False Friends (形似神异): Comparing US and Chinese Administrative Patent Enforcement

The China Patents and Trademarks journal has now made publicly available the article I wrote late last year with former USPTO Director David Kappos and former Chief Judge Randall Rader (ret.)  “Faux Amis: China-US Administrative Enforcement Comparison”, in both  English, and Chinese (形似神异:中美专利行政执法制度对比).  Kevin Lu 吕行 of USPTO also assisted in researching the article.

The article discusses the differences between administrative enforcement of patents in the United States International Trade Commission (Section 337) and by SIPO in China and notes that the comparisons of China’s administrative patent system to the USITC system are misleading, as the two systems are different both qualitatively and quantitatively. 

The opinions in the article are of course strictly the authors’ own.

IPR Abuse and Refusals to License

The US Chamber and American Chamber of Commerce (the “Chambers”) have recently made available its recent comments on the NDRC and SAIC drafts of the IP abuse guidelines to be promulgated by the Antimonopoly Commission of the State Council.  Here are the links: NDRC IP Abuse Guidelines Chinese; NDRC IP Abuse Guidelines English; SAIC IP Abuse Guidelines Chinese; SAIC P Abuse Guidelines English.  As there is no public database of comments received on most Chinese legislation, I will continue to try to make available comments by private entities here on this blog.

The NDRC and SAIC comments of the Chambers continue to focus on certain key areas of concern, including China’s endorsing of an essential facility doctrine without considering the pro-competitive aspects of licensing (or standards setting).  The Chambers have expressed concerns about “an approach that imposes restrictions on licensing because it is possible to imagine a license that creates more competition”, which (in my view) is essentially a state-management approach to licensing and intellectual property.    The Chambers also focus on burdens of proof – an increasingly important issue in IP cases generally, as well as extraterritorial authority based on “effect” on the Chinese market, without regard to substantiality or immediacy.  As I have noted elsewhere, concerns over extra-territorial issues have been of increasing concern bilaterally. 

The Chambers also support provisions to enable portfolio licensing, which may include expired patents and would otherwise need to be adjusted or renegotiated every time a patent expires or is found invalid.  The Chamber also takes issue with presumptions that cross-licenses and grant backs are anti-competitive.   The Chambers also address concerns about aggressive regulation of refusals to license patents, particularly those that are not encumbered by a F/RAND obligation (eg., Article 24, SAIC draft).

An important development on refusals to license in China has been noted by Benjamin Bai in a recent blog on a non-SEP refusal to license case now pending in China.  According to Benjamin:

Hitachi Metals At the time of writing, there is an ongoing litigation on whether a refusal to license non-essential patents constitutes IP abuse. Four Ningbo companies brought this case against Hitachi Metals in the Ningbo Intermediate Court. The dispute centers on neodymium-iron-boron magnets, which are widely used in the electric engineering, wind power, automotive, and high tech industries. About half of the global consumption of rare earth metals relates to this magnetic alloy, whose intellectual property rights are mostly held by Hitachi Metals. It owns more than 600 neodymium-iron-boron magnet patents globally but has only licensed selected patents to eight Chinese companies. Hitachi has refused to license to other Chinese companies.

 Hitachi’s refusal to license its patents to the plaintiffs is the basis for the suit. The accused abusive conduct includes refusal to license, bundling, etc. This is the first case in which plaintiffs have requested a Chinese court to license non-essential patents based on the notion of “essential facilities”. The plaintiffs argue that Hitachi’s patent portfolio on neodymium-iron-boron magnets should be considered as essential facilities for the industry because its patent portfolio cannot be substituted and avoided. The plaintiffs seek damages of RMB24 million (~USD3.4 million). A nine-hour hearing was held on December 18, 2015. The court has not yet issued any decision. This case will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the Chinese jurisprudence on refusal to license and IP abuse.

Benjamin concludes his blog by noting:

When it comes to non-essential patents, however, the rationale of Huawei v. InterDigital does not apply. Instead, the analytical framework laid out in Qihoo v. Tencent should be followed. According to the Chinese Supreme Court, market dominance refers to the position of an undertaking with the ability to control the price, quality of other transactional terms of products in the relevant market, or the ability to impede or affect the entry into the relevant market by other undertakings. The determination of market dominance is a multifaceted process. No single factor is necessarily outcome-determinative. A high market share in and of itself should not lead to a presumption of market dominance, especially where the high market share is due to high efficiency or better-quality products. Therefore, a high market share conferred by technology superiority might not lead to a finding of dominance.

Extension of essential facilities outside of the F/RAND context where a company may not have willingly abandoned certain rights in exchange for incorporation in a standard is problematic, as Benjamin notes. I believe there are also implications for China’s IP system.   Neither recent draft guidelines or court decisions to date recognize patents as a unique form of property which is based on a right to exclude offered in exchange for disclosure of an invention.   Aggressive antitrust enforcement could erode that incentive.  This can be of great concern in the non-SEP space, where a patentee may have a choice whether to disclose an invention or keep a proprietary method secret.  As disincentives to patenting continue to mount due to narrowing scopes of patentability, procedural changes making litigation more difficult and patents less stable, and/or increased antitrust enforcement, the technological “commons” created by patent disclosures, as well as the incentives that patents provide for investment and product development, may narrow. The dynamic efficiencies of the patent system, which frequently creates new technologies which is not even in current manufacture and “include[es] societal gains from innovation” (GAI comments on NDRC draft) could be placed at risk.

I also remain concerned about disproportionality between antitrust damages and a continuing low level of patent damages.  CIELA currently lists average patent damages in China at 419,366 RMB, based on a cohort of 511 cases where the plaintiff won its claim of patent infringement.  This is about 70,000 dollars, or about 1/10,0000 of the fine imposed on Qualcomm in its recent NDRC investigation.  Of course,  patent damages address harm to the rights holder and antitrust damages address harm to competition, making comparisons somewhat inexact.  A legal argument however is that, whatever the calculation of antitrust damages, China has an explicit international obligation to insure that patent infringement damages “constitute a deterrent to further infringements” (TRIPS Article 41).  WTO members may even impose criminal remedies for patent infringement where willful and on a commercial scale (Article 61).   The authorization for WTO members to address IP abuse under the TRIPS agreement is only to take “appropriate” measures (Art. 40).   In my view, overly aggressive antitrust enforcement in China when the IP system is fundamentally weak, is “inappropriate” for China, and could weaken market-based incentives to license and patent, as well as incentives for disclosure at a critical time in China’s quest to become an innovative economy.

 

 

Slouching Towards Innovation – A Survey of the Surveys on China’s IP Environment

Here is a summary of the business surveys on IP protection in China, drawn from the European Chamber of Commerce in China, Business Confidence Survey 2015 (June, 2015), the US China Business Councils’ 2015 USCBC China Business Environment Member Survey (Sept. 2015), the American Chamber of Commerce 2016 Business Climate Survey (“Amcham China” Report, Jan. 2016), and Amcham Shanghai’s 2016 China Business Report (“Amcham Shanghai” Report, Jan. 2016), and others.

IP Issues a Core Concern

While IP issues are less dominant than in recent years, businesses report that IP is still critical to them. When Amcham China respondents in all sectors addressed what they considered their competitive advantage versus Chinese domestic entities, three of their top four perceived advantages were IP-related: Brands (74%), Technology & IP (63%), and Development and Innovation (59%). USCBC respondents listed IP concerns in a number four priority slot, having dropped from number 2 in 2014. However IP issues have averaged as a number 4.5 priority over the past ten years, so the drop is not that significant. According to Amcham Shanghai’s survey, 49% of respondents believed that lack of IPR protection and enforcement constrains their investment in innovation and R&D in China.

Still different IP concerns vary in their impact on different businesses. For example, tech companies in the USCBC survey noted the following IP-related issues in their top 10 challenges: Innovation policies (number 2), IPR enforcement (number 5), cybersecurity (number 6), government procurement policies (number 7), standards and conformity assessment (number 8) and antitrust/antimonopoly law (number 10).

IPR Enforcement is Improving

On the brighter side, 91% of respondents of the Amcham survey indicated that IPR enforcement had improved over the past five years, a view that was generally shared by USCBC respondents (38% reported some improvement over the past year).

USCBC’s survey addressed the most viable options for IP enforcement: administrative enforcement had a slight edge in terms of viability in some or most cases (78%), followed by civil cases (70%) and criminal courts (57%).

The data also suggests that trade secrets will be of continuing concern. Amcham China respondents were least satisfied with trade secrets legislation and enforcement (45/40%).  Amcham China respondents were most satisfied with patent legislation and patent enforcement (66%/54%), followed by trademarks (62%/51%) and copyrights (57%/48%). USCBC respondents similarly rated trade secrets as their top area of concern (32%) followed by trademarks (28%), patents (22%), and copyright (9%).

Of particular importance for trade secret protection are challenges noted in responses to surveys in attracting and retaining talent.   According to the Amcham survey, among the principal challenges in attracting the right talent were competition from local businesses (45%), and competition from other foreign businesses (34%). Data security and cybersecurity were also identified as concerns by many surveys.

China’s Efforts to Innovate Leads to More Foreign R&D in China

Innovating in China has clearly become a priority for the foreign business community. The EU Chamber notes that China R&D centers are increasingly achieving global levels of innovation, although a large percentage (42%) are primarily focused on product localization. According to USCBC, about 43% of large member companies had established an R&D center.

European companies viewed innovation as one of five most critical drivers needed to move the Chinese economy up the value chain. The USCBC report notes that more than 9 out of 10 US companies believe that innovation in China will be critical to their company’s future in China, with 40% of the companies reporting that that half their profits came from products designed, developed or tailored to local requirements (an increase from 32% last year). Companies prioritizing investment in R&D, according to the Amcham Shanghai survey, were in hardware, software and services (81%), automotive (65%), industrial manufacturing (55%) and health care (35%).

Continuing Concerns about Technology Transfer

USCBC reported that 59% of respondents expressed concern about transferring technology to China. Twenty three percent of USCBC respondents advised that their company had been asked to transfer technology to China and that central or local governments had requested the technology transfer 60% percent of the time. Concerns about technology transfer included maintaining protection of the proprietary information during certification/ approval (83%), protection of IP (75%), enforcing license agreements (51%) and the government dictating or influencing licensing negotiations (32%). Nonetheless, according to USCBC, technology transfer concerns fell out of the top twenty this year, to number 23 out of 30. However the USCBC noted that the companies impacted by this issue felt it “very acutely”.

Innovation Policies Not All Positive

Thirty two percent of technology and other R&D Intensive industries that responded to the Amcham China survey indicated that China’s increasing capability for innovation presented an important opportunity for their business. However, as the preceding data suggests, not all of China’s innovation and IP policies have been perceived to be positive by foreign industry. Fifty-five percent of USCBC tech companies stated that China’s innovation promotion policies had a significant negative impact on sales to date, or had a significant negative impact on sales or operation. Also of note was that 75% of USCBC respondents indicated that they limited the products that they introduced into China because of IPR concerns. In addition, 37% of USCBC respondents indicated that China’s level of IPR enforcement limited R&D activities in China, as well as limited products co-manufactured or licensed in China. The Amcham China survey also noted that 83% of technology R&D intensive companies feel less welcome than before.

Aggressive Antimonopoly Enforcement of Concern to Foreign Companies

Eighty percent of USCBC respondents were concerned about antimonopoly law enforcement in China. Among the key substantive issues were: (a) lack of transparency in AML cases (55%), excessive focus on foreign companies (50%), lack of clarity on key criteria and definitions (49%), lack of due process (29%), and inability to have legal counsel (26%).

Rule of Law: Another Overarching Concern

One common thread amongst antimonopoly and IP concerns was rule of law. The EU Chamber Report contains the most information on desires of foreign companies for the Chinese government to improve the rule of law, with 39% of European businesses rating the Chinese government’s efforts in 2015 as “below expectations”, and rule of law perceived as the main driver of future economic growth by 78% of respondents. For Amcham China, 57% of respondents believed that inconsistent regulatory interpretation and unclear laws were their top business challenge in China. Legal reforms were identified as the top reform priority by Amcham Shanghai members.  USCBC respondents rated uneven enforcement of Chinese laws, as their number nine challenge, however companies reported that the problems are persistent and worsened in the last year.

Putting China in Context: Not All That Patents Is Innovative

There are other reports that have been released have recently been released that also place China in a comparative perspective. The Information Technology & Innovation Forum, for example, recently issued a report Contributors and Detractors: Ranking Countries’ Impact on Global Innovation, which ranked 56 nations on how much they contribute or detract from global innovation. China ranked 44, and was classified as an “innovation mercantilist” that “significantly balkanize[s] both global production and consumption markets” and has “generally weaker protection” for intellectual property than the global norm. However, China does perform better than “innovation follower” countries in contributing to the global innovation ecosystem, largely due to investments in STEM fields and high numbers of graduates in those areas. China ranked twenty eight out of fifty six in terms of contributions, and was among the top five detractors from global innovation, according to this report (behind Thailand but ahead of India, Argentina and Russia).

Thomson Reuters in its China’s IQ (Innovation Quotient) Report (December 2015) analyzed China patent filings. The IQ Report noted that citations of Chinese patents had increased. In data processing patents, China had forward citation data of 1.17 This was much less than the United States (6.72), but comparable to Japan (1.82), and Europe (1.31), and better than South Korea (.78). Interestingly, another Thomson Reuters report on the top 100 innovators (2015), declined to include a single Chinese company. Huawei did appear as a top innovator in 2014. Its antitrust adversary, InterDigital, was considered a top innovator in 2015.

Policy Outcomes

The USCBC’s Board of Directors recently outlined its priorities for the year, which included: strengthening IP enforcement, including deterrent civil and criminal remedies; improving enforcement against online infringements; strengthening trade secret protections; harmonize patent examination practices; reforming China’s system of innovation incentives (HNTE incentives/service inventions). Other USCBC recommendations in transparency, antimonopoly law, and ecommerce also have IP-related implications.

Summary

There may be a number of reasons for the repetition in these reports, including a common core of concerns, a focus on issues in the media and bilateral relations, and common membership among the organizations. The location and membership of each organization can still result in different perceptions. Moreover, certain rights, such as copyrights, tend to be of core concern to fewer industries some of which, such as the entertainment sector, may be less extensively invested in China. As such, the surveys reflect concerns and priorities, and may not necessarily represent researched approaches to resolving specific problems of concern to all American industries. The surveys may also not align well with China’s own surveys such as on software piracy, where China has offered a counter-survey that counts other incidences of piracy, or on satisfaction with China’s IP system. As for satisfaction at least, it is all subjective. In some cases, the survey data likely aligns well with other factual or empirical data, such as licensing revenues, damages in antimonopoly law cases, IP enforcement activity, etc.

Here’s what this survey of the surveys suggests to me:

  1. China’s IP laws are generally good and its enforcement is improving but still problematic.
  2. China has become deeply interested in patents and innovation, which will present important strategic opportunities over time.
  3. There remains a low level of confidence in trade secret protection in China, which can be a significant impediment to China’s innovative ecosystem.
  4. China’s innovation environment has become increasingly complex and nationalistic, leaving many foreign tech companies with a sense that they are less welcome.
  5. Reforms in the legal system and antitrust enforcement are a high priority.

The US Chamber will be issuing its latest International IP Index February 10 in Washington, DC. Let’s see how China stacks up there…

Any corrections or comments? Something I have missed? Please write us!