Public Interest and Private Rights in the Copyright Law Amendments

June 13 is the last day for submitting comments to China’s National People’s Congress on proposed revisions to China’s Copyright Law.   In this blog,  I discuss draft provisions in the Copyright Law that reflect vague concepts of “public interest” and could thereby grant excessive discretion to China’s copyright enforcers, which are worthy of comments to the NPC.

There are two newly introduced provisions that are of significant concern: Art. 4 and a newly introduced Art. 50.  A long-standing restraint on administrative enforcement that is not in the public interest is also discussed, below:

4. 著作权人和与著作权 有关的权利人行使著作权或者与著 作权有关的权利,不得违反宪法和法 律,不得损害公共利益,不得滥用权 利影响作品的正常传播。国家对作 品的出版、传播依法进行监督管理。

Copyright owners and owners of rights related to copyright shall not violate the Constitution or laws, or jeopardize public interests, or affect normal communications of works by abusing their rights when exercising their copyright and rights related to copyright. The State shall supervise and administrate the publication and dissemination of works in accordance with the law. [emphasis supplied]

50. 滥用著作权或者与著作权有关的权利.,扰乱传播秩序的,由著作权主管部门责令改正,予以警告,没收违法所得,非法经营额五万元以上的,可以并处非法经营额一倍以上五倍以下的罚款,没有非法经营额、非法经营额难以计算或者不足五万元的,可以并处二十五万以下的罚款.

Where anyone abuses copyright or rights related to copyright and disrupts the order of communication, the copyright administration may order  correction, issue a warning, confiscate unlawful gains, and, in the cases of an unlawful turnover exceeding 50,000 yuan, impose a fine of one to five times of the unlawful turnover; or, in the cases of no unlawful turnover or an unlawful turnover that is difficult to calculate or less than 50,000 yuan, impose a fine of up to 250,000 yuan. [emphasis supplied]

Article 4 has had a controversial history.  It was previously the subject of a WTO dispute (DS362).  It originally provided that “Works the publication or distribution of which is prohibited by law shall not be protected by this Law”, thereby denying copyright protection to works that had not yet  been approved by censors.    As I recall, the original inclusion of that language in the Copyright Law had been opposed by many Chinese academics.  After China’s loss in that case, this language was removed, and additional language was added that “The State implements supervision and management over publishing and dissemination according to the law.” The amendment was discussed in a blog of Danny Friedmann of March 10, 2010 (citing Rogier Creemers). 

Article 4 is now proposed to be expanded again.  The new changes require that rightsholders not exercise their copyrights in a manner that affects “normal communication of works.”  What constitutes “normal” communication is unclear from the text.  In addition, Article 50 provides an administrative remedy against anyone who disrupts “the normal order of communication.”  “Normal communication” is also not otherwise defined and may not be the same concept as set forth in Article 4.   One concern may be that this is a “back door” mechanism for copyright authorities to regain the exemption from copyright protection for works that have not obtained censorship approval.  Such governmental “mission creep”  may also be reinforced by the relocation of China’s National Copyright Administration to the CPC Central Propaganda Bureau in the governmental reorganization of March 2018.  This standard of “normal order” of communication or “normal communication of works” is also not found in other IPR or quasi-IPR laws, such as China’s recently enacted E-Commerce Law (2018), which also contains an antitrust provision that  addresses conduct constituting an “abuse of dominance” that “excludes or restricts competition” (See Art. 23).

Xiong Wencong 熊文聪 discusses these two provisions in an exhaustive article 对新增“著作权滥用”条款的几点思考(“Some thoughts on the newly added ‘abuse of copyright’ provisions”) (Chinese language only).  Xiong points to a number of issues of concern, including that  “abuse of rights” should be based on motivations to harm another through exercise of rights, but also need to be constrained by other rules.  As set forth in the draft law, these concepts of abuse of rights are also not be easy for enforcement officials to enforce.  The “public interests” that may be implicated in an “abuse of rights” are difficult to understand except through other established mechanisms, such as antitrust law, and should be not be based on simply harming one individuals’ profitability.

In a possibly related development to the above, Art. 52 of the proposed revision of the Copyright Law expands the requirement of current Art. 48, and thereby perpetuates – and possibly expands –  an existing ambiguity under the Chinese Copyright Law regarding what constitutes “public interest.”

Current Art. 48 provides:

有下列侵权行 为的,应当根据情况,承担停止侵 害、消除影响、赔礼道歉、赔偿损失 等民 事 责 任;同 时 损 害 公 共 利 益 的,可以由著作权行政管理部门责 令停止侵权行为,没收违法所得, 没收、销毁侵权复制品并可处以 罚款

Anyone who commits any of the following acts of infringement shall, depending on the circumstances, bear civil liabilities such as ceasing the infringement, eliminating the bad effects of the act, making an apology or paying compensation for damages; where public interests are impaired, the administrative department for copyright may order the person to discontinue the infringement, confiscate his unlawful gains, confiscate or destroy the copies produced through infringement, and may also impose a fine… [emphasis supplied]

Proposed Article 52 provides:

 有下列侵权行 为,损害公共利益的,除承担本法 第五十一条规定的民事责任外,由 著作权主管部门责令停止侵权行 为,予 以 警 告,没 收 违 法 所 得,没 收、销毁侵权复制品,没收主要用 于制作侵权复制品的材料、工具、 设备 等,

Anyone who commits any of the following acts of infringement and impairs public interests  shall bear civil liabilities in accordance with Article 51 of this Law; besides, the copyright administration shall  order the person to discontinue the infringement, issue a warning, confiscate his unlawful gains, confiscate or destroy the copies produced through infringement, and may also impose a fine; where the circumstances are serious, the said department may, in addition, confiscate the material, tools and instruments mainly used to produce copies through infringement, etc. [emphasis supplied]

Proposed Article 52 maintains the limitation in Art. 48 of the current Copyright Law on administrative enforcement to instances where there is an adverse impact on “public interests”.  In the past there was already a concern that this could undermine the commitments China made in the earlier WTO case (DS362) to provide copyright protection to works not otherwise approved by censors notwithstanding that administrative agencies as well as law enforcement generally should look to focus their resources primarily on areas that invoke strong public interests, notwithstanding previous amendments to Art. 4.   The “public interest” test has also long been viewed as a limitation on certain types of content-neutral copyright administrative enforcement, particularly in dealing with software end-user piracy.  In order to address these concerns China agreed in a 2005 JCCT outcome to announce that software copyright infringement was in fact against the public interest. 

The continued presence of this language should raise concerns about China’s willingness to address software end user piracy through administrative enforcement actions, including controlling government use of pirated software, as required by  Article 1.23 of the Phase 1 Agreement.  Moreover by placing the “public interest” test at the beginning of this article to govern both administrative and potentially civil cases, it might be read to require that civil cases also reflect “public interests”, or at best to authorize government agencies to intervene in private civil matters through ex-officio administrative enforcement.  The restriction might further limit the availability of copyright remedies to uncensored works, thereby violating the WTO decision in DS362.  Additionally, the language might be linked to efforts by NCAC or its parent agency, the Central Propaganda Bureau, to restrict enforcement options for works that might not be consistent with current public interests.  Although no examples are provided in this draft legislation, one wonders whether a popular video game that may be distracting students from other activities or civil cases brought against the government for copyright infringement, including (but not limited to) business software could be perceived as against public interests.

Vague notions of public interest/public harm/abuse of IP interests that are not tied to clear legal concepts such as abuse of dominance under the Antimonopoly Law have not generally brought welcome improvements to other aspects of China’s IP environment.   Thankfully, a long-standing provision in China’s contract law regarding invalidity of provisions that “impair technological progress” was recently removed from China’s civil code.  A similar problem has appeared with respect to enforcing “under-performing” concepts of “good faith” in China’s trademark law and other IP laws.

Vagueness in safe harbors have also not provided ample guidance in the proper exercise of rights, such as in Article 55 of China’s Antimonpoly Law.  The recently proposed revisions to the AML do not propose changes to Art. 55.   Article 55’s ambiguous concept of what conduct constitutes proper exercise of IP rights which might otherwise violate the AML is drawn from similarly vague language in TRIPS Art. 40.   As Prof. Hao Yuan has noted elsewhere in this blog “the IP immunity approach [of this article] has largely been ignored in practice. “   

It is not only the vague language of these provisions that is worrisome.  The expansion of administrative discretion embodied in these three provisions of China’s Copyright Law is also accompanied by an extensive expansion of administrative enforcement capacity contemplated by the draft Copyright Law (Art. 7), which would vest county-level governments with extensive authority over copyright matters.  Efforts to expand administrative authority are a “new normal” for Chinese IP agencies, which is being accomplished through draft IP legislation, expansive interagency cooperation, or even (I would argue) as a vehicle for “deliverables” in the Phase 1 Agreement.  One additional factor in this proposed legislation is the reorganization of the copyright administration under the umbrella of the powerful CPC propaganda bureau, now called in English the Publicity Department.  This agency may legitimately want to further expand its influence over content or practices deemed inappropriate for non-copyright related reasons. Expansion of authority of administrative agencies that are frequently used for enforcement can, of course, be a helpful development for rightsholders.  However, I believe that non-copyright concerns may be best addressed in non-copyright legislation.  If left unchecked, introduction of non-IP concerns that are enforced by administrative agencies could also transform IP from a private right to a regulatory tool and constrain the development of the judiciary as an expert and transparent enforcement vehicle independent from the administrative agencies to enforce these IP rights.

Update of July 8, 2020: Here is an article from the July 6, 2020 South China Morning Post expressing concerns about the “public interest” and administrative enforcement aspects of the proposed draft copyright law.

Some China IP Resources While Sheltering in Place

An unofficial translation of the proposed Copyright Law amendments that have been made available for public comment, is available here.  Thanks to Prof. Jiarui Liu for sharing his translation! All translations are unofficial and are being provided for the convenience of non-Chinese readers, with no representations and warranties whatsoever.

The next event in our series of webinars is with Mara Hvistendahl, author of The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage. Although Ms. Hvistendahl has already appeared in several interviews,  this one promises to offer different perspectives on the book.  She will be joined in this webinar by Mark Betten, an FBI agent who is chronicled in the book, Jennifer Johnson, DuPont’s attorney who was also involved in the investigation, as well as Jim Pooley, who teaches trade secrets at Berkeley Law and me.   The webinar will be held on May 13, 2020, at 10:30 AM (PST).   The registration page is here.

A video recording of our successful May 6  webinar, with Amb. Craig Allen, Wendy Cutler and Warren H. Maruyama on The Phase 1 Agreement and its Implementation is also now available here.

All of the above are being provided free of charge.

Draft Copyright Law Up for Public Comment

The National People’s Congress released a draft of the Copyright Law for public comment.  Comments are due by June 13, 2020.  The NPC comments on the draft are found here.  The NPC Observer’s concise summary of the legislative history is here.   I had discussed the earlier draft, along with the NPC observer predictions regarding consideration in late 2019, here.  The draft will likely be reviewed again near the end of this year and could pass in late 2020 or 2021.

There have already been some reactions to this draft.  Aaron Wininger pointed out in a recent article the provisions regarding quintuple damages, increased statutory damages, shifting of the burden of proof, and improvement in digital rights management.  He also briefly discusses some other changes, such as the change from “audiovisual works” to “cinematographic works.”  On first glance, the draft does appear to have expanded provisions on technological protection measures and anti-circumvention of technological protection measures, although further study is necessary to determine their consistency with prior laws, regulations, China’s commitments under the WIPO Internet Treaties, etc. (See Art. 48).

“Quintuple damages” and burden-shifting appear to be the “new normal” in revisions to Chinese IP laws. These changes predate the current trade war and are part of a mounting effort to increase civil deterrence.  It remains to be seen how they will be implemented in judicial interpretations and how observable they will be in judicial practice through the publishing of relevant cases.

Prof. Liu Chuntian, a friend and colleague from Renmin University, has written an insightful quick response article regarding the draft on weixin (Chinese language only).  Prof. Liu participated in the drafting of the PRC’s first copyright law.  His principle concerns with the draft include:

  1. The concept of “audiovisual works” replaces the expression “movies and works obtained by methods similar to filming.” This change in definition will provide protection for video games regardless of the technology that employed.   It may also have implications for expanded protection of live webcasting of sporting events, which has been a continual problem under Chinese copyright law, which were often thought be in sufficiently creative to be protected as a cinematographic work.  Prof. Liu suggested that China’s drafters consider borrowing from the practice of other countries, notably Brazil, which expanded copyright protection using the concept of “audiovisual works” regardless of the technology.  This can mitigate the possibility of continuing the conflict in Chinese IP law (and the law of other jurisdictions) between “cinematographic works” and “audiovisual works” which have provided uncertain protections depending on the technology employed.  At the same time, according to Prof. Liu, as the new law stipulates that the right owner in an AV work belongs to the producer, it will also be important to clarify the rights of authors and composers whose works are incorporated into AV works. He suggests that the new law should clearly stipulate that the rights in these works should be controlled by the copyright holder.
  2. Prof. Liu agrees on the importance of the improvements to the civil system, including increased damages and rights to demand production of evidence.
  3. Prof. Liu generally opposes the expansion of copyright administrative authorities to the county (xian) level, noting that it would lead to the creation of over 3,000 copyright offices in China – more than the rest of the world combined. He also takes issue, as do I, with the expansion of administrative enforcement power in the copyright law, and notes that as a private property right the civil system should be the principal vehicle for enforcement. This also appears to be a “new normal” in Chinese IP legislation, which has also been urged on in recent years by US demands for enforcement campaigns and increased punishment, including increased online enforcement for copyright in the Phase 1 Trade Agreement (Arts. 1.13, 1.14).
  4. Prof. Liu also notes that it is important that copyright is considered an aspect of civil law, and that it is guided by civil law principles, including tort and contract law, as well as the on-going drafting of the Civil Code. He notes that currently there is no IP chapter in the Civil Code and it is therefore even more important for the civil law and the copyright law to be integrated.  Consistent with China’s civil law tradition and his desire to ensure that copyright is protected as a private civil right, Prof. Liu places the primacy of the creator of the work as the first subject of protection. He notes “[t]he rights of other people are all rights that come from, are obtained through legal acts, through contracts or authorization mechanisms, and regulate the rights of the acts passed on.  This is the task of other laws.”

I hope to be able to post a translation of the draft soon.  Once a translation is available, Berkeley Law hopes to convene a round table discussion on the amendments to exchange views and assist in providing informed comments.  Please also post your comments or corrections to this posting and send us any translation you have prepared or comments you have submitted so that I may include them in a future blog.

Update of July 20, 2020: Here are the comments of Prof. Andy Sun.

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

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)).


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.



New CPC and State Council Opinions on Improving IP Protection


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.