIPO has worked with them on drafting.  They aim to approve by August by the Working group, then its Ministers. However it is not yet public. Several of the goals of the 2011-15 Plan are expected to be achieved this year. However a number of others are going to be carried over to the new plan and new target dates set.

Next steps

Key IP goals include:

  1. Implementing the Madrid system for trademarks - as at June 2014, Vietnam, Philippines and Singapore are members and Cambodia is in the process of completing ratification.  Full Madrid accession remains on target for all countries by December 2015, except Myanmar (which has yet t put in place a full trademarks system). Politically this goal is still on track. But practically Indonesia is doubtful due to technical IPO office reasons.
  2. The ASEAN Patent Examination Co-operation (ASPEC) program has gone into effect which reduces the cost and time to obtain patents in ASEAN countries. So far all patents which received ASPEC requests receive first office actions within 6 months – very fast for the region. This is possible as examiners can use other office's reports for corresponding patent applications.
  3. Madrid accession - the target remains to have all countries accede by December 2015, except Myanmar. Politically that’s still on track. But practically Indonesia is doubtful due to technical IPO office reasons.
  4. The Hague Agreement for industrial designs. This is an international registration system for designs that ASEAN hoped around half its members might accede to. Only Brunei has implemented this so far. This initiative will be carried to the next IPR Action Plan. As there are national law changes to be made likely the target implementation date will be pushed off a couple of years.

There are other much more vague areas of IP harmonisation. One is "IPR enforcement cooperation systems", which will likely be a challenge. Another area of great interest is developing Traditional Knowledge (TK), Genetic Resources (GR) and Cultural Traditional Expressions (CTE) systems. However given the world has not yet done so successfully it is hard to see ASEAN achieving anything on its own despite the perceived importance of these areas to ASEAN governments.

There are a number of other non IP specific areas which should help IP. Examples are SME support system, ecommerce growth.

The Future

The introduction of the AEC marks a step forward to creating a global economic powerhouse. A lot of national sovereignty challenges must be overcome. Indonesia is the giant of the bloc, with half of its population, yet one of the least developed, especially in IP. Rouse will continue to track developments as we get closer to 31 December 2015 and continue to examine the ways you and your business can prepare to take part and exploit the resulting opportunities.