Antitrust Aspects of “Unfairly High Patent Pricing” for Licensing Transactions in China

This guest blog has been written by Prof. HAO Yuan of  Tsinghua University School of Law.

 China is facing a pressing need to build its innovation-driven economy. To facilitate key features of an innovative economy Chinese anti-monopoly authorities, along with their worldwide peers, face a daunting challenge of transition from a static regime to a more dynamic one.  Several recent judicial and administrative disputes, including Huawei v. IDC, Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court, Shen Zhong Fa Zhi Min Chu Zi No. 857 (2011); Huawei v. IDC, Guangdong High People’s Court, Yue Gao Fa Min San Zhong Zi No. 306 (2013); and the NDRC’s administrative investigation against Qualcomm, Administrative Penalty Decision [2015] No. 1, point out the need to better understand the IP and antitrust intersection, particularly with regard to controversial issues such as  “unfairly high patent pricing (不合理专利高价)”.   This blog summarizes my recent paper (available on SSRN) which addresses this important issue (upcoming 2020 in GRUR International (Journal of European and International IP Law)).

Chinese Anti-Monopoly Law (“AML”), in contrast to US law but not facially dissimilar to EU competition law, pays substantial attention to a dominant market player’s unilateral “exploitative” conduct. Specifically, section 17(1) of the AML (2008) forbids a dominant undertaking from “abusing its market position” by selling at “unfairly high prices”. However, neither the Law nor later enacted Judicial Interpretations clearly define “unfairly high price” in the anti-monopoly sense. Correspondingly, courts and enforcement agencies have significant discretion in characterizing a market price as “unfairly high”, thereby potentially exposing an undertaking to harsh penalties.

Despite perhaps a legitimate institutional intention, this ex post legal risk of being found “unfairly high” could seriously curtail business entities’ ex ante incentive to innovate in China. Meanwhile, lacking adequate legal and economic guidance, this institutional discretion would likely result in significant error costs. Such costs are likely to be even more severe in the context of patent-intensive industries, particularly those in China’s burgeoning high-tech sector.

Section 55 of the AML arguably provides an IP “safety harbor”, providing that a proper exercise of IPR shall be immune from the AML scrutiny, while “an abuse of IPR, excluding or restricting on competition” shall not. As pointed out elsewhere on this website, this provision remains essentially unchanged in a recently proposed revisions to the AML.

Despite this statutory framework, recent cases indicate that the IPR immunity approach has been largely ignored in practice. In the 2011 Huawei v. IDC action, both courts found IDC’s patent pricing to be “unfairly high” primarily on three grounds: one, the licensing royalties IDC offered to Huawei were “apparently higher” than “comparable licenses”, i.e. those royalties IDC charged other companies previously (though whether these licenses were truly comparable with licenses made to Apple, Samsung and others was worthy of serious discussion); two, “IDC’s act of charging unfairly high licensing fee to Huawei, will force Huawei to either quit the competition in the relevant end product market, or accept the unfair pricing conditions, which will render Huawei to increased costs and decreased profits in the relevant end product market, directly restricting its capability to compete”; and three, IDC required Huawei to give global patent grant-backs on a royalty-free basis, an arguable violation of both the Antimonopoly Law and the then-existing Administration of Technology Import/Export Regulations,. Similarly in the Decision against Qualcomm, the NDRC also disregarded Section 55 immunity, finding that Qualcomm’s licensing conditions were “unfairly high” due to these three factors: charging a flat fee for an ever-changing patent portfolio without proving the replenished patents are of equal value to expired ones; coercion for free grant-backs; and using the entire end product as royalty base. So far, Huawei v. IDC and Qualcomm have been the only two completed Chinese cases that entailed an extensive “unfairly high patent pricing” analysis.  Other currently ongoing cases include Iwncomm v. Apple (Beijing IP Court), Huawei v. Panoptics (Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court), Xiaomi v. Sisvel (Beijing IP Court), and the anti-monopoly investigation by SAMR (China’s AML administrative enforcement authority) against Ericsson’s 3G/4G SEP licensing practices, etc..

It is true that both IDC and Qualcomm involved SEPs and  arguably an extra layer of FRAND commitment needs consideration, which may require additional law and policy analysis. For example, the courts might have looked to how to interpret FRAND in Chinese legal framework – is it a specific commitment to a SSO, or a general “principle (原则)” imposable by loosely grounded policy arguments? Will this FRAND interpretation affect an SEP holder’s anti-monopoly obligations in China?  And if so, how? Nevertheless, to a large extent these cases still reflected a practical departure from the statutory IPR immunity framework approach under Chinese law. Such an aggressive approach has also been reflected in Section 14 of the Anti-Monopoly Guidelines for IP Abuse (Draft for Comment 2017) as published by the Anti-Monopoly Commission of State Council. (Editors note: see the comments of the American Bar Association, as well as earlier drafts by enforcement agencies here). According to this rule-of-reason framework, “Business entities that enjoy dominant market positions may abuse their dominance by licensing intellectual property at unfairly high prices, excluding or restricting competition; while assessing whether such high pricing constitutes abuse of dominant market position, the following factors may be considered: (i) calculation method of license royalty, as well as the IP’s contribution to the value of goods; (ii) the business entity’s undertaking with regard to the IP licensing; (iii) the license history or comparable license standards; (iv) license conditions that may have led to unfairly high pricing, including territorial or product scope restrictions; and (v) whether a portfolio licensing includes expired or invalid IP”.

This laundry-list framework is not administrable. How these factors play out in a specific case, whether and how they would interact with each other, how much weight should be attached to each and every one of them, how to incorporate the pro-efficiency features into consideration … all these important practical questions remain unanswered. Facing such vague rules, patentees and other relevant market players would find it very hard to ascertain legal compliance. Vague rules combined with the high stakes often entailed in antitrust cases may lead to rent seeking and bad precedents, further upsetting a prior well-functioning market system, and harming market players’ confidence to  continuously invest in innovation.

One critical reason for this stark departure between the Law and enforcement may be the lack of an administrable test to differentiate “proper exercise” of patent right from “abuse”. Ambiguity lies in at least two aspects. First, due to the very mechanisms of patent regime in fostering innovation, even a proper exercise of right would necessarily restrict certain market competitions. Thus, it seems that an over-general standard of whether “to eliminate or restrict competition” cannot work as the ultimate test to differentiate abuse from legitimate exercise. Second, despite extensive use of “patent abuse” in the past decades worldwide, the exact contour of this concept remains elusive. Resorting solely to the various definitions and constructions in comparative law of sister jurisdictions, helpful as it is, would not solve these ambiguities adequately.

Mark Cohen, the editor of this blog, has also noted that one little-referenced basis for resolving the distinction between “proper exercise” and “abuse” is in fact found in Article 40 of the TRIPS Agreement, which creates a similarly vague dichotomy in permitting WTO members to provide remedies for abusive licensing practices.  Article 40 authorizes member states to address “licensing practices or conditions that may in particular cases constitute an abuse of intellectual property rights having an adverse effect on competition in the relevant market.”   Article 40 also permits member states to control mandatory grant backs of the type address in Huawei v. IDC.  The ambiguities in China’s AML and TIER may in no small part be due to the ambiguities within Article 40 itself, which may have been an important resource for the drafting of Article 55 of the AML.  Furthermore, as Prof. Cohen has separately noted, the legislative history of  Article 55 suggests that it was intended to provide greater assurance that enforcement of IP rights would not by themselves violate the AML, see Harris et al, Antimonopoly Law and Practice in China (2011), at 55. Prof. Cohen’s latter point was well proved in the little referenced, but authoritative, Statute Interpretation and Legislative Reasoning of the Anti-Monopoly Law (hereinafter “Statute Interpretation”) (published by the Legislative Work Commission of the NPC), which noted that, “To restrict competition by the exercise of IP right, is permitted by law after its balance of distinctive interests; in other words, certain restrictions must be imposed on competition to further technological innovation and improve competitive capability. Thus, monopoly status resulting from IP right as well as the restriction on competition because of the exercise of IP right, are legal acts based upon the legal authorization. Other jurisdictions generally treat the legal exercise of IP right as an exception to the application of antitrust laws” ; but on the other hand,  “[I]f an IP right holder abuses its right by exceeding the scope of exclusive right, in acquiring or strengthening a monopoly position, such act will not be protected, and if it excludes or restricts competition, the AML shall govern here.”

Though not a binding document in itself,  the Statute Interpretation can work as a useful guidance, since it embodied important legislative intents and reasoning at the time, particularly when no other legislative reports are accessible to the public. Therefore, to assess “unfairly high patent pricing”, a crucial question is whether the alleged excessive pricing act falls within the scope authorized by patent law. If the answer is positive, then even if this “excessive” pricing would restrict certain competition in the relevant market, such static efficiency loss is a necessary cost we deliberately pay for sustainable innovation, i.e. section 55 immunity applies. If and only if on the other hand, the alleged pricing has been proved to exceed the legally authorized scope of such patent, section 55 immunity will then be stripped and the high pricing act will be examined under section 17(1) of the AML. In other words, to be stripped of the IP clause immunity and subject to “unfairly high patent pricing” scrutiny under the AML lens, the alleged pricing must be not only excessive enough to exclude competition, but also in a way that departed from what patent law has originally contemplated.

Economic insights into the patent law jurisprudence of various jurisdictions, including China, US and EU, reveal that despite some rather subtle differences, all patent regimes promote innovation essentially through the instigation of dynamic competition. Specifically, the patent regime (1) bridges an innovator’s technological R&D to market demand: the better aligned a new technology is to consumer needs, the more valuable this “shell” of exclusive right would be in the marketplace, resulting in higher profit an innovator can harvest by excluding her imitating competitors (“competition by imitation” or “CBI”).  In addition, the patent regime enables innovators to signal potential “innocent” imitators utilizing mechanisms such as disclosure requirements, thereby reducing the amount of duplicative investment in innovation. See Edmund W. Kitch, The Nature and Function of the Patent System, Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 20, No. 2 at 278; (2) with some caveats addressed in my full paper, by restricting CBI with reasonably tailored claims of the patent right coupled with disclosure requirements, the patent regime simultaneously induces social resources into “inventing around” activities, i.e. to provide better/cheaper substituting technologies, thereby encouraging competition by substitution (“CBS”).    In certain circumstances, the fruits of such CBS  may also be protectable with a new property (patent) right. For example, if a competitor’s “inventing around” technology is found sufficiently “inventive” or “non-obvious”, it would likely be entitled to a patent in itself.  See Robert P. Merges, Intellectual Property Rights and Bargaining Breakdown: The Case of Blocking Patents, 62 Tenn. L. Rev. 75 (1994); and (3) feeling the pressure of CBS, the earlier patentee/innovator would likely be incentivized to keep on her next run of “inventing around”, striving to stay a winner in the marketplace. In this way, a virtuous circle of dynamic competition could come into force.

On the other hand, a brief comb-through of the economic foundations and jurisprudential development of antitrust law suggests that this regime promotes innovation essentially through efforts to maintain an (optimally) heterogeneous competition ecosystem. Based on an understanding of both innovation-facilitating mechanisms, two insights are worthy of note here. First, a mutual ground shared by both patent and antitrust regimes in their disparate routes to innovation is the common facilitation of dynamic competition. And correspondingly, Chinese anti-monopoly law should respect the very patent mechanism, i.e. the instigation of dynamic competition, which pivots on the CBS precisely through efforts including a restriction upon CBI. Therefore, to put it in practical terms, if an alleged act at the intersection with anti-monopoly law, such as an accusation of “excessive” pricing, merely caused a restriction on CBI   as indicated in supra-competitive profits, AML must refrain from intervening. In other words, AML should not lightly disturb a well-functioning circle of dynamic competition, simply because under its lens CBI  or static efficiency seems restricted in a link, and local optimum seems not achieved – as a result, a supra-competitive profit enjoyed by a patentee should be found legal per se if static efficiency loss is the only proven harm. More importantly, the focus should be instead on whether the questioned act would not only restrict competition, but also in a way that departed from what the patent regime has contemplated, i.e. the restriction is to dynamic competition or CBS itself. As an example of the latter scenario, consider a joint agreement between two patentees owning substituting technologies or a patent pool consisting of competing technologies, with the patentees or pool members consenting to suppression of one technology in promotion of another (others).

Coming back to the context of patent pricing, is it possible for a high pricing to restrict dynamic competition, thereby constituting an abuse under the anti-monopoly lens? Maybe yes in theory. Arguably in exceptional circumstances, certain pricing may be so excessively structured to actually constitute a refusal to subsequent or follow-on innovators, or at least a significant “margin squeeze” for them, and such refusal or squeeze in theory may lead to foreclosure of the CBS itself or competition in downstream markets, thus frustrating the circle of dynamic competition.. A little more discussion on the interaction of patent and market competition may help here. In a nutshell, from the perspective of a patent law student, there often exist three tiers of market competition. Tier I is vanilla CBI, referring to those competing technologies with mere replication or insubstantial changes, the only advantage of which are their lower prices (mostly by saving duplicating R&D costs). Of course, CBI can be efficient and legal in those circumstances where patentee grants a license, but in most other cases, CBI is legitimately excludable under patent law and antitrust shall never interfere. Tier II, competition by improvement, is really a higher level of CBI, in that competing technologies here involve substantial improvements on the patented technology, though still falling into the scope of earlier claims. Note a caveat here – patent law is clever enough to give certain leeway to those competitors with own substantial improvement, for example by granting a new patent right if the improvement has been found to be “inventive” or “non-obvious”, so that these competitors would have stronger bargaining power to negotiate with the original patentee and harvest higher profits from the pair of sequential innovation. This power and resulting profit would further incentivize competitors to do follow-on improvements. This is actually the scenario of blocking patents. Generally speaking, the second tier only applies to those industries that are characterized with cumulative innovation. Despite the substantial improvements, Tier II is still legitimately excludable under patent law and antitrust shall not interfere. Tier III is CBS, referring to those technologies that are capable of truly substituting the earlier patented technology to fulfill consumer needs in the market. By their very name, in most circumstances Tier III is comprised of “inventing around” technologies that do not fall into the protected scope of earlier patent, thus there exists no serious risk of being excluded by the earlier patentee unilaterally. The theoretical worry can happen however, at the rare circumstance of tier II and III intersection: occasionally an infringing improvement could be so radical that it would truly substitute the commercialized earlier patent as a break-through technology.   A real-world example here is the long deadlock between the famous Marconi diode patent and the Lee De Forest triode patent during the early development years of radio technology. This kind of radical improvement, even though literally infringing on the pioneer patent, is precisely the type of “creative destruction” Schumpeter emphasized many years ago that fuels innovation in a most powerful way – an innovator’s descendants can actually become the instruments of his destruction, yet the society benefits in the long run.

Following this train of thought, if we temporarily leave the “unfairly high patent pricing” context and turn  to some of the classical NIE (New Institutional Economics) scholarly works in a more general sense, including the conventional hypothesis of patent “anti-commons” (Heller and Eisenberg 1998), worry of over-broad pioneer patents’ suppressing effect on follow-on innovation (Merges and Nelson 1990), and recent conjecture of patent hold-up and royalty stacking in the SEP context (Shapiro and Lemley 2007), arguably they all may be considered as embodying (more or less) such theoretical worries of patent foreclosure on dynamic competition.

Inspiring as these theories were, they, need to be tested in practice.  Curiously, decades of empirical research in various industries have showed little success in proving these theoretical worries happening in the real marketplace, at least on a macroscopic level. A specific concurrent example for this striking disintegration between theory and empirical results is the robust innovation and significant consumer benefits (as indicated in quality-adjusted prices) in the SEP intensive wireless communication industry, in the shadow of persistent “patent hold up and royalty stacking” predictions. See Alexander Galetovic, Stephen Haber & Ross Levine, An Empirical Examination of Patent Holdup, Journal of Competition Law & Economics 11(3) (Aug. 2015); Jonathan Barnett, Antitrust Overreach: Undoing Cooperative Standardization in the Digital Economy, 25 Mich. Telecomm. & Tech. L. Rev. 163 (2019). There might be different explanations to this empirical difference. I give a rough quantitative analysis in my paper why the seemingly plausible theoretical worry of dynamic competition foreclosure is unlikely to happen in practice.  In addition, I argue that perhaps precisely because CBS  has always been a critical link pivoted by patent regime in its instigation of dynamic competition, throughout ages patent law has developed an implicit yet critical awareness to safeguard CBS from being foreclosed per se. This implicit awareness has been built into a wide variety of rules and principles of patent jurisprudence prevalent in many jurisdictions, such as the eligibility doctrine, inventiveness/non-obviousness and disclosure/enablement requirements in the granting phase, all-element rule and reverse doctrine of equivalents in infringement assessment phase, as well as in deeper principles underlying and threading these specific rules together. A good example for the latter is the proportionality principle well illustrated by Prof. Merges in his Justifying Intellectual Property (Chap. 6, 2011).  Surely these built-in mechanisms are not ironclad, but they may have worked in a more successful way than we give faith to, and the AML  should not overlook it.

Based on the above, I further propose that a patentee’s unilateral pricing act should be generally found legal per se in China; or at the very least, presumed legal under section 55 of the AML unless an agency/plaintiff can prove otherwise – that the alleged pricing constitutes an “abuse” in that it would disrupt dynamic competition. Specifically, a patentee’s unilateral pricing act should be immune from the “unfairly high pricing” scrutiny under Section 17(a) of the AML, unless an anti-monopoly plaintiff or enforcement agency can overcome all three following hurdles with concrete evidence, in addition to a persuading economic analysis: (i) the patentee enjoys a real dominant market position; (ii) such pricing constitutes a de facto refusal to deal, and (iii) the refusal would likely foreclose the very type of competition patent law has aimed to promote, i.e. dynamic competition. More specifically, the harm to dynamic competition can be proven in either one of the following two dimensions: i. In the same market of patented technology, a monopolist patentee’s constructive refusal to license would render radical all follow-on substitutes impossible to be developed (restriction on competition by substitution); or ii. In the circumstances of a vertically integrated monopolist patentee, the constructive refusal to license would foreclose the competition or subsequent innovation in downstream markets in which the patentee also competes.

True this burden seems high, but it is justified by three cumulative resources, (i) the above economic insights into the intersection of patent and antitrust; (ii) the prevalent non-interventionist attitude toward “excessive patent pricing” in sister jurisdictions; and (iii) the inevitable limitations of antitrust law, manifested in the error costs due to lack of proper information and economic analysis methodologies on dynamic efficiency. See Frank H. Easterbrook, The Limits of Antitrust, 63 Tex. L. Rev. 1 (1984).

Despite existence of formal empowerments in some countries/regions, almost all jurisdictions with well-developed antitrust jurisprudence have exercised a very cautious attitude in condemning a market price as “unfairly high” in practice. Section 17(1) of the AML does not have a counterpart in conventional US antitrust jurisprudence, and despite the existence of a theoretical counterpart in EU (Art. 102(a) TFEU), it has been rarely invoked. When it comes to patent pricing, the EC has been taking a virtually non-interventionist approach. This non-interventionist approach may have originated from the Commission’s awareness that many general objections against exploitative excessive pricing actions, such as the danger of undermining investment incentives of new entrants as well as dominant firms, difficulty in assessing “excessiveness”, risk of improper price regulation, and undue space for political rent seeking etc., are particularly true in the context of patent-intensive innovative industries.

Antitrust is costly. As Judge Easterbrook pointed out many years ago, in reality judges and enforcement officials are always equipped with imperfect information about actual effects of the accused practice, and such costs of information and their corresponding actions are the limits of antitrust. Part of these costs comes from the judicial ignorance and inhospitality against business practices. Very often, if a poor defendant in an antitrust case cannot convince the judge that his practices promote competition, he is doomed. Unfortunately, “the gale of creative destruction produces victims before it produces economic theories and proof of what is beneficial.” Consequently, this unfortunate judicial inhospitality and ignorance would inevitably generate substantial positive costs in practice.

During the transition from  a planned regime to market economy, China needs to overcome all kinds of obstacles, ranging from formal restraints in laws and institutional infrastructure, to lingering outdated theories and prejudice that die hard and can still be quite powerful impeding the progress. On an institutional level for example, varied degrees of inertia may unavoidably exist on anti-monopoly agencies’ enforcement philosophy, especially when it comes to high pricing acts that seem to harm consumer interest (albeit short-term) on its face, and which had long been the subject of pervasive regulation through local pricing bureaus, even prior to the existence of the antimonopoly law.  In view of this potential institutional inertia, the likelihood of inhospitality a monopolist patentee, domestic or international, encounters in “unfairly high pricing” cases could be substantial.

Antitrust has two major analysis modes: per se rule and the rule of reason. If equipped with thorough information of market practices and perfect analysis methodologies, rule of reason is the route to precision and ultimate truth. Unfortunately, as discussed above, that is not the case in reality. One may contend that during the several decades after Judge Easterbrook’s seminal writing, rapid development of economic theories have provided more substantial guidance in many areas, but I am still reluctant to say that the improvement has been so significant to render his insight obsolete, particularly in context of dynamic efficiency and IP related issues. As such, an ambitious rule-of-reason framework as embodied in Section 14 of the Anti-monopoly Guidelines for IP Abuse, would inevitably generate significant error costs despite its good-willed intention.

Admittedly, our presumed legal per se framework is not cost-free. It may be conceivable that in exceptional circumstances, a monopolist patentee’s excessive pricing would disturb dynamic efficiency yet escape the law because the plaintiff simply cannot meet the high burden. On a systematic level however, I believe this possible negative error would be at least offset by the significant positive error costs avoided. A per se rule has always been used to condemn (or excuse) whole categories of practices, even though some of them are actually beneficial (or evil), and one cannot have the savings of decision by a particular rule without accepting its cost of errors.  When we choose which analysis mode to go, what really matters is the overall probability. In summary, we presume patent pricing to be legal per se, because both economic insights and comparative law already showed us that the happening chance of a real exclusionary excessive patent pricing would be extremely low (roughly estimated to be 1/100,000 – 1/100M in the paper), and partially confirmed by empirical studies so far. The exact reasons can be further explored, but the bottom line is clear – it seems that in a vast majority of circumstances, again the market mechanism coupled with strong patent protection has been functioning adequately well to facilitate innovation. Facing this extremely low probability of real foreclosure on dynamic competition, it would be unwise in every individual case to incur enormous administrative and error costs only to search a mere possibility. In a brief conclusion, if either way we are destined to make mistakes, we naturally choose the side with less cost.

In contrast to private law, anti-monopoly law is a much stronger form of interference with the market by government. Perhaps too many people today have omitted this (not only in China) – a blunt instrument as it is, antitrust law acquires legitimacy only in a minority of cases where market failure really happens, rather than a mere theoretical possibility. “The history of Chinese economic reform has clearly told us, whenever a market-oriented policy became dominant and market mechanisms were more frequently used to allocate resources, the quality and speed of Chinese economic development was better.”  Wu Jinglian, The Economic Development of China (The Great Encyclopedia Press 2018), at p. 3 (translation is my own). On the contrary, every time Chinese economic policy was influenced by the theories of planned economy, “both macroeconomic risks and microeconomic interests were affected deleteriously… … Therefore, to resolve the many problems we are confronted with during the economic reform process of China, the only answer is to insist and deepen our reform centering upon the confidence on market economy and rule of law, and further use the market mechanism to allocate resources; it should never be the pursuit of more state interferences.” Id. When stepping into the deep water of reform today, China should learn its historical lesson and be especially cautious with those legal instruments that potentially interfere with price mechanisms, the core feature of a market economy.

The author wishes to thank Hon. David Kappos, Prof. Robert Merges, Chief Judge Randall R. Rader (retired), and Prof. Mark Cohen for their editorial suggestions.  The opinions expressed herein are the author’s own.

 

 

Across the Fault Lines: Chinese Judicial Approaches to Injunctions and SEP’s

As has been noted in the media, on April 26, 2018, the Guangdong High People’s Court (GHC) promulgated the Trial Adjudication Guidance for Standard Essential Patent Dispute Cases (the “Guangdong Guidance”). The Guangdong Guidance adhered to the basic framework of Beijing Higher Court’s (BHC) Guidance for Patent Infringement Determination 2017 (the “Beijing Guidance”) which itself appears quite similar with the basic framework set forth by Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in its decision for Huawei v. ZTE, as well as in the recent decisions of Iwncomm v. Sony (see abridged English translation from the Comparative Patent Remedies blog here) in Beijing and Huawei v. Samsung in Shenzhen.  Taken together, these approaches depart from prior Supreme People’s Court (SPC) practices, and embody a “fault-based” conduct-evaluation framework. The Guangdong Guidance further suggests that courts which apply the fault-based conduct-evaluation framework may rely on a comparable license approach than other approaches to determine FRAND royalties.

At First the FRAND Licensor Is Barred from Seeking an Injunction

The earliest Chinese court’s attitude about determining injunctive relief and royalties for standard-related patent infringement case can be found in the reply letter issued by the SPC on July 8, 2008 to the Liaoning High People’s Court (LHC).  The SPC instructed the LHC that once a patent holder participated in the standard-setting process and agreed to have its patents adopted in the standard, the court shall deem the patent holder as having consented to license its patents to anyone who implements the standard.  The patent holder can charge the standard implementer for royalties, which, however, shall be less than the usual amount of royalty if a standard were not involved. The court would also implement the promise of a patentee to license on a royalty-free basis.

Subsequently, on October 16, 2013, the GHC upheld the Shenzhen Intermediate Court decision of Huawei v. InterDigital. In this case, the Chinese court held that once an implementer had indicated its willingness to conclude a license, a FRAND encumbered SEP owner shall have the obligation to make a FRAND offer to the implementer. The key to determining whether the offer was FRAND is the evaluation of the royalty rate. The opinion may also be read to suggest that the courts might reject a FRAND-encumbered SEP owner’s petition for an injunction when an implementer expressed its willingness to conclude an agreement. However, the court did not address how to determine whether an implementer is willing to negotiate.

The SPC Picks up the Fault Factors First

On March 21, 2016, the Supreme People’s Court of China promulgated the Judicial Interpretation on Several Issues Regarding Legal Application in the Adjudication of Patent Infringement Cases II (the “Patent JI II). Article 24 of the interpretation stipulated that the Court shall not support the SEP owners’ petition for a permanent injunction if the SEP owner intentionally acted against its FRAND commitment made in the standardization process during the negotiation of licensing conditions with the accused infringer, and the infringer was not at “obvious fault” during the licensing negotiation. Paragraph 2 of this Article also provides that in determining licensing conditions, a court shall, in accordance with FRAND principles, comprehensively consider the contribution of the innovation and its role in the standard, the situation in the technical field of the standard, the nature of the standard, the scope of exploitation of the standard, the related licensing conditions and other factors. This Interpretation thus introduced the fault-based idea into Chinese courts’ consideration of whether to issue an injunction in a SEP related case. The types of standards referred by Article 24, according to its language, are limited to non-mandatory national, industrial and local standards. The promulgation of Patent JI II opened the gate for the Chinese courts to view FRAND obligations as imposing certain conduct behavior on both the SEP owner as well as the standard implementer.

One year later, with the promulgation of the Beijing Guidance, the BHC extended the fault-based test for determining an injunction from the SEP owner to the standard implementer. In the Beijing Guidance, BHC attempted to structure a more complete and balanced framework for SEP injunctions. Article 150 of the Guidelines stipulated that both parties shall negotiate in good faith during the SEP licensing negotiation. Article 152 of Beijing Guidance targets the situation in which both parties were not at obvious fault. It provides that if the infringer duly submitted the amount of royalty it offered or a deposit no less than that amount to the court, then the court shall not generally support the SEP owner’s petition for a permanent injunction. Article 152 also detailed the situations where the court can determine the SEP owner disobeyed its FRAND obligation. These principles were also articulated in Article 13 of the Guangdong Guidance with some difference in detail. Article 153 of the Beijing Guidance targets the situation in which the SEP owner disobeyed its FRAND obligation and simultaneously the accused infringer was also found acted at obvious fault during the negotiation. It provides that the decision to grant an injunction shall be based on which party is more blameworthy for the break-down of the negotiation. Article 153 also enumerated the situations by which a court can determine that the accused infringer acted at obvious fault, which is also articulated by Article 14 of the Guangdong Guidance with some difference in details.

The complete general principles of deciding whether to issue permanent injunctions in SEP involved infringement cases was firstly laid out in the decision for Iwncomm v. Sony by BHC on March 28, 2018. The court reiterated that in a SEP licensing negotiation, both parties should negotiate in good faith. The decision to enter a permanent injunction should be based on which party is to blame for the break-down in negotiations by considering the performance of both parties during the process of negotiation as well as the substantial terms offered to conclude the agreement. The court enumerated four general situations:

  1. If the SEP owner intentionally acted against its FRAND commitment which led to the break-down of the negotiation, and the infringer was not at “obvious fault”, the court shall not support the SEP owner’s petition for permanent injunction;
  2. If the SEP owner was not at “obvious fault” during the negotiation, and instead, it was the infringer that at “obvious fault”, the SEP owner’s petition for a permanent injunction shall be supported by a court;
  3. If evidence indicates that both parties were not at “obvious fault”,and the infringer duly submitted the amount of royalty he offered or a deposit no less than that amount to the court, the court shall not sustain the SEP owner’s petition for permanent injunction;
  4. If both parties are found acted at fault, the decision of whether to grant an injunction depends on an assessment of the faults of both parties.

Comparing these principles with the language in the Beijing Guidance, where the SEP owner acted at obvious fault while the accused infringer did not, it appears that submitting a deposit to a court is no longer the premise for the court to deny an injunction request. The deposit is only specifically required in the situation where both parties were not at “obvious fault.” In Iwncomm v. Sony, Sony, the accused infringer, was found to be intentionally engaging in delaying tactics and was therefore at obvious fault.  The BHC upheld the Beijing Intellectual Property Court’s decision of granting a permanent injunction. This case was also discussed in the Comparative Patent Remedies blog,

Huawei v Samsung And the Shenzhen Court Flexes its Muscles…

On January 4th, 2018, about two months before BHPC came to its conclusion on Iwncomm v. Sony, the Intellectual Property Division of the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court granted injunctions against Samsung in two separate decisions in Huawei v. Samsung. After a detailed examination of the performance of both parties in the past licensing negotiation process and the court mediation process, the court then found Samsung was at “obvious fault” and that it acted against FRAND principles. Thus, a permanent injunction was granted. The court also ruled that in the light of the different nature of SEP and non-SEP cases, the two parties are allowed to continue negotiating licensing terms after the judgment, and the injunction will not be enforced on the condition that the parties reach an agreement later or Huawei consents not to enforce it.

The court’s injunction absent licensing-decisive negotiations or the probability of Huawei’s decision not to enforce the injunction were likely the basis for Judge Orrick’s Anti-Suit Injunction in the US counterpart case that enjoins Huawei from enforcing the Shenzhen Court’s injunction.

In Judge Orrick’s view, his court was the first to hear the case even if it were not the first to decide it, upon the petition of the same party (Huawei), and any decision to enjoin activity in Guangdong would undercut the possibility of a global settlement, which is the basis of Huawei’s claim before his court. Unlike the Chinese courts to date, Judge Orrick does undertake a lengthy comity analysis to justify his decision. Judge Orrick’s decision stands in stark contrast to another, earlier Shenzhen decision, Huawei v InterDigital (2013) which determined that InterDigital’s seeking an injunction (exclusion order) at the USITC was an abuse of its rights as a SEP holder, and arguably showed no deference to a previously initiated US litigation. Judge Orrick may have been taking prophylactic measures to ensure that US courts retain jurisdiction over disputes, and to deny a Chinese party “two bites” of the apple by undercutting a case that the Chinese plaintiff initiated at essentially the same time as a Chinese litigation.

The Guangdong Guidance was promulgated with all of the foregoing Chinese cases and judicial practices in mind. Article 10 of the Guidance explicitly reiterated that whether a permanent injunction is granted shall depend on whether the SEP owner or the implementer was at fault. Article 11 provides that when deciding whether the parties were at fault comparing with ordinary business practices, the factors that a court shall consider include: (1) the entire history of the negotiation; (2) the timing, tactic and content of negotiation of the parties; (3) the cause of deadlock, and; (4) other facts. Article 12 generally restates the principles of whether granting a permanent injunction set forth by the BHC in Iwncomm v. Sony. Article 13 and 14 followed the basic idea and structure of Article 152 and 153 of the Beijing Guidance for conduct-evaluation for both parties with some differences in detail.

Article 13 provides that if the SEP owner’s conduct met any one of the following situations, a court may determine the SEP owner disobeyed its FRAND obligation. The situations include: a SEP owner who (1) did not notify the implementer, or notified the implementer but didn’t list the scope of the patent in dispute according to the ordinary business practice; (2) did not provide the implementer with explanatory claim charts, patent lists and other patent information according to the ordinary business practice after the implementer had clearly expressed its willingness to negotiate the license; (3) did not provide the implementer with licensing conditions and the method of calculating the royalty, or provided obviously unreasonable licensing conditions, which result in failure to reach an agreement; (4) did not reply to the counter-party within a reasonable time; (5) impeded or interrupt the negotiation without justifiable reasons, and; (6) practiced other conduct at obvious fault.

Article 14 enumerates the situations that the court may determine an implementer disobeyed its FRAND obligation accordingly. The situations include an implementer who (1) refused to receive the negotiation notice from the SEP owner, or did not respond to the SEP owner within a reasonable time after it had received the negotiation notice; (2) refused to sign a confidentiality agreement, and thus led to a deadlock in negotiation; (3) did not make a material response to the SEP owner within a reasonable time after the SEP owner had provided explanatory claim charts and patent lists; (4) did not make a material response to the SEP owner within a reasonable time after the SEP owner offered its licensing conditions; (5) provided obviously unreasonable licensing conditions, which resulted in failure to reach an agreement; (6) delayed to or refused to negotiation without justifiable reasons, and; (7) practiced other conduct at obvious fault.

While the Chinese fault-based conduct-evaluation frameworks borrowed ideas from the CJEU’s decision for Huawei v. ZTE, the starting point of the Chinese framework differs from the CJEU framework. The direct objective of CJEU framework was to answer the question whether a SEP owner’s action for seeking injunction breaks EU competition laws, specifically Article 102 of TFEU. Logically speaking, courts that follow the CJEU’s framework do not need to answer whether an injunction should be granted. On the other hand, the Chinese framework directly addresses whether an injunction should be granted without reference to antitrust principles.

A Break With Tradition and A Rush to Change?

After these various developments, it can be said that Chinese courts now view the FRAND commitments as a universal principle binding both the SEP owner and the implementer. This approach leaves open where the implementors’ obligations of negotiating in good faith come from and when and how such obligations are triggered. Historically, Chinese courts also do not consider the infringer’s state of mind when deciding whether to issue a permanent injunction, nor are such standards part of the Patent Law (Art. 118, 134) or the General Principles of the Civil Law of the People’s Republic of China (Art. 179 ) or the more recent General Rules of the Civil Law of the People’s Republic of China. The framework introduces new judicial doctrines to determine a permanent injunction into Chinese patent law practice, which is also atypical for Chinese legal practice.  However, as China is currently considering introducing punitive damages in next revision of the patent law, fault-based factors may become more important and, indeed, fault factors involving punitive damages and an implementer’s state of mind in SEP negotiations could conceivably overlap.

It also worth noting that the judicial evaluation of royalties still plays an important role in this fault-based conduct-evaluation framework.  In determining whether an offer or a counter-offer are FRAND, the court may rely much more on the comparable license approach. Article 18 of the Guangdong Guidance provides that in determining SEP royalties, the methods a court may refer to include: (1) comparing the comparable licenses; (2) measuring the market value of the SEP in dispute; (3) comparing the licensing information of comparable patent pools, and; (4) other methods. Last but not least, Article 16 of the Guangdong Guidance also confers the courts with the jurisdiction of setting royalties beyond its jurisdictional territory under one party’s petition as long as the counter-party does not file an objection or the objection is found to be unjustified.

Chinese courts’ approach appears to reflect the increasing global experience in adjudicating FRAND-encumbered patent infringement matters.  The fault-based approach also helps address the problem of Chinese implementers delaying in taking licenses and using the FRAND obligation as a sword to deny a patentee access to judicial relief, at possible risk of a licensor being on the receiving end of an antimonopoly action.  The approach also appears to reflect Chinese, and especially Guangdong-based companies, rapidly growing role as both a patent implementer and a contributor to important emerging standards, such as 5G. Nonetheless, it is concerning that the pioneering cases noted here ruling in favor of a licensor acting in good faith and being entitled to obtain injunctive relief have all occurred where the licensor was Chinese (Iwncomm v Sony, Huawei v Samsung).    This is a scenario not that different from what some observers thought was the problem behind the President taking the unusual step of denying relief to Samsung in the Apple vs Samsung 337 litigation in the US – the binary observation is that it seems to be easier to make precedent eroding/strengthening IP rights when the party adversely affected/benefitted is foreign/domestic. For previous information about the Obama administration’s refusal on USITC’s order, please see here, here, here, here and here.

Written by Yabing Cui, LLM of Berkeley Law 2018 and Ph.D. Candidate of Peking University Law with the assistance of Mark Cohen.  Yabing can be contacted at cuiyabing@berkeley.edu.

April 10 – 16, 2018 Updates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 19 – 26, 2018 Updates

1. China Now Number 2 PCT Filer.  China has overtaken Japan to claim second place as a source of Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) applications  in 2017. In 2017, U.S.-based applicants numbered 56,624 PCT, followed by China (48,882) and Japan (48,208). Huawei Technologies (4,024 published PCT applications) and ZTE Corporation (2,965) – occupied the top two spots for PCT applications. They were followed by Intel (2,637), Mitsubishi Electric (2,521) and Qualcomm  (2,163).   Historically Chinese PCT applications have been concentrated in a few companies.

Chinese academic institutions are still minor users of the PCT.   Among the top 25 educational institution filers, there were only three Chinese academic institutions – Shenzhen University (no. 11), China University of Mining and Technology (no. 15) and Tsinghua (no. 19).

Computer technology (8.6% of the total) overtook digital communication (8.2%) to become the field of technology with the largest share of published PCT applications. These two fields were followed by electrical machinery (6.8%) and medical technology (6.7%)

2. China’s premier pledges market opening in bid to avert trade war On the heels of the Section 301 Report, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reiterated pledges to ease access for American businesses, at the news conference following the closing session of the National People’s Congress (NPC). Li also said at a conference that included global chief executives that China would treat foreign and domestic firms equally, would not force foreign firms to transfer technology and would strengthen intellectual property rights. Another Vice Premier, Han Zheng,  made similar remarks at the China Development Forum.  Han said that China needs to “open even wider to the outside world,” and would do so via its Belt and Road Initiative.

According to Wall Street Journal citing unidentified source, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer listed steps they want China to take in a letter to Liu He, a newly appointed vice premier who oversees China’s economy. The United States asked China to cut a tariff on U.S. autos, buy more U.S.-made semiconductors and give U.S. firms greater access to the Chinese financial sector. The article also reported that China and the U.S. have quietly started negotiating to improve U.S. access to Chinese markets.

 

March 13 – 19, 2018 Updates

1. China’s export of IP royalties increased 311.5% in 2017  According to the statistics of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, the volume of trade of Chinese IP royalties totaled 33.384 billion USD in 2017, a 32.7 percent increase from 2016. The amount of exports of IP royalties totaled 4.786 billion USD, a 311.5 percent increase from 2016, which ranked No.1 in terms of the speed of growth in service trade. The exports and imports of IP royalties for manufacturing industry ranked No. 1, at 3.793 billion USD, a 544 percent increase from 2016.  The import amount totaled 20.753 billion USD, up 16 percent. In terms of category. The amount of exports of replication/distribution computer software ranked No.1. at 3.405 billion USD, up 652 percent from 2016. In terms of region, Guangdong province was the No.1 in amount of export and import of IP royalties in 2017. Its export amount totaled 4.013 billion USD, up 591.9 percent from 2016 and its import amount totaled 7.525 billion USD, up 9.8 percent from 2016.

Despite the significant increase in the amount of exports of IP royalties in 2017, China still has a trade deficit in IP royalties. The amount of the deficit totaled 23.812 billion USD, which increased by 0.978 billion USD. About 60% of the deficit reportedly originated from the United States, Germany, and Japan.

IP commercialization and utilization has been a focus of China’s IP efforts since the third plenum of the Communist Party in 2014. However, foreigners continue to view China as very challenging licensing environment despite China’s claims of a licensing “deficit”. China’s technology import/export regulations had been one of the challenges that foreigners expressed special concern. In the US Chamber’s recently released IP Index, it was noted that IP commercialization in China was hampered by “[s]ubstantial barriers to market access and commercialization of IP, particularly for foreign companies.” China received zero points for “Regulatory and administrative barriers to the commercialization of IP assets.”  Here is a link to the discussion of Chinese licensing practices. The US Chamber’s conclusion is not unlike that of the Global Innovation Index (2016) which, as we previously reported, scored intellectual property payments according to a formula as a percentage of total trade. China came out at 72nd place, while it ranked number 1 in high tech exports. Similar concerns were also voiced by USTR in the recently released Section 301 report.

2.SIPO takes efforts to develop ability and capacity of IP mediation entities.  SIPO recently issued a “Notice on Developing the Ability and Capacity of Intellectual Property Mediation Entities” (“Notice”), as part of its effort to strengthen the role of mediation in IP dispute and the overall IP protection system. According to the Notice, SIPO will select 20 to 30 existing IP mediation entities every year as the target for ability and capacity development and help with such development for two years. After the two-year period, SIPO will release the basic information as well as specialties of entities that made great progress. Selection and review of existing entities will start this year, which is done by SIPO. Entities can apply either through local IP offices or to SIPO directly.

Within the region, Japan is also considering the use of mediation system to resolve IP disputes. The Japan Patent Office (JPO) intended to introduce an ADR system to determine appropriate license fee of SEPs in 2017. However, the ADR SEP system is likely to be deferred, as reported after a JPO committee meeting in November 2017.

3.  Huawei v Samsung patent decision released by Shenzhen IP Court. The recent decision in Huawei v Samsung was released by the Shenzhen IP Court.  The case involves assertion of two SEP’s by Huawei, and the grant of an injunction against further infringement.

Collaboration vs Litigation in IP Licensing in China: 2016 Update

A string of articles and deals in the patent licensing sector are highlighting the increasing importance of collaborative licensing practices for foreigners to attract licensees.  Is such a collaborative approach to licensing necessary due to development, culture or other reasons?   

Let’s review some of the news from 2016:  VIA licensing, a subsidiary of Dolby has reportedly signed up Lenovo . as its newest member of the pool operated by Via for Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) patents.  IAM’s Jacob Schindler, quotes Ira Blumberg, Lenovo’s vice president for intellectual property, who praises negotiators on the other side for “recognizing and flexibly addressing unique market circumstances applicable to China and other emerging markets”. Speaking with IAM, VIA president Joe Siino confirmed that his company is focusing on win-win collaboration opportunities.  Paul Lin of Xiaomi, which has a licensing agreement with Microsoft, has  observed that many Western companies make the mistake of  importing their usual licensing approach to China wholesale, and that a collaborative element needs to be introduced.  Also in 2016, former arch enemies Huawei and Interdigital entered into an  agreement,  announcing a multi-year, worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty bearing patent license agreement  to settle all proceedings.  The two companies (frenemies?)  put in place a “framework for discussions regarding joint research and development efforts”, including a “process for transfer of patents from Huawei to InterDigital”.

Yet, it was also apparent in 2016 that traditional, non-collaborative approaches, continue to have some vitality particularly where recalcitrant licensees are involved, such as the case Qualcomm brought against Meizu, a reported law suit by Dolby Labs against China’s Oppo and Vivo in India’s High Court of Delhi, or the SEP case brought by Wireless Future Technologies against Sony in Nanjing.  The high win rate for foreigners should also be acting as an additional incentive to use the Chinese litigation system, although foreigners continue to play a disproportionately small role of foreigners in IP litigation in China (about 1.3% of the docket).

There may, indeed, be greater incentives for foreign licensors to seek Chinese partners at this time.   One of these factors is of course the size of the Chinese market itself, including a greater reliance on the Chinese domestic market by potential Chinese licensees/infringers, which may provide incentives to licensors to find longer-term licensing mechanisms through close collaboration with a Chinese partner. In looking at IP-related partnerships, most Chinese companies have IP strategies that still tend to be inwardly focused, by having strong domestic portfolio supported by local subsidies, and thereby making them challenging adversaries for practicing foreign entities in domestic litigation.  At some point, these strong domestic portfolios may also encourage collaboration by a foreign company with a Chinese company as an effective way for the foreign company to boost its domestic Chinese portfolio.  Other factors include the greater intervention by the state in monetization of IP rights, which encourages development and ownership of core IP by Chinese companies, with state subsidies and banking support.  Another factor which encourages collaboration is the Technology Import/Export Regulations of China, which encourages related party licensing between the US and China to avoid mandatory indemnities and grant backs. 

There may also be disincentives for US companies from being too US-focused in conducting R&D and IP monetization at this time.  The AIA, legal uncertainties over the scope of patentable subject matter in the United States and changes in the litigation environment may also be weakening the value of patent rights and ultimately acting as a disincentive to investment in new IP-intensive enterprises.  At the same time, Chinese companies have been increasingly investing overseas, including within the United States, and have shown a willingness to bring law suits in the United States (such as Huawei’s suit against Samsung in California) and may have reciprocal needs for a US partnership, as they seek to license their rights in the United States and elsewhere.  Such a need may be at the heart of the Huawei/Interdigital deal, discussed above.

In my estimation, collaborative approaches to licensing are responses to market and legal challenges in China as well as part of China’s maturing engagement on IP issues, including its own talented labor pool and potential as an innovative economy.  Collaborative approaches to licensing are part of greater trends in collaborative IP creation with China.  In 2015, Qualcomm may have kicked off this current trend when it announced a 150 million USD investment fund in China around the same time as its settlement of its antitrust dispute with China.   In addition, we are seeing greater Chinese participation in cross border R&D.  The Global Innovation Index noted the increasing importance of such international collaboration to China last year and  that “the Chinese innovation system is now densely connected to sources of expertise everywhere.” (p. 93).  Chinese companies had “the 7th largest foreign footprint of all countries with 178 R&D centers set up or acquired outside China by year end 2015.”  USPTO data also shows greater co-inventorship in Chinese patent applications, there is also  greater Chinese participation in international standards setting, and greater Chinese co-authorship of scientific publications (now at about 15%). Hollywood is also seeing a high degree of collaboration, in the form of co-productions, investments, and other collaborative mechanisms.

Collaboration in IP creation is occurring in response to changing market circumstances – developmental, economic, legal and perhaps cultural.  It is no surprise that it is also appearing in licensing transactions.

SEP Litigation and Licensing in China: Are There New Voices in the Room?

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A string of recent events suggest that there is increasing confidence by the foreign community in China’s antitrust and licensing regime and that some of the aggressive posturing in the past by the Chinese government on the ”hegemony” of foreign ownership of SEP’s  countries, or (more recently) the abuse of dominance of foreign SEP owners (in cases like Huawei vs Interdigital and NDRC v Qualcomm), is shifting to a more balanced view.  Hopefully, policy developments in this new phase will also facilitate China’s efforts to become a global innovator and technology exporter.

One of the more hopeful signs of faith in the Chinese legal system was Qualcomm’s filings against Meizu, Since its initial court filings in China, Qualcomm has filed 17 complaints against Meizu.  In addition, Qualcomm announced in October 2016 that it launched a 337 action against Meizu in the United States, and is pursuing litigation in Germany and France.

In another sign of confidence Canadian NPE, Wireless Future Technologies Inc, a subsidiary of Canadian PIPCO WiLAN, filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Sony in the Intermediate People’s Court of Nanjing.  The choice of the Nanjing court, rather than one of the specialized IP courts has been a source of some speculation, with the media suggesting any of three factors: faster litigation times, local contacts and even, perhaps, anti-Japanese sentiment.   Two other reasons: Jiangsu’s efforts to use actual or implied royalties to assess damages, rather than the low statutory damages that applied in the vast majority of cases in China. Damages in a “model case”  for patent infringement in 2014 using a royalty based calculation that was first adjudicated by the Nanjing Intermediate Court, were 3,000,000 RMB, relatively high by Chinese standards.   See 江苏固丰管桩集团有限公司 vs宿迁华顺建筑预制构件有限公司, 南京中院(2014)宁知民初字第00108号 , 江苏高院(2015)苏知民终字第00038号.  Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, Sony’s phones are made by Arima in Wujiang, Jiangsu Province.

The Financial Times has written on the Arima case, noting that “A new corporate era beckons in which a Chinese judge could conceivably cut off the lifeblood of some of the world’s most valuable companies. It was not so long ago that China’s legal system just did not factor into the risk calculus of most global companies.” 

Chinese companies are also showing confidence overseas by bringing cases brought against foreign competition. Earlier this year, Huawei brought SEP-related litigation in the United States against Samsung in both the United States and China, and against T-Mobile in the Eastern District of Texas.

China’s growing SEP portfolio may be contributing to this change in perspective.  As Dina Kallay of Ericcson noted at the recent Fordham Antitrust conference: “Of the ten largest contributors of technology to cellular standards — and we like to measure it by accepted technical contributions, so it’s not just measured by the number of patents, which arguably you can play with — but by how many of your technical contributions were accepted into the standard, …Three … are Chinese — Huawei, ZTE, and CATT (Datang).  No other nation has as many companies in the Top Ten list.”  Considering China’s increasing investments in the United States and its rapidly improving patent portfolios, might a Chinese company soon be a complainant in a Section 337 litigation?

By the way, Huawei’s website impressively identifies their contributions to IP in standards as follows;

  Huawei has filed over 57,800 patent applications in China, U.S., Japan, European Union, South Korea, and Brazil, as well as other countries and districts, of which approximately 15000 are in the area of wireless communications.

  Huawei has 2,137 essential patents in the area of wireless communications…

In the area of wireless communications, Huawei has submitted approximately 20,009 proposals to international standard organizations … 40% of which have been adopted.

Huawei’s extensive experience in standards setting and its own investments in IP have likely contributed to its  opposition to some of the mandatory disclosure / mandatory licensing  standards-related aspects of  the proposed revisions to China’s patent law (eg., Article 85). Interestingly, Huawei objected to this provision due to the the complexity of international regulation of standards setting organizations, and because it alleged that foreigners do not participate in the development of Chinese domestic standards; therefore this provision might primarily be applied by Chinese against Chinese.  Nonetheless, its rejection would be a positive step by avoiding an unfortunate precedent for SIPO and reducing overregulation of standards setting bodies.

One can also point to other recent factors, such as government to government engagement, and the pressure of overseas litigation in Huawei vs ZTE (ECJ), Sisvel vs Haier (Germany), Unwired Patent vs Huawei and Samsung (United Kingdom) and Vringo vs ZTE (SDNY and other jurisdictions) as other informative experience and perhaps sources of pressure for greater international conformity.

These changes in IP ownership, standards participation, litigation experience and maturity due to increased engagement are likely having their effect on domestic policy. Within China, early this year draft IP abuse guidelines of NDRC recognized that ownership of an SEP does not automatically confer market dominance.  In July of 2015, the State Council announced its plans for China turning into a “strong IP economy”, and identified several projects involving standards.  One of the projects identified by the State Council calls for the development of rules on standard essential patents that are based on FRAND licensing and “stopping infringement”, with the involvement of AQSIQ, SIPO, MIIT, and the Supreme People’s Court (Art. 38).  As the focus of this task is on stopping infringement, rather than “abuse of dominance”, this suggests to me that a more rights-holder friendly approach.

Another hopeful sign which I have been following are suggestions that China’s Technology Import/Export Regulations  (“TIER”) may now be under revision, as was noted in the European Business in China Position Paper (2016/2017) .   Some aspects such as ownership of improvements have been the subject of the TIER  and also appear to factor into AML enforcement policy such as in the Qualcomm case. (see also QBPC’s paper on the TIER at “应允许当事人对后续改进的技术成果的权利归属进行自由约定”, attached here.[Chinese Language]).

What do you think? Please feel free to comment  with your own experiences or examples (in favor or against) in this area!

Rev. Nov. 19, 2016