Deconstructing the State Council’s Opinion on Building a Strong IP Nation

Statecouncilwordcloud [1239891]

The State Council has been publishing several opinions over the past few years in order to guide China’s efforts to become an innovative economy.  These include an opinion on cloud computing (Feb. 2015),   structural reform to encourage innovation,  innovation and entrepreneurship education (May 2015), on  and on “Internet Plus” (July 2015), amongst other areas.   Now, in 32 articles, the State Council has published its “Opinion of the State Council on Accelerating the Building of a Strong Intellectual Property Nation under New Conditions” (promulgated Dec. 22, 2015) (国务院关于新形势下加快 知识产权强国建设的若干意, 国发〔2015〕71号) (the “Opinion”).

The wordcloud of the Opinion, posted above gives us some idea its themes.  The Opinion furthers the goals of the National IP Strategy, and promises, by 2020, to achieve “decisive results” in important intellectual property reforms.  Its six broad topics include: reforming the IP management system, implementing strict protection of IP, promoting IP creation and utilization, strengthening planning for key industries in their overseas profile and controlling risks, improving the level of international IP cooperation, and strengthening organizing implementation and policy guarantees. However, this summary does not do justice to some of the interesting policy questions it poses that are suggested by a close reading of the text.

Let me give you a taste:

Trade Secrets – A New Law or A Reform to the Antiunfair Competition Law?: The Opinion notes that China plans to “promote completion of trade secret law and regulations, increase trade secret protection in talent migration and technology cooperation.” Oddly, the Opinion doesn’t discuss reforming China’s Antiunfair Competition Law, but appears to favor a stand alone trade secret law.

Is accession to UPOV ’91 Not in the Works? Is new legislation on designs possible?: The Opinion notes that China will “perfect new plant varieties and genetic resources and related traditional knowledge, database protection, and national defense intellectual property related legal systems.  Geographical indications will be legislated in due course.  Research to improve the intellectual property protection system business model and the applied art design patent protection system.”  The lack of reference to accession to UPOV ’91 (for plant variety protection) is concerning, as other parts of the Opinion reference accession to the Hague and Marrakesh treaties (for industrial designs and copyright exceptions, respectively).

Changes in the Tax Law to More Directly Subsidize R&D?: The Opinion notes that China will “implement a research and development expenses tax deduction policy.” Does this suggest that other programs, such as the tax deduction afforded for High and New Technology Enterprises will be phased out?   The Opinion also notes that strategies are also being developed to reduce patent application fees and maintenance costs.

Promoting China’s Technology Exports, but No Focus on Improving the Environment for Technology Imports: The Opinion also separately talks about promoting IP licensing overseas, including supporting model contracts and guidelines, but makes no mention on how to improve the environment for imported technology, which has been the focus of several recent engagements.

Promoting the Development of IP Intensive Industries, Including Preferential Procurement Policies?:  The Opinions notes that China will accelerate support for government procurement programs for products from IP intensive industries.  This language could raise concerns about discriminatory government procurement programs, although there is no detail.

Improving Punitive Damages, Judicial Protection, and International Criminal Justice Cooperation: The Opinion underscores a continued commitment to increasing damages, underscoring the “leading role” of the courts in IP protection and calls for increased international criminal justice cooperation.  Could this be read to suggest that the State Council is not in favor of increased administrative enforcement for patents, as is currently being proposed in the patent law reform?

Improving IP Prosecution Systems: The Opinion calls for continued improvements in electronic filing including support for patent prosecution highway programs.

Improving Regulations for IP Abuse, and Addressing the Challenges of F/RAND Licensing – But Also to Include Consideration for Handling Infringement?  The Opinion calls for improving the regulation of IP abuse and the development of enforcement guidelines.  It also calls for improving the licensing policy for Standards Essential Patents, and “practical rules for stopping infringement.” 完善标准必要专利的公平、合理、无歧视许可政策和停止侵权适用规则。 These practical rules will presumably address the controversial issue of the availability of injunctions for patents encumbered by F/RAND licensing obligations.  However, the recognition that the failure of a prospective licensee to take a license could constitute infringement, rather than an abuse of injunctive relief as was suggested by NDRC in its draft IPR abuse guidelines and suggests that a more holistic approach could be in the works.

This is an important policy-oriented document that encompassing a wide range of domestic and global IP issues.  Does the omission or inclusion of individual terms suggest as much as I have inferred in this blog?  Only time will tell.   Until we know more, I welcome readers’ feedback and impressions.

Beijing Higher People’s Court Recognises “Merchandising Rights” as Tool to Fight Bad-faith Applications

Authored by Mr. Zhao Kefeng ( and Mr. Han Jinwen ( at Anjie Law Firm, first published November 3, 2015 and reprinted by permission.

In a recent trademark opposition case involving the famous film Kung Fu Panda , the Beijing  Higher  People’s Court  has confirmed that DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc had prior “merchandising rights”  in the name  of the film and refused to register  the trademark KUNG  FU PANDA.  DreamWorks’ success highlighted the possibility of using merchandising rights to block bad-faith trademark applications in China.
This case is a typical example of pirated trademarks and the facts were simple. A Chinese individual applied for the registration of the trademark KUNG FU PANDA for “car steering wheel covers” in Class 12. DreamWorks filed an opposition against the application as producer of the film Kung Fu Panda. The main ground for the opposition was that the trademark infringed its prior “merchandising rights”.
DreamWorks’ success did not come easily. In the opposition and following appeals, the China Trademark Office, the Trademark Review and Adjudication Board and the Beijing Number 1 Intermediate People’s Court all decided that “merchandising rights” were not among the “legitimate rights” pursuant to the Chinese laws and did not uphold the opposition.
However the Beijing Higher People’s Court disagreed. The court held that the name of a movie or movie character with a high reputation shall benefit from “merchandising rights” if the following conditions are met:
1. the relevant public identifies the name of the movie or character with a particular business entity;  and
2.   the business entity may derive  additional commercial value  or business opportunities from such identification/affiliation.
The judgment also specified essential factors when determining the scope of protection of Merchandising rights: fame and the likelihood of confusion. It was suggested that the courts should evaluate whether the registration and use of the pirated trademark on the designated goods  or services may cause damage  to the real rights owner by taking away trading opportunities.
The judgment is significant as it is the first time that “merchandising rights” have officially been recognized as a type of “prior rights” that can be used to block bad-faith trademark applications. Article 32 of China’s Trademark Law stipulates that a trademark should not infringe any prior rights owned by a third party. The current practice recognizes that “prior rights” include trade names copyright, design patents and the names of famous persons, but merchandising rights had never been  included – until now.
In fact, the Kung Fu Panda case is not the first case in which an IP rights owner has fought for the recognition of merchandising rights.  In an earlier similar opposition case against the trademark 驯龙高手 (‘how to train your dragon’ in Chinese) the Beijing Number 1 Intermediate People’s Court  upheld the opposition by confirming that DreamWorks had “legal interests” in the movie  name, but insisted that “merchandising rights” were not “prior rights” for the purpose of Article  32. In 2011, in a cancellation action against the trademark CRAYON SHIN-CHAN, the Beijing Higher People’s Court confirmed the cancellation of the mark on the grounds of bad faith, without any comments on merchandising rights.  In other earlier cases, the Chinese courts had ruled against infringers who had copied the name of a movie or movie character on the grounds of “unfair competition”.
There is no doubt that the present case is a welcome development in the battle against pirated trademarks. The judgment means that rights owners have an additional weapon to crack down on trademarks that copy or imitate the names of famous movies, characters, actors or songs.
What is interesting, though, is that the case itself is still being debated in China.  After the judgment was published, some scholars questioned whether judges were in fact “making” the law, because “merchandising rights” have not been  recognized by the Chinese  laws. The debate is likely to continue for a while, and IP owners should  keep monitoring the issue.

A Pair of Experiments in the Beijing IP Court


Back in 2012, I noted that “[t]he Chinese civil judiciary is pursuing reform and gaining experience, as Deng Xiaoping noted, by crossing the river by feeling the stones. A disproportionate part of that judicial experience is also being gained from the relatively small numbers of IP cases in the Chinese courts.” One notable and welcome source of those reforms is the new Beijing IP court, which is also serving as a base for experimenting in the development of a system of case law with Chinese characteristics.  I believe that the most notable development in Chinese IP in 2015 has been the role the courts are playing in judicial reform generally.  I have been privileged to hear Chief Judge Su Chi and his team from this court speak several times since his court was established, and have never failed to be impressed by their depth of knowledge and passion for judging.

There have been two notable year-end developments by the Beijing IP court.  One case involved the use of en banc decisions to invalidate a trademark normative document.  In this case the IP Court made an en banc decision to implement Article 21 of the SPC’s Interpretation on Practical Questions regarding the Administrative Litigation law of the PRC中华人民共和国行政诉讼法〉若干问题的解释 (April 28, 2015) (the JI). Article 21 of the JI provides that “When normative documents are not in accordance with law, the People’s Court shall not use it as proof that the administrative action has a legal basis, and shall explain this in the reasoning of its decision.  The People’s Court’s decision shall make recommendations on disposition of the normative document to the enacting agency, which can be copied to the government organs at the same level of the enacting agency, or to one government level higher.” (规范性文件不合法的,人民法院不作为认定行政行为合法的依据,并在裁判理由中予以阐明。作出生效裁判的人民法院应当向规范性文件的制定机关提出处理建议,并可以抄送制定机关的同级人民政府或者上一级行政机关。)

The other case, no less dramatic, involves what may be the publication of a dissenting period. Both of these developments occurred this month (December 2015).

The case arising under Article 21 of the SPC Interpretation involved an interpretation of the State Administration of Industry and Commerce regarding what constitutes a “day” for purposes of implementing a change in trademark classifications.  The IP Court found that the notice’s definition of a “day from a 24 hour period to a month exceeded the scope of power to explain the law, ruling in favor of plaintiff who claimed to have filed its trademark in advance of two other parties who filed one week and three weeks after plaintiffs filing.

When this case was heard in September, Chinese media talked about this as the first effort to “break the ice” by a Chinese court to invalidate administrative “红头文件” – red letterhead documents, i.e., normative documents of the type referenced in the JI.    The court reportedly also experimented in using live testimony and cross-examination in an atypical debate-style process. The pleadings were also entered into as part of the opinion after the party’s signatures confirmation. The decision does not yet appear to be on line, but a summary is attached  here (in Chinese).

Another procedurally significant decision involved the appearance of dissenting opinions in IP cases. Here again, the Beijing IP court is a trail and trial blazer in this recent experiment. The case involved Ernest Borel (Far East) Co. Ltd. and China’s Trademark Review and Adjudication Board. There were different opinions by the court on proof of copyright in the logo of Ernest Borel, including use of the original trademark registration and a subsequent copyright registration to prove that the design belonged to Ernest Borel. The minority opinion supported using these two registrations as a proof of copyright ownership.  Ernest Borel was attempting to prove that it owned the copyright in a logo that was being used by a Shenzhen company in its trademark registration (深圳市依波路保健科技有限公司).

Two notable experiments by an experimental court!

Note that the logo at the top of this article is a logo of Ernest Borel that I found online if for illustrative purposes only.  It does not imply any endorsement of the positions here by Ernest Borel.  It may not also be the trademark that is the subject of the pending case.  Any trademarks and copyrights are the property of their respective owners.