The batik industry has a long history in Malaysia. Beginning with small-scale operations, batik production has developed into a lucrative cottage industry and national enterprise. Batik refers to decorative fabrics containing various colours and patterns. The term ‘batik’ is derived from the Javanese word ‘tick’, meaning to drip or write points. ‘Ambatik’ means to draw, write, paint or drip. Batik patterns can be produced by using a carved block, a screen or a hand stroke.
While Malaysia is not the only country to produce batik in the region, the style and end- product of Malaysian batik differs from other styles in the region. First, hand drawing techniques are utilised by Malaysian batik artists to create paintings on white cloth through the use of chanting. The artist charts patterns with hot wax and then dyes the fabric to suit the pattern. Second, the design, referring to the painted or inlaid decorative patterns of batik, is also different from other foreign batik producers. Two principal motifs are found in Malaysian batik design: the organic and the geometric motif. Malaysian batik is heavily influenced by religious beliefs that discourage the use of animals in the design work; floral and geometric designs are used instead. As a result of the nuances in both production and design, Malaysian batik has gained notoriety due to its distinct nature and unique appearance.
Malaysian batik is popular both domestically and abroad. Batik is the most popular handicraft product among individual buyers in Malaysia, including both residents and tourists. Among corporate buyers, batik is third in popularity, behind pewter and wood craft products. Continuous governmental efforts to promote batik production are primarily undertaken by the Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation (Malaysian Handicraft), a statutory corporation established in 1979 to promote the marketing and export of handicraft products (Acts 222, S.7). The effort has resulted in overseas outlets, such as Harrods of London, displaying and selling Malaysian batik, regarded as both aesthetically appealing and luxurious when worn by overseas consumers. The increasing popularity of the Malaysian batik in recent years, however, has had consequences for the domestic batik industry of Malaysia.
In Malaysia there are more than 320 batik entrepreneurs registered with Malaysian Handicraft, with the highest concentrations of batik producers located in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu where Batik was first introduced in 1910. The successful promotion of Malaysian batik, due to its unique features, has led to foreign production of batik that imitates Malaysian batik. Infringement upon the designs and production means of Malaysian batik by foreign batik producers has effects on the incomes of local batik producers and the national economy (Malaysian Handicraft, 2009). Foreign producers, such as batik factories in China, started to produce batik print that mimicked the pattern of Kelantan’s batik. Batik cloth from China, which is generally made of polyester, allegedly causes losses of about RM3 million per year to 200 batik operators (Malaysian Handicraft). The batik industry in Malaysia is declining as foreign batik is offered at a lower price than the price of Malaysian batik. The principal reason for the price difference is that foreign batik producers use printing presses to produce the design on the fabric. This allows for the production of large quantities of imitation Malaysian batik in a short time when compared to hand-painted batik produced locally.
As a result, the Malaysian batik industry faces two distinct challenges. First, local batik producers have to compete with foreign batik producers in order to ensure the domestic industry succeed. Second, and of principal interest, Malaysian batik producers are faced with the new challenge of protecting their traditional designs and production techniques. The present article analyses how existing Malaysian intellectual property law may be used to help local entrepreneurs protect the traditional Malaysian batik industry, as well as their investments.