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2/17/2008
08:08 AM
Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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Report From India: Patent Battles Raging Here, Too

One serious concern about offshoring product development work to India, or anywhere, is whether there's sufficient intellectual property protection. Today's Sunday Economic Times here in Mumbia shows patents are a hot issue here, too. The lead story involves a motorcycle company whose managing director describes its strategy as B-to-B: bikes to get the babes.

One serious concern about offshoring product development work to India, or anywhere, is whether there's sufficient intellectual property protection. Today's Sunday Economic Times here in Mumbia shows patents are a hot issue here, too. The lead story involves a motorcycle company whose managing director describes its strategy as B-to-B: bikes to get the babes.In the dispute, an Indian court constrained TVS Motor from making or selling its flashy 125cc Flame motorcycle. Bajaj Auto in 2007 filed suit against TVS, accusing it of violating Bajaj's patent on certain small engine technology. TVS is expected to appeal.

Coincidentally, Bajaj managing director Rajiv Bajaj spoke to the leaders of India's IT industry here Friday, at the annual Nasscom conference, urging them to focus on product differentiation and innovative products to stand out from the crowd. "The most persistent corporate virus is commoditization," Bajaj warned.

Bajaj described Bajaj Auto as a story of leadership lost, and of near failure. Bajaj Auto dominated the lightweight scooter market, just as people stopped buying lightweight scooters in favor of higher-powered motorcycles. Motorcycles are a foundation of Indian transportation. Here on Mumbai's insanely packed streets, it's nothing to see a middle-class man driving a motorcycle, with his child behind him and wife perched sidesaddle at the back.

But when Bajaj went to make its name into motorcycles, it didn't go after the practical family man. "We wanted to make bikes that get you girls, so bikes to babes. B-to-B," he said. "When we brought it to the board, we said it was 'back to basics.'" Aiming upscale, it built bikes priced higher than the international competition in what Bajaj described as an emerging lifestyle segment of the market.

Bajaj's urging to focus on differentiated products rings true in any industry, from software to motorcycles to publishing. It's profoundly difficult to break from the focus on making incremental improvement to successful products. "The enemy of different is better," Bajaj said.

Which brings us back to intellectual property protections in India. I have no idea whether Bajaj or TVS is in the right here, nor a good sense of how effective India's IP protections are. But any temptation to oversimplify the coming challenges into one of U.S. IP holders versus Indian knock-off artists is foolish. The patent law issues ahead will be every bit as complicated, nuanced, and contentious as they continue to be in the U.S.

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