News stories about Sany, one of the most outward looking of Chinese firms, both support my view, and suggest a different alternative. On one hand, the first appearance, at CTT in Moscow, of the new cranes born of their joint venture with Palfinger point to the benefits of partnership. On the other, Manitowoc’s complaints of patent breaches in the USA, and attempts to have the new SCC 8500 banned from the country point to a future of long and ugly courtroom battles.

The strict regulation and tight rental rates that crane users operate under drive demand towards highly optimised cranes. Developing cranes at this level requires years of work, and tens of millions of dollars. Marketing and engineering staff capable of identifying and implementing sellable inventions in this niche market are few and far between. Those companies who’ve made the necessary investment to develop new products must be allowed to see benefits from their sales.

I am not qualified to comment on this sort of case: at a glance, I can see a similarity in the concept, but differences in its implementation. Whether that amounts to patent infringement or a breach of trade secrets is far beyond my competence to comment. Given the vigorous position both companies have taken, I expect it will take a long series of courtroom battles for the question to be settled.

That would, I think, be a tragedy in itself for the industry. One only has to look at the battles in the smartphone sector, between the likes of Apple and Samsung, to see the debilitating effect patent battles have on companies’ wallets and reputations. It looks like this may be a conflict that is unavoidable. Other staff of Western companies have expressed to me the belief that their cranes have been copied. If Manitowoc’s claim is successful, other manufacturers may follow suit.

Now, Chinese companies may find that they have to prove in the courts that their top-of-the-range cranes are truly their own inventions, as well as proving in the market that they are safe, efficient, and well supported, as Western companies seek to exclude them from developed markets. I would expect that if that happens, Chinese companies and the country’s government would wish to retaliate with their own blocks to imports.

Will North Editor