“The 60-year-old Yin Zhiyi (Gerald Yin) resolutely gave up the US’s annual salary of one million dollars, broke through the layers of US government review, … He led a team of more than 30 people back to China. … At the age of 60, he returned with his brain and founded China AMEC.
He said: We have done a lot of things for foreigners. It is time to make contributions to the people of our own country. He not only returned alone, but also led a team of outstanding Chinese of more than 30 people. It can be said that everyone has their own high-end technology weapons. And this move by him immediately caused the U.S. security department(s) to block him… All the process and design drawings were completely confiscated.”
In my last blog I noted how semiconductor chip 芯片-related patent cases have a relatively low level of success in China, and that there appear to be wide regional variations in success rates. Today, I will look at some of the legal issues raised by the emergence of Fujian as a venue for litigating these cases. We begin by looking at the saga of Advanced Micro-fabrication Equipment, Inc. (AMEC), a semiconductor equipment manufacturer based in Shanghai, of which Gerald Yin, the subject of the above article, is both chairman and CEO.
AMEC has been described by the U.S. government as China’s leading semiconductor equipment manufacturer. It has also been involved in three high profile IP disputes with US companies since its establishment. Gerald Yin was a long-timer in Silicon Valley, previously served as a Vice President of Applied materials before joining AMEC, and prior to Applied he was with Lam Research and Intel – a scenario not unlike other Silicon Valley tech employees. According to an on-line bio, he holds a doctorate in Physical Chemistry from UCLA and is a named inventor in 86 US patents and more than 250 foreign patents. AMEC’s case against Veeco earlier this year bears many similarities to the facts noted in the media report of a preliminary injunction decision issued on July 3, 2018 in favor of UMC and Fujian Jinhua’s case against Micron, another American company, also in Fujian province.
AMEC’s Batting Average
The records regarding AMEC’s prior legal challenges are complex and scattered across multiple jurisdictions. They include court cases, patent filings, patent oppositions and Customs actions. It is frankly beyond the scope of this blog to fully analyze the validity of each claim and counterclaim. Overall AMEC appears to be enjoying a high win rate.
The reported legal saga begins when Applied Materials sued AMEC in California (2009) for misappropriation of trade secrets that related in part to confidential information he obtained while at that company which were also the subject of patent applications by him. The case was dismissed in favor of AMEC on the basis that the contract regarding the inventions violated California law against enforceability of non-compete agreements, depriving Applied of any rights to inventions whether or not there had been a misappropriation of confidential information. Also of note, in 2009, AMEC brought suit against Applied in Shanghai, under the anti-unfair competition law (AUCL), presumably for trade secrets, which was withdrawn on January 1, 2010. Withdrawn cases permit the parties to refile later as no decision has been reached on the merits and may not be included in official case law databases.
Another case involved AMEC and Lam Research, another Silicon Valley company which was also Gerald Yin’s former employer. This matter involved patent infringements and was litigated in Taiwan. By 2012 Lam Research had exhausted its appeals and lost.
AMEC v Veeco
AMEC’s most recent dispute with Veeco, a New York-based competitor with a subsidiary in Shanghai, involved preliminary injunctions for patent infringement in the US against a supplier to AMEC and a preliminary injunction in China against Veeco, as well as Chinese Customs seizure of imported goods of Veeco that infringe Amec’s Chinese patent. Preliminary injunctions in patent cases have historically been quite rare in China. For example, in 2013, Chinese courts granted 11 preliminary injunction requests out of 90,000 IP cases. According to press reports, the dispute between Veeco and AMEC ended with a global settlement.
The US action was commenced on April 12, 2017 in the Eastern District of New York against one of AMEC’s suppliers, SGL. Limited discovery was conducted in July and October 2017. The 76 page opinion of Judge Chen, dated November 2, 2017 and amended November 16, 2017, reviews the challenges to patent validity, the scope of infringement, extraterritorial issues and the balance of equities in issuing a preliminary injunction against SGL (the drawing above is excerpted from her opinion). Chinese commentary suggests that Judge Chen did not have the benefit of the Chinese validity challenges based on on novelty or non-obviousness. However, the issues, including an alleged pre-existing “hockey puck” design are discussed at length in Judge Chen’s opinion, and there appears to have been discovery, expert opinion and due process provided (see text at fn. 64 and references to “hockey puck”).
Note that on January 23, 2018, SIPO declared the counterpart patent(s) to those asserted in New York to be invalid. Of particular concern in the NY litigation was the ‘769 patent, formerly owned by Emcore. AMEC reportedly launched an invalidity challenge at the USPTO on December 8, 2017 against this patent. A Chinese author’s description of the global patent challenges is found here.
The second significant decision involved a case initiated by AMEC against Veeco in July 2017. and the Fujian High Court granting an injunction on or about December 7, 2017 (see media reports). This case has not been released to the public. I have therefore had to rely on various secondary sources of information in order to understand the circumstances of this case.
A Veeco press release states that “On December 7, 2017, without providing notice to Veeco and without hearing Veeco’s position on alleged infringement, the Fujian High Court issued a ruling, applicable in China, that requires Veeco Shanghai to stop importing, making, selling and offering to sell Veeco EPIK 700 model MOCVD systems which contain the accused infringing synchronous movement engagement mechanism covered by AMEC utility model patent ZL 201220056049.5 and wafer carriers used as supplies for the EPIK 700 MOCVD system.” The circumstantial circumstances seem to support this position. According to AMEC’s press release, the patent in suit was the subject of two invalidity challenges and was held valid by the Patent Reexamination Board on November 24, 2017. This was the Friday of the US Thanksgiving holiday. The patent in suit was a utility model patent, ZL201220056049.5. Assuming that AMEC moved for a preliminary injunction on the following Monday, November 27, 2017, the injunction would have been issued approximately nine business days later, hardly time for a thorough consideration of infringement issues or the weighing of factors in a preliminary injunction. The Chinese preliminary injunction case was different from the US case in many respects: notably the US decision was published, involved months of hearings and exchange of documents, and the decision was not issued on an ex parte basis. I assume it would also be difficult for the Fujian High Court to issue as lengthy a decision as EDNY in light of the limited time it had before it rendered its decision, but we lack the benefit of a published decision in this matter.
AMEC v Veeco also shares other concerns with Chinese countersuits against overseas litigation. Although this case was filed after Veeco filed its case in the United States, the court seemed intent on accelerating its decision making in order to undercut the effect of a US judgment. As I have noted, this is typically done without any consideration of comity, and it is a common litigation tactic for a Chinese defendant to seek a quick decision from a court where it has a close relationship to undermine the effectiveness of an overseas litigation or 337 investigation. It is hard to deny that the Fujian High Court is paying attention to timing when the Fujian High Court apparently drafted its non-public decision in less than two weeks.
There are some other similarities with Chinese anti-foreign suit litigation, including that often these cases also end up getting recognized as a “top 10” /guiding/leading cases by local or national authorities and the authorities extol how they can help guide Chinese companies to break open foreign markets, thereby adding fuel to a techno-nationalist fire.
Another strategic point is that AMEC’s principle weapon was a Utility Model Patent (UMP), which lasts only 10 years. The use of utility model patents or design patents to countersue in China is a well-established practice (Chint v Schneider; Chery v General Motors). One reason may be that UMP’s do entail a lower threshold of inventiveness than an invention patent and for that reason may be harder to invalidate. In a sense, AMEC’s “high tech” weapon was the lowest tech patent weapon in the toolbox. For a utility model, the invention must possess “a substantive feature and indicates an advancement”. An invention patent requires “a prominent substantive feature and indicates remarkable advancements” (Patent Law, Art. 22). Nonetheless, as has been evident for 10 or more years, UMP’s can have remarkable litigation value and should be considered a part of every foreign company’s patent portfolio for both defensive and offensive purposes.
The Customs proceeding is also a bit of an outlier, and also lacks any publicly available record. While Chinese Customs has the authority to seize goods on import, and to seize goods that infringe patents, such seizures are rare. The seizure by AMEC was listed as one of Shanghai’s “top 10” IP cases for 2017, and the listing made it clear that the case should serve as an example for other innovative Chinese companies.
There are other unusual aspects to this case. For example, why would a Shanghainese company (AMEC) file a case in Fujian against another company (Veeco) that is also locally headquartered in Shanghai? Furthermore, why did they choose a jurisdiction which hasn’t seen one reported patent case with the word “chip” (芯片) in it?
The AMEC case now joins a short list of not-so-distinguished cases involving foreigners, where the court has yet to publish or has significantly delayed publishing the final decision, including Huawei v Interdigital (Shenzhen first instance decision) and Chint v Schneider (Wenzhou). This lack of transparency is striking considering the great strides generally being made in publishing court decisions. Publishing decisions and other forms of transparency (such as amicus briefs) help ensure fairness, improve the quality of decisions, prevent corruption, develop appropriate legal strategies, and insure consistency with other legal opinions, amongst other benefits (as also noted elsewhere on this blog).
There may also be other explanations for this lack of transparency. The case was settled and, as noted, often decisions are not published after a case is withdrawn. In addition, the case involved a preliminary injunction and such cases are just rarely published. In the not too distant past requests for a preliminary injunction were handled exclusively by the “case filing division” of the courts and thus were never formally docketed. However, courts throughout China have been moving to limit the case filing division’s lack of transparency, and applied less discretionary “case recordal” acceptance procedures. Fujian is no exception. Non-publication leaves one guessing as to motives.
Added Motives to Be Non-Transparent?
Semiconductor companies are entitled to know more about Chinese and Fujian judicial practices in semiconductor patent matters, and what factors weigh in granting the rare preliminary injunction. The news of July 3, 2018 that the Fuzhou Intermediate Court reached a decision involving Micron’s alleged infringement of semiconductor patents, and that this case has apparently been released to the plaintiffs but has not yet been provided to the defendant, underscores the need for transparency (See press reports of Jinhua, UMC and Micron). Also of concern is that the decision, which reportedly has immediate (立即 ) effect, was released the day before a US national holiday, July 4. Generally preliminary injunctions are not effective until served, but time is likely of the essence in responsing to this order. See also TRIPS Agreement Art. 41.3 (“Decisions on the merits of a case shall preferably be in writing and reasoned. They shall be made available at least to the parties to the proceeding without undue delay.”)
Another concern amongst the foreign business community, given the current trade climate, is whether China has begun using legal tools to retaliate against US companies in sectors targeted by “Made in China 2025”, including retaliation against efforts to use overseas litigation. The Micron decision comes less than two weeks after a promise that Beijing would not seek retaliation against foreign companies operating in China. China’s increasing involvement in the semiconductor sector was described by former U.S. Commerce Secretary Pritzker in September 2016 as “unprecedented” state-driven interference that “distorts the market” and “undermine[s] the innovation ecosystem.”
One hopes that industrial policy is not affecting the legal system, as right now we need less, not more, fuel on the trade war fires. Appropriately containing disputes to fair and expert legal systems can be one effective way of reducing trade tensions.
I welcome any commentary, corrections and updates.
The opinions expressed herein are mine alone. In my capacity as an academic at Berkeley and as a lawyer or consultant, I do receive support from and advise semiconductor companies as well as service providers from time to time. These comments were drafted solely in my academic capacity and without clearance or review by any company or association.