Chinese Intellectual Property Theft is Nothing New

As I have written in these pages before, I spent 40 years as a scientist in a federal research facility. We always had a steady stream of gifted young (and senior-level) scientists and students who came from all over the United States and from around the world to work as “guest researchers” with us. For the most part, this was a great opportunity for both them and us.

There were two classifications of guest researchers: domestic and foreign, and the rules and procedures were different for both groups. In most cases, we were able to provide a monthly stipend for guest researchers. This stipend was meant to offset some of their expenses but, in general, we expected their home institutions to do most of the funding.

The stipends were meant to assist them in essentially maintaining two households: one in our city and the other back home. It clearly would not be possible for most guest researchers to sell a house (or give up an apartment) back home and work with us for a year or two, then have to return and pick up where they left off. And if a stipend could not be provided under the regs, then there were “lecture fees,” “consulting fees,” and the like. Nobody got rich this way, for sure.

Many of the overseas guest researchers established long-term relationships with our staff, resulting in many of our scientists going to those overseas labs and universities for collaborative work. I personally developed close connections with folks from several countries, and they remain friends and colleagues to this day.

We had a significant number of guest researchers from China throughout my entire career at this laboratory. I have a few observations regarding our interactions with Chinese guest researchers, and please understand that these are not to be confused with many associations I had with Chinese-American students and visiting scientists.

Image: Photocopying by Pixabay.

Unlike their American citizen counterparts, I noticed guest researchers from China spent an unusual amount of time at the copying machine. I would walk by many times per day, between lab, office, library, meeting room, or wherever, and the big industrial-duty copiers would constantly be running—and there would always be a Chinese guest researcher running the thing.

I began to take note of what was happening because the copy machine was near the soda machine, and you couldn’t help but notice as you were banging away at the soda machine trying to get your Dr. Pepper to release from the rack. These Chinese guest researchers were copying books. I mean, book after book, something they seemed to do all day long. Cover to cover. I wonder how they ever got any lab work done. The books were mostly new acquisitions by our library.

Now, we all used the copying machine to print a journal article, a document, or even a few pages from a book, but the idea of copying an entire book would never enter our minds. If we needed the entire book, we would simply order a copy and be done with it. We did this even if we had to pay for it ourselves. But we would never waste our time copying an entire book.

After asking around, I learned that these guest researchers were copying books and sending the copies back to their home institutions in China! Not only was that a blatant violation of copyright, but the American taxpayer was footing the bill. You see, the cost of the copies was paid out of laboratory overhead, as was the cost of shipping.

I understand that the information the Chinese researchers were copying from these books was readily available to anyone willing to pay for the book. This was not the same as stealing industrial or government secrets, but it was still stealing. While the laboratory never formally approved of this theft, it still tolerated and subsidized it.

We have all read about China’s intellectual property theft. Indeed, one of my own patented inventions was pirated. But I witnessed this form of intellectual property theft via copy machine going on since the early 1980s, right under our noses. We even financed it, and we did nothing about it. Over the years, I occasionally mentioned it to the higher-ups and was told to forget it. It was just part of the research collaboration; ignore it and don’t make trouble.

Later in my career, during the 2000s, the Chinese guest researcher pipeline began to sour. Often a guest researcher would arrive from China with the assurance of financial support from their home institution but, after onboarding, they would claim that, in fact, they were not receiving any support. This usually left us with no choice but to give them a much larger stipend than was initially agreed because the alternative would be to risk a diplomatic incident.

Finally, we wised up a bit. We realized that this was a racket and that we were being played. Our laboratory ultimately insisted that the Chinese guest researchers’ financial support be guaranteed by the Chinese embassy or no dice.

While I have greatly enjoyed and benefitted from my association and work with overseas guest researchers, I cannot help but be dismayed by our experiences with the ones from China.

I have just one more story to relate, and it is, at least, somewhat humorous, if not a bit scary. About 20 years ago, down the hall from my office were two Chinese guest researchers sharing an office. They were mid-career scientists, not kids.

Around lunchtime, the most amazing smells filled the corridor. Even though these two fellows kept their door closed most of the time, one couldn’t help but be drawn to the source of the aromas. All around their door, you could hear the rumbling of stomachs, it was that good. We didn’t know what they brought with them to eat, but we knew it sure was better than a PBJ.

Then, one day as I was walking past, the door opened, and I discovered the source of these gastronomic delights. These two guys had a Hibachi stove in the office, and they cooked shrimp, chicken, pork, and veggies. I looked in and, holy mackerel, they were cooking with charcoal briquets inside the office!

I was in shock, but I managed to say, “No, no, no, guys, you can’t cook on a Hibachi in an office, inside a building, with charcoal, with the door closed….” It took some convincing, but we made it go away without involving management or, worse, the police or fire department. Honestly, I don’t know how these two jokers didn’t manage to poison themselves and the rest of us with carbon monoxide or set the place afire.

Now I know why they put smoke detectors in every office.

Dr. Bruno, a scientist retired after more than 40 years in research, amuses himself writing books and editing scientific journals, along with wood and metal working.

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