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

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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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New CPC and State Council Opinions on Improving IP Protection

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On November 24,  2019, the General Office of Communist Party of China and the State Council jointly released the Opinions Concerning Enhancing Intellectual Property Rights Protection (关于强化知识产权保护的意见).

It is often too easy to dismiss documents like these, that have typically delivered an ephemeral higher state of vigilance by the Chinese government.  Nonetheless, there are some useful statements in this document that may be an indicator of future durable improvements, including:

  1. It is jointly published by the CPC and the State Council and thus has high level political and executive branch support.
  2. It does address some long-standing concerns raised by industry, such as development of a patent linkage system, patent term extension and copyright protection for sports broadcasts.
  3. There continues to be a focus on punitive damages in litigation. However, this document does appropriately point out the need to increase actual damages.
  4. Improving criminal enforcement, including revising criminal judicial interpretations – is also addressed.  Along with revising the criminal code, revising criminal JI’s and their high criminal thresholds was a goal of the WTO case that the US filed against China over 10 years ago (DS362).  This task is long overdue.
  5. Improving coordination between administrative and criminal enforcement is once again highlighted. This is also a long-standing issue.  In light of numerous prior efforts and experiments, a more concrete explanation of how this might be accomplished to better enable prosecution of major criminal actors would be helpful in the future.
  6. Case guidance and public trial systems are highlighted. Hopefully, the case guidance system will add further momentum to successful case law experiments in IP at the Beijing IP Court.
  7. The introduction of technical assessors into administrative enforcement could suggest a continued enhanced role for patent administrative enforcement, which has been increasing even as trademark administrative enforcement has been declining. If so, it may not augur well for foreigners who have traditionally been heavy “consumers” of the administrative trademark system, but not the administrative patent system.
  8. Improvements in the “examination” of utility models and designs are noted as a goal. However, these rights are generally not examined for substance except in the case of “abnormal” applications.
  9. Continuing attention is paid to challenging markets, such as e-commerce platforms and trade fairs, as well as establishing faster protection mechanisms.
  10. There is a continuing focus on supporting Chinese rightsholders overseas.

This document arguably goes part-way in establishing an outline for addressing US concerns about IP theft.  However, it offers little to address such concerns as ensuring greater transparency in the courts, publishing foreign-related cases, or addressing certain trade-sensitive topics outlined in USTR’s Section 301 report, such as cyber intrusions or criminal trade secret misappropriation.

The word cloud, above, is drawn from a machine translation of this document.  The original Chinese language and my redlining of a machine translation are found here.

Addendum of November 26, 2019:

Susan Finder in her Supreme People’s Court Monitor blog, reported on Judicial Interpretation drafting by the SPC for next year, some of which are referenced in the recently released Opinions.  According to that blog, on 29 April 2019, the SPC’s General Office issued a document setting out a list of 47 judicial interpretation projects, 36  with an end of 2019 deadline.  Several of these involve IP-related issues, including issues addressed in the joint CPC and State Council Opinions, including:

  1. Interpretation Concerning the Application of Law in Cases of Disputes over the Infringement of Trade Secrets (关于审理侵犯商业秘密纠纷案件应用法律若干问题的解释). Responsibility of the #3 Civil (IP) Division.
  2. Interpretation on Several Issues Concerning Punitive Damages for Intellectual Property Infringement (关于知识产权侵权惩罚性赔偿适用法律若干问题的解释). Responsibility of the #3 Civil (IP) Division.
  3. Provisions on Issues Concerning the Application of the Foreign Investment Law of the People’s Republic of China (I) (关于适用《中华人民共和国外商投资法》若干问题的规定(一)). Responsibility of the #4 Civil Division. The Foreign Investment Law and the recently released draft implementing regulations contain provisions protecting the intellectual property of foreign investors, including prohibiting forced technology transfers and enhancing the availability of punitive damages.

These draft JI’s have a due date of the first half of 2020.  Susan Finder notes in her blog that given the worldwide attention on the issues set forth in these three judicial interpretations, she expects that they will be released for public comment.  I hasten to add that the IP Division of the Court has generally taken a positive attitude towards soliciting public comment on its draft judicial interpretations, and I hope that they maintain this tradition.

It was also noted by Susan Finder that certain JI’s were due by year-end 2019, including:

  1. Intellectual Property Rights Evidence Rules (关于知识产权民事诉讼证据的若干规定).  Responsibility of the #3 Civil (IPR) Division. This draft was discussed at a conference hosted by the SPC in Hangzhou in 2018.  As Chinese courts experiment with more expanded discovery, evidence preservation and burden of proof reversals, clearer rules regarding the obligations of parties to produce evidence are becoming more critical.  A particular notable example of such a reversal is found in the recent amendments to the trade secret law (Article 32), whereby  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 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.
  2. Judicial interpretation on administrative cases involving patent authorization and confirmation (关于审理专利授权确权行政案件若干问题的解释). Responsibility of the #3 Civil IPR) Division. Another interpretation that previously had a 2018 year-end deadline.  A draft was issued for public comment in the summer of 2018; see my earlier blog.

Addendum of November 27, 2019:

Another China law blog, the NPC Observer also expects that some of the IP legislation flagged in the Opinions for revision may be considered as early as late December of 2019t.  According to the NPC Observer:

We expect the session to review a … draft amendment to the Patent Law [专利法] …The session may additionally consider the following bills: …

I have previously blogged about proposed revisions to the Patent and Copyright Law.

Addendum of January 9, 2020: Here is a translation of the Opinions from China Law translate.

The Widening Impact of China’s Publication of IP Cases

I recently had the opportunity at the Fordham IP Conference to discuss the potential impact of the continuing publication of court decisions by China’s courts since 2014, including their wide-ranging impact on legal research, China IP strategies, and trade.  China’s publication of court cases has had a dramatic impact on political science, legal research and IP strategy.  Here is an extended version of my presentation:

A good starting point for understanding these developments is the important paper of Profs. Benjamin Liebman, Margaret Roberts, Rachel Stern, and Alice Wang on the China Judgements Online Database (CJO) entitled Mass Digitization of Chinese Court Decisions: How to Use Text as Data in the Field of Chinese Law (June 13, 2017) (21st Century China Center Research Paper No. 2017-01; Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-55).  This team looked at 20,321 land use administrative court judgments in Henan Province. The authors critical approach to CJO is summarized below:

First, it is critical to take missing cases into account, rather than succumbing to the temptation to treat even a very large sample as an accurate reflection of reality. … Second, viewing millions of court decisions provides an unparalleled wide-angle perspective on courts’ daily activity, and exposes underlying patterns… Scholars must remember that court judgments provide only one, often limited, view of actual practice. Third, a migration toward treating text as data in the field of Chinese law will require a multi-method approach that combines expertise and insights from law, the social sciences, and computer science.

Their article also discusses motivations for transparency (including reducing corruption), and motivations for individual courts to disclose cases. They note as well that an “incentive bias” now exists which includes making judicial decisions available at the end of the calendar quarter before court evaluations (p. 16).

Moving from the use of the CJO to look at legal issues generally to IP, an important recent study on foreign participation in China’s IP system has also recently been-published by Berkeley JSD Candidate Bian Renjun. Her provocatively-entitled articleMany Things You Know About Patent Infringement in China are Wrong  is scheduled to appear in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal. Ms. Bian uses CJO to analyze 1,663 patent infringement judgments decided by local courts in 2014. Her research provides a much-need supplement to the scholarship of Brian Love, Xuan Thao Nguyen, as well as this blog, about foreign “win” rates in the Chinese courts.

Ms. Bian observes that foreigners asserting invention patents are not underrepresented in the courts. The proportion of invention patents granted by SIPO to foreigners was roughly equivalent to the proportion of foreign invention patent cases decided to overall invention patent cases in court (7.16%/6.92%). The gross number of decisions however was only 115 cases. During that year foreign win rates were higher compared to domestic litigants (84.35%/79.84%), as were injunction rates (92.78%/90.05%) and damages (201,620.45 RMB/66,217.93 RMB).  In sum, Ms. Bian provides a more compelling narrative of the probability that foreigners win in patent litigation in China than predecessors such as Brian Love. However, she does not address how to consider issues involving validity in overall success rates, as has been attempted by such databases as Darts IP, nor does she include metrics to assess any differences in the quality of the patents being asserted, for which additional research would be required.

The third article to look at judicial practices in IP, including the IP databases is Max Goldberg’s promising paper Enclave of Ingenuity: The Plan and Promise of the Beijing Intellectual Property Court (May 2017). Mr. Goldberg is a 2017 graduate of Yale College. His paper won an award as the best student paper in East Asian Studies during the year he graduated.

Mr. Goldberg draws from the work of Martin Dimitrov in suggesting that China’s administrative enforcement system is more politically reactive and less independent. He shares the view of this author and others that the Guiding Cases System of the Supreme People’s Court has had limited uptake by the courts, while the precedent system of the Beijing IP court (BJIPC) appears to have been more widely adopted by judges and practitioners of that court in part due to the releative ease of introducing this system into one highly trained court in an affluent city. Mr. Goldberg offers a reply to the concerns of Benjamin Liebman et al. over the large number of “missingness’” in court cases, by noting that while “the phenomenon of sensitive cases’ omission from government databases in China is well documented, lapses of this size are “much more likely the result of a lack of attention and resources than deliberate censorship.” He bases this part on the more comprehensive reporting rate of IP House at 94.25% based on the docketed numbers of cases at the BJIPC, while CJO had only about 50% of the cases from the same period in 2015.

Mr. Goldberg also focuses on specific judicial policy developments, many of which have been little noticed in the West. For example, he notes that “BJIPC opinions are 40-50% shorter than the decisions of more traditional IP tribunals, despite the fact that the BJIPC jurisdiction specifically includes the most technical cases.” He also notes that the court is also interested in soliciting the opinions of third parties, in a manner akin to an amicus brief. Amicus briefs have been advocated for some time by the US-China IP Cooperation Dialogue, with some important experiments, of which this author is a member. Mr. Goldberg also notes that the Beijing IP Court permits dissenting opinions and that the courts have held open “adjudication committee” meetings, which is an important new innovation. Finally, he notes, that the courts are more actively engaged in use of precedent. The court also had an administrative decision revocation rate of administrative decisions of 17% and a withdrawal rate (where complainant withdraws a case before final decision) of only 7%, which suggests the court is acting to reverse administrative decisions and that litigants have enough confidence in the court that they are willing to pursue cases to their final determination.   Many of these innovations were described in an IP House report previously discussed on this blog, but Mr. Goldberg adds a useful gloss to these developments.

Mr. Goldberg’s article is another important indicator of how China is “crossing the rule of law river by feeling the IP stones.”  Importantly, Mr. Goldberg focuses less on whether foreigners’ win and more on whether procedures compatible with an advanced legal system are being put in place.

Adela Hurtado, one of my former students at Fordham law School has also recently written a useful note in the Fordham Intellectual Property Law Journal that, like Mr. Goldberg’s article, looks at the use of judicial and administrative remedies, including criminal procedures, in addressing rampant infringement. Ms. Hurtado believes that reactive, politically motivated administrative enforcement brings few sustainable results. In her view, foreign companies should consider using the civil system, with its relatively high win rates (as reflected in the new databases) and look to models of successful law enforcement campaigns in the United States which provide for more interagency coordination and sustained efforts to address specific problems. She uses data drawn from Walt Disney’s use of civil and administrative campaigns, comparing Disney’s actions in China with its use of civil remedies in the United States to suggest that Chinese IP enforcement campaigns by Disney should similarly return to greater reliance on civil remedies. Ms. Hurtado may be the first author to look at company specific behavior in different markets by using both Chinese and US databases and thereby highlights another future area of inquiry.

There have been several other efforts that look to China’s legal databases as analytical and research tools. Among other recent scholarship, Susan Finder has also recently written an excellent article on the evolving system of precedent in China in the Tsinghua China Law Review. For those individuals and scholars craving analytics, IP House has also begun publishing important analytic studies on trends in the courts. Topics covered include patent and health, motion picture and television industry and analyses of the decisions of the Beijing IP Court.  Another important application of China’s new databases is in development of course materials on China’s IP system.  In this respect, Profs. Merges and Seagull Song’s forthcoming book on Transnational Intellectual Property Law Text and Cases  (April 2018), comparing US, Chinese and European cases in the full range of IP law with a view towards their importance in developing global strategies, is also a promising step towards incorporating Chinese jurisprudence into the global discussions of IP issues.

China’s decisions to make cases more widely available  also has important consequences for trade-related discussions on IP. Approximately 13 years ago, a TRIPS “Article 63.3” transparency request was made by the United States, Japan and Switzerland at the WTO of China. This request demanded “clarifications regarding specific cases of IPR enforcement that China has identified for years 2001 through 2004, and other relevant cases.” The US delegation, of which I was a part, requested the cases to better analyze developments in China’s IP environment since WTO accession and to prepare for a forthcoming dispute. China refused to produce these cases either in the response to the request or during the dispute.  During the ensuring IP enforcement dispute (DS/362), the WTO itself refused to demand that China produce cases relevant to the outcomes of two claims – one involving copyright, and the other involving criminal thresholds. Indeed, rather than make an adverse inference from China’s unwillingness to produce cases, the WTO panel found that the United States failed to make out a prima facie case with respect to a claim that Chinese criminal thresholds failed to satisfy WTO requirements.

With the benefit of hindsight, one could argue that the WTO established a lower standard in DS/362 for analytical research on Chinese case law than China has since established. Additionally, DS/362 may also stand for the proposition that certain cases may be ahead of their time, particularly in light of China’s own commitments to innovation and development of its IP system.  But that is a topic for another blog….

 

More on Guiding Cases, Precedents and Databases…

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Judge Liu Yijun from Beijing IP Court spoke on the application of China’s IP Case Guidance System in Beijing IP Court.

 

As we have previously reported, one of the latest development in China’s IP law is to build an IP cases system, which is being implemented in part as a case experiment at the Beijing Intellectual Property Court. Thanks to the continuing efforts of the Stanford Guiding Cases Project (SGCP) under the leadership of Dr. Mei Gechlik, a number of experts including Judge Liu Yijun from Beijing IP Court, recently spoke at a seminar at Stanford University to discuss current status and application of the IP cases system.

The IP Cases System is one of several efforts to achieve more uniform application of law, encompassing such initiatives as national level “guiding cases” and other cases used for instructional or other purposes by national and local courts. Susan Finder’s blog had several posts about overall use of cases in China, including how Supreme People’s Court (SPC) uses case law to guide lower courts and the China’s evolving case law system in practice.

According to Judge Liu at the Seminar, the Beijing IP Court is set to establish a principle that “subsequent cases should be adjudicated in accordance with effective judgements and rulings of prior similar cases.” At the current stage, judges of the Beijing IP Court are required to abide by effective judgements and rulings of the Court as well as upper-level courts that are applicable to the pending case. Meanwhile, judgements and rulings of prior similar cases from other courts at the same level should be referenced by judges adjudicating the pending case.

Judge Liu noted that parties are encouraged to submit prior effective judgments and rulings and lawyers in response, are actively submitting more and more cases. At the end of 2016, the Beijing IP Court used prior effective judgements or rulings in 763 cases. Cases were submitted 657 times by parties, and voluntarily invoked by judges in 106 instances. Of those 763 cases, over 200 followed prior judgements, about 80 were distinguished on the basis of different facts, and the rest, around 480, were treated as completely irrelevant or not submitted via appropriate procedures. When this data is compared to the 8,111 cases concluded by the Beijing IP Court in calendar year 2016, the case citation rate was 9.4% of all cases, which was a big increase compared to the citation rate of 2.1% that we calculated in this blog for the first ten months of  2016.

This IP Cases System can be accessed through an IP cases and judgments database (IP Case Database). In its trial version, we found 186 typical cases (典型案例), over 240,000 judicial judgments (裁判文书), laws and regulations (法律法规), intellectual property/legal index codes (知产码) (see www.faxin.cn) , opinions (观点), books (图书), journals (期刊), and review documents and decisions from Patent Reexamination Board of SIPO and SAIC Trademark Review and Application Board (两委文书). Many of judicial judgments included in the IP Case Database are a subset of judgments on China Judgements Online, which has over 35 million of judgments in total and over 260,000 judgments in the IP area. IPHouse (知产宝), another IP cases and judgments database, has recently told us that it has increased the total number of IP judgements on its database – their website lists around 350,000 cases, but we have heard that it is as high as 400,00. This is well in excess of the official China Judgments Online or the IP Case Database. The additional cases have reportedly been made available through direct outreach to various local courts.

These 186 typical cases in the IP Cases System are currently all trademark related cases, decided between 2000 and 2016. A majority of those cases (112 cases) are actually SPC’s guiding cases, and only a small part are cases from High Court or Intermediate Court (11 cases from High Court in different provinces and 23 Cases from Intermediate Court). Among cases from Intermediate Courts, cases from the Beijing IP Court dominate.

 

Panelists at the seminar at Stanford University suggested that all typical cases will go through a review process before posted to the database, which consists of review by experts, editing, and final review and release. But panelists at that seminar also noted that judges made the decision of which cases to be included in this database. It is unclear what criteria are used by judges and what judges’ role is through the case review process. To the extent that cases go through a curatorial process, they may also run the risk of being altered to serve particular doctrinal purposes – an issue that may have arisen with respect to other cases that have been considered model or guiding cases.

As for the quality of those cases and judicial judgments, key words search of some well-known doctrines in IP law returns very limited number of results on the IP Case Database.  For instance, a search of the doctrine of equivalents (等同原则) returns zero typical cases, which might be because no patent typical cases are included yet, and search of principle of good faith (诚信原则) gives nine typical cases (primarily for trademarks). A search for cases adjudicated by well-known judges returns similar results, with only one typical case adjudicated by Song Yushui (宋鱼水), who currently sits on the Beijing IP Court as its Vice President and was recently confirmed as an alternative delegate to the Central Committee of the CPC. Similarly, same key word search of the judicial judgments in the IP Case Database yields more results, but still relatively small compared to total number of judgments included. A search of doctrine of equivalents gives 81 judgments, search of principle of good faith returns 312 judgments (around one-third on trademarks, one-third on anti-unfair competition, and the rest on everything else) and 74 judgments are adjudicated by judge Song Yushui. Compared to another legal database pkulaw.cn (北大法宝), which combines cases and judgements, the same key word search returns significant higher number of cases and judgments (337 for doctrine of equivalents, 455 for principle of good faith and 255 adjudicated by Judge Song Yushui). Such discrepancy raises questions of whether the IP Case Database is currently comprehensive or easily searchable.

One distinct feature to be noted of the IP Case Database is that each typical case has been given an indicator of whether the case should be followed or just referenced.

My overall impression: cases are cited more frequently in Beijing IP Court and the case experiment will continue. It seems that the Beijing IP Court intends to attract attention and application of the IP Cases Database and make it a national tool in the near future. However, at the current stage, it is not clear whether their database has the ability to gain significant usage among the IP law community. Of particular importance is whether more cases, particularly patent and copyright cases, will be included, and when that will happen remains unknown.

This blog has been prepared by Fan (Emily) Yang, JD Candidate, University of California Berkeley, 2019, with editorial assistance from Prof. Mark Cohen.  The views expressed are the author’s own.

 

 

 

Spring Time for IPR Case Law in China?

Guidingcase.jpgRecently, there have been two important developments involving IP-related guiding cases and precedent that shed light on these different approaches of the Supreme People’s Court, which is in charge of guiding cases, and the Beijing IP Court, which is looking at the role of precedent in China’s court system.  But first some background:

One of the most important continuing efforts on guiding cases is the Stanford Guiding Cases Project (SGCP), which is under the able, enthusiastic and collaborative leadership of Dr. Mei Gechlik.  The SGCP recently hosted a lively seminar at American University to discuss the latest developments, with a keynote by Judge Sidney Stein of the Southern District of New York (picture above).  In addition to the Stanford project, Susan Finder has written about guiding cases in her excellent blog and other postings, Jeremy Daum wrote an excellent recent article on the actual use of guiding cases, and of course there is this blog and others, in addition to  academic articles and recent  SGCP research.

Another significant development in exploring a system of case precedent is the research base established with the approval of the Supreme People’s Court at the Beijing IP Court.  The ecosystem evolving around that research base appears to me to be more practice oriented than theoretical.  As an example of this practice-oriented approach, the IP court is looking at the role of amicus briefs to ensure the interests of non-parties are heard, or en banc rehearings to reverse prior precedent.  A small, but important step in soliciting third party opinions has already been undertaken by the Beijing IP Court in a case involving trademark agents.

Among the two contrasting recent developments  Regarding the guiding cases project, on March 9, the Supreme People’s Court released 10 IP-specific guiding cases; nine of these are civil and one is criminal. The cases span all relevant IP laws, including copyright, trademarks,patents, plant varieties and antitrust.  Here is a link to a Chinese summary of the cases, and a  machine translation of these summaries (source: IPRdaily.cn, google translate).  I assume that the SGCP will do a professional translation of these in due course.  According to the SPC press conference, IPR-related guiding cases now constitute 23% of the total number of guiding cases.

Nonetheless, recent citation data  suggest that there has been little uptake of guiding cases in actual case decisions, as Jeremy Daum’s article points out in his posting:

“Guiding Cases are almost never referenced: Over a five-year period, Stanford found a total of 181 subsequent cases, and PKU found 241. To provide a frame of reference, Chinese courts complete trial of well upwards of 10,000,000 cases per year…

50% of the guiding cases were never referred to at all

Almost half of the references found were to a single case; GC #24. …That case concerns traffic  accidents,…”

If one compared the nationwide references to guiding cases using, as an example, the 561 opinions referencing a guiding case out of 8,723,182 cases on the China Judgments Online website for 2016 (using a simple keyword search to “guiding case”), the citation rate would be about  0.0006%.

These developments on IP related case law at the SPC might be compared to the data in the January 10, 2017 report of Beijing IP Court.  The Beijing IP court cited 279 case precedents in 168 cases since the time the precedent base was established in 2016 until October 2016.  Cases were cited 121 times by parties, and judges undertook their own effort to cite cases in 47 instances.  In total, 117 cases relied on precedent in their decisions.  Of the 168 cases, there were 51 instances where cases were not relied upon due to a difference in facts.  There was no instance where a reversal was obtained of an earlier precedent.  Of the cases cited, 31 were from the SPC, 132 from High Courts (including 117 from Beijing), and others were from local courts.  If this data was further compared to the 8,111 cases concluded by the Beijing IP Court in calendar year 2016, the citation rate was a minimum of 2.1% based on the data provided through October, which is considerably higher than the guiding cases effort.

My impressions: the data from the Beijing IP Court suggests that the bar is using cases in its briefs, and the court is looking at these cases and exploring how to handle them as part of an overall system including amicus briefs, en banc review and other mechanisms.  The SPC’s guiding cases project is a more intensely curated project that also addresses a much larger national challenge in introducing a new way of developing law to civil law educated judges and the bar.  The comparisons between the two experiments are inexact as the Beijing IP court sits in one of China’s wealthiest cities, with a well-educated bench and bar, a sophisticated IP environment and considerable foreign (including American) interaction.  It is not surprising that nationwide uptake of a precedent system using a limited number of  guiding cases for a vast judicial system is more theoretical and slower than the one taking place at the Beijing IP Court using the 100,000 plus IPR cases that are adjudicated nationwide each year.

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