In March of this year, Cessna Aircraft announced at the Asian Business Aviation Conference & Exhibit (ABACE) plans to collaborate with Chinese partners on the development and manufacturing of existing and new jet designs. This sparked some fresh thinking about the integrity of intellectual property protections in such global collaborations.
In an article published in Aviation International News in June, Matt Thurber focused on whether there are particularly heightened IP risks for companies doing outsourced manufacturing and other collaborative work in China. He points, among other things, to the lack of discussion regarding the risk of aerospace IP loss in other avionics outsource locations such as Mexico and Northern Ireland. He further points to the unique requirement that setting up a plant in China “requires that companies partner with a Chinese firm, [a]nd many of the Chinese partners are partially owned by the Chinese government.
The consensus, however, appears to be that aerospace firms regard the benefits of collaborations in China as outweighing the risks. This does not mean that effort isn’t made to protect intellectual property, yet there are varying perspectives as to what that means.
According to the article, Scott Donnelly, president, CEO & chairman of Textron – Cessna’s parent company – was asked during an earnings call about the protection of Cessna’s intellectual property. Donnelly responded that he regards the “sophisticated technology” his company develops as providing “natural protections.” By this he evidently meant that aerospace systems and component technologies require discoverable certifications. It is a “global industry, he says, “so if anybody is going to try and take our intellectual property and do a knockoff of our products, that’s going to be a public thing. It’s years and years of development, a difficult certification process.”
Further, Thurber quotes Pierre Fabre in a 2011 interview when Fabre was then-CEO of Turbomeca as saying, “[y]es, there is risk. Of course we try to protect what we have. And the best [plan] is to continue to invest in research and technology” so that whatever does happen to be copied reaches a point of obsolescence. “By continuing to invest we have the best protection.”
Belt & suspenders approaches to IP protection are suggested by David Donohughue, an aerospace engineer and trial attorney with the law firm of Holland & Knight, including the filing of counterpart patent and trademark applications and vigilance of trade secret protections in China.