Qualcomm’s Litigation Strategies and Recent IP Developments in China

反者道之動。弱者道之用。 (, Chap. 40) (Return is the movement of the Dao. Yielding is the way of the Dao.  Daodejing, Chap. 40.)

To the uninitiated, Qualcomm’s licensing practices in China must appear confusing.  Since paying a fine of 975 million USD to NDRC – about 50,000 times average patent damages according to the CIELA database for its Standards Essential Patent licensing practices, Qualcomm has entered into approximately 100  licensing settlements with Chinese companies.  How can the weak become so successful, so soon?

According to press accounts, Qualcomm has settled with the major cell phone manufacturers in China,  most recently with Chinese cell phone companies Vivo and Oppo.  Both deals came after Qualcomm decided to bring law suits against cell phone manufacturer Meizu in the Beijing and Shanghai intellectual property courts for damages that reportedly total about 520 million RMB.  The first law suit was filed by Qualcomm around June 23 at the Beijing Intellectual Property Court.   The complaint essentially sought to enforce an NDRC rectification plan imposed on Qualcomm against other infringers/potential licensees.  The original complaint, according to Qualcomm’s press release “requests rulings that the terms of a patent license offered by Qualcomm to Meizu comply with China’s Anti-Monopoly Law, and Qualcomm’s fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory licensing obligations.  The complaint also seeks a ruling that the offered patent license terms should form the basis for a patent license with Meizu for Qualcomm’s fundamental technologies patented in China for use in mobile devices, including those relating to 3G (WCDMA and CDMA2000) and 4G (LTE) wireless communications standards.”  Since that filing, Qualcomm filed 17 new complaints were filed in Beijing and Shanghai.

Given the risks to Qualcomm posed by seeking injunctive relief for standards essential patents, Qualcomm appears to have initially launched its litigation campaign against Meizu by enforcing the NDRC approved licensing terms against one hold out company who might thereafter be left with an unfair competitive advantage.   Qualcomm appears to be reducing its antitrust risks by first getting “immunized” by NDRC, and then enforcing the terms of the NDRC “rectification plan” and couching its patent infringement litigation in terms of promoting fair competition.  This in effect has turned the tables on recalcitrant licensees who have previously relied on Qualcomm’s FRAND commitments to reduce the risk of being sued by Qualcomm by threatening an antitrust counterclaim.  What remains to be seen, however, is the legal status the court affords the rectification plan given the often unclear relationships between judicial and administrative decision making.

Qualcomm’s GC, Don Rosenberg said Qualcomm is taking legal action out of a sense of fairness to other companies that are paying what they owe.  In addition, the case represents a vote of confidence by Qualcomm in the court system.  As Don Rosenberg noted “”We’re putting our faith in the court system there and we wouldn’t do that if we didn’t think we were in capable hands.”  Qualcomm may no doubt have been inspired by the success of its licensing program as well as the perfect or near perfect win rate in the sixty five infringement cases filed by foreigners in 2015 in the Beijing IP court.  As I have noted repeatedly on this blog, foreigners do win IP cases in China.

In China’s current legal environment,  where licensing is burdened by seemingly contradictory norms – e.g., where the Chinese government sets prices for license transactions in antitrust cases, restricts the freedom to negotiate of foreigners, provides tax incentives for licensing in to China for high tech enterprises, sets national goals for licensing transactions, and where the courts seem to have difficulty imposing damages based on actual or implied royalties, Qualcomm appears to be turning the 975 million dollars of “lemons” of the  NDRC fine, into a vat of lemonade.

Qualcomm’s vote of confidence in the courts in a high stakes case may also help set an important model for other foreign and Chinese rightsholders, potentially by highlighting such important issues as: Yes, foreigners win cases in China, the importance of actual or explicit license agreements for determining damages (already being tried in some jurisdictions, see: 江苏固丰管桩集团有限公司 vs 宿迁华顺建筑预制构件有限公司 (Jiangsu, 2015), and the respective roles of patent law,  antitrust law, the courts and administrative agencies, in obtaining SEP licenses in China.

Qualcomm and China both have a lot at stake in the handling of SEP issues.   A recent report by Thomson Reuters (The Evolving Landscape of Standard Essential Patents: Keeping What is Essential, Sawant and Oak), showed that Qualcomm owns 17% of the patent declarations before the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, followed by Nokia, Huawei, and InterDigital.   Decisions in Europe such as Huawei vs. ZTE may also have underscored the importance of looking at whether a putative licensee/infringer is in fact negotiating in good faith with a FRAND encumbered licensor.

Judges such as  Zhu Li of the SPC have noted some of these changes publicly.  As Zhu Li said in a recent blog:

…标准必要专利权作出FRAND承诺即自愿放弃了在任何情况下寻求禁令救济的选择,更不意味着其寻求禁令救济一定产生反竞争的效果。因此,作出FRAND承诺的标准必要专利权利人寻求禁令救济的反竞争效果仍然需要具体分析判断。

[T]he owner of standard essential patent FRAND commitment that is made voluntarily does not give up under all circumstances the choice of seeking injunctive relief.  Furthermore, it does not mean seeking injunctive relief must produce anti-competitive effects. Therefore, when a holder of a FRAND encumbered SEP seeks injunctive relief, the anti-competitive effects still need specific analysis and judgment。

The evolving practice appears to be that the evidentiary burden to demonstrate that the infringers have refused to pay a license fee is on the licensor and, as Zhu Li noted,  a monopoly is not necessarily constituted when an injunction is requested by SEP owners.

The State Council’s recent opinion on how China should become a “strong” IP country, also highlighted how China needs to draft rules on standard essential patents that are based on FRAND licensing and “stopping infringement” (Art. 38) (with the involvement of AQSIQ, SIPO, MIIT, and the Supreme People’s Court) and that encouraging standardization of Chinese patents also remains a priority (Arts. 61, 71).

As I indicated elsewhere, a key question for China is “What circumstances exist to suggest that a prospective licensee is engaged in patent hold-out, i.e., refusing to license in good faith which might suspend the licensor’s F/RAND obligation…”  Hopefully China is beginning to ask the better questions that are suitable for its licensing environment and its efforts to become a “strong” IP economy.

What are you observing in this hot area? Please post your comments and corrections!

The preceding is the author’s personal opinion only.

lemonade

CATR’s Report on Copyright Enforcement in the On Line Enviroment

The China Academy of Telecommunication Research (CATR), at the request of the National Copyright Administration,  released a report on April 26, 2016 on Copyright Protection in the Online Environment.

The report noted that  there were 2,118 on line civil copyright cases in total, an increase of 28.3% from last year (this total number seems smaller than I would have guessed).  The SPC White Paper reported that overall there were 66,690 civil cases, an increase of 12.1% from 2014.  Regarding civil on line copyright enforcement, 44% of the online cases involved music and 18% involved audiovisual infringement.  Amongst the IP courts, Guangdong had the highest percentage of cases (39.5%), followed by Shanghai (33.5%) and Beijing (16.5).  However, the province with the most cases was Hubei (476), followed by Beijing, Guangdong, Zhejiang, Shanghai and Jiangsu) (see chart below).

graphofcivilcases

The report also notes several important legal and policy initiatives, including directives from the National Copyright Administration on online liability, and a revision to the Criminal Code, making it clear that on line technology providers can be held criminally liable for copyright infringement.  The report also singles out the release of a draft of  proposed rule on Copyright Administrative Enforcement. (著作权行政处罚实施办法 (修订征求意见稿)as well as new rules Concerning Specifications of the Copyright Order In Online Transmissions (关于规范网络转载版权秩序的 通知),  Stopping Online Music Service Providers Transmitting Unauthorized Content(关于责令网络音乐服 务商停止未经授权传播音乐作品 的通知)and the Rule Concerning Specifications of the Order of Cloud Driver Service Provider Copyright (关于规范网盘服务 版权秩序的通知).

Data on copyright administrative and criminal enforcement in the online environment was not made available in this report.   According to the SPC White Paper, there were 523 criminal copyright cases, involved 547 people.  Moreover, news reports accompanying its release reported the following data: during the Sword Network Campaign in 2015, there were 383 administrative enforcement actions, with fines of 4.5 million RMB, 59 cases transferred to criminal prosecution, and 113 websites closed.

Summarizing the SPC’s 2015 White Paper

 

WP_20160420_005China releases much of its IP data in April, on the margins of World IP Day (April 26).  This year there have been important conferences summarizing these reports in advance of their release, including reports from the Supreme People’s Court on IP litigation, as well as white paper reports on specialized IP courts in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong.  In addition, there are SPC reports on fifty model cases and 10 big IP casesThe Western media has also reported on some of these reports, as have state run media in Chinese and in English.   This blog has reported on SPC whitepapers and model cases for some time.  As in prior years many provincial courts, such as Hubei, are also reporting out white papers of various kinds, as have IP and administrative agencies, such as Beijing municipality.

As in prior years, interpretation of the data, particularly for the foreign business community, can be challenging.  Here is my digest of the SPC’s important 2015 White Paper:

Foreign Cases Are a Shrinking Share

Perhaps the most dramatic national news from the official national data involving foreigners is that in 2015 foreign related IP cases dropped 22% in absolute numbers from last year, despite an overall increase of 7.2% of total decided IP cases. The total number of civil cases involving foreigners was 1,327.   As a consequence, foreign related IP civil cases as a share of total cases dropped from 1.9% (2013), to 1.8% (2014), to 1.2% (2015).   By contrast, total administrative cases in 2015 were 10,926, of which 4,928 were foreign or about 45%, continuing the trend of an outsized foreign administrative presence, with an undersized infringement role.

Data from other sources also casts some doubt on the “foreign-related” data in the SPC’s report.  The Shanghai IP courts reported that approximately one in six lawsuits received involved an overseas party, with most pursuing trademark or patent infringement claims.  A newly set up database company, IP House, also reported that over 20% of the IP litigation in Beijing involved foreigners.  Former SIPO Commissioner Tian Lipu also cast doubt on data suggesting that the amount of foreign-related IP litigation is under 5%, in a letter to then USPTO Director Kappos.  Conflicting data on foreign-related cases is likely due to the manner of reporting.  Although there is no official explanation I know of, I believe that foreign-related cases are likely those cases reported as foreign related for purposes of suspension of mandatory time frames for adjudication under China’s civil procedure law.  However, litigation commenced by a foreign invested entity in China may be characterized by the SPC as a domestic case.

Another explanation may be that the high level of foreign-related administrative cases may be due to the centralization of IP prosecution in the headquarters of many foreign companies which file these cases in the name of the parent company.  After China’s patent office or trademark office grants the right, the foreign company might then transfer the rights to the subsidiary.  This transfer is validated by the high percentage of related party IP licensing activity which US census also reports. I have not, however, seen any studies that seek to correlate foreign licensing activity, foreign investment and foreign-related litigation, which might support this hypothesis.

As I have noted elsewhere, comprehensive data must, however, await publication of the relevant source cases or data by the SPC and other courts.

IP Cases Continue to Grow Overall

The shrinking reported foreign share contrasts with the rapid growth of IP cases in China.  The SPC reported that newly reported first instance IP cases increased to 130,200, up 11.73% from 2014.  Total cases adjudicated were 123, 059, an increase of 11.68%, of which 101,324  were civil cases, an increase of 7.22%.  Administrative cases adjudicated constituted 10, 926, an increase of 123.57%, most likely due to changes in China’s trademark law which establish a more direct role for the courts.   Criminal cases adjudicated were 10,809, maintaining their slightly decreased level since 2013 (the SPC report notes that the cases are “stable” 同比基本持平)。

Patent Cases Continue to Grow

The SPC reported that patent and licensing cases continued grow, and that they increasingly involved complex areas of technology, with an increase of 22.1% to 13,087 cases.   However, I have not yet seen a breakdown of cases by type of patent or technology type which fully documents this observation.  The data appears too general at this point, considering that perhaps 2/3 of China’s patent cases involve unexamined utility models and designs of varying technological complexity, the relatively small share of licensing disputes, and the reality that many software and unfair competition cases may in fact involve high technology cases (but may not otherwise be reported as such).

Unfair Competition Cases on the Rise

The SPC report shows that unfair competition cases have increased, including those involving the internet and software technologies. Civil cases increased to 2,181, with antitrust cases increasing to 156. The total increase was 53.38%. Trade secret cases have not yet been separately reported out. They are generally a significant share of this relatively small portion of the IP docket. In 2009, for example, there were 1,282 cases under the Law to Counter Unfair Competition in the courts, of which 253 involved trade secrets.

What the Data Suggests on Courts Foreigners May Want to Pay Attention To

A foreigner traveling to China who is considering where to bring a case, or risks of being sued in a particular venue, should not consider all court as equally well situation.  The Beijing courts, for example, clearly play a key role in foreign related IP adjudication. As administrative cases are overwhelmingly located in Beijing, the Beijing IP court hears perhaps 80% of the combined civil/administrative foreign docket.

In addition, the SPC reports that Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Guangdong accounted for 70 percent of the first instance IP litigation of all types. Shanghai is also a good place to engage, as it has the SPC has established an international exchanges base there. Indeed, the Shanghai white paper also reported out on its exchange activities, including singling out a significant conference last year with the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Still, several courts are assuming increasing importance, and some may pose defensive risks and opportunities for foreigners.   Jiangsu’s docket increased by 38.71%; the docket in Tianjin increased by 50.41%. Anhui saw an increase of 101.26%, while courts in Shandong, Shaanxi, Hunan and Helilongjiang all saw increases of over 30%.

Just as the specialized IP courts were releasing their white papers, the SPC reported that NPC delegates from a number of provinces had been asking to establish their own IP courts in their region, and that the SPC would report out in August on these proposals.  In my opinion, these requests reveal the problem of this otherwise noble experiment in specialized IP courts: if multiple regions have specialized IP courts at the intermediate level, then efforts to insure national unity in reduce local protectionism in IP litigation through a national appellate court may be compromised. However, it is also important to note that these specialized IP courts would replace specialized IP tribunals – a significant difference from US trial court litigation, which  involves courts of general jurisdiction.

At the same time as these papers were being released, a judicial delegation from China was engaging with US federal and state judiciary to discuss the role of IP courts and possibility of future cooperation (see picture above by me from the Wisconsin Supreme Court).  I also believe that we can expect more discussion on these important issue in the months and years ahead.

Justice Tao Kaiyuan and the Role of the Judiciary

MadameTaoMichelleLee

Justice Tao Kaiyuan of the Supreme People’s Court, who had been to the United States in 2015 delivering important speeches on rule of law, has recently published an article on “Giving Full Play to the Leading Role of Judicial Protection of IP Rights“ 充分发挥司法保护知识产权的主导作用”(Dec. 31, 2015).  The article is receiving considerable attention in China, as it was published by Qiu Shi, 求是(“Seeking Truth”), a bimonthly political theory published by the Central Party School and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.  The publication of the article appears to be timed with the release of the recent draft of the Patent Law Amendments, comments for which were due the day after publication (January 1).  The proposed patent amendments would strengthen the role of administrative agencies in IP enforcement, to the possible detriment of the judiciary.

The author of the article is no less important than its contents.  Madame Tao knows patents.  She was the former Director General of the Guangdong Patent Office and therefor once had “vertical” reporting responsibility to SIPO (see picture above taken by me of Madame Tao [on the right] with USPTO Director Michelle Lee taken in 2015).  Although the article was authored in her name, many in China were speculating that the article was approved by higher authorities – perhaps Zhou Qiang, the President of the Supreme People’s Court, with Madame Tao serving as an appropriate messenger.

The concerns about this draft on patent law enforcement are not that different from those in the earlier (2012) draft when I blogged in “Why the Proposed Amendments to the Patent Law Really Matter … and Maybe Not Just For Patents” that “the changes strike me as a rather sudden about face in China’s march towards better civil protection of IP.” Madame Tao takes this several steps further.

Madame Tao’s article is divided into three parts: (1) The important meaning of giving full play to the leading role of the judicial protection of IP rights; (2) The key factors that constrain the leading use role of judicial protection of IP; and (3) Key measures in giving full play to the leading role of judicial protection of IP rights.   Here are some of the points she makes:

Madame Tao refers back to the National IP Strategy and related documents, such as the Third Plenum, the NPC’s decision to establish IP courts, and the Action Plan for the National IP Strategy to underscore the well-established, leading role of the courts in enforcing IP.

Her article compares certain key elements of judicial protection versus administrative protection.  In her view, judicial enforcement can curtail abuses of administrative enforcement.  It also has other advantages.  It has clear rules.  It is transparent.  It can help establish guidance for businesses by establishing clear standards for similar disputes (a possible nod to efforts at developing case law/guiding cases).  Moreover, civil enforcement comports with notions of private ownership and the development of markets and creation of a fair competitive environment in China.  Madame Tao especially underscores the role of the courts in supervising administrative agencies.  As I have noted, this is also an important part of the foreign IP docket in China.  Madame Tao states that the judiciary should also actively guide administrative law enforcement in investigation and review of evidence, and determination of infringements.

Madame Tao also calls for greater coordination in administrative and judicial roles in IP protection, noting that administrative enforcement played an important leading role in the beginning of China’s IP enforcement environment.  Administrative enforcement has “in a short time met the need for building effective IP protection.”  However, the “growing maturity” of the judicial system has caused increasing problems in the coordination process.

Madame Tao also calls for specific policy initiatives, many of which are already underway.  She calls for greater deterrent civil damages, including by revising patent, copyright and unfair competition laws based on experience of the trademark law revisions.   She also suggests that a discovery system should be considered.  Civil and criminal divisions in IP should be unified.  She suggests that a specialized national IP court should be researched and promoted, and she calls for the unification of technical appellate cases, perhaps like the CAFC.  She also notes that the division between infringement and validity determinations in the courts in patents and trademarks should be addressed, and calls for improvements in the availability of provisional measures.

She calls for greater improvements in judicial protective measures, including in obtaining evidence and the convenience and effectiveness of remedies.  Among other specific judicial reforms, she also suggests exploring intellectual property case law, improving judicial accountability and developing judicial professionalism.  Finally, Madame Tao also calls for expanding international awareness by IP judges to better protect national interests and to increase China’s IP influence.

Altogether, a tour de force.

Here’s what her speech looks like in a machine-translated wordcloud:taowordcloud

 

 

 

A Pair of Experiments in the Beijing IP Court

依波路(远东)有限公司

Back in 2012, I noted that “[t]he Chinese civil judiciary is pursuing reform and gaining experience, as Deng Xiaoping noted, by crossing the river by feeling the stones. A disproportionate part of that judicial experience is also being gained from the relatively small numbers of IP cases in the Chinese courts.” One notable and welcome source of those reforms is the new Beijing IP court, which is also serving as a base for experimenting in the development of a system of case law with Chinese characteristics.  I believe that the most notable development in Chinese IP in 2015 has been the role the courts are playing in judicial reform generally.  I have been privileged to hear Chief Judge Su Chi and his team from this court speak several times since his court was established, and have never failed to be impressed by their depth of knowledge and passion for judging.

There have been two notable year-end developments by the Beijing IP court.  One case involved the use of en banc decisions to invalidate a trademark normative document.  In this case the IP Court made an en banc decision to implement Article 21 of the SPC’s Interpretation on Practical Questions regarding the Administrative Litigation law of the PRC中华人民共和国行政诉讼法〉若干问题的解释 (April 28, 2015) (the JI). Article 21 of the JI provides that “When normative documents are not in accordance with law, the People’s Court shall not use it as proof that the administrative action has a legal basis, and shall explain this in the reasoning of its decision.  The People’s Court’s decision shall make recommendations on disposition of the normative document to the enacting agency, which can be copied to the government organs at the same level of the enacting agency, or to one government level higher.” (规范性文件不合法的,人民法院不作为认定行政行为合法的依据,并在裁判理由中予以阐明。作出生效裁判的人民法院应当向规范性文件的制定机关提出处理建议,并可以抄送制定机关的同级人民政府或者上一级行政机关。)

The other case, no less dramatic, involves what may be the publication of a dissenting period. Both of these developments occurred this month (December 2015).

The case arising under Article 21 of the SPC Interpretation involved an interpretation of the State Administration of Industry and Commerce regarding what constitutes a “day” for purposes of implementing a change in trademark classifications.  The IP Court found that the notice’s definition of a “day from a 24 hour period to a month exceeded the scope of power to explain the law, ruling in favor of plaintiff who claimed to have filed its trademark in advance of two other parties who filed one week and three weeks after plaintiffs filing.

When this case was heard in September, Chinese media talked about this as the first effort to “break the ice” by a Chinese court to invalidate administrative “红头文件” – red letterhead documents, i.e., normative documents of the type referenced in the JI.    The court reportedly also experimented in using live testimony and cross-examination in an atypical debate-style process. The pleadings were also entered into as part of the opinion after the party’s signatures confirmation. The decision does not yet appear to be on line, but a summary is attached  here (in Chinese).

Another procedurally significant decision involved the appearance of dissenting opinions in IP cases. Here again, the Beijing IP court is a trail and trial blazer in this recent experiment. The case involved Ernest Borel (Far East) Co. Ltd. and China’s Trademark Review and Adjudication Board. There were different opinions by the court on proof of copyright in the logo of Ernest Borel, including use of the original trademark registration and a subsequent copyright registration to prove that the design belonged to Ernest Borel. The minority opinion supported using these two registrations as a proof of copyright ownership.  Ernest Borel was attempting to prove that it owned the copyright in a logo that was being used by a Shenzhen company in its trademark registration (深圳市依波路保健科技有限公司).

Two notable experiments by an experimental court!

Note that the logo at the top of this article is a logo of Ernest Borel that I found online if for illustrative purposes only.  It does not imply any endorsement of the positions here by Ernest Borel.  It may not also be the trademark that is the subject of the pending case.  Any trademarks and copyrights are the property of their respective owners.