Outdated legal protections for intellectual property in Cambodia are likely to put off potential innovators, according to some in the tech industry who say research and development here is exposed to the risk of competitors simply copying ideas and designs.
As economists argue that Cambodia needs to start transitioning its industries from low-cost labor to higher-value innovation, some are warning that the lack of safeguards for intellectual property rights (IPR), particularly in software, poses a looming obstacle.
Lorida Leon, managing director of Brite Digital, Microsoft’s official representative in the country, said the intellectual property owned by tech firms contributes as much as 70 percent of their revenue. She cautioned weak protections would be a major disincentive for innovation.
“Lack of technology IPR gets the start-ups asking: Why innovate? If their work can be legally copied,” she said in an email.
Copyrights currently exist only for artworks, which are registered with the Culture Ministry, leaving copyrights for software and technology in an unclear situation, Ms. Leon said.
Some startups may be compelled to base themselves in countries with stronger protections, she added.
“We see high-potential tech entrepreneurs working in countries where there are incentives for research and development and strong IPR implementation,” she said.
Lim Yousur, deputy director general at the Culture Ministry, said his ministry could register copyrights for some technological works, such as video game characters, but other forms of IP were handled by other ministries.
Some, such as trademarks, are handled by the Commerce Ministry, while patents and industrial designs fall under the Industry and Handicrafts Ministry, he said.
Steven Path, president of the ICT Federation of Cambodia and CEO of tech firm Pathmazing, agreed with Ms. Lorida that weak intellectual property protections could discourage innovative businesses.
But it hasn’t stopped hundreds of startups from emerging in Cambodia over the past few years, Mr. Path said.
“This means that for many of us, we are taking the leap of faith that the government will eventually have strong IPR protection,” he said.
The risks posed by weak IP protections may have yet to become a significant issue for the majority of Cambodia’s startups because many are still in the early stage of their ventures, he added.
Chea Langda, the founder of online bus ticket booking system BookMeBus, which was conceived in 2013 and now employs about 10 people, said he had not considered registering his company’s IP yet.
“When we develop to global or regional, then we will consider applying for IPR,” Mr. Langda said. “For now, we want to focus on growth.”
Pich Ang, president of the Intellectual Property Association of Cambodia, said the country already had the foundations for strong IPR, thanks to a slew of copyright and other laws enacted around 2002. Trademarks, in particular, are already well enforced, Mr. Ang said. He added that the courts are open to hearing other IP-related cases.
“I personally think that the IP enforcement in Cambodia is on the right way. It [has] started progressively to be strong.”