China Passes the One Million Patent Milestone — Is it Yesterday’s News?

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Several news outlets have reported on the recent WIPO World Intellectual Property Indicators 2016 report on IP filings, noting that China’s surpassing a milestone of one million patent applications in 2015, and that this may, according to WIPO reflect “’extraordinary’ levels of innovation.”

There are two significant problems with the reporting.

The first is that the news of one million invention patent filings is about one year old.  SIPO publishes its patent filing data on a monthly basis, which is available to all, at no cost.  The chart at the top of this blog is from the SIPO website statistics web page  as of November 27, 2016 and covers patent filings through the end of September 2016.  In other words, the news about China surpassing the one million benchmark was probably available sometime in the first quarter of 2016 – making it hardly news.

The second point though is the more troubling one:   Bigness does not mean “strength”, as China has itself noted in State Council documents.  Moreover, bigness does not necessarily mean innovation.

Let’s tease apart five of the hidden data of what the WIPO:

  1. WIPO Contradicts Itself on China’s efforts to Innovate: Some studies show China lags considerably on its efforts to innovate.  While WIPO’s Francis Gurry notes that “Innovators in China powered global patent applications to a new record in 2015”  another WIPO-commissioned Global Innovation Index looking at a broader range of factors, suggested that China is number 25 in global innovation, and number 72nd in technology payments, despite holding a top position in high tech exports.  The data suggests that what is made in China is disproportionately not innovated in China.  Indeed some would argue that the large overhang of unexamined utility model and design patents in particular is making it more difficult to innovate, by making it difficult to conduct freedom to operate analyses in China’s market.
  2. The Rising Tide Is Not Raising All Boats: China’s rapid increase in patent filings are overwhelmingly from Chinese domestic filers only. For example, according to the more up to date SIPO data above only 10.6 % of the invention patents filed through end of September 2016 were from foreign filers.  For design and utility model patents, the foreign numbers are even lower: about 3% for designs and about 1% for UMP’s.   Possible reason: subsidies for domestic patent filings may be more generally available than subsidies or other incentives to file overseas.
  3. China’s Patent Tide Stops at its Boundary Waters: China is not a major international filer. As the WIPO report notes:  “around 96% of total applications from China are filed in China and only 4% of the total are filed abroad. In contrast, filings abroad constitute around 45% of the total in the case of applicants from Japan and the U.S.”  As I have detailed elsewhere, when China does file overseas – such as at the USPTO – the quality of the patents is high.  However these overseas-filed patents still are a limited cohort of China’s domestic filings, even if it may represent its most innovative and high quality patents.
  4. China Is A Big IP Country, But Not Necessarily A Strong One = Particularly When Other Comparative Data is Introduced.     When patents per capita or patents per unit of GDP are compared or patents in force are calculated, China does not come out on top.  Japan, Korea, Switzerland,  the United States and other countries all have their strengths when comparative data is introduced. In fact, the United States has 2.5 million patents in fact, and China is behind Japan in the number three slot (1.4 million patents in force), despite the rapid growing number of its invention patent applications.
  5. Is China “Pulling out the Stalks to Make the Plants Grow”: A system that is overly geared to easy metrics? No less dramatic than the 1,000,000 patent benchmark are the areas where China so outstrips other countries as to suggest that there may be fundamental problems in the value proposition of its IP system. China’s 1.1 million utility model applications are about 127 times second-ranked Germany’s (chart A55).   China’s design patents constituted nearly 94% of global filings (p. 127)   The data suggests that China is indeed strongest where the government can most actively support registration activity.  Quantitative data also works to the disfavor of economies that have strong pharma sectors, which are dependent on fewer patents, and industries that rely on proprietary/unpatented technology. This blog has also repeatedly reported on both these SIPO filing data, and some of the distortions that have accompanied this dramatic ramp-up in patent filings, including  subsidies, “get out of jail” free subsidies, and end of year acceleration in patent filings to take advantage of incentives.   These incentives have helped increase patent quantity, but their impact on quality is harder to measure.

Summary: Judging the extent to which China’s rapidly evolving system is contributing to China and global innovation requires more careful thought than simply looking at the explosive growth in China’s IP filings.  In addition to the problems noted, it also requires looking at other data such as commercialization, citation rates, relationship to manufacturing and exports, licensing and assignment rates, adoption by standards setting organizations, etc. Nonetheless, the quantitative curve is obvious and impressive (see below).  patentofficetrends

 

New State Council Decision on Intellectual Property Strategy For China as a Strong IP Country

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On July 18, 2016, the State Council issued a new policy document,国务院关于新形势下加快知识产权强国建设的 若干意见-重点任务分工方案  — the “Opinion of the State Council on Accelerating the Construction of Intellectual Property Powers for China as an Intellectual Property Strong Country under the New Situation –Division of Tasks.”  Here’s a link to this action plan (docketed as State Council  Working Office No. 66)  , and a link to the machine translation, from which the world cloud above is drawn.   The action plan itself is drawn from a State Council document issued in 2015 on accelerating the establishment of a strong IP country in the context of a new situation.  This 2015 document identified such problems as China being a big country for IP, but not a strong country, protection was not adequately strict, infringement was easy and pervasive, and that these factors were affecting industry’s efforts to innovate.

As I discussed previously, the idea of China needing to become a strong IP country appears in the 2014-2020, National IPR Strategy Action Plan, which has the goal of “Striving to Build A Strong IPR Country”  (努力建设知识产权强国). While China indeed has become “big” on most scales: invention patent filings, trademark, utility models and design patents, intellectual property litigation, criminal IP litigation and administrative litigation, to name a few, “strong” suggests quality, which is much harder to judge.

Here are a few specific observations about this action plan:

  1. Much of the action plan repeats existing efforts, through the MofCOM IPR Leading Group and SIPO’s National IP Strategy Office, and their current efforts at analyzing and coordinating IP effort, as well as cooperative activities (Arts. 1, 3, 13, 15, 18, 21, 22, 25, 30, 44, 88, etc.).
  2. There are greater efforts to incorporate IP into macroeconomic strategies, such as in calculations regarding the national economy and national social welfare (Art. 9), as well as credit reporting (Art. 23).
  3. Increasing compensatory  and punitive damages are a focus (Arts. 14), which have also been an effort of China’s IP courts.  This is one of the key civil-law reform proposals in this plan.   There continues to be an undue emphasis on speed, which I assume is focused on patent administrative enforcement as a more rapid remedy (Art. 16).  China is already a fast moving IP environment.
  4. International cooperation in criminal enforcement is underscored (Arts. 19, 21, 22).
  5. Regarding trade secret protection, the focus is on revising trade secret laws, and protecting IP when employees change jobs (Art. 24).  Changes to China’s discovery regime and other appropriate measures which would greatly assist trade secret claimants, are not discussed.
  6. Geographical indications are a focus, including drafting a stand-alone GI law at “the appropriate time” (Art. 32), increasing the role of trademarks in promoting farmer prosperity (Art. 58), and promoting GI products (Art. 90).
  7. Regarding the long-delayed IP Abuse Guidelines, NDRC, MofCOM, SAIC and the State Council Legislative Affairs Office are all listed as being responsible for drafting “according to their responsibilities” (Art. 36).  Rules on standard essential patents that are based on FRAND licensing and “stopping infringement” are also noted (Art. 38), with the involvement of AQSIQ, SIPO, MIIT, and the Supreme People’s Court).  Encouraging standardization of Chinese patents also remains a priority (Arts. 61, 71).
  8. Service Invention Regulations, an area of some controversy are not specifically noted as a priority.  Encouragement is to be given to enterprises to set up appropriate invention recognition and reward programs in accordance with law (Art. 45), and research is to be undertaken in giving compensation for new scientific achievements (Art. 46).  The language may suggest that more flexibility will be given contractual arrangements and the market, as was agreed to bilaterally between China and the United States.   Relevant agencies involved in these efforts include SIPO, MoST, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Agriculture, SASAC, Chinese Academy of Sciences, MIIT, Ministry of Defense, etc.
  9. Chinese universities are also encouraged to become more actively engaged in commercialization of technology, through establishment of technology transfer offices (Art. 53) and other efforts.
  10. The impact of US efforts to study IP-intensive industries in the US economy is also apparent in this plan in terms of the government’s efforts to investigate promoting IP intensive industries in the Chinese economy, government procurement of products from IP intensive industries, and developing model districts for IP intensive industries (Arts. 55-56).  Interestingly, there is no specific reference to engaging economists on any of these efforts, despite the role of foreign economists in similar efforts, some of who have also directly engaged China on how to determine IP-intensity in an economy.
  11. There is discussion of using tax and financial policies to promote IP creation in China (Arts. 98, 99).  There is no explicit discussion of harmonization with OECD guidelines regarding patent boxes and other forms of international tax avoidance.
  12. The report discusses a number of strategies and plans to reduce overseas IP risks facing Chinese companies, including assisting Chinese companies in strategic planning, patenting and licensing (Arts. 72-76), developing information resources on risks and cases (Arts. 78-79), and – rather ominously – developing policies for countering large intellectual property cases overseas (with the support of MofCOM, Customs, SAIC, AQSIQ, NCA, and the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade – “CCPIT”).   There is no discussion on any changes to current technology import regulations which impose onerous indemnity and non-grant back requirements on foreign licensors.
  13. The report directs research to be conducted of placing IP officials overseas in important countries, region and IP organizations.  Although China’s current IP attaché in the United States is a MofCOM employee, the responsible agencies for this effort include SIPO, NCA, SAIC, and CCPIT (Art. 85).  The first Chinese IP attaché was dispatched to the United States pursuant to a bilateral commitment of the  2005 Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade.
  14. The report notes that China will become more involved in promoting a more “fair and reasonable” international IP regime, through support of the Doha amendments to the TRIPS Agreement, the Convention on Biodiversity and various IP conventions.  The Hague Convention on Industrial Designs is noted, but not UPOV 1991.  Promotion of intangible heritage and folklore are also noted (Arts. 59. 87).
  15. IP talent creation and training are also key elements of the plan (103-105).

 

Often in looking at plans like these, it is also equally important to ask what is not being covered.   The plan does not focus enough on a China where there is greater scientific collaboration with foreign scientists and engineers, which are also result in an increasingly large number of co-invented patents.  Similarly, increasing Chinese investment in IP-intensive industries in the United States means that many Chinese companies will own substantial IP interests and may be less inclined to view IP issues as “us” vs “them.”  The relative under-emphasis on civil remedies for IP issues in this plan is also troubling, as the availability of adequate civil remedies is what drives IP commercialization.

The report also does not suggest increasing the role of economists in IP and antitrust agencies, despite a clear focus on increasing the IP-intensity of the Chinese economy. Gaps in Chinese law, such as denial of copyright protection for sports broadcasting, weak protection for trade dress, and “circular” litigation between the patent and trademark offices and the courts which may delay final adjudication on matters, controlling trademark squatting and subsidies for unexamined patents are not discussed.

Although there are many positive aspects of this plan, I believe that focusing on issues like compulsory licensing, the Doha Declaration and folklore, or what appears to be political solutions to overseas infringement may also not deliver as much value to the Chinese economy and China’s scientists, engineers, artists and entrepreneurs, as returning to core IP concepts which let the market govern IP creation and enforcement through such measures as improving the scope of rights that are protected under Chinese law, limiting government intervention, increasing the role of the civil judicial system, and promoting increased collaboration.

SIPO Amends Exam Guidelines to Provide Design Patent Protection For GUI’s

As I previously blogged, SIPO was considering amending its patent examination guidelines to permit design patent protection for graphical user interfaces (GUI’s). The new examination guidelines were promulgated by SIPO on March 12, 2014, with an effective date of  May 1, 2014.

The revised examination guidelines remove the earlier  (and antiquated) blanket prohibition against design patent protection for electrified screen designs.  They also provide protection for dynamic (animated) graphical user interfaces. Designs which are unrelated to human-machine interaction or product function also remain unprotected under the revised examination guidelines.  These excluded designs include video game interfaces,  wallpaper,  start-up and shut-down screens or graphic compositions in a web page. 游戏界面以及与人机交互无关或者与实现产品功能无关的产品显示装置所显示的图案,例如,电子屏幕壁纸、开关机画面、网站网页的图文排版。

March 24, 2018 edit: Here is an update on a first instance design patent infringement case involving a GUI, decided December 25, 2017 (Beijing Qihu technology co. Ltd. and Qizhi Software (Beijing) Co. Ltd v Beijing Jiangmin Technology Co. Ltd.), which unfortunately shows some of the limitations of the current regime.  The authors do not however provide the docket number or the court.