An Update on Data-Driven Reports on China’s IP Enforcement Environment

Several useful empirical reports on China’s IP environment have been released in the past few weeks.  I summarize four of them:

Trademark Litigation

Jerry Xia and his colleagues at the Anjie firm have written ”Trademark litigation Forum Shopping in China – What the Data Tells Us” (the “Trademark Report”) (July 8, 2020).

The Report looks at over 11,000 court judgments from 2019.  Only two of the top ten cities for hearing trademark matters were “Tier 1” jurisdictions, namely Shanghai and Shenzhen.  The authors argue that the experience of less well-known courts, including basic courts, is underestimated by many lawyers.  In some jurisdictions, such as in Zhejiang and Jiangsu, win rates for plaintiffs are as high as 100%.  These courts were also among the most efficient courts in adjudicating trademark disputes.   By comparison, the Beijing IP Court awarded fewer favorable decisions to plaintiffs and was slower, but it also awarded higher damages.

The Trademark Report argues that concerns about local protectionism in IP cases for foreign plaintiffs may be exaggerated.  The authors note that the probability of winning based on the available data is generally higher for foreign parties than domestic parties.  A similar argument is advanced in the Software Copyright Litigation Report (discussed below), as well as in other empirical studies.

The Trademark Report is available to subscribers of the World Trademark Review (issue 84).  It is behind a paywall for the next two months.  Registered non-subscribers may view two articles free per month.

SEP Litigation

LexField Law offices released a report by Zhao Qishan and Lu Zhen “Statistics of Chinese SEP Cases in 2011-2019” (the “SEP Report”).  The report is available here.

The SEP Report notes that from 2011 to December 2019, Chinese courts accepted 160 cases related to SEPs.  Not surprisingly, most of the cases involve foreign entities and relate to the telecommunication industry (96.25%).  Most of the cases were filed with the courts in Beijing, Guangdong, Shanghai, and Jiangsu.  Both practicing and non-practicing entities were plaintiffs.  Ten companies were responsible for 125 of the 160 cases reported, with practicing entities as the primary defendants.   Foreigners are the principal plaintiffs, but only by a slight margin.  The cases largely involved patent infringement disputes.  Cases asking the court to determine FRAND terms during license negotiations are also on the rise.  About 72% of the cases were withdrawn before final judgment.  The Huawei/Samsung settlement alone was responsible for the withdrawal of 28 cases.

The SEP Report provides a useful overview of the amount of litigation occurring over the past 9 years on SEPs, including understanding the role of foreign plaintiffs including NPE’s and China’s increasing importance in global SEP litigation.  As many SEP cases are not published, a major contribution of this article is in the description of various cases, as well as a collection of the docket numbers and case summaries.   A useful counterpart article on the foreign experience of SEP litigation in China is Gaetan de Rasenfosse’s article from 2017 on “Discrimination against foreigners in the patent system: Evidence from standard-essential patents on patent validity.”

 Software Copyright Litigation

Rouse published a China Software Litigation Report  (the “Software Report”) on July 7, 2020. The Software Report is based upon its proprietary CIELA database in conjunction with its network firm Lusheng and is available for free upon completion of this request form.  The Software Report aims to demonstrate how foreign litigants have fared in civil software piracy litigation in China and helps to delineate useful strategies in light of evolving judicial practices, the Phase 1 Trade Agreement commitments on software piracy as well as anticipated changes in the Copyright Law.

The Software Report reveals that out of 1,303 first instance cases reported in CIELA from 2006-2019, first instance cases brought by foreign plaintiffs numbered 285. In the authors’ view the key to success in software copyright infringement cases is proof of infringement.  In particular,  plaintiffs who secured evidence preservation orders were more likely to be successful.  The authors also suggest on-line usage tracking data as proof of copyright infringement.

One long-standing issue in software copyright enforcement has been concerns that governmental entities may have de facto immunity from successful lawsuits.  The data also does not support the assumption that State-Owned Enterprises may be immune to a successful lawsuit.  While the sample size of cases brought against SOEs is small, the win rate by foreign plaintiffs against different SOE’s is high as 85.7% (14 cases).  No data is presented on success rates in suing the government itself.   This issue also arose in a recent Berkeley Law webinar on copyright reform in China in response.  The panel observed that while there were successful cases against SOE’s in China for software copyright infringement, foreign companies are generally reluctant to sue foreign governments anywhere in the world.

Guangdong and Shanghai are the top venues for foreign and domestic litigants of software copyright disputes.  Forum shopping does not appear to be a useful strategy as software piracy choices are limited to suing where the infringing act is occurring. Unless the defendant has more than one location where piracy is taking place, action will need to be taken in the defendant’s home jurisdiction

The writers also note a high win rate for foreign plaintiffs in their sector (85.3%).  This average for foreigners is brought down by two of the most prolific plaintiffs in the dataset, who filed “bulk lawsuits” and received a markedly lower win rate.  Microsoft had an exemplary win rate according to the CIELA data – 63 cases filed and 63 wins.  The authors make out convincing arguments for greater use of civil remedies in the foreign software owners’ toolbox to address claims of rampant piracy.

Note that IAM did a short analysis of the Software Report, as did AsiaIP.

Trade Secret Cases         

Jerry Xia and Yulu Wang’s ”Analysis of Guiding Trade Secret Cases in China Published during the World IP Day in 2020” (the “Trade Secret Report”)  is available here in Chinese and machine translation.

Jerry Xia presented The Trade Secret Report at a recent Berkeley webinar on trade secret developments in China. According to the authors, of the more than 600 typical cases published in 2020, there were only 47 trade secret cases, accounting for less than 7.8% of the total.  By comparison, according to a Beijing Higher People’s Court study, from 2013 to 2017, a total of 338 cases of unfair competition involving trade secrets were concluded by judgment in the courts.  The typical case numbers may seem small; however, trade secret cases are a small cohort of China’s IP litigation docket. Earlier data, reported by CIELA also showed a low volume of trade secret litigation. I have also noted elsewhere on this blog that trade secrets are a small part of the criminal IP docket and of the AUCL docket.  The Trade Secret Report does not compare the data on typical trade secret cases with prior years’ reporting on typical cases, which could be a further indication of the interest of China’s courts in establishing clear rules regarding adjudication of trade secret disputes.

The Trade Secret Report notes that the number of cases in which trade secrets where plaintiffs won was 113, or about 35 percent of all cases.  Relatively low win rates have also been reported previously on this blog.  The cases equally involved both business information or technical information.  Zhejiang Province (10), Guangdong Province (9) and Shandong Province (7) announced the most cases. Of the 47 typical cases, there were no cases involving foreign parties and only one case involving Taiwan.

The authors additionally searched the public database for cases involving trade secrets from 2016 to the present.  The number of reported cases involving foreign parties was rare.  Only nine cases were retrieved, involving parties such as the United States, Japan, Germany and Australia, four of which were foreign vs. local, three cases were local vs. foreign, and two were foreign vs. foreign.  The relatively high percentage of local vs foreign cases in a limited cohort may nonetheless be concerning, particularly in light of proposed judicial interpretations regarding enhanced punishment when trade secrets are misappropriated on behalf of foreign actors.   Of the six cases in which foreign entities were plaintiffs, two were dismissed, two were voluntarily withdrawn and the results of the remaining two were not made public. Of the five cases in which foreign entities were defendants, the plaintiffs’ claims were rejected in four cases, and the outcome of the other case was not made public.

Among the published cases in 2020, there were two cases of punitive damages involving trade secrets.   These two typical cases do not give any clear criteria for the determination of “malice”. However, in determining the base and multiples of punitive damages, one typical case provides some guidance:  In a criminal case, a lost licensing fee was used as a calculation for assessing the severity of the punishment.  This is consistent with the proposed judicial interpretation of Criminal Cases Involving Trade Secrets, noted above.  The Trade Report also notes that although a shifting of the burden of proof is contemplated by the revised AUCL, there was no typical case on point.  However, there are two cases on point that came into effect after the new AUCL came into force

These typical cases help the public to understand how the courts are handling trade secret matters.  The relatively large cohort of trade secret typical cases so soon after legislation has been revised may also be seen as a political statement regarding judicial determination to handle these trade secret cases in accordance with the law.   As Susan Finder has noted in her article China’s Evolving Case Law System in Practice, these cases along with SPC guiding cases and other published instructional cases, may be important guides to the courts in determining how to rule on newly emerging issues.  In addition, at least in the case of IP issues, they may also provide assurances to foreign partners of the willingness of Chinese courts to comprehensively implement legislative reforms.

Improving Approaches to Using the Right Data

These reports all offer strategic guidance for companies and rightsholders and are part of a growing trend to use empirical tools in evaluating China’s IP environment.  The reports also effectively leverage recent or proposed changes in Chinese IP laws and judicial interpretations to provide a useful window into developing judicial practices.  While their utility for business strategic and policy purposes is easily recognized, concerns over case publication practices by the Chinese courts do limit their comprehensiveness.  The Software Report notes that most major jurisdictions are now publishing all their cases and it also notes that “the sample size of CIELA data is sufficient to be able to draw statistically valid conclusions.”  However, a consistent issue in looking at Chinese IP empirical studies is in determining how many cases are not being published throughout the country, particularly in less frequently utilized jurisdictions.

When cases are not published, some instructive messages can also be derived from the types of cases that are being published or actively promoted, such as the cases discussed in the Trade Secret Report.   Data on what is missing can be highly valuable data unto itself. One approach that is used in these reports is to rely upon a plurality of data sources to ensure that key judicial databases are comprehensive.  The SEP Report, for example, is based on “official announcements by the involved parties, information disclosed by the courts, and relevant news reports.”  Using a plurality of data sources may be necessary in analyzing trends in SEP cases as these cases are often not publicly available due to confidentiality concerns.  A pluralistic approach is also taken in the Trade Secret Report, which compares data and cases other than these typical cases in order to better help the reader to understand the nature of trade secret litigation in China as well as the role of the small cohort of typical cases in analyzing China’s developing IP jurisprudence.

A useful benchmark on the adequacy of a database of published cases is the SPC annual report on IP litigation, which generally reports on overall numbers of cases accepted or decided, rather than numbers of published cases.   In recent years, however, data on foreign-related cases has sometimes been missing or less comprehensively reported on in recent years. This may have been due to the trade war.  In the criminal IP context, comparisons among administrative referrals to police prosecution, police investigation data, procuratorate prosecution data, SPC case and conviction data and case publications (when they are available) can provide useful comparisons to evaluate trends.  For  examples of  typical SPC/published case discrepancies, the CIELA database includes 54,000 infringement cases of all types over a relatively longer period of time than the SPC database and the Trademark Report relies upon 11,056 judgments in 2019.  By comparison, the Supreme People’s Court reported that there were 65,209 trademark cases alone in 2019.   These discrepancies may be attributable in some part to delays between case publication, case decisions and case acceptance, lack of finality about the nature of reported cases (infringement/ownership/royalty or other disputes), the impact of settlement or preliminary relief in case publication, the confidentiality of decisions that may block publication, collection methodology used in supporting the analyses, and other factors.  These discrepancies and factors often make a selection of earlier years for analysis more attractive to scholars in reaching fully-informed decisions about judicial behavior, even if they may have less value for immediate strategic business purposes.

While I agree that the IP litigation environment for foreigners has been improving, foreigners nonetheless continue to underutilize China’s litigation system.  The Reports help underscore the importance of carefully crafted strategies which might help improve overall utilization and success rate.  In the future, I hope that reports will include such factors as the quality of the underlying right and the quality of the law firm representing the rightsholder. The relatively low level of foreign utilization of the Chinese judicial IP systems suggests that foreigners may also be selecting their strongest cases to litigate, which makes it difficult to compare with the more active docket of Chinese domestic rightsholders.  My guess is that assessing the impact of the law firm upon success rates will also show that the authors of these reports have contributed to a higher success rate for their clients.  In any event, legal analytics are becoming increasingly important tools for law firm and client success.

Interested in hearing more about Chinese legal analytics? Join us on Wednesday, July 15 4:30 Pacific Time for the final Berkeley China IP webinar, where we bring together David Kappos, Don Rosenberg, Mark Wu, Alex Capri, and Dan Prud’homme to discuss the future development of  China’s IP regime and its interactions with the United States.  The topic is certain to come up!

New Draft JI on Enforcement on Criminal IP Laws, Especially Trade Secrets

China’s judicial organs (the Supreme People’s Court [“SPC”] and Supreme People’s Procuratorate [“SPP”]) continue to work on trade secret related judicial developments, with the release on June 17, 2020 of the “Interpretation on Several Issues Concerning the Specific Application of Law in Handling Criminal Cases of Infringement of Intellectual Property (3) (Draft for Comment)《关于办理侵犯知识产权刑事案件具体应用法律若干问题的解释(三)(征求意见稿)》.

This JI covers trademark, copyright, and trade secret-related crimes. Comments are due by August 2 2020 at the SPC (Third Civil or IP Division) and SPP. The focus on trade secrets is self-evident from this document.  The Chinese characters for “secret” 机密appear 36 times, trademarks 商标18 times, and a copyrighted “work”著作 8 times.

Among the major provisions that implicate trade secrets are: (a) clarification of how to satisfy criminal thresholds for trade secret enforcement, including use of illegal losses, gains and causing bankruptcy or major operational difficulties (Art. 4); how to calculate losses, including lost profits, lost sales, revenue and other benefits from the misappropriated trade secret (Art. 5); calculating the proportional value of a trade secret in combination with another  product or technology (Art. 6); use of research and development costs if the secret is lost to satisfy criminal thresholds (Art. 7); other compensatory remedial expenses (Art. 8); sanctions for violating protective orders (Art. 9); increases in penalties for entities that are mainly engaged in IP infringement or in the case of “infringement of commercial secrets for foreign institutions, organizations and personnel” (Art. 10, see my earlier blog); a reduction of penalty when the trade secret is disclosed to obtain an IP right, such as a patent, and the right is vested in the trade secret owner (Art. 11); and prohibition against engaging in certain occupations may be imposed for a period of time as a condition of a sentence (Art. 12).

Comment: trade secrets have often proven to be the subject of intense trade pressure.  However, the pressure is often not persistent, and the issues may therefore also receive inconsistent attention over long periods of time.  Recent trade pressure has contributed to such laudable developments as the revised trade secret law (AUCL), the Phase 1 Trade Agreement, the recent increase in legislative and policy work from the courts on trade secrets including work on JI’s and recent plans by SAMR to revise trade secret related rules.

If you are interested in learning more about how inconsistent trade pressure may have prolonged consideration of trade secret issues such as the definition of a “business operator”, limitations of protection to Chinese “citizens”, the availability of preliminary injunctions, and concerns over requiring “practical applicability” for trade secret protection for as long as 25 years, here is a pdf of a presentation that I gave last week at a Berkeley webinar.

July 4 update: Here is a translation of the draft JI.

Updated: June 30, 2020, July 4, 2020.

 

SAMR Releases Legislative Work Plan for 2020

On 26 March 2020, SAMR released its Legislative Work Plan for 2020 (“2020 Legislative Plan”) 国家市场监督管理总局2020 年立法工作计划. In 2020, 7 draft laws and administrative regulations行政法规, including the Amendment to the Detailed Rules for the Implementation of the Patent Law and the Amendment to the Anti-Monopoly Law, will be proposed for deliberation to the Ministry of Justice. Additionally, 48 administrative rules部门规章 will be formulated or amended.

SAMR’s practice is to designate one or two SAMR bureaus/departments with primary drafting responsibility for these projects. This is likely the second time that a yearly legislative work plan was publicly released since SMAR was organized in 2018. The prior legislative work plan is here.

The Class I Projects of administrative rules shall be submitted for legal review by June 30, 2020,  and completed by the end of the year. The 2020 Legislative Plan does not give a specific deadline for the 7 laws and administrative regulations, as well as the Class II Projects of administrative rules. It simply states that these categories shall be submitted for review on time, ensuring high-quality and efficiency (“部门规章第二类项目以及法律、行政法规,要确保高质高效推进,按期送审”).

IP-related projects, drafting departments, and some brief comments follow below:

Laws and Administrative Regulations:

1.Anti-Monopoly Law 中华人民共和国反垄断法. On January 2, 2020, SAMR issued the Draft Amendments to China’s AML (Draft for Public Comment) “反垄断法”修订草案 公开征求意见稿) (“Draft AML Amendments”). The ABA’s Antitrust Law and International Law Sections submitted comments to SAMR on the Draft AML Amendments. According to the NPC Observer, the Draft AML Amendments are on the State Council’s calendar for the 13th NPC Standing Committee Legislative Plan. It is a priority Class II Project. According to the recent government reorganization, it would otherwise be expected that the Ministry of Justice would prepare a draft of the AML revisions for consideration by the State Council which would then forward on to the NPC for three readings.  As mentioned in a previous blog, Article 55 of current AML (Article 62 of the Draft AML Amendments) stayed unchanged in the most recent draft and there are otherwise very little IP-related amendments contemplated at this time. 

Drafting Department: Anti-Monopoly Bureau

6.Regulations for the Implementation of the Drug Administration Law 中华人民共和国药品管理法实施条例  On August 26, 2019, China’s National People’s Congress adopted the new Drug Administration Law (“DAL”), which took effect on December 1, 2019. The legislative history is set forth in the NPC Observer. As noted in the previous blog, the new law addresses some important issues involving counterfeit and substandard medicines. However, it does little to improve the IP regime for innovative medicines.

In order to coordinate the implementation of the DAL, the revision of other supporting regulations and administrative rules will be further implemented this year.

The Regulations for the Implementation of the DAL had been amended and published on March 2, 2019. It has now been put into the Legislative Plan again. These revisions may be intended to implement changes in the newly revised DAL. On the other hand, it is also hoped that a linkage system would emerge as part of a package of legal reforms as contemplated by the US-China Phase 1 Agreement and to implement an earlier CFDA policy decision.

In addition, this 2020 Legislative Plan includes more than ten Drug/Medical Devices-related administrative rules, including: Measures for the Administration of Drug Registration药品注册管理办法, Measures for the Supervision and Administration of Drug Production药品生产监督管理办法, Measures for the Supervision and Administration of Drug Operations药品经营监督管理办法, Measures for the Supervision and Administration of Drug Online Sales药品网络销售监督管理办法, Measures for the Administration of Registration of Medical Devices医疗器械注册管理办法, Measures for the Supervision and Administration of Medical Devices医疗器械生产监督管理办法, and the Measures for the Supervision and Administration of Medical Devices医疗器械经营监督管理办法

Drafting Department: National Medical Products Administration (NMPA)

7.Rules for the Implementation of the Patent Law 中华人民共和国专利法实施细则. The Rules for the Implementation of the Patent Law, were last amended in 2010. It is likely that these amendments will also be in the form of amendment to the previous Rules,  and perhaps may anticipate some of the changes expected in a revised patent law

On January 4, 2019, the National People’s Congress released a public comment draft of the long-awaited revised patent law. The NPC Observer’s summary of the legislative history to date is here. As we noted previously, a major disappointment remains the absence of a patent linkage regime, including a notion of “artificial infringement.” If the new Patent Law fails to address patent linkage, then the Rules for the Implementation of the Patent Law are also very likely to omit a patent linkage regime.

Drafting Department: China National Intellectual Property Administration (CNIPA)

Administrative Rules:

 Class I Projects

10.Provisions on Prohibiting Infringements upon Trade Secrets禁止侵犯商业秘密若干规定.  SAIC, as a predecessor agency to CNIPA, promulgated the Provisions on Prohibiting Infringements upon Trade Secrets in 1995 and amended it in 1998. These Provisions were formulated in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Unfair Competition Law then in effect.  These early rules were especially important for administrative enforcement of trade secrets and do need to be amended in light of recent revisions to the Anti-Unfair Competition law.  One overdue change is to correct language that specifically enumerated rights in trade secrets to Chinese citizens, legal persons or other organizations, and not to all natural persons such as foreign natural persons, which is a legacy that unnecessarily violates national treatment obligations (Art. 2): “The term ‘rights holder’ in these regulations refers to citizens, legal persons or other organizations that have ownership or use rights over trade secrets according to law. ” 本规定所称权利人,是指依法对商业秘密享有所有权或者使用权的公 民、法人或者其他组织。

In addition, in the Phase 1 IP Agreement, the trade secret provisions generally memorialize amendments already made to China’s Anti-Unfair Competition Law, including an expanded scope in defining “operator” (Art. 1.3), acts that constitute trade secret infringement (Art. 1.4), as well as a shifting of the burden of proof in civil proceedings where there is a reasonable basis to conclude that a trade secret infringement has occurred (Art. 1.5). The Agreement also requires China to change its trade secret thresholds for “initiating criminal enforcement.” (Art. 1.7).  It is hoped that some of these provisions will be incorporated into China’s administrative trade secret enforcement mechanisms.

Drafting Department: Price Supervision and Inspection and Anti-Unfair Competition Bureau

36.Measures for the Administration of Trademark Agency 商标代理管理办法

Drafting Department: CNIPA

37. Provisions on Protecting Geographical Indication Products地理标志产品保护规定. Prior rules in this area had been adopted by one of the precursor agencies to SAMR, the State Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine in furtherance of China’s sui generis GI system. On April 3, 2020, CNIPA promulgated the Administrative Measures for the Use of Geographical Indications (Trial) 地理标志专用标志使用管理办法(试行). These measures will hopefully also be harmonized with China’s trademark-based GI system, which is also undergoing reform (see item 55, below). 

Drafting Department: CNIPA

38. Official Logo Protection Measures官方标志保护办法. On March 24, CNIPA released Official Logo Protection Measures (Draft for Public Comment). Comments will be due on April 23, 2020.  

 Drafting Department: CNIPA

 Class II Projects

54. Provisions on the Determination and Protection of Well-Known Trademarks驰名商标认定和保护规定.

Drafting Department: CNIPA

55Administrative Measures Concerning the Registration of Collective Marks and Certification Marks集体商标、证明商标注册和管理办法.

Drafting Department: CNIPA

Class I Projects Administrative Rules Nos. 36 and 37 and Class II Projects Nos. 54 and 55 all have prior effective versions that were issued in 2014 or earlier.  It is likely that these projects will be in the form of amendments to the previous Administrative Rules.

Prepared by Dr. Xu Xiaofan and Mark Cohen

Essentially Derived Varieties and The Role of Leading Cases in Chinese Plant Variety Protection

huntingtongardens
Editor’s Note: Plant Variety Protection (PVP) is a little-discussed topic in China’s IP regime. Indeed, this blog has only reported on PVP-specific issues
once before, and once in the context of the China-Swiss Free Trade Agreement (FTA). This guest blog post explores the relationship among plant variety protection, China’s treaty obligations, and determination of the scope of infringement based on essentially derived varieties (EDVs).   The author, Liz Freeman Rosenzweig, is a J.D. candidate at Berkeley Law. She obtained her Ph.D. in plant biology from Stanford University.

As with other intellectual property (IP) rights, China receives more applications for intellectual property protection of new plant varieties (PVP) than any other country. China grants these rights pursuant to its “Regulations on the Protection of New Varieties of Plants” (“Regulations”) (2014) (中华人民共和国植物新品种保护条例). However, China’s PVP legislative regime lags behind many other countries, largely because of China’s failure to date to accede to the most recent international treaty for protection of plant varieties, the 1991 Act of the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV ’91). Conversely, Chinese jurisprudence on the topic is significantly more developed than that in, for example, the United States. 

China is now considering amending its Regulations to include the concept of essentially derived varieties (EDVs) (实质性派生品种) and molecular markers (分子检测). Broadly speaking, these proposed amendments are also examples of two broader aspects of Chinese IP legal development: (1) China enacting legislation in anticipation or in excess of current international demands, and (2) Chinese legislation riding momentum generated in advance by judicial decision making. If China adopts the proposed amendments to its Regulations, the level of plant IP protection available in China could become among the strongest in the world. Moreover, the legislative changes would be based on the concrete experience and guidance afforded by previous guiding cases from the Chinese Supreme People’s Court (SPC), which suggest how the new provisions might concretely be applied.

 Plant Variety Protection and UPOV

The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) requires WTO member economies, such as China, to provide IP protection for new plant varieties. Members may do so through a patent system, a sui generis system, or both. The United States takes the combined approach, offering plant IP via utility patents and plant patents under U.S. Code Title 35, and also via Plant Variety Protection (PVP) certificates under the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA). China does not provide patents for plants. Instead, plant protection in China is under an entirely sui generis approach.

Internationally, the most commonly adopted sui generis mechanism is the system of plant breeders’ rights (PBRs) promulgated by the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). The UPOV Convention was first finalized in 1961 and was revised in 1972, 1978, and 1991. As of February, 2020, 76 countries are UPOV members, 59 of which are members of the ’91 Act.

One key change between the ’78 and ’91 Acts is the extension of the scope of the breeder’s right to include EDVs. Per UPOV ’91, a new variety is considered “essentially derived” from an initial variety when it is both “clearly distinguishable from” and “predominantly derived from the initial variety, . . . while retaining the expression of the essential characteristics . . . of the initial variety.” A breeder may obtain a PBR for an EDV “in the same way as for any variety,” but if they wish to commercialize the EDV, they must obtain authorization from the initial variety’s titleholder. This is similar to the manner in which practicing a patent that improves upon a previously valid patent may require permission from the dominant patent’s owner. In contrast, under the ’78 scheme, rights to the initial variety are more limited, and no authorization from the initial variety’s titleholder is required to commercialize a variety that the ’91 Act would consider an EDV.

But defining precisely what constitutes an EDV is notoriously difficult. The ’91 Act provides examples of how an EDV may be created, such as by finding or creating a mutation in an initial variety. However, the list is not exhaustive. Furthermore, the text of the Act seems to contradict itself, leaving significant ambiguity as to the required level of physical resemblance between an EDV and its initial variety. That is, Art. 14(5)(b)(i) of the ’91 Act states that EDVs must “retain[] the expression of the essential characteristics that result from the genotype or combination of genotypes of the initial variety.” But then subsection (b)(iii) excepts “differences which result from the act of derivation” from the required level of conformity. It is not clear precisely how those two instructions are meant to be integrated. For example, a slide deck from UPOV itself presents a hypothetical derived variety that is closely genetically related to its initial variety, but in which “more than one or a few characteristics were affected,” and labels it, ambiguously, “EDV yes/no??” Thus, the ’91 Act does not provide a clear boundary line for when a variety is or is not essentially derived.

Many UPOV member countries prefer the definition of EDV to be broad in order to leave the determination of whether a variety is an EDV up to the rights holders. Conversely, UPOV’s guidance, though nonbinding, is narrower. UPOV is, however, currently revising its guidance on the topic to address these current ambiguities.

One method for defining an EDV is through genetic and biochemical techniques such as molecular markers (“markers”). UPOV does not require the use of markers, but it does provide guidance on their use. That guidance cautions against overreliance on molecular techniques, noting that their usefulness is subject to significant variability, and expressing concern that markers could be abused to make closely-related varieties seem more different than they actually are.

The US ratified UPOV ’91 in 1999. But China has only acceded to ’78. According to Dan Prud’homme and Taolue Zhang, one reason that China has not acceded to the ’91 Act is UPOV’s “lack of clarity in the definition of [EDVs] . . . , which makes it difficult to institutionalize in China.” However, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MoARA) and State Administration of Forestry and Grasslands (SAFG), which govern the granting of plant variety rights in China, recently “expressed an intention to formulate a long-term plan to gradually satisfy key requirements of UPOV ’91,” including “adopting UPOV ’78 plus-style provisions/piloting important aspects of UPOV ’91 (e.g., instituting EDV for certain types of plant varieties) in order to see how the system works in practice.” China’s recently-released draft amendments to its Regulations do just that. Moreover, China’s Supreme People’s Court has also announced on March 19, 2020, its own plans to draft a new Judicial Interpretation regarding plant variety infringement determinations which will likely implement China’s emerging practices in this area.

Comparing Plant Variety Protection Definitions in China and the U.S.

China’s Regulations were promulgated and implemented by the State Council in 1997, two years before China acceded to UPOV ’78. China then revised its Regulations in 2013 and 2014. PBRs under the Regulations are issued in parallel by SAFG (for vines, forest trees, fruit trees, and ornamentals, with rights lasting 20 years) and MoARA (for all other plants, with rights lasting 15 years). China has faced both internal and external pressure to update the Regulations: National entities have pushed for a clearer and more streamlined application process, and many countries—members of the European Union in particular—have been pressuring China to adopt UPOV ’91-style provisions such as by providing for EDVs.

To that end, China began the process of revising its Regulations in 2016—a year before ChemChina, a state-owned entity, purchased Syngenta, a major beneficiary and user of the UPOV system, with hundreds of plant registrations internationally. The proposed draft amendments to the Regulations were released for comment in February 2019. These proposed amendments would essentially move China towards UPOV ’91. This is not an unusual move for China; the country has often enacted legislation in anticipation of meeting—or even in excess of—international requirements. For example, China provided copyright protection for the “right of making available” (right of communication to the public) in the 2002 amendments to China’s Copyright Law, well in advance of China acceding to the WIPO Internet Treaties in 2007. As another example, China also recently amended its Anti-Unfair Competition Law to be the most progressive trade secret law (at least on paper) by reversing the burden of proof, which is in excess of international requirements.

These draft amendments to the plant IP Regulations make several important changes. Crucially among those, the proposed amendments introduce the concepts of EDVs and molecular markers into the Regulations for the first time.

The proposed amendments define EDV as “a variety that is distinct from the original variety, but retains the basic characteristics or characteristics of the original variety, except for the differences caused by the derivation.” This proposed definition of EDV appears to be broader than the UPOV definition. Significantly, it also lacks contradictory language, discussed above, embedded in the UPOV definition and copied nearly verbatim into the U.S. definition.

The US recently also overhauled its PVP system, extending PVP eligibility to asexually propagated plants for the first time. The PVPA has included EDVs since 1994, the definition of which was taken almost verbatim from UPOV ’91—meaning it includes the apparently contradictory language that China’s draft avoids. Also unlike China’s draft amendments, the PVPA makes no mention of molecular markers or other genetic techniques. But the Plant Variety Protection Office, which oversees the PVPA, is moving towards incorporating such methods in the future.

China Leads the World in PBRs by Volume

One reason that China may wish to have an advanced PBR regime could be the growth of its own domestic research capacity in this important area. In 2018, China was “the top destination for plant variety applications,” receiving over a quarter of filings worldwide. Not only did China receive the most applications, but Chinese nationals also filed the most applications worldwide. A record high of >20,000 plant variety applications were filed worldwide that year, driven primarily by China. Applications in China grew by an astounding 29% in 2018, driven almost exclusively by domestic filings (this mirrors the Chinese patent system, which is also primarily used by domestic applicants). In contrast, applications in the US and EU grew by only ~3-4% in 2018, and the worldwide growth rate was ~9%. That being said, this surge is fairly recent, and the US and EU still outrank China in terms of number of active titles. But note that this source includes both PVPs and plant patents in the U.S. tallies. It is unclear why the US numbers do not include utility patents on plants (though it may be due to difficulty in data collection; unlike PVPs and plant patents, not all utility patents are directed to plants), but the US total would be even higher if it did. Considering just PVP rights, in 2018 there were 7,521 active titles in the US.

If China adopts its proposed amendments, then filings in China may also increase due to increased foreign applications, as well as stimulating foreign investment in China in this sector. Thus, activity in the Chinese plant variety protection offices will likely continue to dwarf that in the US. 

More Thorough Plant Variety Protection Guidance from Chinese Litigation than U.S. Litigation

There is significantly more PBR litigation in China than in the US. As of November, 2019, there have been at least 338 Chinese cases referencing the Regulations (华人民共和国植物新品种保护条例). At least 18 of these cases discuss molecular markers (分子检测). Although China is a civil law system where cases do not create binding precedent, for the past decade the Chinese Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has issued “guiding cases” that are “intended to be de facto binding decisions” to guide lower courts’ decisions in similar cases. The SPC has issued several guiding cases on PBRs. Stanford University Law School has also initiated a “China Guiding Cases Project” which provides a platform for research on these judicial developments.

Two guiding cases have discussed molecular markers specifically. These cases, discussed below, reveal that the SPC embraces the use of molecular markers—but is wary of overreliance thereon, and is careful to balance genetic results with observations from field trials.

In Guiding Case No. 2633, the SPC denied retrial after a lower court found non-infringement when there were no genetic differences between the varieties at issue, but there were phenotypic differences during field trials. In reaching this decision, the SPC noted that the genetic testing only assessed 40 locations in the genome, which does “not necessarily correspond to the traits” observed in phenotypic field tests.

Guiding Case No. 92 was essentially the reverse situation: the SPC found infringement when markers revealed a single genetic difference but field tests showed no phenotypic differences. In doing so, the SPC formulated a technical balancing test for reconciling field and genetic tests that tempers over-reliance on molecular markers.

By late 2019 there were no reported Chinese cases that specifically referenced EDVs. But the molecular marker cases likely hint at how courts will address them. Intriguingly, the facts of Guiding Case No. 92 seem remarkably similar to an EDV situation, in that the accused variety retained the characteristics of the first variety while displaying minor genetic differences. If Chinese PBR agencies or the Courts formally adopt EDVs, they may determine essential derivation with a test much like the one set out in Guiding Case No. 92, as the Chinese concept of EDV would likely cover most types of genetic changes.

Neither of those two guiding cases have been cited by name, however, in published subsequent cases according to a March 23, 2020 search on Caipanwenshu 裁判文书 (the official SPC database). This is not unusual, as most guiding cases are not widely cited by lower courts, who, along with practicing lawyers, still remain unfamiliar with citing and distinguishing cases in rendering decisions. Rather than being “precedential,” guiding cases such as these may also be issued primarily to illustrate examples of good reasoning for judges, or to provide political coverage for consistent decision making.

Ironically, although China is a civil law country, its case law fills the statutory gaps for plant variety protection far more comprehensively that in the U.S. In contrast to the robust Chinese case law, there have been only 19 reported (and 28 unreported) U.S. cases referencing 7 USCS § 2541 (PVP infringement) as of March, 2020. These include 4 Supreme Court cases and 5 at the Federal Circuit. The Supreme Court cases either reference the PVPA only in passing or are outdated.

A handful of U.S. cases reference genetic testing, but do not address the concept in much detail (See Ark. Seed Co., Inc. v. Williams, No. 10-1231, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 100224, at *3 (C.D. Ill. Sep. 6, 2011)). Despite the presence of EDVs in the PVPA, there has not been reported EDV litigation in the U.S. as of March, 2020. The closest case was the denial of a motion to stay litigation pending the PVPO’s assessment of an application for an allegedly infringing variety of lettuce, but the court did not decide whether the variety was an EDV, and the case has no subsequent appellate history. (See Genecorp, Inc. v. Progeny Advanced Genetics, Inc., No. C 97-20706 RMW, 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21910, at *7 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 9, 1998)).

Conclusion

If China adopts its current proposed amendments, it would offer protection to plant breeders in line with “or even above” UPOV ’91. Given that Chinese PBRs represent the lion’s share of all such rights worldwide, this would be a significant change. It seems likely that legislators will approve a version of these Regulations in the next few years, though it is unclear when. Notably, the “Opinions on Strengthening the Protection of Intellectual Property Rights” recently released by the Chinese Communist Party and State Council (November 27, 2019), also explicitly calls for encouraging Chinese innovation by improving the protection, examination, and international sharing of examination results for new plant varieties. If China does adopt the proposed amendments, China would likely become a de facto member of at least part of UPOV ’91, as Chinese officials reportedly “want legislation in line with the 1991 UPOV convention but do not want to actually accede to the 1991 UPOV convention.” This pattern of gradual and partial adherence to international treaties has also manifested itself elsewhere in China’s legal regime, including in the gradual piloting of civil or economic legal reforms before wider introduction into the Chinese legal system or economy.

The nuanced treatment of molecular markers in the proposed amendments and in Chinese guiding cases is ahead of that in the US, and the US may very well follow China’s lead in adopting a more systematic use of molecular markers in the application process. The proposed amendments’ concept of EDV strengthens the incentive for innovation by expanding the scope of the breeder’s right.

Moreover, the definition of EDV put forth in the proposed amendments is arguably broader and clearer than that under UPOV ‘91 and in the US, which may give holders of Chinese rights a competitive advantage and increase the incentive to protect new plant varieties in China. But the extent of foreign investment these amendments would engender is unclear, given that China requires that Chinese parties be controlling shareholders for “selection and cultivation of new varieties of crops.” 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Many thanks to Mark Cohen, Elaine Wu, David Kappos, Edgar Krieger, Cynthia Mathiesen, Alanna Rennie, Xiaofan Xu, and Alexandra Draggeim for valuable discussion, comments, feedback, editorial help, and research and translation assistance.  Photos (c) by Mark Cohen of Huntington Gardens and US Plant Patent.

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The Changing Legislative Landscape of Trade Secret Protection in China

This blog is a supplement to my prior blog on the recent TM law and AUCL revisions.  Attached is a bilingual translation provided by the Quality Brands Protection Committee (QBPC) of the recent revisions to the Trademark Law and Anti-Unfair Competition Law (AUCL).   This blog focuses on the trade secret amendments.  And thank you, QBPC!

The trade secret amendments by themselves are promising.  The NPC, recognizing their importance, took the unusual step of making the amendments immediately effective, unlike the Trademark Law amendments which have a delayed effective date.

Perhaps the most critical change addressed the problem created by prior amendments to the AUCL which removed natural persons from the scope of covered entities.  The logic at that time appeared to be that natural persons were covered under the definition of trade secrets provided in the General Outline of the Civil Code (GOCC),  中华人民共和国民法总则 (Art. 123).  However, the inconsistency between the AUCL and the GOCC created unnecessity ambiguities that these amendments help address.

The AUCL revisions also expand the remedies for trade secret protection by imposing liability on “inciting” or “abetting” (教唆)trade secret theft.  Inciting or abetting is an inchoate offense under the Chinese Criminal Law (Art. 29), and it also appears in China’s Tort Law (Art. 9), as well as in actual or proposed IP legislation, such as a 2012 Judicial Interpretation regarding online copyright liability.   This would appear to expand the scope of liability for those who facilitate or organize a trade secret infringement.

The AUCL also “borrows” the concept of quintupled damages if bad faith infringement is found.  This is similar to the new TM law revisions that provide for quintuple damages if there is malicious 恶意infringement.  I am not certain, however, if this provision will have its desired effect of deterring infringement, at least in the short term for two reasons: statutory damages still remain the principal remedy in most IP cases, and cases where actual damages are imposed and could be multiplied are also rare. Nonetheless, this provision could become of increasing importance as Chinese courts experiment with calculating actual damages.  Moreover, quintuple damages may not only be in place to deter infringement and better compensate rightsholders but also to assist in improving the leading role of the civil IP system compared to the criminal and administrative systems in China.

The revised law also clarifies that “electronic intrusion” to obtain trade secrets is an enumerated infringing act (Art. 9), which is in line with other computer crime laws in China such as the Criminal Law  (Art. 285).  This language may be helpful in prosecuting those civil cases where a computer intrusion was involved.  Although my data on trade secret cases involving electronic intrusions in China was very limited (from 2012) it had suggested that cyber intrusions were a  small percentage of China’s civil trade secret docket, perhaps because these matters were pursued through other legal channels.   If readers have more recent data or analysis on this issue, please provide them to me in comments to this blog.

The revised AUCL also provides for a burden of proof reversal (Art. 32).  Jim Pooley described  this provision as the “most promising” among trade secret legislative developments, as it “involves shifting the burden of proof in cases where the circumstantial evidence seems strong—such as the development of a similar product in an unusually short time after access to the plaintiff’s secrets—and requiring the defendant to prove independent development.”  According to Article 32 a rights holder that has preliminarily proven that it  has taken reasonable confidentiality measures on the claimed trade secrets and has preliminary evidence reasonably demonstrating 初步证据合理表明 that its trade secrets have been infringed upon, can shift the burden of proof (BOP) to the infringer to prove that the trade secrets claimed by the right holder do not belong to those as prescribed in this law. The preliminary evidence that may be provided by the rights holder includes: “evidence proving that the alleged infringer has channels or opportunities of obtaining the trade secrets and that the information it uses is substantially the same as the trade secrets“ or “evidence proving that the trade secrets have been disclosed or used by the alleged infringer or have risks of being disclosed or used” or “there is other evidence proving that the trade secrets have been infringed upon by the alleged infringer.”

This is a notable development.   However, the history of BOP reversals in China suggests that such provisions have not always had their expected impact.  Importantly, BOP reversals in process patent cases are required to be available under Article 34 of the TRIPS Agreement and under China’s Patent Law (Art. 61). Stringent requirements, such as requiring that the infringing product is identical with the one accused of violating the manufacturing process, have made it difficult to successfully bring these cases in China.  Most importantly, the low level of publication of trade secret cases, as well as the non-publication of interim orders, may mean that the public will have little insight into how courts handle actual cases, including this BOP reversal.   Trade secrets are perhaps the most opaque area of China’s IP enforcement regime, making it also very difficult to judge when significant improvements are being made.

Another difficulty may occur in ascertaining what constitutes a willful infringement and compensating for it.  Trade secret cases necessarily involve an act that circumvents or ignores precautions taken by the rightsholder.  The fact that such an inappropriate act may have been wrong, willful or even premeditated, also does not necessarily mean that the rightsholder suffered serious losses.  A good example of this is the recent case brought by the US Department of Justice against Huawei, involving the theft of T-Mobile technology and related behavior.   A  prior civil jury verdict related to one aspect of that case found that Huawei’s acts constituted trade secret misappropriation, but declined to award damages or to find that the actions were willful and malicious.

Another challenge, also identified by Jill Ge at Clifford Chance, is that Chinese courts may yet remain intent on using patent doctrines such as ‘novelty’ to determine that a given technology is not a protectable trade secret because it is otherwise in the public domain according to patent law doctrines.  Additionally, as I have noted this approach inappropriately “provid[es] a non-infringement defense based on modifying misappropriated technology,” that is a court may determine that the accused infringer did not use the precise technology and therefore there is no trade secret theft, borrowing perhaps from patent law doctrines regarding conduct that constitutes infringement (make, use or sell).  This problem of borrowing patent law doctrines into technical trade secret cases may be magnified by the experience and background of the technologically oriented IP judges in the IP courts or their IP assessors whose experienced has principally been informed by patent litigation.

In an unrelated development which also highlights the importance of making appropriate linkages between the civil and criminal trade secret regimes, US Deputy Assistant Attorney General Adam Hickey  recently gave a speech on national security and trade secret theft (April 24, 2019).  Reflecting on recent criminal prosecutions against Chinse nationals he noted:

“[T]here are trade secret cases where we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Chinese government itself directed the theft.  …  But although we could not prove in court that these thefts were directed by the Chinese government, they are in perfect consonance with the Chinese government’s economic policy. “

China’s problem seems to be the reverse of the United States, by its historical underemphasizing of criminal remedies.  Although the AUCL amendments incorporate many notable improvements, they also do not address weaknesses in the criminal IP regime for trade secrets, the low level of criminal trade secret cases, and the widening differences that now exist between civil and criminal cases in such areas as proof of infringement.    All countries seeking to protect trade secrets need to strike the correct social balance between civil and criminal enforcement of trade secret theft.  DOJ’s inabilities to secure convictions also demonstrate the necessity in the US of having effective civil remedies, including 337 actions.    An integrated, stand-alone trade secret law in China that incorporates civil, criminal and administrative remedies, as well as doctrines from labor law, contract law, corporate law, and other areas, could help secure a more advanced, holistic perspective on how China should address trade secret infringements.  To address cross-border trade secret infringements, foreign government judicial cooperation in facilitating discovery, taking depositions, and enforcing judgments would also help improve the bilateral environment in this area.  In addition, China might consider additional policies that make it harder to engage in “efficient” trade secret theft, where costs of being caught are less than the cost of innovating on one’s own.  Such policies might include government procurement debarment for products using stolen technologies, invalidation of patents granted on the basis of misappropriated technologies and debarment from the Chinese patent office, return of any subsidies or grants for developing the technology, and denial or revocation of recognition capital contributions of technology for tax or other purposes, amongst other possibilities.