And Finally

Patently ridiculous

To cut jail time, inmates are becoming inventors

Vice president of China Football Association Nan poses next to World Cup trophy on display in Beijing

Nan: reinventing himself in jail

Time off for good behaviour is a commonly used phrase in American and European prison systems – indicating that an inmate’s jail time can be reduced should they behave impeccably. In China, it turns out, there is another way to get out of jail early. ‘Time off for inventive behaviour’ doesn’t have quite the same ring about it, but it’s a viable strategy.

Take Nan Yong, jailed for 10 years in 2012 for behaving corruptly in his former role as vice-chairman of the Chinese Football Association. Last month prison authorities reduced his sentence by a year. The reason? Nan had invented four football training devices (including pop-up goal posts) and had them patented by Chinese authorities.

Nan is by no means the first to spend his time in the nick inventing stuff. Liang Jianxing, the former head of Fenghua city’s health bureau (likewise jailed for corruption), came up with 11 patented inventions between 2008 and last year. Liang’s innovations included an eye massager and a disposable anti-PM2.5 nasal cover, and these earned him a sentence reduction of a year and a quarter, China Daily reported.

Is there a legal basis for this? There is: article 78 of the country’s Criminal Law specifies that prisoners who have performed “major meritorious services” can have their sentences commuted. Among the services in this category are “major technological inventions or creations and innovation”.

Beijing Youth Daily wonders whether this system is open to abuse. It found websites that specialise in commuting sentences. One such Shaanxi-based ‘intellectual property agency’ was contacted and asked if it could help with a patent to reduce the jail time of a relative. The agency’s executive said he would need to know more about the individual’s educational background. That way it could evaluate what sort of innovation the relative would plausibly be capable of. He added that a lot of Shaanxi’s businesspeople had already started the two-year patent process in anticipation of being jailed. “The sooner it is prepared, the better,” he advised.

Another agency contacted by the newspaper said that if all that was required by the prison was proof of a patent, it could contact someone with one to sell and agree a transfer. But if the prison required the individual to actually develop something, it could provide “a full range of design services”. Help filing patents can cost over Rmb60,000 ($9,700) but if the patent is merely of the ‘utility’ variety – i.e. improving on an existing product – the price is much lower. However, the agencies counselled that jailbirds would need a lot more of these lesser patents to get a meaningful sentence reduction.

Then again, the exact process for determining how different inventions would reduce sentences (and by how long) remains an enigma. Beijing Youth Daily said that neither the prisons nor the relevant government departments would give it a clear response.

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