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.

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.”

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

Update of August 15, 2020: Here is a blog post of Matthew Alderson from Harris Bricken on the originality issues involving the protection of sports broadcasts under the proposed revisions to the copyright law. 

Update of August 15, 20202: Here is a translation of the proposed Copyright Law amendments by Prof. Jiarui Liu.

Please also send us any translation or comments you have prepared to post on this blog.

Reviewing the 2017 SPC Report on IPR Judicial Protection: The Generalities and the Exceptions

There have been a number of empirical reports in recent weeks on China’s IP system. In this blog, I look at the annual Supreme People’s Court 2017 Report on the Situation Regarding Judicial Enforcement of IPR in China  (中国法院知识产权司法保护状况) which was released during IP week (the “Report”).

According to the Report, 2017 saw a major increase in IP litigation in China.  There were a total of 237,242 cases filed and 225,678 cases concluded, with an increase of 33.50% and 31.43%, respectively, compared to 2016.

First instance cases increased by 47.24% to 201,039.  Patent cases increased 29.56% to 16,010.  Other increases were in trademarks (37,946 cases/39.58%); copyright (137,267/57.80%); competition-related cases (including civil antitrust cases of 114) (2,543/11.24%).  Two counter-cyclical numbers stand out:  technology contract cases dropped by 12.62% to 2,098, and second instance cases increased by only 4.92% or 21,818 cases. Note that disaggregated numbers for civil trade secret cases are not disclosed in the Report, but are presumably included under “competition” cases.

Comparing dockets with the United States, in 2017 United States courts heard 4,057 cases patent cases, 3,781 trademark cases, and 1,019 copyright cases, according to Lex Machina.  The biggest margin of difference between the US and China was clearly in copyright cases.  Chinese courts heard 134.7 times more cases than the United States. However, Chinese copyright cases are less likely to be consolidated amongst different titles, claims or causes of actions, which can inflate the statistics  — although I doubt to a 100 or more fold level.

Administrative cases, the majority of which are constituted by appeals from the patent and trademark offices, showed an overall increase while patent validity cases decreased.  Administrative patent appeals dropped 22.35% to 872 cases, while administrative trademark cases increased to 7,931 cases, or by about 32.40%.  The drop in administrative patent cases is particularly notable in light of the increased activity in patent prosecution and patent licensing.  By comparison the numbers of Inter Partes Reviews undertaken by the USPTO during 2017, according to Lex Machina, were 1,723, in addition to 9 cases involving covered business method patents.

The SPC did not offer disaggregated reversal rates of the PRB and TRAB in its data; combined patent and trademark cases included 964 cases involved  affirming the administrative agency decisions; 150 involving a change in the administrative decision; 5 cases involved a remand for further review; and 24 cases were withdrawn.

Criminal IP cases have also continued to decline.  There were 3,621 first instance criminal IP cases in 2017, a decline of 4.69%.  Among those 3,425 involved trademarks (-3.93%) and 169 involved copyrights (-13.33%).  There was also a decline of 35% in adjudication of criminal trade secret cases to only 26 cases.  The decline in criminal cases since 2012 (when cases totaled over 13,000) especially in copyrights and trade secrets is odd as Chinese leadership has in fact recognized the need for deterrent civil damages, including punitive damages and criminal trade secret remedies.

The five provinces that receive the most IP cases continued to grow in influence. Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Guangdong saw an aggregate increase of 56.63% in IP cases, to 167,613 and now constitute 70.65% of all IP cases filed in China (p. 6).  Guangdong alone saw an increase of 84.7% to 58,000 cases and Beijing trailed behind at 25,932 cases with an increase of 49.2 percent.  Other less popular destinations also saw dramatic increases.  Jilin province had an increase of 210 percent, while Hunan and Fujian each saw increases of 73.8% and 73.14%.

Settlement and case withdrawal rates also changed in 2017.  Shanghai had the highest reported rate of the big five at 76.31%, while the inland province of Ningxia had an overall rate of 88.46%, including a 100 percent rate where litigants accepted judgments without appealing  服判息诉 (!).

The SPC also reported supporting 11 cross-district IP tribunals in Nanjing, Suzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Hefei, Fuzhou, Jinan, Qingdao and Shenzhen.  In addition, 10 provinces or autonomous cities established a system of combining civil, criminal and administrative jurisdiction over IP cases in their IP tribunals in the first half of 2017.  As noted however, despite this change in judicial structure, there was a decline in criminal enforcement and in some administrative appeals in 2017 overall (p.11).

The Report also notes that the SPC is actively supporting research on establishing a national specialized appellate IP Court (p. 10).   The SPC also actively participated in the providing comments on other draft laws, and devoted some effort to the revisions of the Anti-Unfair Competition law, including meeting three times with the legal affairs committee of the NPC, as well as numerous phone calls   According to the Report, the “majority of the opinions proposed were adopted into law” which leaves the question of what was not adopted.  One possibility may be the removal of a specific provision treating employees as “undertakings” under the revised AUCL.  In fact, I have heard that some NPC legislators are continuing to push for a stand-alone trade secret to further improve upon the revised AUCL.

The Report also points to several research projects undertaken by provincial courts.  Amongst those of interest are: a research project on disclosure of trade secret information in litigation in Jiangsu; a report on using market guidance for damages compensation of Guangdong Province; a report on standards essential patents in Hubei; and a research project of the Beijing IP Court on judicial protection of IP in international competition.

Regarding transparency, the Report notes that the SPC has published all of its cases on the Internet, however similar data is not provided for other sub-SPC courts (p. 16).

In international affairs, the Report notes that the SPC has participated in the discussions on the proposed treaty on recognition and enforcement of foreign civil judgments (p. 17), in the China-European IP dialogue, and has sent people to the annual meeting of INTA, amongst other activities.  No mention is made of US government engagements (p. 17).  This omission may be due to current political sensitivities.  Nonetheless, due to the increasing number of cross-border disputes and the need for better understanding of both our judicial systems, I believe judicial engagement with Chinese courts would continue to be a fruitful enterprise.  Indeed, Berkeley hopes to host a program on cross-border IP litigation with Tsinghua University Law School later this year.

Finally, while we are on the subject of the courts, I commend Susan Finder’s recent blog on how to translate court terminology.   I hope I have not departed too far here from her excellent suggestions!