27th JCCT Concludes in DC: Many IPR-Related Outcomes

 

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The 27th Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade concluded in Washington, DC on Wednesday, November 23, 2016, in time for the Thanksgiving holidays in the United States.  Here is a link to the U.S. government fact sheet.  The following is my summery of IP-related issues –

Amongst the “core” IP issues the fact sheet notes that China agreed to “take further efforts to combat bad faith trademark filings.”  Regarding technology transfer, China advised that it is “actively conducting research on the Technology Import and Export Administration Regulations (2002) (TIER) to address U.S. concerns.”  Both of these statements are forward leaning although they admittedly lack specificity.  Regarding trade secrets protection, China agreed that “ in practice, trade secrets misappropriation may be committed by individuals, including employees, who may not be directly involved in the manufacture or sale of goods and services” , thus addressing the concern that the trade secret provisions of the anti-unfair competition law only address commercial undertakings (this issue was also addressed in the draft revisions of the AUCL that was released earlier this year).  China also announced that it plans to bolster other elements of its trade secrets regime, including with respect to  evidence preservation orders  and damage calculations.  Also on the technology side, China also confirmed that “the government has never asked the fund to require compulsory technology or IPR transfer as a condition for participation in [state semiconductor] Funds’ investment projects.”

Issues involving entertainment market access in China also got some attention.  Regarding music licensing, China committed to “issue a measure allowing foreign-invested enterprises to engage in online music distribution and revoking the requirement established by the Ministry of Culture’s 2009 Circular on Strengthening and Improving Online Music Content Examination.”  Regarding theatrical film distribution, which had been the subject of a settlement of a WTO case between the United States and China, China affirmed that it will “enter into consultations with the United States in calendar year 2017 in order to provide further meaningful compensation to the United States.”  Furthermore, the United States and China agreed that, as part of the calendar year 2017 consultations, they will seek to increase the number of revenue-sharing films to be imported each year and the share of gross box office receipts received by U.S. enterprises.

There are several outcomes which are cooperative in nature.  Regarding on-line IP issues, both sides committed to training of small and medium-sized enterprises as well as exploring the use of big data and other new information technologies to enhance the capability for combating infringement and counterfeiting online.  A program on copyright protection for live sports broadcasts is planned for 2017.  In addition, China committed to further study the feasibility of protecting the broadcasts of sporting events under its Copyright Law and the United States “welcomes further clarification” on this issue from the Chinese judiciary “at the earliest possible time.”    Other cooperative programs include ones on: “legal protections for product and service designs, and U.S. trade dress protections “; “criminal enforcement of trade secrets and counterfeit pharmaceuticals”; a joint conference in 2017 on criminal law, legislation and enforcement “to share experiences on recent trends in technologies, business models, and legal developments”; and a workshop on Judicial IPR Protection in China in 2017.

Often events happen on the margins on the JCCT which may not be fully reflected in JCCT outcomes.  There were two notable developments around the time of the JCCT affecting intellectual property rights.  One was the publication of the draft revisions of China’s patent examination guidelines, which address post filing data supplementation, software and business method patents.   Post-filing supplementation of data has been the subject of prior JCCT and bilateral commitments.  Another development involved de-linking of government procurement policies with indigenous innovation, which has been the subject of a recent State Council document that, according to the fact sheet, “requir[es] all local regions and all agencies to further clean up related measures involving linking the indigenous innovation policy to the provision of government procurement preferences….”

The JCCT has a long history, but has typically grown in scope and significance over the years as the US and Chinese economies have increasingly become interdependent.  This was the last JCCT of the Obama administration.  It will next be up to the Trump Administration to decide how to guide the JCCT to continue to play a useful role in bilateral trade relations.

The above are my personal, non-official observations.  All photos are by Mark A. Cohen.

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IPR Outcomes in the 26th JCCT

Here are the IP outcomes of the 26th Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, concluded early in November 2015 in Guangzhou.  The IP-related outcomes appear primarily in three different places in the JCCT outcome document, under “Competition”, “Intellectual Property Rights” and “Cooperative Dialogues and Exchanges.”

I have repeated below the outcome language in full, without the annotation that appears in the US Department of Commerce release on the subject, followed by my own “references” on the outcome to compare the text with recent developments in these areas.

The Chinese government version of the outcomes follows the US outcomes.

COMPETITION

China’s anti-monopoly enforcement agencies are to conduct enforcement according to the Anti-monopoly Law and are to be free from intervention by other agencies.

China clarifies that commercial secrets obtained in the process of Anti-monopoly Law enforcement are protected as required under the Anti-monopoly Law and shall not be disclosed to other agencies or third parties, except with a waiver of confidentiality by the submitting party or under circumstances as defined by law.

Taking into account the pro-competitive effects of intellectual property, China attaches great importance to maintaining coherence in the rules related to IPR in the context of the Anti-monopoly Law. China clarifies that any State Council Anti-monopoly Law Commission guidelines will apply to the three anti-monopoly law enforcement agencies.

The Chinese side clarifies that in the process of formulating guidance related to intellectual property rights in the context of anti-monopoly law, it will solicit comments from relevant parties, including the public, in accordance with law and policy.

References: SAIC’s IP Abuse rules, NDRC’s draft IP Abuse rules. Importantly, this outcome specifically recognizes the pro-competitive nature of promoting IP. As I said in my comments on the NDRC’s IP abuse guideline questionnaire, “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.”

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS

Standards and Intellectual Property

The United States and China affirm the beneficial role of standards in promoting innovation, efficiency, and public health and safety, and the need to strike an appropriate balance of interests of multiple stakeholders.

The United States and China commit that licensing commitments for patents in voluntary standards are made voluntarily and without government involvement in negotiations over such commitments, except as otherwise provided by legally binding measures.

The United States confirms that Chinese firms participate in the setting of voluntary consensus standards in the United States on a non-discriminatory basis, consistent with the rules and procedures of the relevant standards organizations. China welcomes U.S.-invested firms in China to participate in the development of national recommendatory and social organization standards in China on a non-discriminatory basis.

With a view to enhance mutual understanding and trust, the United States and China agree to hold dialogues over issues under this topic.

Here are some other blogs on this important topic.

Trade Secrets

The United States and China are committed to providing a strong trade secrets protection regime that promotes innovation and encourages fair competition.  China clarifies it is in the process of amending the Anti-Unfair Competition Law; intends to issue model or guiding court cases; and intends to clarify rules on preliminary injunctions, evidence preservation orders and damages. The United States confirms that draft legislation proposed to establish a federal civil cause of action for trade secrets misappropriation has been introduced in relevant committees. Both sides confirm that IP-related investigations, including on trade secrets, are conducted in a prudent and cautious manner.  The United States and China agree to jointly share experiences and practices in the areas of protecting trade secrets from disclosure during investigations and in court proceedings, and identify practices that companies may undertake to protect trade secrets from misappropriation in accordance with respective laws.

References: Note that the reference in the trade secret provision to a degree mirrors that of the Competition outcome, regarding protecting confidential information in administrative proceedings. Proposed revisions to the AUCL were previously discussed here.

Geographical Indications (GIs)

The United States and China will continue our dialogue on GIs. Both sides reaffirmed the importance of the 2014 JCCT commitment on GIs and confirmed that this commitment applies to all GIs, including those protected pursuant to international agreements. China will publish in draft form for public comment, and expects to do so by the end of 2016, procedures that provide the opportunity for a third party to cancel already-granted GIs.

Reference: This commitment builds on the 2014 GI commitment in the JCCT. An important case involving enforcement of a trademark based GI for scotch whisky is discussed here.

Sports Broadcasts

The United States and China agree to protect original recordings of the images, or sound and images, of live events, including sports broadcasts, against acts of unauthorized exploitation, including the unauthorized retransmission of such broadcasts over computer networks, in accordance with their respective laws and regulations.  The United States and China agree to discuss copyright protection for sports broadcasts and further cooperate on this issue in the JCCT IPR Working Group and other appropriate bilateral fora.

References: Copyright protection for sports broadcasting has been discussed elsewhere in this blog, and is of increasing important to China as it prepares to host the Winter Olympics and wants to develop its sports leagues. In addition US courts have granted copyright protection to Chinese sports broadcasts in a recent case. Tencent has also signed an important licensing deal with the NBA to make content available online.

Enhanced Enforcement Against Media Boxes and Unauthorized Content Providers

Noting the challenges posed by new technologies to the protection of copyright, China and the United States will continue discussions and share respective experiences and practices on combating the unauthorized online distribution of audiovisual content made possible by media boxes.  China clarifies it is to enhance enforcement against such media boxes and the providers of unauthorized content in accordance with its laws and regulations.

Reference: A recent US media box case involving Chinese content is discussed here.

Online Enforcement

In order to address the civil, administrative and criminal enforcement challenges caused by the rapid development of e-commerce, as part of the JCCT IPR Working Group, China and the United States will enhance engagement and exchanges between U.S. and Chinese government IPR policy and enforcement officials, IP right holders, business representatives and online sales-platform operators, among other relevant stakeholders.  This engagement will cover current and anticipated challenges in protecting and enforcing IPR online by sharing respective practices, discussing possible improvements in each country’s systems, facilitating information exchange and training between our two countries, and increasing cooperation on cross-border enforcement.  The goal of this effort is to enhance existing legal and cooperative regimes among businesses, rights holders and governments in civil, administrative and criminal online IPR enforcement.  Appropriate criminal matters will be referred, if necessary, to law enforcement agencies through the Joint Liaison Group (JLG) IP Criminal Enforcement Working Group or domestic law enforcement officials.

References: there have been numerous Chinese domestic efforts to deal with on-line infringement, including copyright-related campaigns, and an important role for Chinese Customs.

COOPERATIVE DIALOGUES AND EXCHANGES

Searchable Database for Intellectual Property (IP) Cases

The United States welcomes that the Supreme People’s Court has established a database for searching intellectual property-related court decisions.  In order to increase the understanding of each other’s legal systems, the United States and China agree to dialogue and to share experiences on their respective databases containing IP cases.

References: Whether or not China is developing “case law with Chinese characteristics,” understanding how Chinese courts handle cases can help guide sound business decisions.

Bad Faith Trademark Filings

Given the importance of addressing bad faith trademark filings, both sides agree to continue to prioritize the issue of bad faith trademark filings, and to strengthen communication and exchange on this issue through existing channels.

References: This is a continuation of earlier efforts.

Copyright Legislation

The United States and China are to continue exchanges on the development of their respective copyright laws.  China clarifies that its Copyright Law is in the process of amendment and useful principles and interpretative guidance from the Supreme People Court’s 2012 Judicial Interpretation on Internet Intermediary Liability will be considered in the law, if appropriate and feasible.

The final judicial interpretation is available here. Here is a blog on the 2014 State Council draft of the Copyright Law revision, and a blog on a 2012 NCA draft.

Exchange on Intellectual Property Rights Legislation

Recognizing the success and experience of recent exchanges on IP legislation through the JCCT IPR Working Group, programs under the Cooperation Framework Agreement and other fora, as well as the desire of the United States and China to further understand recent developments in this area, the United States and China agree to exchange views on their legislative developments in IP and innovation including on pending reforms in copyright law, patent law, trade secret law (anti-unfair competition law), science and technology achievement law, etc., with relevant legislative bodies.

References: This is a broad commitment, with much legislative activity planned in China in areas such as trade secrets, copyright, patents and related regulations.

Protection of New Plant Varieties

The United States and China agree to hold exchanges on the protection of new plant varieties through bilateral meetings and other means to be determined.

References: China and Switzerland agreed to extend plant variety protections in the Swiss-China FTA.

Here are the outcomes involving IP from the MofCOM website.  Source:

http://www.mofcom.gov.cn/article/i/jyjl/l/201512/20151201200026.shtm

“特别301”报告 SPECIAL 301 REPORT

美方重申其承诺,将在“特别301报告”中客观、公正、善意地评价包括中国在内的外国政府,在知识产权保护和执法方面付出的努力。美方欢迎旨在加强中国知识产权保护的改革和行动,并承诺在2016年“特别301报告”中将强调中国政府在知识产权保护和执法方面采取的积极行动。

 恶名市场 NOTORIOUS MARKETS

美方重申其承诺,如果适当,将在“恶名市场”名单中客观、公正、善意地评估和认可外国实体,包括中国实体,在知识产权保护和执法方面付出的努力和取得的成绩。美方计划在2016年通过将利益相关方的异议期延长一倍,继续增加程序的透明度。美方将继续与中方就此事项进行讨论。

 

知识产权有效和平衡保护 EFFECTIVE AND BALANCED IP PROTECTION

考虑到《与贸易有关的知识产权协定》的原则和目标,美方和中方将继续就诸如有助于保护创新者免于恶意诉讼的相关政策进行交流和沟通,为创新行为提供积极环境。

 

知识产权合作 IP COOPERATION

中美双方确认知识产权保护在中美双边经贸关系中的关键作用。双方承认合作的益处,并认可合作构成了双方知识产权交流的基础,承诺进一步加强重要领域的深入合作,包括:

进一步加强中美商贸联委会知识产权工作组作为牵头协调知识产权问题双边论坛的作用。

继续高度重视中美知识产权合作框架协议的工作,包括2016年司法交流和将在中国举办的一项培训项目;在完成并对现有承诺项目进行审查后,在预算允许的前提下,考虑在框架协议下增加其他项目。

支持中国商务部在2016年第一季度举办的技术许可联合研讨会。

其他项目将根据个案原则进行组织。双方认识到中美双方,特别是美方,与一系列从事知识产权培训和技术交流的机构和私人组织合作,实施了广泛的项目策划工作。

 

加强在打击网络盗版方面的合作  STRENGTHENED COOPERATION IN DEALING WITH ONLINE PIRACY

为应对在美国涉嫌网络盗版刑事侵权案件影响中国权利人的情况,中美执法联合联络小组下设的知识产权刑事执法合作工作组在美国驻华使馆的联系人将负责接收中方行政部门转交的此类信息。

 

通过中美双边合作加强知识产权在企业中的利用和保护 USING BILATERAL COOPERATION TO STRENGTHEN IP UTILIZATION AND PROTECTION IN ENTERPRISES

认识到双边贸易与投资持续增长的情况,中美双方同意加强合作与交流,就各自国家知识产权保护和利用有关的经验数据进行研究,并在此领域采取具体行动或举办项目,以协助中美关于鼓励创新的决策,并帮助中美创新者、创造者和企业家更好地理解如何在各自国家创造、保护和利用知识产权。

 

深化和加强中美知识产权刑事执法合作 DEEPENING CRIMINAL ENFORCEMENT COOPERATION IN IP

在中美执法联合联络小组下设的知识产权刑事执法合作工作组机制项下,中美将继续就跨国知识产权调查开展合作。双方将确定共同合作的重点案件,就此类案件保持定期沟通和信息分享,并探索在共同感兴趣的领域开展技术交流的机会。

 …

中美共同打击网络销售假药 JOINT SINO-US COMBATTING OF ONLINE COUNTERFEIT MEDICINE SALES

中美两国政府都非常重视打击网络销售假药以保障公共的用药安全和健康。两国食品药品监管机构之间已就打击网络销售假药开展合作,并承诺未来继续开展合作。这种合作包括分享信息、分享提高公众对网络销售药品认知的最佳实践以及加强在现有国际组织活动中的沟通与协调。

Updated: December 2 and 3,  2015, December 26, 2018.

JCCT 2014 Winds Up – Joint Fact Sheets Now Released

JCCT2014

The 2014 JCCT was hosted by the US government in Chicago, Illinois this year. Here is a link to the updated English  fact sheet (released Dec. 29) (Chinese:第25届中美商贸联委会联合成果清单)  that is now a joint fact sheet.    Here is a summary of the IP accomplishments of this year’s JCCT according to the joint fact sheet:

One significant outcome involved “technology localization” which is the practice whereby China grants tax preferences based on where IP is owned or R&D is undertaken.  Here is what the fact sheet says about the outcome in this area:

The United States and China commit to ensure that both countries treat intellectual property rights owned or developed in other countries the same as domestically owned or developed intellectual property rights.  ..Both China and the United States confirm that the government is entitled to take measures to encourage enterprises to engage in research and development and the creation and protection of intellectual property rights. 

In my personal estimation, the significance of this outcome is that China committed to not discriminating in awarding tax preferences based on where IP is owned.  To a degree this reflects footnote 3 of the TRIPS Agreement, which prohibits discrimination in “protection” of IP, which includes “matters affecting the use of intellectual property.”

Regarding service invention compensation, which has been important to readers of this blog, the JCCT commitment reflected the accomplishments of the 2014 Innovation Dialogue regarding freedom of contract:

The United States and China commit to protect the legal rights of inventors in respect of their inventions and creations, in accordance with their respective domestic laws and regulations, and in line with their domestic laws, commit to respect the legitimate rules and regulations developed by employers and legitimate contracts between employers and inventors concerning inventor remuneration and awards.

Another JCCT outcome involved protection of trade secrets in government regulatory proceedings:

The United States and China confirm that trade secrets submitted to the government in administrative or regulatory proceedings are to be protected from improper disclosure to the public and only disclosed to government officials in connection with their official duties in accordance with law…

The rather “hot” issue of geographical indications was also the subject of an “outcome” involving not extending GI’s to generic terms and establishing procedures to object to and cancel the registration of the GI.

There were also a number of cooperative commitments which will likely be a focus of various bilateral discussions and programs, including on technology licensing, bad faith trademark registrations, judicial best practices, data supplementation for pharmaceutical patents, IP in standards setting, sale of IP-intensive goods and services, and addressing on-line infringement.

The revised joint fact sheet also includes a joint commitment on abusive litigation:

Patent Protection and Bad Faith Litigations

  • The U.S. and China remain committed to promoting a robust intellectual property system that will incentivize future innovation and economic growth in both countries. Both parties are to strengthen cooperation to protect innovators from bad faith litigations, including to hold a joint seminar on IP licensing, so as to create positive conditions for innovation.

 

 

There were also outcomes that weren’t focused on IP but have significant IP implications.  One involved medical device and pharmaceutical market access, where China committed to accelerate approval procedures, which has long been hampered by inadequate resources at China’s Food and Drug Administration.  Another involved clarifying standards for antimonopoly law enforcement, including providing for greater due process and law firm access.  Still another commitment involved collaboration on law firm market access, which certainly affects foreign IP lawyers practicing in China.

In my personal experience, this 25th JCCT might equally be labeled JCCT v. 3.0.  The JCCT has changed to accommodate the growing complexity and importance of US-China trade.  In its first version (1983 to approximately 2001), the JCCT was as often a rather sleepy technical exchange mechanism.  I remember attending an early JCCT dealing with the enforcement of arbitration awards.  Another iteration (v 2.0) was under the leadership of Vice Premier Wu Yi after China’s WTO accession.  The JCCT then became a mechanism for negotiating trade issues with the Vice Premier chairing on the Chinese side and the Secretary of Commerce and US Trade Representative as formal co-chairs, but with an important added role for the Secretary of Agriculture.  Version 3.0 includes the same leadership structure, but with more involvement by industry and the host locality through various programs and symposia, joint fact sheets, and commitments to move negotiations changes in the negotiating calendar, including “a year of continuous work to address important issues facing our two nations.”

The above are my personal, non-official observations.

Positive Developments on IP in JCCT Outcomes

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The 24th bilateral Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade concluded on December 20, 2013 at Diaoyutai State Guest House.  The US “Fact Sheet” on this year’s JCCT is attached here

The JCCT was jointly chaired by the US Department of Commerce, the US Trade Representative and the US Department of Agriculture at the ministerial (Secretary) level on the US side, and by Vice Premier Wang Yang on the Chinese side.  It is a key bilateral mechanism for raising trade-related bilateral intellectual property concerns.

This year there were several outcomes that were IP-related.  These outcomes included: a commitment by China to include trade secrets protection as a priority item in the interagency IPR leading group for 2014, as well as a commitment to work on trade secret legislative reform matters in China.  A prior commitment by China to insure that patent applicants in pharmaceutical patents can supplement their data was expanded to specify that this commitment applied to examination, re-examination and SIPO’s representation before the courts, as well as to work together to resolve specific cases. 

China also committed to work with the US on civil IPR enforcement matters, to continue to work on trademark squatting issues, cooperate on enforcement efforts to realize increases in sales of legitimate, non-infringing goods and services, and to undertake enforcement efforts involving substandard and infringing semiconductors.  

There was a also a recognition of SIPO’s efforts to date to provide design patent protection for graphical user interfaces, and a signing ceremony for a bilateral MOU with the U.S. Trade And Development Agency to provide IPR-related technical assistance with MofCOM as a coordinating agency (that is the picture above).  The various signings are attached here.   A Chinese summary of the outcomes from the concluding ceremony also includes improved bilateral criminal justice enforcement cooperation on IP matters.

The JCCT is sometimes used to break new ground (such as on trade secrets, or SIPO’s representations before the courts on pharma patents).  It is also used to reinforce existing commitments (such as on GUI’s and sales of legitimate goods), and to expand areas of technical assistance and cooperation (such as in civil enforcement of IP and the signing of the TDA MOU).

I personally believe the outcome statement shows a good balance among the role of administrative enforcement agencies, resolution of technical IP issues, and the importance that the civil and criminal systems should play in the development of a mature IP system.

 

Photographs above and below by Mark Cohen.

Diaoyutai scenery

Diaoyutai Scenery 

Delay in the Courts… To Prove This One We May Yet Have to Wait…

On July 4, 2019, I posted a blog asking for help regarding rumors of delay and higher-level review of IP cases involving foreigners. Here is the follow-up. 

Spoiler alert: if you are looking for a smoking gun, you won’t find one.

Jacob Schindler from IAM pointed out that he looked into the issue for his magazine and after speaking to a number of lawyers and patent owners with active assertion campaigns in China, “found no evidence that this is true in any general sense.” Jacob noted that “the most likely explanation for delays faced by some US litigants is even more innocuous. Foreign companies, including US firms, seem to be big fans of the Beijing IP Court. And that has led to a very busy docket.” This perspective that clogged dockets are leading to delays has been cited by many, and a few people noted that the issue had been raised in various meetings or conferences.

Erick Robinson relied on his own experience prosecuting Non-Practicing Entity (NPE) cases, and commented in his blog that he had detected no changes. He further stated that claiming “‘cases can be decided but only upon approval from the Supreme People’s Court’ is obviously alarming, but without proof, this seems to be just more US politicizing of the trade war.” I will return to the issue of the trade war and patents in a future blog.  

One well-informed China-resident lawyer informed me that she “heard from a few lawyers that SPC instructed lower courts to suspend adjudicating all US-related cases for at least six months since the end of 2018.” This May, she advised, the SPC lifted the ban and now only supervises “sensitive cases.” For less sensitive matters, lower courts may proceed as they wish. This six month period identified by this lawyer roughly coincides with the period during which I had been hearing this rumor of delay. Others also confirmed that there was high-level supervision.   

The counter-factual that there has been no interference in court cases or administrative proceedings is perhaps easier to disprove. Many individuals have indicated concerns about informal interference in proceedings. Courtney Macintosh of Baker & McKenzie noted that “[w]e have been told by local enforcement authorities not to expect any nice treatment cause of trade war, so it is complex and not so straightforward.” The consulting firm Rouse had also observed what they thought was a trade-related impact in the negotiation of licensing deals requiring local government approval, with local governments “falling over” to ensure that they did not appear to be pressuring companies to transfer technology as a condition of investment approval. AmCham China’s 2019 Business Climate Survey for the first time listed “bilateral tension in US-China trade relations” as a top-five business concern (45% of respondents), and also noted that high tech and research-intensive companies were the most likely to feel less welcome than before (54%).

Some individuals suggested that there is no political interference at all in Chinese judicial proceedings. While an extensive analysis of the manner in which politics interferes in adjudication is beyond the scope of this blog, there is considerable literature around how politics influences Chinese court decisions, and there is no indication that IP cases are exempt from such influence.

First of all, as a de jure matter, an SPC decision to delay foreign cases is not inconsistent with Chinese civil procedure law.  Chinese courts are authorized to delay foreign civil proceedings, including IP litigation. Section 249 of the Civil Procedure Law provides that “The period for the trial by the people’s court of civil cases involving foreign parties shall not be subject to the restrictions of Articles 149 and 176 of the Law.” Articles 149 and 176 require first and second instances cases to be resolved in six to three months respectively, except when otherwise authorized by supervisory authorities.

Second, the courts themselves recognize that they are not exempt from politics. Prof. Susan Finder’s  Supreme People’s Court Monitor recently discussed this in her analysis of a speech by SPC Justice Liu Guixiang. Liu noted that “The People’s Court is first and foremost a political organ. It must put political construction in the first place and clearly talk politics.” The speech noted four principles, including “[t]o uphold the absolute leadership of the party,” and that “judicial independence” of the West must be resolutely resisted. 

Academic literature also has shown documented political influences and the data supporting it.  Prof. Perenboom’s China’s Long March toward Rule of Law (2002) surveys the many ways that “judicial independence” can be compromised in China’s system (pp. 280-342).  Prof. Howson’s article “Judicial Independence in China: Lessons for Global Rule of Law Promotion” notes that Shanghai courts “evidence serious independence limitations” in two areas: acting as the handmaiden of policy implementation in contravention of what the Company Law allows, or directly by blanket rejection of public company/large plaintiff cases.  Profs. Xin He and Su Yang looked at how the “have’s” come out ahead in Shanghai court cases and “cast doubt on the party capability theory.” The authors “speculate[d] that the causes of judicial inequality in China lie not only in resource gaps but also in the roots of the law and the nature of the court.”

Denying case acceptance has long been recognized as a political tool of the courts to push off politically sensitive cases, although it may be less frequent in foreign-related cases

Higher-level supervision is also well documented, in addition to being specifically provided for in the civil procedure law. Such higher-level supervision appeared prominently in the WTO IP enforcement case with China (DS362), when the US side presented a letter from China’s Supreme People’s Court on how to best handle a copyright issue that was then sub judice in Hunan (Exhibit US-60, Letter from the Supreme People’s Court to the Hunan Province Higher People’s Court in Zheng Haijin v Xu Zheng Xiong,  知监字 [1998]). As the Panel Report discusses, this letter was contradicted by a letter of the National Copyright Administration of China to the lower court with the opposite position. Panel Report Sec. 7.51.

Political interference may also originate from the court that hears the case, particularly its adjudication committees (shenpan weiyuanhui). Such committees play an important role in ensuring that cases are consistent with political directives. As the Duihua Foundation points out: 

“[Adjudication Committees] are unique to the Chinese judicial system and exist at  each of the four levels of China’s court system, from basic-level county courts up to the Supreme People’s Court. The committees meet regularly to discuss important or difficult cases, ‘sum up judicial experience,’ and review other important matters related to case adjudication. Generally, they are composed of the president and vice-presidents of the court, as well as the heads of the court’s tribunals—many of whom are, in effect, administrators rather than working judges.  

Committee meetings may be attended by the head of the procuratorate, which has a dual function as prosecuting body and overseer of judicial activity, as well as members of the judicial panel hearing the case under discussion. Court rules encourage submission of written case reports summarizing the facts of the case, major issues of contention, and preliminary opinions on how the case should be handled, but some cases are simply presented orally. Detailed minutes of the committee’s discussions are kept, but they are classified as state secrets and do not become part of the formal trial record.

Among cases that adjudication committees routinely take up are those ‘involving serious threats to national security,’ the death penalty, and ‘important’ matters involving foreigners or persons from Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan, as well as cases with multiple parties (quntixing anjian) that have a major social impact or could easily intensify conflicts. Meetings are held several times per month, and multiple cases are normally discussed at each meeting.” [emphasis supplied]

Such supervision need not be adverse to a foreigner’s interests. Politically sensitive litigants, domestic or foreign, use court supervision to advance their claims, as has been documented in an article by Profs. Feng Yuqing and Xin He.

Chinese behavior overseas may reveal an expectation that political interference or supervision in judicial processes is not unusual. For example, China reported an ersatz JCCT outcome to “give review priority” to a Chinese application on the basis that it believed that the USPTO had given unfair treatment to a patent application by the SOE, IWNCOMM. By contrast, the  US outcome sheet does not reflect any such commitment.  

In the absence of a “smoking gun” does the data suggest any changes in Chinese disposition of US or foreign patent cases?  The databases will not reveal this information until, if at all, next year for this year. Even then, as Prof. Benjamin Liebman and others have pointed out in “Mass Digitization of Chinese Court Decisions: How to Use Text as Data in the Field of Chinese Law”, there is a “need for humility and methodological pluralism among scholars seeking to use large-scale data from Chinese courts. The vast amount of incomplete data now available may frustrate attempts to find quick answers to existing questions…”   Finally, even if there were some delays or additional oversight in the handling of foreign-related cases, this may not prove the existence of a new internal directive or prejudice.  It may simply be due to existing civil procedures or courts exercising some greater prudence at this moment in time. 

We will need to wait and see.

Postscript of July 31, 2019:

Since this blog was posted, I have received two additional emails regarding the impact, if any, of the trade war on foreign-related IP litigation, particularly patent litigation involving Americans.

One well-placed source advised me that if there was any delay in adjudicating foreign IP cases, it would be due to the rapid growth in IP dockets in China and the relative flexibility in timing afforded adjudication of foreign-related IP cases.   This explanation is also quite plausible.  Overall IP cases did increase by 40.97% to 283,414 accepted cases.  Patent cases increased by 35.53% to 21,699.  These are huge increases and foreign cases may get delayed as courts adjust to their dockets.  See 中国法院知识产权司法保护状况 2018 年)(Intellectual Property Protection by Chinese Courts in 2018).

Another source told me that their client was told that due to the trade war and attendant “sensitivities”, the court would not be issuing its decision at this time.  No new timeline was offered.

References to “sensitivity” or “inconvenient time” can be a euphemism for political concerns or they can reflect real-world issues like a clogged docket or a complex case.  I can remember once as a government official, I directly asked a Chinese colleague and old friend if the time was “really” inconvenient to meet me, or whether this was simply a  way of avoiding conflict.  He responded with a long list of other commitments and told me “we look forward to seeing you, but it is really quite busy now.”  We both laughed.

Please continue to write in any other observations you may have.