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Inventors in jail

Post Time:2015-01-28 Source:Global Times Author:Cao Siqi Views:

Former Chinese soccer chief Nan Yong recently had his prison sentence reduced by one year after a Beijing court said that he had behaved well and obtained four patents while locked up.

Nan, 52, former vice chairman of the Chinese Football Association and former director of the Chinese Football Administrative Center, was sentenced to 10 and a half years in prison for taking bribes totaling 1.19 million yuan ($191,570) in June 2012. He began his jail term on September 5 that year.

Yancheng Prison in Hebei Province, where Nan is imprisoned, presented an abatement proposal to the Beijing No.2 Intermediate People's Court on November 13 citing Nan's good behavior during his two years in jail.

Besides Nan, other jailed officials or celebrities have also reportedly had their sentences reduced after getting patents as China's Criminal Law stipulates that inmates may have their jail terms commuted if they "provide great contributions to the state and society."

Judges have said that prisoners' invention of products that qualify for patents, which are seen as such great contributions, have become one criterion on which courts can base this kind of sentence reduction.

However, this trick for industrious prisoners to earn their freedom has warped into a loophole exploited by some intellectual property agencies that seek profits through helping prisoners buy their way out of prison.

Inspired inmates

According to the website of the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO), Nan applied for patent certificates in December 2012 and 2013 for four inventions including a device to practice soccer strikes and a portable goal.

Nan's case is not uncommon. Liang Jianxing, former head of the health bureau of Fenghua, Zhejiang Province, who was sentenced to eight years behind bars in 2008, acquired 11 patent qualifications in six years. Liang had one year and three months taken off his sentence in 2011, reported the Beijing Youth Daily.

"Offering abatement for inmates who have inventions is a positive way to encourage prisoners to fulfill their potential and make contributions to society," Xu Xinming, chief lawyer with the CIPLAWYER (www.ciplawyer.com), an intellectual property rights website, told the Global Times.

Records on the SIPO website also show that a Beijing intellectual rights agency helped Nan apply for patents for his inventions.

However, the policy also offers some agencies a chance to gain large profits by conspiring with prisoners to obtain remissions illegally.

Underground business

Several intellectual property agencies contacted by the Global Times said they can help prisoners buy patents and bring them one step closer to freedom.

An intellectual rights agency in Hefei, Anhui Province, told the Global Times that they provide professional, customized services for prisoners looking to exploit this loophole, allowing prisoners to buy original inventions and helping them obtain patents at different prices.

An employee surnamed Wang at the agency said that the patents they sell can be divided into three types: patents for inventions, for utility models and for designs. Utility model patents are often used as one can acquire such patents within six months due to their looser verification process.

"If you only need to apply for a patent [for something you have invented], the price will be 1,970 yuan, but if you need services including purchasing an original invention, that will be 4,070 yuan," said Wang, adding that some agencies charge 10,000 yuan for the full set of services.

"We once had a client who managed to deduct several years from his sentence after getting patents," said Wang.

Wang said that intellectual property agencies must first know the requirements of the prison's patent application process as policies vary in different prisons. These agencies ask the prisons what kind of patents are required for an abatement, what kind of records are necessary to make an application, what kinds of inventions are acceptable and whether or not prisoners are allowed to entrust agencies with applying for their patents.

He also suggested that "one could send some 'gifts' to the staff working in the prison for their help delivering documents to the prisoner."

The employee admitted that previously, utilizing patents to reduce sentences was very popular and useful, but now it is not so easy.

"I had a customer who obtained a patent but failed to get an abatement," said Wang.

Regulation loophole

Although China has a law regarding abatements for criminals who make a great contribution to society while in prison, there is no uniform regulation or detailed information specifying the types of patents that are relevant, the number of years that can be commuted and the application procedure.

For example, the High People's Court of Jiangsu Province released a regulation in 2005 stipulating that a prisoner who has a patent for an invention, two or more patents for utility models or three or more patents for designs could be seen as making a great contribution to society and apply for an abatement of their sentence.

"Inventions can be the basis for courts' decisions regarding commutation. However, the procedure is becoming stricter. The commutation should first require a trial, and the results of this should be made public," Zhou Rongqiang, a judge in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, told the Global Times.

An employee at a Beijing prison said that prisoners can submit an application to the prison if they have an idea. After the prison has approved their idea, it will help them contact intellectual rights agencies to apply for patents, according to China National Radio.

Ye Jianmin, an official at a prison administration department in Ningbo, Zhejiang, said that there have been no such cases in his prison and that the prison has strict procedures governing applications for patents.

The loose management of the patent application process has caused this loophole to be exploited by unscrupulous agencies, violating both these agencies' professional ethics and relevant laws, said Xu.

People who try to reduce their sentences by buying patents are breaking the law and should be punished severely, Xu stressed.

The judicial department should better clarify its definition of a "great contribution" when it is used as the basis for criminal sentence reduction, nationally standardize the span of time that can be taken off sentences and strengthen the supervision of intellectual agencies, he added.