A Data Download on Semiconductor Patent Litigation in China

Because of its strategic importance to both the United States and China, the IC sector is a useful example of how Chinese policies and plans may – or may not – be influencing the Chinese government in the protection of foreign-owned IP.

A useful starting point for evaluating the challenges in IC IP protection in China is the data collected from China’s court cases.  IP House has conducted a heretofore unpublished and useful study of all semiconductor-related patent disputes in its database, attached here (in Chinese).  The data shows that there have been 166 first instance civil patent infringements IP judgments with the word “chip” (芯片), and 86 second instance cases.    There have also been 142 first instance administrative decisions, typically involving validity matters, and ninety second instance decisions. 52.91% of the first instance cases involved invention patents, 10.31% involved utility model patents and 36.77% involved design patents.

Regarding civil cases, 39 were heard in Zhejiang, 35 in Guangdong, 27 in Beijing, 21 in Jiangsu and 11 in Shanghai.  Every other jurisdiction had fewer than five cases, and no cases were reported for Fujian Province.

The data suggest a comparatively low “success” rate for plaintiffs in semiconductor patent disputes.   Amongst the 183 reported judgments, only 51 cases were fully or partially successful — a 38.34% success rate.  This compared to an overall success rate of about 80% for litigants in patent cases in 2014 in China, as reported by Bian Renjun at Berkeley. Cases were not reversed to a significant degree on appeal; 60 out of 70 cases supported the original decision of the first instance court.  Amongst the “top 10 “ courts in terms of litigation volume, the success rate for semiconductor patent plaintiffs varied dramatically.   Guangdong had the highest success rate (60%), followed by Beijing (43.75%), Zhejiang (23.08%) and Jiangsu (19.05%).  76 of 77 successful litigants obtained an injunction to stop infringement; one litigant did not request an injunction.

Regarding administrative reviews, 117 out of 140 cases involved affirming the original administrative decision, an “affirmance rate” of 83.57 percent.  Eighty one out of ninety cases were affirmed on appeal.

The United States was the principal foreign civil litigant, with seven cases, followed by the British Virgin Islands and the Netherlands, each with two cases.  The United States was the principal first instance administrative plaintiff challenging SIPO’s decisions, with 30 cases, followed by Japan (5), Netherlands (3) and several countries with only one civil case (France, Germany, Cayman Islands, Korea,   Singapore and Israel).

I draw the following tentative conclusions from this data:

  1. Success rates for semiconductor cases vary dramatically by jurisdiction in China. My guess is that the Guangdong courts, which have the highest success rates, have greater expertise in both semiconductor patent litigation and patent litigation overall, which may make them more “expert” on these matters. Due to variations in success rates amongst jurisdictions, the semiconductor sector is a useful example of why China needs a national appellate IP court.
  2. No matter what major court one looks to, success rates for these cases are lower than the average for other types of patent litigation. This may suggest either a lack of familiarity with the technology or an unduly skeptical view of the courts regarding semiconductor patent assertions at this time. Considering that the vast majority of the cases do not involve foreigners, the low success rate primarily affects Chinese litigants.
  3. Foreigners, and especially Americans, use the courts primarily to litigate patent validity matters. There were 4.5 times more administrative semiconductor patent cases brought by Americans compared to infringement cases. Overall foreigners brought four times more validity cases compared to infringement cases in this area.  This means that the Beijing IP Court, which hears all validity disputes, plays a key role for foreigners on semiconductor patent matters.  Semiconductor patent cases also follow the general pattern where foreigners are disproportionately willing to challenge SIPO in court, but are less willing to bring infringement cases to final adjudication.
  4. Utility model and design patents are frequently asserted in patent disputes in China and may have value to foreign companies needing to protect their IP in this important market.
  5. The Fujian courts do not appear in this IP House report. However, Fujian has already heard one high profile case (AMEC v Veeco), which was settled and does not appear to be publicly available at this time. The second high profile case, involves Micron Technologies, and is currently on-going.

I hope to blog further about the AMEC cases in the United States and China in a subsequent posting.

 

Towards a Better Understanding of “Forced Technology Transfer” Policies in China and Their Strategic Implications

In August 2017, President Trump issued an executive order setting in motion an investigation of China’s trade policies including IP, technology transfer, and investment policies. The “Section 301” report on this investigation came out earlier this year. The Report itself uses the word “force” or “forced” 47 times and identifies a range of practices that result in “forced technology transfer.” However, there is a significant amount we still do not know regarding how these controversial Chinese policies actually work and the degree to which a technology owner’s behavior has in fact been compelled by state actors. A new paper by Dan Prud’homme, Max von Zedtwitz, Joachim Jan Thraen, and Martin Bader published in Technological Forecasting & Social Change explores this important issue.

The authors evaluate the ability of “forced technology transfer” (FTT) policies – which they define as policies meant to increase foreign-domestic technology transfer that simultaneously weaken appropriability of foreign innovations – to contribute to technology transfer. They draw on a survey of foreign firms, interviews with foreign firms, and case studies of Chinese firms.

The authors identify three categories of FTT policies that have significantly impacted foreign-Sino technology transfer in recent years:

(1) Policies which risk market loss (including market access preconditioned on meeting technology transfer requirements),

(2)  Policies that offer no choice regarding compliance (including unfair court rulings in IP civil litigation), and

(3) Policies that are based on legal obligations (including provisions in the technology import-export regulations; and certain policies related to the intersection of anti-trust and IP, and IP and technical standards).

Several other controversial policies were also identified, including disclosure of confidential business information through regulatory approvals, pharma patent issues, and certain tax schemes and subsidies.

The authors find that, with the exception of no-choice policies, foreign firms are allowed some flexibility to decide whether or not they want to comply with China’s FTT policies. Therefore, even though non-compliance with the policies is always met with consequences, the technology is not actually “forced” against a party’s will. After noting this limitation of the term, the authors explain that they retain the term “FTT policies” in their research for readability and because it is part of well-established lingo, but only use it to the extent that it meets their aforementioned definition.

Much of the research focuses on foreign-Sino transfer of frontier technology, i.e. the most advanced technology emerging from research and development which is generally not at the point of mass commercial adoption. According to the authors, not only the design of FTT policies per se helps determine if they exert substantial leverage over (i.e., force) frontier technology transfer, but the environment in which they are deployed is equally important. The authors find that FTT policies appear to exert the most leverage over frontier technology transfer when accompanied by seven conditions: (1) strong state support for industrial growth; (2) oligopoly competition; (3) other policies closely complementing FTT policies; (4) high technological uncertainty; (5) policy mode of operation offering basic appropriability and tailored to industrial  structure; (6) reform avoidance by the state, and (7) stringent policy compliance mechanisms.

Based on each of these conditions, the authors developed an FTT Strategy & Risk Forecasting Matrix with corresponding strategies the state may adopt to fully exploit, i.e. maximize the leverage of, FTT policies.

The authors’ analysis has several possible implications for technology transfer policymaking. In the authors’ view, Chinese FTT policies may enable domestic acquisition of frontier foreign technology if all seven conditions determining policy leverage are fully exploited by the state. However, if the state does not fully exploit all seven conditions, the FTT policies have less leverage. Moreover, if the state exploits none or only a few of the conditions, the FTT policies may result in a lose-lose game where foreign firms are discouraged from transferring valuable technology and domestic firms’ acquisition of new technology is made more difficult.

With this analysis, the authors provide evidence that can be used to appeal to the Chinese authorities to change some of their FTT policies: some of the policies are actually counterproductive in meeting their aims. The risks of loss of technology acquisition posed by Chinese policies is an important phenomenon which this blog has also identified, particularly as an unintended consequence of China’s Technology Import/Export Regulations (especially for start-ups and litigation-prone technologies, but also for technological collaboration) and which has been mentioned by the US Chamber of Commerce in its IP Index and its report on licensing.

The authors argue that in order to increase the chance that FTT policies will spur sustained transfer of frontier technology, Chinese regulators should not deprive foreign firms of  minimum level of appropriability. The policies should also allow foreign firms to benefit in at least minor ways from technology transfer arrangements.

The research also has important implications for technology strategy formulation and risk management. The authors’ FTT Strategy & Risk Forecasting Matrix can guide foreign firms to anticipate risks associated with FTT policies and serve as a starting point for understanding how to further quantify or mitigate these risks. The risks are of course compounded by potential trade secret theft, cyber intrusions, and less formal pressure points on foreign licensors to assign or transfer their technology in China. And these risks must be considered alongside major rising challenges to doing business in China, which Prud’homme and Zedtwitz have also discussed (in MIT Sloan Management Review), including: problematic areas of regulation in China and rising competition from Chinese rivals in terms of their recruiting and retaining top talent, more large-scale and strategic use of intellectual property, and ever faster time-to-market of products and services. Mitigating these many risks requires carefully integrated intellectual property, innovation, non-market, and human capital strategies, alongside yet other responses.

Edit of June 23, 2018:  An interview with Prof. Liu Chuntian of Renmin U. Law School on this same topic of forced technology transfer is found on page 2 of the People’s Daily (June 22, 2018, 2nd edition) (reporter Wang Yu)   A machine translation by Google is found here.  Liu focuses primarily on market access as a separate discipline from intellectual property under the WTO and as being essentially voluntary; he does not support formal and informal incentives in place (including the Technology Import/Export Regulations as noted in the article by Dan Prud’homme).

Edit of July 15, 2018: Here’s a link to Prof Prud’homme’s article outside of a paywall.  It may only be available for a short period of time.

Edit of December 18, 2019: Here’s a link to a presentation by Prof. Prud’homme at the OECD on the impact of FTT policies in China (Dec. 12, 2019).

Reviewing the 2017 SPC Report on IPR Judicial Protection: The Generalities and the Exceptions

There have been a number of empirical reports in recent weeks on China’s IP system. In this blog, I look at the annual Supreme People’s Court 2017 Report on the Situation Regarding Judicial Enforcement of IPR in China  (中国法院知识产权司法保护状况) which was released during IP week (the “Report”).

According to the Report, 2017 saw a major increase in IP litigation in China.  There were a total of 237,242 cases filed and 225,678 cases concluded, with an increase of 33.50% and 31.43%, respectively, compared to 2016.

First instance cases increased by 47.24% to 201,039.  Patent cases increased 29.56% to 16,010.  Other increases were in trademarks (37,946 cases/39.58%); copyright (137,267/57.80%); competition-related cases (including civil antitrust cases of 114) (2,543/11.24%).  Two counter-cyclical numbers stand out:  technology contract cases dropped by 12.62% to 2,098, and second instance cases increased by only 4.92% or 21,818 cases. Note that disaggregated numbers for civil trade secret cases are not disclosed in the Report, but are presumably included under “competition” cases.

Comparing dockets with the United States, in 2017 United States courts heard 4,057 cases patent cases, 3,781 trademark cases, and 1,019 copyright cases, according to Lex Machina.  The biggest margin of difference between the US and China was clearly in copyright cases.  Chinese courts heard 134.7 times more cases than the United States. However, Chinese copyright cases are less likely to be consolidated amongst different titles, claims or causes of actions, which can inflate the statistics  — although I doubt to a 100 or more fold level.

Administrative cases, the majority of which are constituted by appeals from the patent and trademark offices, showed an overall increase while patent validity cases decreased.  Administrative patent appeals dropped 22.35% to 872 cases, while administrative trademark cases increased to 7,931 cases, or by about 32.40%.  The drop in administrative patent cases is particularly notable in light of the increased activity in patent prosecution and patent licensing.  By comparison the numbers of Inter Partes Reviews undertaken by the USPTO during 2017, according to Lex Machina, were 1,723, in addition to 9 cases involving covered business method patents.

The SPC did not offer disaggregated reversal rates of the PRB and TRAB in its data; combined patent and trademark cases included 964 cases involved  affirming the administrative agency decisions; 150 involving a change in the administrative decision; 5 cases involved a remand for further review; and 24 cases were withdrawn.

Criminal IP cases have also continued to decline.  There were 3,621 first instance criminal IP cases in 2017, a decline of 4.69%.  Among those 3,425 involved trademarks (-3.93%) and 169 involved copyrights (-13.33%).  There was also a decline of 35% in adjudication of criminal trade secret cases to only 26 cases.  The decline in criminal cases since 2012 (when cases totaled over 13,000) especially in copyrights and trade secrets is odd as Chinese leadership has in fact recognized the need for deterrent civil damages, including punitive damages and criminal trade secret remedies.

The five provinces that receive the most IP cases continued to grow in influence. Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Guangdong saw an aggregate increase of 56.63% in IP cases, to 167,613 and now constitute 70.65% of all IP cases filed in China (p. 6).  Guangdong alone saw an increase of 84.7% to 58,000 cases and Beijing trailed behind at 25,932 cases with an increase of 49.2 percent.  Other less popular destinations also saw dramatic increases.  Jilin province had an increase of 210 percent, while Hunan and Fujian each saw increases of 73.8% and 73.14%.

Settlement and case withdrawal rates also changed in 2017.  Shanghai had the highest reported rate of the big five at 76.31%, while the inland province of Ningxia had an overall rate of 88.46%, including a 100 percent rate where litigants accepted judgments without appealing  服判息诉 (!).

The SPC also reported supporting 11 cross-district IP tribunals in Nanjing, Suzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Hefei, Fuzhou, Jinan, Qingdao and Shenzhen.  In addition, 10 provinces or autonomous cities established a system of combining civil, criminal and administrative jurisdiction over IP cases in their IP tribunals in the first half of 2017.  As noted however, despite this change in judicial structure, there was a decline in criminal enforcement and in some administrative appeals in 2017 overall (p.11).

The Report also notes that the SPC is actively supporting research on establishing a national specialized appellate IP Court (p. 10).   The SPC also actively participated in the providing comments on other draft laws, and devoted some effort to the revisions of the Anti-Unfair Competition law, including meeting three times with the legal affairs committee of the NPC, as well as numerous phone calls   According to the Report, the “majority of the opinions proposed were adopted into law” which leaves the question of what was not adopted.  One possibility may be the removal of a specific provision treating employees as “undertakings” under the revised AUCL.  In fact, I have heard that some NPC legislators are continuing to push for a stand-alone trade secret to further improve upon the revised AUCL.

The Report also points to several research projects undertaken by provincial courts.  Amongst those of interest are: a research project on disclosure of trade secret information in litigation in Jiangsu; a report on using market guidance for damages compensation of Guangdong Province; a report on standards essential patents in Hubei; and a research project of the Beijing IP Court on judicial protection of IP in international competition.

Regarding transparency, the Report notes that the SPC has published all of its cases on the Internet, however similar data is not provided for other sub-SPC courts (p. 16).

In international affairs, the Report notes that the SPC has participated in the discussions on the proposed treaty on recognition and enforcement of foreign civil judgments (p. 17), in the China-European IP dialogue, and has sent people to the annual meeting of INTA, amongst other activities.  No mention is made of US government engagements (p. 17).  This omission may be due to current political sensitivities.  Nonetheless, due to the increasing number of cross-border disputes and the need for better understanding of both our judicial systems, I believe judicial engagement with Chinese courts would continue to be a fruitful enterprise.  Indeed, Berkeley hopes to host a program on cross-border IP litigation with Tsinghua University Law School later this year.

Finally, while we are on the subject of the courts, I commend Susan Finder’s recent blog on how to translate court terminology.   I hope I have not departed too far here from her excellent suggestions!

US-China Security Commission – Readout of Hearing on June 8, 2018

On June 8, 2018, I testified before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission on “U.S. Tools to Address Chinese Market Distortions.” This was my second time testifying in the past three years.  My written submission is available here.  The written submissions of other speakers, including a video of the proceedings is available through this link.  The presentations of my colleagues were all excellent.

I suggested several non-tariff alternatives for dealing with IP-related concerns with China, and underscored the necessity of developing appropriate domestic government structures to engage China on technology and innovation issues.  For example, the Commission seemed generally supportive of raising the diplomatic rank of USPTO attaches overseas.   I also discussed the importance of data-driven analysis, including use of the case database to look at how foreigners actually fare in the courts.  The Commission seemed skeptical that the data captured some of the more egregious judicial cases of foreign mistreatment, which they viewed as undercutting the credibility of the data that is being generated.  In my written submission, I encouraged the Commission to consider a hearing devoted solely to transparency in the courts.

The President’s recent decision to impose tariffs on Chinese imports in response to Chinese IP practices may render many of suggestions superfluous for now.  Nonetheless, I believe the increasing complexity of China’s IP and innovation environment are issues that cannot be ignored.  As I noted in my written testimony:

“The US experience suggests that innovation flourishes in open ecosystems where there is a free flow of capital, talent and technology. At the same time, the US needs to address mercantilistic practices which not only pose competitive threats to the United States but can also undermine the innovative ecosystems that have driven growth in the US economy, such as exist in Silicon Valley. Any steps taken to reduce collaboration with China or any other country needs to be carefully evaluated about its potential impact on our own technological competitiveness.”

In a separate, but nonetheless related matter, I spoke at the IPBC Global 2018 Conference in San Francisco on June 12 regarding developments in IP monetization in China.  Here’s a good summary of my presentation.  I thought one of the more telling moments in the panel I participated in involved China’s Technology Import/Export Regulations.   One lawyer acknowledged that “the regulations are stupid” and that “what we try to do is have parties to a technology transaction acknowledge that the regulations exist and agree not to enforce them.”  I discussed the regulations as potential “landmines” which could be invoked at a later time by a licensee.  Many licensors appeared to be unaware of these regulations.

What the EU and US WTO IP Disputes Reveal About Trade Diplomacy

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Two contrasting approaches to using the WTO for China-related IP issues involving technology licensing and forced technology transfer are now pending at the WTO.

The United States initiated a WTO dispute on China’s licensing practices by filing a  consultation request on March 23, 2018.  Shortly after the filing of that case, Japan, the European Union, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Chinese Taipei requested to join the consultations.  The European Union additionally filed its own parallel WTO consultation request on June 1, 2018, with a broader scope. It is too soon to tell which countries will join the EU request.

Both countries timed their requests in conjunction with other trade actions. The WTO case was filed by the United States one day after the Section 301 report  was released. The European Union simultaneously filed its case against China with a WTO case against the United States regarding US tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

The EU’s approach to this IP case is markedly different from the last time the US filed a WTO dispute involving China’s IP practices (DS/362).   At the time that the US filed a request for IP-related cases from China, the EU declined to make a similar transparency request.  It also did not join the US as a co-complainant in the ensuing WTO case, nor did it file a parallel complaint, but it did participate as a third-party.  By contrast, the EU approach in the current dispute is to both support the US and dig deeper.

The US consultation request was portrayed by USTR as addressing “technology licensing requirements.”  The thrust of the complaint involves China  “denying foreign patent holders, including U.S. companies, basic patent rights to stop a Chinese entity from using the technology after a licensing contract ends.”  The consultation request is therefor somewhat narrow.  The US complaint does not specifically address other technology-oriented rights, such as trade secret protection or undisclosed data, nor does it take on the topics set forth in the Section 301 report involving “IP theft.”   The consultation request is now numbered WT/DS542/1.

The EU complaint (WT/DS549/1), cites several Chinese measures in addition to those identified in the United States’ consultation request, and invokes more expansive WTO principles and procedures. The additionally cited measures include the “Working Measures [sic] for Outbound Transfer of Intellectual Property Rights (For Trial Implementation), (State Council, Guo Ban Fa [2018] No. 19)” (知识产权对外转让有关工作办法(试行)) which was previously discussed here.  The Chinese promulgation of these interim Regulations only five days after the US filed its consultation request, looks to some like another act of synchronized trade diplomacy — in this case as a possible retaliatory act for the 301 report and the WTO case.  My guess is that the EU, by referring to these new largely untested regulations is however seeking to address the legality of controls China has additionally imposed on foreigners’ transferring IP out of China.

The EU has also swept in other measures into its complaint, including China’s trade secret law (the Anti-Unfair Competition Law), the Anti-Monopoly Law, the Regulations [sic] of State Administration for Industry and Commerce Administrations on the Prohibition of Abuse of Dominant Market Position, and the Regulation [sic] on the Prohibition of Conduct Eliminating or Restricting Competition by Abusing Intellectual Property Rights.  The nomenclature the EU uses for these various legal documents appears imprecise.  The March 2018 “measures” may properly be classified as “regulations” 法规 issued by the State Council. The SAIC “regulations” should properly be classified as “rules” 部门规章 issued by an administrative agency. This is the nomenclature China set forth in the Report of the Working Party on the Accession of China (WT/ACC/CHN/49), paragraph 66 ( the “Protocols of Accession“).  The Working Party Report nomenclature establishes clear legislative hierarchies pursuant to China’s Law on Legislation.

The EU also argues that China’s appears to directly or indirectly “nullifying or impairing” the benefits accruing to the European Union and its Member States that were expected by China’s WTO accession, thereby opening the door to broader arguments regarding how China may deprive WTO members of the benefits they legitimately expected while at the same time not violating the literal language of any commitment (See, e.g., Art. 64 of the TRIPS Agreement).  These arguments have been subject to a moratorium and have historically been difficult to assert, but in my estimation have some relevance to the current situation in China.  The EU is also seeking to utilize provisions in the WTO that address the “impartial and reasonable application and administration of its laws, regulations and other measures” (Article X.3(a) of the GATT 1994 and Paragraph 2(A)2 of the Protocol on the Accession of the People’s Republic of China to the WTO).  The “impartial administration” requirement, as found in the Protocols of Accession requires China to “apply and administer in a uniform, impartial and reasonable manner all its laws, regulations and other measures … pertaining to or affecting …  trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (“TRIPS”)” (p. 74).

Contrasting the actions of the US and the EU, the EU complaint urges a legalistic and multilateral resolution of trade disputes, using doctrine that has proven difficult to assert.  The approach also appears to reflect a waning confidence by some that China today in fact has an effective and independent legal and political system which “impartially administers its laws”.   My former colleague at Fordham, Prof. Carl Minzner describes some of these political reversals in his recent book  End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise (2018).

The US approach, by contrast, uses the 301 report to point to perceived technological threats, manifested through industrial plans, vague laws, industrial espionage and unfairly adjudicated cases, to make the point that the WTO might be inappropriate to resolve its concerns. In a sense, the US assumed in the Section 301 report that in the party- and plan-controlled China of today, with a resurgent state sector, there aren’t many “laws, regulations and other measures” to administer impartially.  The United States therefor pays scant attention in the 301 to the numerous legal reforms and civil adjudication in intellectual property that have taken place in recent years.  The United States approach is also more broadly consistent with the perspectives of Prof. Mark Wu at Harvard Law School who prophetically pointed out in his article “The ‘China, Inc.’ Challenge to Global Trade Governance”  that “the WTO faces a challenge: can the institution craft a predictable and fair set of legal rules to address new trade-distortive behavior arising out of China, Inc.? If not, key countries may turn away from the WTO to address these issues.”

While the EU and the US likely have common goals with respect to China’s IP regime, I believe that they likely could also learn something from each other in their strategies and perhaps they will as these cases progress.

 

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Bottom photo by Mark Cohen of Charleston, SC United States Custom House.