Semiconductor Patent Litigation Part 2: Nationalism, Transparency and Rule of Law

spindel

“The 60-year-old Yin Zhiyi (Gerald Yin) resolutely gave up the US’s annual salary of one million dollars, broke through the layers of US government review, … He led a team of more than 30 people back to China. … At the age of 60, he returned with his brain and founded China AMEC.

He said: We have done a lot of things for foreigners. It is time to make contributions to the people of our own country. He not only returned alone, but also led a team of outstanding Chinese of more than 30 people. It can be said that everyone has their own high-end technology weapons. And this move by him immediately caused the U.S. security department(s) to block him…  All the process and design drawings were completely confiscated.”

In my last blog I noted how semiconductor chip 芯片-related patent cases have a relatively low level of success in China, and that there appear to be wide regional variations in success rates.  Today, I will look at some of the legal issues raised by the emergence of Fujian as a venue for litigating these cases.  We begin by looking at the saga of Advanced Micro-fabrication Equipment, Inc. (AMEC), a semiconductor equipment manufacturer based in Shanghai, of which Gerald Yin, the subject of the above article, is both chairman and CEO.

AMEC has been described by the U.S. government as China’s leading semiconductor equipment manufacturer.    It has also been involved in three high profile IP disputes with US companies since its establishment.  Gerald Yin was a long-timer in Silicon Valley, previously served as a Vice President of Applied materials before joining AMEC, and prior to Applied he was with Lam Research and Intel – a scenario not unlike other Silicon Valley tech employees.  According to an on-line bio, he holds a doctorate in Physical Chemistry from UCLA and is the inventor of 86 US patents and more than 250 foreign patents.  AMEC’s case against Veeco earlier this year appears bears many similarities to the facts noted in the media report of a preliminary injunction decision issued on July 3, 2018 in favor of UMC and Fujian Jinhua’s case against Micron, another American company, also in Fujian province.

AMEC’s Batting Average

The records regarding AMEC’s prior legal challenges are complex and scattered across multiple jurisdictions.  They include court cases, patent filings, patent oppositions and Customs actions. It is frankly beyond the scope of this blog to fully analyze the validity of each claim and counterclaim.  Overall AMEC appears to be enjoying a high win rate.

The reported legal saga begins when Applied Materials sued AMEC in California (2009) for misappropriation of trade secrets that related in part to confidential information he obtained while at that company which were also the subject of patent applications by him.  The case was dismissed in favor of AMEC on the basis that the contract regarding the inventions violated California law against enforceability of non-compete agreements, depriving Applied of any rights to inventions whether or not there had been a misappropriation of confidential information.  Also of note, in 2009, AMEC brought suit against Applied in Shanghai, under the anti-unfair competition law (AUCL), presumably for trade secrets, which was withdrawn on January 1, 2010.  Withdrawn cases permit the parties to refile later as no decision has been reached on the merits and may not be included in official case law databases.

Another case involved AMEC and Lam Research, another Silicon Valley company which was also Gerald Yin’s former employer.  This matter involved patent infringements and was litigated in Taiwan.  By 2012 Lam Research had exhausted its appeals and lost.

AMEC v Veeco

AMEC’s most recent dispute with Veeco, a New York-based competitor with a subsidiary in Shanghai, involved preliminary injunctions for patent infringement in the US against a supplier to AMEC and a preliminary injunction in China against Veeco, as well as Chinese Customs seizure of imported goods of Veeco that infringe Amec’s Chinese patent. Preliminary injunctions in patent cases have historically been quite rare in China.  For example, in 2013, Chinese courts granted 11 preliminary injunction requests out of 90,000 IP cases. According to press reports, the dispute between Veeco and AMEC ended with a global settlement.

The US action was commenced on April 12, 2017 in the Eastern District of New York against one of AMEC’s suppliers, SGL.  Limited discovery was conducted in July and October 2017.  The 76 page opinion of Judge Chen, dated November 2, 2017 and amended November 16, 2017, reviews the challenges to patent validity, the scope of infringement, extraterritorial issues and the balance of equities in issuing a preliminary injunction against SGL (the drawing above is excerpted from her opinion).  Chinese commentary suggests that Judge Chen did not have the benefit of the Chinese validity challenges based on on novelty or non-obviousness.  However, the issues, including an alleged pre-existing “hockey puck” design are discussed at length in Judge Chen’s opinion, and there appears to have been discovery, expert opinion and due process provided (see text at fn. 64 and references to “hockey puck”).

Note that on January 23, 2018, SIPO declared the counterpart patent(s) to those asserted in New York to be invalid.   Of particular concern in the NY litigation was the ‘769 patent, formerly owned by Emcore.  AMEC reportedly launched an invalidity challenge at the USPTO on December 8, 2017 against this patent.  A Chinese author’s description of the global patent challenges is found here.

The second significant decision involved a case initiated by AMEC against Veeco in July 2017. and the Fujian High Court granting an injunction on or about December 7, 2017 (see media reports). This case has not been released to the public.  I have therefore had to rely on various secondary sources of information in order to understand the circumstances of this case.

A Veeco press release states that “On December 7, 2017, without providing notice to Veeco and without hearing Veeco’s position on alleged infringement, the Fujian High Court issued a ruling, applicable in China, that requires Veeco Shanghai to stop importing, making, selling and  offering to sell Veeco EPIK 700 model MOCVD systems which contain the accused infringing synchronous movement engagement mechanism covered by AMEC utility model patent ZL 201220056049.5 and wafer carriers used as supplies for the EPIK 700 MOCVD system.” The circumstantial circumstances seem to support this position.  According to AMEC’s press release, the patent in suit was the subject of two invalidity challenges and was held valid by the Patent Reexamination Board on November 24, 2017.  This was the Friday of the US Thanksgiving holiday.   The patent in suit was a utility model patent, ZL201220056049.5.  Assuming that AMEC moved for a preliminary injunction on the following Monday, November 27, 2017, the injunction would have been issued approximately nine business days later, hardly time for a thorough consideration of infringement issues or the weighing of factors in a preliminary injunction.  The Chinese preliminary injunction case was different from the US case in many respects: notably the US decision was published, involved months of hearings and exchange of documents, and the decision was not issued on an ex parte basis.  I assume it would also be difficult for the Fujian High Court to issue as lengthy a decision as EDNY in light of the limited time it had before it rendered its decision, but we lack the benefit of a published decision in this matter.

AMEC v Veeco also shares other concerns with Chinese countersuits against overseas litigation.   Although this case was filed after Veeco filed its case in the United States, the court seemed intent on accelerating its decision making in order to undercut the effect of a US judgment.  As I have noted, this is typically done without any consideration of comity, and it is a common litigation tactic for a Chinese defendant to seek a quick decision from a court where it has a close relationship to undermine the effectiveness of an overseas litigation or 337 investigation.  It is hard to deny that the Fujian High Court is paying attention to timing when the Fujian High Court apparently drafted its non-public decision in less than two weeks.

There are some other similarities with Chinese anti-foreign suit litigation, including that often these cases also end up getting recognized as a “top 10” /guiding/leading cases  by local or national authorities and the authorities extol how they can help guide Chinese companies to break open foreign markets, thereby adding fuel to a techno-nationalist fire.

Another strategic point is that AMEC’s principle weapon was a Utility Model Patent (UMP), which lasts only 10 years.  The use of utility model patents or design patents to countersue in China is a well-established practice (Chint v Schneider; Chery v General Motors).  One reason may be that UMP’s do entail a lower threshold of inventiveness than an invention patent and for that reason may be harder to invalidate.  In a sense, AMEC’s “high tech” weapon was the lowest tech patent weapon in the toolbox.   For a utility model, the invention must possess “a substantive feature and indicates an advancement”.  An invention patent requires “a prominent substantive feature and indicates remarkable advancements” (Patent Law, Art. 22).  Nonetheless, as has been evident for 10 or more years, UMP’s can have remarkable litigation value and should be considered a part of every foreign company’s patent portfolio for both defensive and offensive purposes.

The Customs proceeding is also a bit of an outlier, and also lacks any publicly available record.  While Chinese Customs has the authority to seize goods on import, and to seize goods that infringe patents, such seizures are rare.   The seizure by AMEC was also listed as one of Shanghai’s “top 10” IP cases for 2017, and the listing made it clear that the case should serve as an example for other innovative Chinese companies.

There are other unusual aspects to this case.  For example, why would a Shanghainese company (AMEC) file a case in Fujian against another company (Veeco) that is also locally headquartered in Shanghai?  Furthermore, why did they choose a jurisdiction which hasn’t seen one reported patent case with the word “chip” (芯片) in it?

Transparency Woes

The AMEC case now joins a short list of not-so-distinguished cases involving foreigners, where the court has yet to publish or significantly delayed publishing the final decision, including Huawei v Interdigital (Shenzhen first instance decision) and Chint v Schneider (Wenzhou).   This lack of transparency is striking considering the great strides generally being made in publishing court decisions.   Publishing decisions and other forms of transparency (such as amicus briefs) help ensure fairness, improve the quality of decisions, prevent corruption, develop appropriate legal strategies, and insure consistency with other legal opinions, amongst other benefits (as also noted elsewhere on this blog).

There may also be other explanations for this lack of transparency. The case was settled and, as noted, often decisions are not published after a case is withdrawn.  In addition, the case involved a preliminary injunction and such cases are just rarely published.  In the not too distant past requests for a preliminary injunction were handled exclusively by the “case filing division” of the courts and thus were never formally docketed. However, courts throughout China have been moving to limit the case filing division’s lack of transparency, and applied less discretionary “case recordal” acceptance procedures.  Fujian is no exception.  Non-publication leaves one guessing as to motives.

Added Motives to Be Non-Transparent?

Semiconductor companies are entitled to know more about Chinese and Fujian judicial practices in semiconductor patent matters, and what factors weigh in granting the rare preliminary injunction.  The news of July 3, 2018 that  the Fuzhou Intermediate Court reached a decision involving Micron’s alleged infringement of semiconductor patents, and that this case has apparently been released to the plaintiffs but has not yet been provided to the defendant, underscores the need for transparency (See press reports of Jinhua, UMC and Micron).   Also of concern is that the decision, which reportedly has immediate (立即 ) effect, was released the day before a US national holiday, July 4.  Generally preliminary injunctions are not effective until served, but time is likely of the essence in responsing to this order.  See also TRIPS Agreement Art. 41.3 (“3.  Decisions on the merits of a case shall preferably be in writing and reasoned. They shall be made available at least to the parties to the proceeding without undue delay.”)

Another concern amongst the foreign business community, given the current trade climate, is whether China has begun using legal tools to retaliate against US companies in sectors targeted by “Made in China 2025”, including retaliation against efforts to use overseas litigation.   The Micron decision comes less than two weeks after a promise that Beijing would not seek retaliation against foreign companies operating in China.  China’s increasing involvement in the semiconductor sector was described by former U.S. Commerce Secretary Pritzker in September 2016 as “unprecedented” state-driven interference that “distorts the market” and “undermine[s] the innovation ecosystem.”

One hopes that industrial policy is not affecting the legal system, as right now we need less, not more, fuel on the trade war fires.   Appropriately containing disputes to fair and expert legal systems can be one effective way of reducing trade tensions.

I welcome any commentary, corrections and updates.

The opinions expressed herein are mine alone.  In my capacity as an academic at Berkeley and as a lawyer or consultant, I do receive support from and advise semiconductor companies as well as service providers from time to time.  These comments were drafted solely in my academic capacity and without clearance or review by any company or association.

Revised 7/7/2018

 

 

 

April 10 – 16, 2018 Updates

1.New Policies for  Innovative Drugs in China.  Premier Li Keqiang held an executive meeting of the State Council on April 12, 2018 to adopt a series measures to encourage the importation of innovative medicines into the Chinese market, to enhance intellectual property protection, and to lower the price of medications. The measures involve the exemption of cancer drugs from customs duty, reduction of drug prices, expedition and optimization of the process for authorization on the commercialization of imported innovative medicines, enhancement in intellectual property protection and quality monitoring.

The measures on enhancement in intellectual property protection includes the 6-year maximum data exclusivity period for innovative chemical medicines.  Further, a maximum of 5 years’ compensation of patent term will be offered for innovative new medicines which are applied for commercialization on domestic and overseas markets simultaneously (which appears to be a patent term extension system). See more discussion of the original CFDA proposals which these these appear to draw on here.  It’s still unclear how such policies will be implemented, The specific policies announced by the official in English is available here.

2.China to introduce punitive damages for IP infringements. According to an interview with Shen Changyu on April 12, China will soon introduce punitive damages for IP infringements. Shen said a fourth revision of the Patent Law will come faster than expected. “We are introducing a punitive damages system for IPR infringement to ensure that offenders pay a big price.” Shen also called on foreign governments to improve protection of Chinese IPR.

3.Commerce Blocks China’s ZTE from Exporting Tech from U.S.  The U.S. blocked Chinese telecommunications-gear maker ZTE Corp. from exporting sensitive technology from America.  According to a statement by the Commerce Department, ZTE made false statements to the Bureau of Industry and Security in 2016 and 2017 related to “senior employee disciplinary actions the company said it was taking or had already taken.”. ZTE did not disclose the factthat it paid full bonuses to employees who engaged in illegal conduct, and failed to issue letters of reprimand, the Department said.  Alleged export control violations had also been implicated in the NDA dispute between Vringo and ZTE involving settlement of patent claims, which were previously discussed here.

4.Judge Orrick Issues Anti-suit Injunction Against Huawei.  In the continuing transpacific saga of Huawei v Samsung, Judge Orrick of the N.D. of California issued an anti-suit injunction against Huawei’s implementing a Shenzhen intermediate court’s injunction against Samsung for the same patents in suit.  A good summary from the essentialpatentblog is found here.  The redacted decision is here.   One possible explanation for Huawei’s strategy might be that Huawei was trying to get a quick decision from Shenzhen, its home court, on a matter also involving an overseas litigation, such as Huawei obtained in the Interdigital dispute, and is also a common enough Chinese litigation tactic.  Such a decision might have tied Judge Orrick’s hand on at least the Chinese patents in suit, as well as on licensing behavior.  Judge Orrick in fact noted that “Chinese injunctions would likely force [Samsung] to accept Huawei’s licensing terms, before any count has an opportunity to adjudicate the parties’ breach of contract claims.”  (p. 17). 

Although anti-suit injunctions may be more common in common law jurisdictions,  it is wrong to assume that Chinese courts take a strictly “hands-off” attitude towards foreign proceedings.  One aggressive Chinese response might be to borrow a page from a Chinese (Wuhan) maritime court decision of last year, where the Chinese court issued an anti-anti-suit injunction, ordering a foreign ship owner to withdraw an anti-suit injunction in Hong Kong.  Commentators have also suggested that generally Chinese courts more commonly ignore these injunctions entirely.  Another approach was taken by the Shenzhen court in Huawei v Interdigital,  where the court imposed imposed damages on a US party seeking injunctive relief (an exclusion order) in a US Section 337 proceeding involving FRAND-encumbered SEP’s.   This did not constitute an anti-suit injunction, but rather “anti-suit damages.”  These actions may be based more on notions of judicial sovereignty than comity.  Judge Orrick for his part, did undertaken a comity analysis in rendering his decision, which is part of the non-confidential order he signed.

Probably the best approach however is for the parties to amicably resolve their disputes through arbitration or mediation. After all, even Huawei and Interdigital were ultimately able to settle their differences.

Sino Legend Saga Ends at US Supreme Court

The future ain’t what it used to be. (Yogi Berra)

Earlier this January, 2017, Sino Legend lost its long battle to have an ITC decision excluding its products form the US market reversed by a Supreme Court denial of its cert petition.

As I noted previously, the case presented an unusual set of circumstances, where Chinese courts had found that there had been no trade secret theft occurring in China, the USITC had found that there was trade secret infringement in an exhaustive opinion, China’s Ministry of Commerce sought a rehearing en banc after Sino Legend lost on appeal at the Federal Circuit, and a petition for certiorari was lodged by Sino Legend to the Supreme Court.  Attached are some of the US Supreme Court legal documents, including:  the petition for certiorari  (September 30, 2016); the amicus brief   of the Ministry of Commerce (Nov. 2016); the brief of   USITC in opposition (Dec 6, 2016);  brief of party respondent SI Group in opposition (Dec 6, 2016); reply of petitioners (December 20, 2016); and the Supreme Court’s denial of cert (Jan 9, 2017).

In its cert petition, MofCOM sought a reversal not only of the Sino Legend case but ultimately of the legal principle underlying the Tianrui decision.    The Chinese parties noted that in Sino Legend there a determination that there was no infringement in the case as litigated in China for facts arising in China.  As MofCOM’s brief notes:

[MofCOM] is disappointed by recent actions of the ITC. In wrongly interpreting Section 337 of the Tariff Act to allow the ITC to bar imports into the United States based on alleged actions conducted, and adjudicated, wholly within the borders of China, the ITC has impugned the sovereignty of China and refused to accord the comity expected of a trade partner.

MofCOM’s amicus brief further states:

The displeasure of [MofCOM] with what has unfolded in this, and other, recent ITC cases involving alleged trade secret violations should not go unnoticed. In this matter, there is no dispute that the alleged actions occurred entirely within China, by Chinese citizens, while working at Chinese companies. The alleged acts of misappropriation  were first raised by Complainant’s Chinese subsidiary in China. Both criminal and civil proceedings were instituted in China for these alleged misdeeds. The alleged conduct and actors in question were ultimately vindicated. However, Complainant, unhappy with the failure of proof in China, sought institution of a Section 337 proceeding in the United States based on the same conduct already adjudicated in China. The ITC conducted an investigation, ignored the rulings in China to the contrary, and determined that not only could the ITC bar products based on this conduct, but also that some of Complainant’s justify a limited exclusion order of Petitioner’s product.

The Chinese media had regrettably inaccurately described this case when it was decided at the ITC as a big victory for China involving a finding of no infringement in the US and China; rather a limited exclusion order was granted by the ITC in lieu of a general exclusion order.  China’s Supreme Court had also picked up on this inaccurate description when it regrettably determined that was one of the top 10 IP cases for 2014.  This recognition was troubling also as the complainant in the Sino Legend 337 case had sought a retrial of its case in China, which was denied by China’s Supreme People’s Court two  years later, in 2016.

The differences in final results in the US and Chinese decisions may also be due in part to disparate emphases in trade secret adjudication, with Chinese courts emphasizing similarities of technology between the parties, and the US courts relying more on unfair access to the technology by the alleged misappropriator.  One lesson of this saga is that comity may be more challenging to apply in trade secret litigation, which remains a relatively unharmonized area of IP law among various countries, and which is further weakened by differences in civil procedure including the limited availability of pre-trial discovery in China and many other countries.