In China, the business practice of bootlegging is not just confined to DVDs and Louis Vuitton handbags. Foreign architects have discovered that their designs, even their company names, are also attracting copycats. But some are beginning to fight back. In one of the first cases in which the government is allowing a foreign firm to sue a Chinese business, Woodhead International, Australia’s second-largest design firm, filed a lawsuit in Shanghai earlier this year against its former local partner on the basis of “unfair competition.” Very few of these cases ever made it to a Chinese court in the past because foreign companies had limited powers in China.
The firm being sued now, called 5+1 Werkhart International, is led by Liu Li, the former head of Woodhead’s Chinese operations from 1999 to 2005. Woodhead alleges that Liu used its name to win commissions—then diverted these projects to a separate company. The Australian firm says that it learned of the scheme after clients began complaining about poor quality designs and shoddy drawings.