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.

Supreme People’s Court Calls for Public Comments on Enforcement of Intellectual Property Judgments

Addendum of April 18, 2020: Here is an English language unofficial translation of the Implementation Plan and the Guidelines for reference purposes.  If you see any errors, please advise us by comments on this blog.  The translation is provided with no representations or warranties of any kind as to content.  Readers should consult with the Chinese original in the links above, as the translation has no legal significance.  The translation is courtesy of USPTO, which claims no responsibility for any inaccuracies in the translation.

On March 15, 2020, the Supreme People’s Court of China issued a notice soliciting public comments on the Implementation Plan for the Enforcement of Intellectual Property Judgments (Draft for Public Comment) 知识产权判决执行工作实施计划(征求意见稿)and the Guidelines for the Enforcement of Intellectual Property Judgments (Draft for Public Comment) 知识产权判决执行工作指南(征求意见稿 ). Comments are due on May 15, 2020. 

According to one online commentator, one reason for these documents is that in recent years, after the establishment of the punitive compensation mechanism for intellectual property rights in China, a large number of court-enforced cases have emerged. In fact, difficulties in enforcing judgments have been of concern to China’s leadership and the Supreme People’s Court for several years and appear to be independent of the possibility of increased punitive damages. President Xi Jinping identified this issue of enforcement difficulty 执行难 in the Fourth Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee (2014). The SPC further proposed to solve this problem in two to three years at the Fourth Session of the 12th National People’s Congress. SPC President Zhou Qiang also raised this issue in a report in 2018. None of these high-level pronouncements particularly singled out intellectual property as an area of enforcement concern.

In general enforcement issues that have concerned China involve enforcement of judgments. SPC President Zhou Qiang identified that China has faced such enforcement issues as: (1) judicial difficulties in locating the person and their property because the judgment debtors conceal their property and whereabouts; (2) the traditional liquidation method is subject to a long cycle with a low success rate, and corruption often occurs during liquidation, so the court is unable to liquidate the property to be enforced; (3) local governments and powerful personnel commit corruption and intervene and hinder the enforcement; (4) many unenforced cases accrue year after year, which has led to serious social conflicts.

Enforcement issues that foreigners have identified have included matters arising as part of the judgment, and often before the execution of the judgment including increased infringement compensation, jurisdictional issues of court enforcement, the procedures when a party initiates an enforcement action, enforcement procedures of pre-litigation preservation, enforcement of administrative remedies and criminal remedies including civil compensation for criminal cases, etc.  

This is the first time that the Supreme People’s Court has formulated an implementation plan and work guidelines specifically for intellectual property rights enforcement. While this move is explicitly aimed at strengthening the judicial protection of IP rights and ensuring that effective judgments on IP cases are enforced in accordance with the law, another purpose of this initiative is likely to fulfill China’s commitments under Article 1.28 of The Phase 1 IP Agreement of ensuring expeditious enforcement of IP judgments. Article 1.28 “Enforcement of Judgments” 判决执行 provides:

1.The Parties shall ensure expeditious enforcement of any fine, penalty, payment of monetary damages, injunction, or other remedy for a violation of an intellectual property right ordered in a final judgment by its own court.

2. Measures China shall take include executing work guidelines and implementation plans to ensure expeditious enforcement of judgments, publishing its work guidelines and implementation plans within one month after the date of entry into force of this Agreement, as well as publishing online quarterly reports of implementation results.

As the main part of the Implementation Plan, Section 2 “Specific Implementation Plan” 具体实施计划 includes the following provisions: filing of enforcement of IP judgment (Art. 1), pre-litigation preservation (Art. 2), how to quickly identify and control the property of the executed person (Art. 3), assets evaluation (Art. 5), assets disposal (Art. 6), obligations of the executed person (Art. 7), handling enforcement cases offsite (Art. 10), judicial publicity (Art. 12), etc.  Generally speaking, these provisions point to the specific measures previously promulgated by the SPC, rather than making headway in new policies or experiments, or suggesting more concrete measures or working methods. In this sense, the Implementation Plan highlights out IP judicial enforcement issues are tied to general enforcement concerns.

Addendum of April 18, 2020: Here is an English language and unofficial translation of the Implementation Plan and the Guidelines, for reference purposes.  If you see any errors, please advise us by comments on this blog.  The translation is provided with no representations or warranties of any kind as to content.  Readers should consult with the Chinese original in the links above, as the translation has no legal significance.  The translation is courtesy of USPTO.

According to Article 13 of the Implementation Plan, a special section of “Intellectual Property Judgment Enforcement Publicity” on China’s Enforcement Information Disclosure Website will be published by the end of June 2020, focusing on publicizing the implementation information of intellectual property judgments, so as to facilitate transparency, public understanding,  and supervision. This appears consistent with the requirement for publishing online reports of implementation results in the Phase 1 IP Agreement. In fact, as we have previously noted, the disclosure should not only be limited to the disclosure of the enforcement of IP judgments. In order to ensure that China’s civil enforcement is observable and accessible, China would need to publish all of its IP cases, including cases involving provisional measures, as well as dockets that may include motions and settlements. Many observers, including in this blog, have noticed a large drop in publication of foreign-related IP cases since approximately January 1, 2018, which should also be addressed. Finally, it is unclear from the text of the Implementation Plan or the Phase 1 Agreement, whether China intends to publish the actual enforcement decisions to the same extent that it publishes cases, notwithstanding that many enforcement cases are now available on the SPC’s official website.

In addition, over the past several years, there has been an increasing incidence of multinational IP disputes, particularly in technology sectors. As previously noted, the Phase 1 IP Agreement also does not address the problems arising from these cases. An added problem arising from SEP cases in particular, has arisen over anti-suit injunctions and whether China should issue its own anti-suit injunctions, which was the subject of a recent conference (January 2019) at Renmin University.

In terms of execution of foreign judgments, Article 7(1) of the Guidelines mention that: “If a foreign party applies for execution, it shall submit a written application for execution in Chinese. If there are special provisions in the mutual legal assistance treaty concluded or co-joined by the country where the party is located and China, the treaty provisions shall apply.” This provision noticeably omits any reference to the Article 282 of  Civil Procedure Law, which permits enforcement of foreign judgments on the basis of reciprocity. United States courts have also occasionally enforced Chinese money judgments, including those which have an IP-related element, under the Uniform Foreign Money Judgments Recognition Act.   According to Susan Finder, the SPC is working on drafting a judicial interpretation on this issue at some time in the future.

Based on the Implementation Plan and Guidelines, it remains unclear how the enforcement of IP judgments differs from other judgments and, indeed, why it should be different from other civil, criminal or administrative matters. In the past many judicial reforms have been tested in the IP context.  The past experience of initially testing legal reforms in IP than reaching out to other areas is less evident in these two documents.  While few new specific measures have been proposed, the SPC’s release of these documents does reflect its increasing emphasis on IP rights, perhaps undertaken in response to US pressure. 

Addendum of April 18, 2020: Here is an English language unofficial translation of the Implementation Plan and the Guidelines for reference purposes.  If you see any errors, please advise us by comments on this blog.  The translation is provided with no representations or warranties of any kind as to content.  Readers should consult with the Chinese original in the links above, as the translation has no legal significance.  The translation is courtesy of USPTO, which claims no responsibility for any inaccuracies in the translation.

Written by Mark A. Cohen with the assistance of  Xu Xiaofan

Peter Humphrey and the Uncertain Status of the Private Investigator

Private investigation firms are important for many aspects of commercial life in China, particularly given the weaknesses in China’s evidence gathering system and the high thresholds that exist for criminal investigations. PI firms conduct every thing from due diligence for investment projects, background checks on business partners and investigations on trademark squatters, counterfeiters and patent infringers.

Peter Humphrey and his wife Yu Jingeng, private investigators hired by GSK, were recently sentenced by a Shanghai court during a one day trial, which followed 13 months detention. According to a Reuters report, the sentences were for two and a half and two years, respectively, plus fines. Humphrey is being deported. Prosecutors charged that the couple had illegally obtained and sold more than 250 items of private information, including household registration data, real estate documents and phone records. Yu is quoted by Reuters as noting that “In other countries, we were able to conduct similar checks, including personal information and private transactions, legally through courts.”

Private investigation firms are a critical component of an IP enforcement campaign in China. Thankfully, according to noted anti-counterfeiting lawyer Joe Simone, the conviction was not for “illegal business operations”, which can carry a harsh sentence.  Ironically, illegal business operations is routinely employed in IP cases for illegal publications in lieu of the lesser offense of copyright infringement (Criminal Code Art. 225).   Joe notes that there was a 1993 Ministry of Public Security rule on the illegality of private investigation firms.   However, as this was an administrative rule it is of limited binding effect. Nonetheless the Humphrey case has led many private investigation firms to question whether their operations are legal.

The status of PI firms has been of concern to many companies and governments for some time. As I recall, private investigators have also been used for a variety of domestic purposes, including, predictably, marital disputes. Evidentiary burdens in Chinese litigation, including difficulties of compelling the production of evidence by an adverse party, can make PI firms a key component of an IP enforcement team

Here was the question that the US government asked China about PI firms two years after it joined the WTO, back in 2003:

79. We understand that China currently restricts the operation of foreign private investigation firms in IPR matters. At the same time, police and administrative authorities are frequently limited in their ability to gather evidence in criminal and administrative prosecutions, making private investigative firms even more important. Current thresholds for criminalization of counterfeiting and piracy, if applied to case initiation, create a high barrier for police or administrative agencies to refer cases to criminal prosecution, making the necessity of private gathering of information even more critical. Please advise what rules apply to the operations of such firms, as well as any plans to permit these firms to more actively assist China’s administrative, criminal and civil enforcement authorities (IP/C/W/414, 12 November 2003).

China responded to that question a year later by noting:

60. With regard to the issue of private investigating firms, [the Chinese side] said that the Ministry of Public Security of China was taking active steps to consider it. However, there was still no new regulation being issued. (IP/C/34, 9 December 2004

Prof. Don Clarke of GW law school has collected the weibo transcripts for those who want to follow this issue further.

magnifyinglass