Asking the “Better Questions”: Lessons for the AML … from a Nobel Physics Laureate

fitch_cronin_ting_yang_rabi_photo

Several people have reached out to me in the past few weeks about questionnaires that have been sent out by China’s National Development and Reform Commission, which brought the Qualcomm IP abuse cace, to academics, companies and experts regarding IP abuse in preparation for the drafting of the IP Abuse Guidelines. I understand that some of these responses were due at the end of August, while others may be due mid-September. The guidelines themselves are being prepared by the Antimonopoly Enforcement Agencies (NDRC, MofCOM and SAIC), with NDRC as the coordinator and the additional involvement of SIPO. Due to their interagency drafting process, they will be more authoritative than the IP abuse rules issued by SAIC in April which came into effect August 1.

Hopefully by soliciting information from the right groups, the relevant agencies will collect the information needed. Hopefully as well the group of respondents is broad enough to avoid any selection bias in responses. However good questions drive good policies as much as good answers. Although respondents are free to supplement their responses, I was nonetheless reminded of Nobel Laureate Isidore Rabi’s explanation of his own upbringing: ”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?”’

There are several “good questions” being asked globally today about such issues as antitrust and standards, patent trolls, F/RAND obligations to license, “smallest saleable patent practicing unit” and the standards setting process.  China is certainly an important part of those debates and these questionnaires tend to focus on these concerns and their role in Chinese law.  However, I think some equally interesting questions involve issues specific to China’s stage of IP development.

In the spirit of Izzy Rabi, here are the questions I might ask:

How Much Should China Be Focusing on Harmonizing Its AML Regime with International Practices in Light of Its Current IP and Licensing Environment?

China has long sought to have a more aggressive global antitrust posture which has been at odds with traditional notions that focused on territoriality of patents and judicial sovereignty in dispute resolution.  With the Huawei/InterDigital case, Chinese courts recognized that initiation of a litigation on a standards essential patent in an overseas court (USITC) could constitute a per se abuse of China’s AML law, essentially showing no deference to foreign proceedings or notions of patent territoriality.  Moreover, the Court applied Chinese law, nothwithstanding that the relevant agreements were based on French law.  China-based global antitrust cases are occurring at a time when our legal systems are increasingly interacting, when Chinese judgments are being enforced in the US, when US courts are struggling with delays in obtaining evidence from China, and when Chinese courts are misunderstanding US decisions involving identical fact situations.  Moreover, China persists in aggressive use of pre-AML practices, such as pricing to determine of abuse of dominance, and invalidating of mandatory grant-backs without the benefit of economic analyses.  These are practice that are not typically found in jurisdictions such as the United States.  Despite these nationalistic views of IP and antitrust, China is also seeking to become a major IP and technology consumer and exporter and will increasingly need a more harmonized environment for its own intangible exports.  In short, Chinese regulators may wish to consider how much they wish to continue to create AML and enforcement disciplines that factor into global best practices.

How Much Should A Patent’s Pro-Innovation Effects Outweigh Alleged Anticompetitive Effects?

Chinese officials, like officials in many companies are asking about right “balance” between IP protection and antitrust enforcement.  The questions often assume that some of those balances have not already been established and that new doctrines need to be created.  In the United States our constitution clearly establishes that patents were established for a pro-competitive purpose, namely to “promote the progress of the … useful arts.” The basic notion is simple: this pro-competition process requires a disclosure of information that might otherwise be maintained as confidential, in order to secure a limited right to exclude others from practicing the invention.  Overly aggressive antitrust enforcement can result in a diminution of incentives to disclose and affect global innovation ecosystems.  In short, patent and antitrust doctrines are not necessarily in conflict, and, in fact, help foster competition together.  The starting point of that discussion however is the incentive afforded by the patent system to disclose technology in order to exclude others and ultimately contribute to the public domain of technology when the patent lapses.  As the world’s largest high tech exporter of goods that China in large part did not invent and the country with the largest patent system, China has benefitted enormously from the stability afforded by that patent system.  Rather than seek to minimize IP rights through euphemisms such as “balance” perhaps a better approach would be how to optimize the patent system to foster long term innovation and competition and insure that the competition system supports and does not retard such development.

Is There Sufficient “Use” of IP Rights in China to Justify Aggressive Enforcement Against IP Abuse?

China has long had problems in protecting and enforcing IP, which the Chinese government itself has publicly acknowledged.  Considering the high incidences of infringement and the low rate of utilization of IP, how much an antitrust regulator must take into account the weak IP environment that creates incentives to infringe, in determining whether a patentee is abusing its rights.  In short, can a country strongly support doctrines of IP abuse(滥用) if there is inadequate IP use (用)? Overly aggressive enforcement against “abuse” might in fact delay development of markets for “use.”

Available data suggests that China is a remarkably under-licensed economy – accounting for a lion’s share of high tech production and exports with a limited share of licensing revenue.  China is also a major “exporter” of IP litigation, with many companies reluctant to bring suits in China against Chinese infringers but preferring to bring suits which they believe will afford a more effective process, such as the United States or Germany.  The Chinese government has complained that patents, in particular, are difficult to enforce, due to challenges such as damages being far too low, litigation too time consuming, difficulties in satisfying burdens of proof, etc.

The challenges to foreign licensors are especially acute.  As one commentator noted: ” anti-trust compliance is just one challenge faced by licensors in China; other challenges relate to restrictions on technology imports, under-reporting of royalties, difficulties with audits, dispute resolution and more.” A related questions to this issue is What circumstances exist to suggest that a prospective licensee is engaged in patent hold-out, i.e., refusing to license in good faith which might suspend the licensor’s F/RAND obligation, or when a prospective licensee is using the licensing negotiations to precipitate a Chinese antitrust case  – circumstances which the court appears to be facing in the Vringo/ZTE case.

Other related questions are How Much Should AML Damages Be Proportionate to IP Damages? China is imposing AML damages, as in the Qualcomm case, that are fifty times or more higher than typical patent damage awards (according to http://www.ciela.cn).  Still another question is whether reducing the availability of injunctive relief for SEP’s in China makes sense as in most cases damage awards do not create incentives to license patents, and  injunctive relief is the only meaningful relief for IP infringement due to these low damage standards

How Much Should China’s AML Practices in IP be Governed by the TRIPS Agreement?

I personally believe that a too-often ignored discipline on AML practices involving IP remains the TRIPS Agreement.  Articles 7, 8 and 40 of the TRIPS Agreement discuss abusive licensing practices.  If an AML investigation involves IP licensing practices, the national treatment and most favored nation treatment obligations of TRIPS should also apply.  I believe the enforcement provisions of the TRIPS Agreement also establish certain minimal due process standards, which are further enhanced by China’s commitments at WTO accession. For example,  WTO members bringing IP abuse cases are likely obligated under TRIPS to provide “fair and equitable proceedings” (Art. 41), written and reasoned decisions (Art. 41), decisions based on evidence (Art. 41), judicial review (Art. 41), the right to written notice (Art. 42), the right to independent legal counsel (Art. 42), the obligation to substantiate claims (Art. 42), the means to protect confidential information (Art. 42), and approximate conformity of administrative procedures to civil procedures (Art. 49), amongst others.

How Much Should China Rely on Economic Analysis in Making AML Decisions and/or Explicitly Reject Industrial Planning?

China desperately needs more qualified economists in assisting with policy decisions and actual disputes in both AML and IP matters.   China’s metrics-driven approach to IP and innovation based on criteria such as numbers of domestic service invention patents in key areas, licensing revenue and costs, numbers of global famous brands, plans to develop China’s own products in IP-intensive sectors, Chinese participation in global standards setting bodies, and the subsidies that are often provided for these efforts –  place additional burdens on regulators as antitrust policies could be bent in the direction of state industrial goals to increase licensing revenue, decrease licensing expenses, provide import substitutions, develop local champions, etc.  A hopeful sign in this area would be the additional employment of economic experts by both the enforcement agencies and the courts.

How Much Should China Be Concerned About NPE’s or How Much Should China Be Concerned About Patent Quality?

China’s research entities generally play a more active role in China’s patent environment than in the US. An undue emphasis on “non-practicing entities” as a source of “IP abuse” or litigation abuse could weaken the role of this important sector of the Chinese (and global) research environment. Rather than asking if non-practicing entities are a source of IP abuse, a “better question” might be “should the nature of the patent owner have any bearing of whether the owner is engaged in abusive conduct.” In general, I side with former Chief Judge Rader’s perspective on this issue: the question is not one of the nature of the owner, but the quality of the right. High quality patents should be enforced, no matter the nature of the owner of the right. This question is especially important to China due the higher incidence of research institution and non-service invention patenting.  Moreover, the relatively high damage awards and rate of injunctive relief for unexamined utility model and design patents, suggests that there may continue to be problems with assertions of low quality patents in China.

I hope that NDRC and its sister agencies publish their surveys and the results of the surveys for the public to better understand the nature of the debate and questions being asked. This is a laudable task and I hope the right questions, in addition to the right answers, are being given to Chinese agencies.

These are my personal observations. Please feel free to supplement or correct with information that you have, and feel free to share your thoughts and opinions.

Photo source: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1944/rabi-photo.html

Courtesy Brookhaven National Laboratory. 1980 Laureates Val L. Fitch and James W. Cronin, and 1976 Laureate Samuel C.C. Ting. Sitting (left to right): 1957 Laureate Chen Ning Yang and 1944 Laureate Isidor Isaac Rabi.

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