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In IPO Filing, Alibaba Seems Ready to Address Its History of Widescale IP Violations

May 6, 2014

China’s Alibaba, one of the world’s biggest web marketplaces, is going public, and its initial public offering (IPO) filed May 6 raises a host of intellectual property issues in its history that need to be remedied in order for the company to gain the trust of investors and IP owners and to avoid hard scrutiny from U.S. regulators.

China itself, which became a member of the World Trade Organization on December 11, 2001, has for many years been a troublesome haven for intellectual property rights (IPR) violations that have caused harm to the United States and its trade partners. In its 2013 Report to Congress on China’s WTO Compliance, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) stated that China remains a “significant challenge.” The report continued, explaining that, despite repeated anti-piracy campaigns in China and a growing number of civil IPR cases in Chinese courts, “counterfeiting and piracy remain at unacceptably high levels and continue to cause serious harm to U.S. businesses across many sectors of the economy. Indeed, in a study released in 2011, the U.S. International Trade Commission estimated that U.S. businesses suffered a total of $48 billion in lost sales, royalties and license fees due to IPR infringement in China in 2009 – a figure that is more than two-thirds the value of the $69 billion in U.S. goods exported to China in the same year. The reported experiences of U.S. businesses on many fronts suggest that losses continue on a grand scale.”

Facing History of Piracy and Counterfeiting With a Plan to Move Forward.

In its filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Alibaba recognized that it must confront its past IP issues and take strong action to prevent IP infringement. In several passages, Alibaba addressed these issues directly, and it connected recognition of IP rights with building a more trusted marketplace, fairer trade relationships, a better business model, and more effective safeguards against terrorism.

Alibaba’s SEC filing in part stated:

We may be subject to allegations and lawsuits claiming that items listed on our marketplaces are pirated, counterfeit or illegal.

We have received in the past, and we anticipate we will receive in the future, communications alleging that items offered or sold through our online marketplaces by third parties or that we make available through other services, such as our online music platform, infringe third-party copyrights, trademarks and patents or other intellectual property rights. Although we have adopted measures to verify the authenticity of products sold on our marketplaces and minimize potential infringement of third-party intellectual property rights through our intellectual property infringement complaint and take-down procedures, these measures may not always be successful. We may be subject to allegations of civil or criminal liability for unlawful activities carried out by third parties through our online marketplaces. When we receive complaints or allegations regarding infringement or counterfeit goods, we follow certain procedures to verify the nature of the complaint and the relevant facts. We believe these procedures are important to ensure confidence in our marketplace among buyers and sellers; however, these procedures could result in delays in delistings of allegedly infringing product listings. In the event that alleged counterfeit or infringing products are listed or sold on our marketplaces or our other services, we could face claims for such listings, sales or alleged infringement or for our failure to act in a timely or effective manner to restrict or limit such sales or infringement. We may implement further measures in an effort to protect against these potential liabilities that could require us to spend substantial additional resources and/or experience reduced revenues by discontinuing certain service offerings. In addition, these changes may reduce the attractiveness of our marketplaces and other services to buyers, sellers or other users. A customer whose content is removed or services are suspended or terminated by us, regardless of our compliance with the applicable laws, rules and regulations, may dispute our actions and commence action against us for damages based on breach of contract or other causes of action or make public complaints or allegations. Any costs incurred as a result of liability or asserted liability relating to the sale of unlawful goods or other infringement could harm our business. Moreover, we have in the past received negative publicity regarding the sales of counterfeit and pirated items on our marketplaces. In 2008, 2009 and 2010,, and in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, Taobao Marketplace, were named as “notorious markets” in the annual Special 301 Report or Special 301 Out-of-Cycle Review prepared by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The U.S. Trade Representative subsequently removed these marketplaces from the list. Continued public perception that counterfeit or pirated items are commonplace on our marketplaces or perceived delays in our removal of these items, even if factually incorrect, could damage our reputation, result in lower list prices for goods sold through our marketplaces, harm our business, result in regulatory pressure or action against us and diminish the value of our brand name.

Failure to deal effectively with any fraud perpetrated and fictitious transactions conducted on our marketplaces and other sources of customer dissatisfaction would harm our business.

We face risks with respect to fraudulent activities on our marketplaces and periodically receive complaints from buyers who may not have received the goods that they had purchased, as well as complaints from sellers who have not received payment for the goods that a buyer had contracted to purchase. Although we have implemented various measures to detect and reduce the occurrence of fraudulent activities on our marketplaces, there can be no assurance that such measures will be effective in combating fraudulent transactions or improving overall satisfaction among our sellers, buyers and other participants. Additional measures that we take to address fraud could also negatively affect the attractiveness of our marketplaces to buyers or sellers. In addition, sellers on our marketplaces contribute to a fund to provide consumer protection guarantees. If our sellers do not perform their obligations under these programs, then we may use funds that have been deposited by sellers in a consumer protection fund to compensate buyers. If the amounts in the fund are not sufficient, we may choose to compensate buyers for such losses although we are not legally obligated to do so. Although we have recourse against our sellers for any amounts we incur, there is no assurance that we would be able to collect from our sellers.

In addition to fraudulent transactions with legitimate buyers, sellers may also engage in fictitious or “phantom” transactions with themselves or collaborators in order to artificially inflate their own ratings on our marketplaces, reputation and search results rankings. This activity may harm other sellers by enabling the perpetrating seller to be favored over legitimate sellers, and may harm buyers by deceiving them into believing that a seller is more reliable or trusted than the seller actually is.

Moreover, illegal, fraudulent or collusive activities by our employees could also subject us to liability or negative publicity. For instance, we learned that in early 2011 and 2012 in two separate incidents, certain of our employees had accepted payments from sellers in order to receive preferential treatment on and Juhuasuan. Although we dismissed the employees responsible for the incidents and have taken action to further strengthen our internal controls and policies with regard to the review and approval of seller accounts, sales activities and other relevant matters, we cannot assure you that such controls and policies will prevent fraud or illegal activity by our employees or that similar such incidents will not occur in the future. Any such illegal, fraudulent or collusive activity could severely damage our brand and reputation as an operator of trusted marketplaces, which could drive users and buyers away from our marketplaces, and materially and adversely affect GMV transacted on our marketplaces, our revenues and our net income.

Negative publicity and user sentiment generated as a result of actual or alleged fraudulent or deceptive conduct on our platform or by our employees could severely diminish consumer confidence in and use of our services, reduce our ability to attract new or retain current sellers, buyers and other participants, damage our reputation and diminish the value of our brand names, and materially and adversely affect our business, financial condition and results of operations.

We may increasingly become a target for public scrutiny, including complaints to regulatory agencies, negative media coverage, including social media and malicious reports, all of which could severely damage our reputation and materially and adversely affect our business and prospects.

We process millions of transactions on a daily basis on our marketplaces, and the high volume of transactions taking place on our marketplaces creates the possibility of heightened attention from the public, the media and our participants. For example, we receive complaints from our sellers, buyers and other participants about our marketplaces. In addition, changes in our services or policies have resulted and could result in objections by members of the public, the media, including social media, participants in our ecosystem or others. From time to time, these objections or allegations, regardless of their veracity, may result in public protests or negative publicity, which could result in government inquiry or harm our reputation. Corporate transactions we or related parties undertake may also subject us to increased media exposure and public scrutiny. There is no assurance that we would not become a target for public scrutiny in the future or such scrutiny and public exposure would not severely damage our reputation as well as our business and prospects.

In addition, our directors and management have been, and continue to be, subject to scrutiny by the media and the public regarding their activities at and outside Alibaba Group, which may result in unverified, inaccurate or misleading information about them being reported by the press. Negative publicity about our executive chairman or other founders, directors or management, even if untrue or inaccurate, may harm our reputation.

We and Alipay are subject to regulation, and future regulations may impose additional requirements and other obligations on our business or otherwise that could materially and adversely affect our business, financial condition and results of operations.

The industries in which we and Alipay operate in the PRC, including online and mobile commerce and payments, financial services and cloud computing, are highly regulated. The PRC government authorities are likely to continue to issue new laws, rules and regulations governing these industries and require new and additional licenses, permits and approvals from us and our users. These laws, rules and regulations could take a direction that is adverse to our or Alipay’s business at any time. In addition, there is no assurance that any required licenses, permits and approvals could be obtained in a timely or cost-effective manner, and failure to obtain them could have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition and results of operations. Changes in regulatory enforcement as well as tax policy in the PRC could also result in additional compliance obligations and increased costs or place restrictions upon our current or future operations. Any such legislation or regulation could also severely disrupt and constrain our business and the payment services used on our marketplaces.

Transactions conducted through our cross-border marketplaces may be subject to different customs and import/export rules and regulations. These rules and regulations are complex, and customs and tax authorities in the relevant jurisdictions may challenge our interpretation of applicable customs and import/export rules relating to product shipments under their respective customs and import/export laws and treaties. In addition, we will also face the challenge of complying concurrently with the compliance rules and regulations of multiple jurisdictions, and such rules or regulations could conflict or interact with each other in complex ways.

We have from time to time been subject to PRC and other foreign government inquiries and investigations, including those relating to website content and alleged third-party intellectual property infringement. We also face scrutiny, and have been subject to inquiries and investigations, from foreign governmental bodies that focus on cross-border trade, intellectual property protection, human rights and user privacy matters. None of these inquiries and investigations has resulted in significant restrictions on our business operations. However, as we continue to grow in scale and significance, we expect to face increased scrutiny, which will, at a minimum, result in our having to increase our investment in compliance and related capabilities and systems. The increasing sophistication and development of our user base will also increase the need for higher standards of user protection, privacy protection and dispute management. Any increased involvement in inquiries or investigations could result in significantly higher legal and other costs, diversion of management and other resources, as well as negative publicity, which could harm our business and reputation and materially reduce our revenue and net income.

Alipay, which provides the substantial majority of the payment processing services on our marketplaces, is subject to various laws, rules and regulations in the PRC and other countries where it operates, including those governing banking, privacy, cross-border and domestic money transmission, anti-money laundering, counter-terrorist financing and consumer protection laws, rules and regulations. These laws, rules and regulations are highly complex and could change or be reinterpreted to make it difficult or impossible for Alipay to comply. In recent years, the PRC government has increasingly focused on regulation of the financial industry, including laws, rules and regulations relating to the provision of payment services. See “— We rely on Alipay to conduct substantially all of the payment processing and escrow services on our marketplaces. Alipay’s business is highly regulated, and it is also subject to a range of risks. If Alipay’s services are limited, restricted, curtailed or degraded in any way or become unavailable to us for any reason, our business may be materially and adversely affected.” In addition, Alipay is required to maintain a payment business license in the PRC and other applicable money transmitter or other licenses and approvals from regulatory authorities in other jurisdictions in which it operates, and the expansion by Alipay of its business may require additional licenses and approvals. Currently, in certain jurisdictions where Alipay does not have the required money transmitter or other licenses, Alipay provides payment processing and escrow services through third-party service providers. If these providers were to terminate their relationship with Alipay or otherwise cease providing services to Alipay, cross-border transactions on our marketplaces would be negatively affected. If Alipay fails to obtain and maintain all required licenses and approvals or otherwise fails to comply with applicable laws, rules and regulations, if new laws, rules or regulations come into effect that impact Alipay’s business, its services could be suspended or severely disrupted, and our business, financial condition and results of operations would be materially and adversely affected.

We may be accused of infringing intellectual property rights of third parties and content restrictions of relevant laws.

Third parties may claim that the technology used in the operation of our platforms or our service offerings, including our cloud computing services, infringes upon their intellectual property rights. Although we have not in the past faced material litigation involving direct claims of infringement by us, the possibility of intellectual property claims against us increases as we continue to grow, particularly internationally. Such claims, whether or not having merit, may result in our expenditure of significant financial and management resources, injunctions against us or payment of damages. We may need to obtain licenses from third parties who allege that we have infringed their rights, but such licenses may not be available on terms acceptable to us or at all. These risks have been amplified by the increase in third parties whose sole or primary business is to assert such claims.

China has enacted laws and regulations governing Internet access and the distribution of products, services, news, information, audio-video programs and other content through the Internet. The PRC government has prohibited the distribution of information through the Internet that it deems to be in violation of PRC laws and regulations. If any of the information disseminated through our marketplaces and websites were deemed by the PRC government to violate any content restrictions, we would not be able to continue to display such content and could become subject to penalties, including confiscation of income, fines, suspension of business and revocation of required licenses, which could materially and adversely affect our business, financial condition and results of operations.

The outcome of any claims, investigations and proceedings is inherently uncertain, and in any event defending against these claims could be both costly and time-consuming, and could significantly divert the efforts and resources of our management and other personnel. An adverse determination in any such litigation or proceedings could cause us to pay damages, as well as legal and other costs, limit our ability to conduct business or require us to change the manner in which we operate.


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