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
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!