Protecting IP ownership and rights in Hong Kong: 6 things employers need to know


Aug 3, 2023

In the vibrant and complex business environment of Hong Kong, securing your intellectual property (IP) is critical. Protecting your company's unique ideas not only offers a competitive advantage but also shields you from potential business risks. This guide offers clear insights into the maze of Hong Kong's IP laws, providing essential information for companies looking to establish or expand their operations in this dynamic market. A little disclaimer: while this guide offers a detailed overview, it is for informational purposes only and does not replace legal advice.

1. Register your IP: first-to-file system

In Hong Kong, IP protection operates on a first-to-file basis. This means the first person to file an application for IP rights with the Intellectual Property Department (IPD) in Hong Kong is the rightful owner. The registration process involves detailed documentation, paying the appropriate fees, and waiting for approval from the IPD. The types of IP you can register include patents, registered designs, and trademarks.

As an employer in Hong Kong, understanding this process is crucial. It provides the legal recognition needed to protect and enforce your IP rights. It is particularly relevant when dealing with patents, registered designs, and trademarks. A well-executed registration can provide legal recourse in the event of IP infringements.

2. Use the right IP protection: patents, copyrights, and trademarks

Various types of IP protections exist in Hong Kong, each tailored to protect different types of intellectual assets. Patents cover innovations and offer the innovator exclusive rights for a set period. Copyrights protect creative and artistic works, including music, literature, software, and more. Registered designs safeguard the visual appearance of products. Trademarks protect your brand's unique identifiers, such as logos and names.

Understanding the appropriate protection is vital. For instance, if your company has developed a unique manufacturing process, applying for a patent would be the right way to protect this invention. On the other hand, your brand logo and name would require trademark registration.

3. Familiarize yourself with Hong Kong’s IP law: ordinances and enforcement

Hong Kong's IP laws are governed by several key ordinances: the Patents Ordinance, the Copyright Ordinance, and the Trade Marks Ordinance. These laws define the types of creations that can be protected, the length of protection, and the enforcement mechanisms available. They also detail the penalties for IP infringement and the procedure for dispute resolution.

Knowledge of these laws is crucial for businesses operating in Hong Kong. For instance, the Trade Marks Ordinance outlines the rights and protections available to a registered trademark owner, while the Copyright Ordinance defines the scope and enforcement of copyright protection.

4. Clarify IP ownership in the employment agreement

Hong Kong law doesn't explicitly state who owns the IP created by an employee during their term of employment. This gray area makes it important for companies to clarify IP ownership in the employment contract. Specifying that the company owns the IP created during employment prevents future disputes and ensures that your company retains the rights to valuable IP assets.

5. Pay attention to licensing and assignments

Licensing and assignments are two ways you can legally transfer IP rights in Hong Kong. Licensing allows another party to use your IP, while an assignment transfers the ownership entirely. However, for these agreements to be enforceable against third parties in Hong Kong, they must be in writing and registered with the IPD. Understanding these processes is essential to maintaining the value of your IP.

6. Enforce your IP rights in Hong Kong

Ownership of IP rights is just the first step. Enforcement is the key to ensuring that your rights are respected. If your IP is infringed upon in Hong Kong, you can take legal action. The Customs and Excise Department is responsible for handling criminal IP cases, while civil cases go through the courts. Regular market surveillance and legal enforcement are key components of an effective IP protection strategy.

Frequently asked questions about IP law in Hong Kong

Who owns IP in Hong Kong: employee or employer?

Typically, an employer owns the IP created by an employee during their employment. However, it's best to include clear terms regarding IP ownership in the employment contract.

What is an IP assignment agreement?

An IP assignment agreement is a legal document that transfers the ownership of an intellectual property right from one party (the assignor) to another (the assignee). To be enforceable against third parties, IP assignment agreements in Hong Kong should be in writing and registered with the IPD.

What is the Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) and its relation to IP?

The MPF is a compulsory savings scheme for retirement in Hong Kong. It doesn't directly relate to IP, but as part of an employment contract, it's crucial to be aware of the MPF and its implications when negotiating IP ownership during the hiring process.

How does the Trade Marks Ordinance affect my IP rights in Hong Kong?

The Trade Marks Ordinance is the primary legislation governing trademark registration and protection in Hong Kong. It's critical to familiarize yourself with this ordinance as it outlines the rights of a registered trademark owner, procedures for registration, and remedies for infringement.

What are the penalties for IP infringement in Hong Kong?

Penalties for IP infringement in Hong Kong can be severe, ranging from fines to imprisonment. In addition, the infringing party may be ordered to pay damages to the IP owner. Hence, it's essential to enforce your IP rights proactively.

What is the role of the Customs and Excise Department in IP protection?

The Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department plays a vital role in enforcing IP laws. It handles criminal cases related to IP rights, including copyright and trademark infringements.

What actions can I take if my IP rights are infringed upon in Hong Kong?

If your IP rights are infringed upon in Hong Kong, you can take legal action. Civil cases go through the courts, while criminal cases are handled by the Customs and Excise Department. Having a robust IP enforcement strategy is essential for protecting your IP assets.

Can social security benefits affect IP ownership?

Social security benefits in Hong Kong are generally unrelated to IP ownership. However, if you have employees who create IP during their employment, understanding your social security obligations is an important part of running your business.

How does China’s IP law affect my IP rights in Hong Kong?

While Hong Kong SAR or Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it operates under a "one country, two systems" principle. This means Hong Kong has its own legal system, separate from the mainland Chinese system, and includes its own laws on intellectual property. However, if you're looking to protect your IP rights both in Hong Kong and mainland China, you'll need to follow the IP laws and registration processes in both jurisdictions.

Can I protect my trade secrets in Hong Kong?

Yes. While trade secrets aren't registered like patents or trademarks, they are protected under Hong Kong law. If a trade secret is unlawfully disclosed or used, the owner can take legal action. It's crucial to ensure your business has measures in place to keep trade secrets confidential.

What are the penalties for copyright infringement in Hong Kong?

Copyright infringement in Hong Kong can lead to both civil and criminal penalties. The infringer may be required to pay damages to the copyright owner and could also face imprisonment. The Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department handles criminal cases of copyright infringement.

Do inventors have any special rights to their inventions in Hong Kong?

In Hong Kong, an inventor can apply for a standard patent or a short-term patent to protect their invention. This provides the inventor with exclusive rights to use and benefit from the invention. If the inventor is an employee, it's common for the employment contract to stipulate that the employer owns the rights to inventions made during employment.

Is there legal protection for copyright works in Hong Kong?

Yes, copyright works are protected under the Copyright Ordinance in Hong Kong. This protection is automatic and doesn't require registration. It covers a wide range of works, including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, as well as sound recordings and films.

Is it possible to register a European patent in Hong Kong?

No, a European patent registered with the European Patent Office does not extend to Hong Kong. If you want to protect your invention in Hong Kong, you need to apply for a patent through the Hong Kong IPD.

What is the role of the Patents Registry in Hong Kong?

The Patents Registry, under the IPD, is responsible for administering patent law and patent registration in Hong Kong. It manages patent applications and renewals, and provides information and assistance to patent applicants.

Is there any protection for plant varieties in Hong Kong?

Yes, plant breeders' rights are protected under the Plant Varieties Protection Ordinance in Hong Kong. This gives breeders the exclusive right to produce, sell, and import/export the propagating material of their new plant variety.

How can service providers protect their IP rights in Hong Kong?

Service providers can protect their IP rights in several ways. Trademarks can protect brand names and logos, while copyright can protect original content created for clients. Confidentiality agreements can help safeguard trade secrets.

What is the process for domain name dispute resolution in Hong Kong?

Domain name disputes in Hong Kong are typically handled through arbitration under the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre (HKIAC). The HKIAC administers the process according to the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy.

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Rippling and its affiliates do not provide tax, accounting, or legal advice. This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or accounting advice. You should consult your own tax, legal, and accounting advisors before engaging in any related activities or transactions.

last edited: March 26, 2024

The Author

Carissa Tham

A British Columbia-based tech content strategist and writer, Carissa has lived and worked in Singapore, Taiwan, and Canada. Carissa lends her unique global perspectives to growing Rippling’s brand in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.