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

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Editor’s Note: Plant Variety Protection (PVP) is a little-discussed topic in China’s IP regime. Indeed, this blog has only reported on PVP-specific issues
once before, and once in the context of the China-Swiss Free Trade Agreement (FTA). This guest blog post explores the relationship among plant variety protection, China’s treaty obligations, and determination of the scope of infringement based on essentially derived varieties (EDVs).   The author, Liz Freeman Rosenzweig, is a J.D. candidate at Berkeley Law. She obtained her Ph.D. in plant biology from Stanford University.

As with other intellectual property (IP) rights, China receives more applications for intellectual property protection of new plant varieties (PVP) than any other country. China grants these rights pursuant to its “Regulations on the Protection of New Varieties of Plants” (“Regulations”) (2014) (中华人民共和国植物新品种保护条例). However, China’s PVP legislative regime lags behind many other countries, largely because of China’s failure to date to accede to the most recent international treaty for protection of plant varieties, the 1991 Act of the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV ’91). Conversely, Chinese jurisprudence on the topic is significantly more developed than that in, for example, the United States. 

China is now considering amending its Regulations to include the concept of essentially derived varieties (EDVs) (实质性派生品种) and molecular markers (分子检测). Broadly speaking, these proposed amendments are also examples of two broader aspects of Chinese IP legal development: (1) China enacting legislation in anticipation or in excess of current international demands, and (2) Chinese legislation riding momentum generated in advance by judicial decision making. If China adopts the proposed amendments to its Regulations, the level of plant IP protection available in China could become among the strongest in the world. Moreover, the legislative changes would be based on the concrete experience and guidance afforded by previous guiding cases from the Chinese Supreme People’s Court (SPC), which suggest how the new provisions might concretely be applied.

 Plant Variety Protection and UPOV

The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) requires WTO member economies, such as China, to provide IP protection for new plant varieties. Members may do so through a patent system, a sui generis system, or both. The United States takes the combined approach, offering plant IP via utility patents and plant patents under U.S. Code Title 35, and also via Plant Variety Protection (PVP) certificates under the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA). China does not provide patents for plants. Instead, plant protection in China is under an entirely sui generis approach.

Internationally, the most commonly adopted sui generis mechanism is the system of plant breeders’ rights (PBRs) promulgated by the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). The UPOV Convention was first finalized in 1961 and was revised in 1972, 1978, and 1991. As of February, 2020, 76 countries are UPOV members, 59 of which are members of the ’91 Act.

One key change between the ’78 and ’91 Acts is the extension of the scope of the breeder’s right to include EDVs. Per UPOV ’91, a new variety is considered “essentially derived” from an initial variety when it is both “clearly distinguishable from” and “predominantly derived from the initial variety, . . . while retaining the expression of the essential characteristics . . . of the initial variety.” A breeder may obtain a PBR for an EDV “in the same way as for any variety,” but if they wish to commercialize the EDV, they must obtain authorization from the initial variety’s titleholder. This is similar to the manner in which practicing a patent that improves upon a previously valid patent may require permission from the dominant patent’s owner. In contrast, under the ’78 scheme, rights to the initial variety are more limited, and no authorization from the initial variety’s titleholder is required to commercialize a variety that the ’91 Act would consider an EDV.

But defining precisely what constitutes an EDV is notoriously difficult. The ’91 Act provides examples of how an EDV may be created, such as by finding or creating a mutation in an initial variety. However, the list is not exhaustive. Furthermore, the text of the Act seems to contradict itself, leaving significant ambiguity as to the required level of physical resemblance between an EDV and its initial variety. That is, Art. 14(5)(b)(i) of the ’91 Act states that EDVs must “retain[] the expression of the essential characteristics that result from the genotype or combination of genotypes of the initial variety.” But then subsection (b)(iii) excepts “differences which result from the act of derivation” from the required level of conformity. It is not clear precisely how those two instructions are meant to be integrated. For example, a slide deck from UPOV itself presents a hypothetical derived variety that is closely genetically related to its initial variety, but in which “more than one or a few characteristics were affected,” and labels it, ambiguously, “EDV yes/no??” Thus, the ’91 Act does not provide a clear boundary line for when a variety is or is not essentially derived.

Many UPOV member countries prefer the definition of EDV to be broad in order to leave the determination of whether a variety is an EDV up to the rights holders. Conversely, UPOV’s guidance, though nonbinding, is narrower. UPOV is, however, currently revising its guidance on the topic to address these current ambiguities.

One method for defining an EDV is through genetic and biochemical techniques such as molecular markers (“markers”). UPOV does not require the use of markers, but it does provide guidance on their use. That guidance cautions against overreliance on molecular techniques, noting that their usefulness is subject to significant variability, and expressing concern that markers could be abused to make closely-related varieties seem more different than they actually are.

The US ratified UPOV ’91 in 1999. But China has only acceded to ’78. According to Dan Prud’homme and Taolue Zhang, one reason that China has not acceded to the ’91 Act is UPOV’s “lack of clarity in the definition of [EDVs] . . . , which makes it difficult to institutionalize in China.” However, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MoARA) and State Administration of Forestry and Grasslands (SAFG), which govern the granting of plant variety rights in China, recently “expressed an intention to formulate a long-term plan to gradually satisfy key requirements of UPOV ’91,” including “adopting UPOV ’78 plus-style provisions/piloting important aspects of UPOV ’91 (e.g., instituting EDV for certain types of plant varieties) in order to see how the system works in practice.” China’s recently-released draft amendments to its Regulations do just that. Moreover, China’s Supreme People’s Court has also announced on March 19, 2020, its own plans to draft a new Judicial Interpretation regarding plant variety infringement determinations which will likely implement China’s emerging practices in this area.

Comparing Plant Variety Protection Definitions in China and the U.S.

China’s Regulations were promulgated and implemented by the State Council in 1997, two years before China acceded to UPOV ’78. China then revised its Regulations in 2013 and 2014. PBRs under the Regulations are issued in parallel by SAFG (for vines, forest trees, fruit trees, and ornamentals, with rights lasting 20 years) and MoARA (for all other plants, with rights lasting 15 years). China has faced both internal and external pressure to update the Regulations: National entities have pushed for a clearer and more streamlined application process, and many countries—members of the European Union in particular—have been pressuring China to adopt UPOV ’91-style provisions such as by providing for EDVs.

To that end, China began the process of revising its Regulations in 2016—a year before ChemChina, a state-owned entity, purchased Syngenta, a major beneficiary and user of the UPOV system, with hundreds of plant registrations internationally. The proposed draft amendments to the Regulations were released for comment in February 2019. These proposed amendments would essentially move China towards UPOV ’91. This is not an unusual move for China; the country has often enacted legislation in anticipation of meeting—or even in excess of—international requirements. For example, China provided copyright protection for the “right of making available” (right of communication to the public) in the 2002 amendments to China’s Copyright Law, well in advance of China acceding to the WIPO Internet Treaties in 2007. As another example, China also recently amended its Anti-Unfair Competition Law to be the most progressive trade secret law (at least on paper) by reversing the burden of proof, which is in excess of international requirements.

These draft amendments to the plant IP Regulations make several important changes. Crucially among those, the proposed amendments introduce the concepts of EDVs and molecular markers into the Regulations for the first time.

The proposed amendments define EDV as “a variety that is distinct from the original variety, but retains the basic characteristics or characteristics of the original variety, except for the differences caused by the derivation.” This proposed definition of EDV appears to be broader than the UPOV definition. Significantly, it also lacks contradictory language, discussed above, embedded in the UPOV definition and copied nearly verbatim into the U.S. definition.

The US recently also overhauled its PVP system, extending PVP eligibility to asexually propagated plants for the first time. The PVPA has included EDVs since 1994, the definition of which was taken almost verbatim from UPOV ’91—meaning it includes the apparently contradictory language that China’s draft avoids. Also unlike China’s draft amendments, the PVPA makes no mention of molecular markers or other genetic techniques. But the Plant Variety Protection Office, which oversees the PVPA, is moving towards incorporating such methods in the future.

China Leads the World in PBRs by Volume

One reason that China may wish to have an advanced PBR regime could be the growth of its own domestic research capacity in this important area. In 2018, China was “the top destination for plant variety applications,” receiving over a quarter of filings worldwide. Not only did China receive the most applications, but Chinese nationals also filed the most applications worldwide. A record high of >20,000 plant variety applications were filed worldwide that year, driven primarily by China. Applications in China grew by an astounding 29% in 2018, driven almost exclusively by domestic filings (this mirrors the Chinese patent system, which is also primarily used by domestic applicants). In contrast, applications in the US and EU grew by only ~3-4% in 2018, and the worldwide growth rate was ~9%. That being said, this surge is fairly recent, and the US and EU still outrank China in terms of number of active titles. But note that this source includes both PVPs and plant patents in the U.S. tallies. It is unclear why the US numbers do not include utility patents on plants (though it may be due to difficulty in data collection; unlike PVPs and plant patents, not all utility patents are directed to plants), but the US total would be even higher if it did. Considering just PVP rights, in 2018 there were 7,521 active titles in the US.

If China adopts its proposed amendments, then filings in China may also increase due to increased foreign applications, as well as stimulating foreign investment in China in this sector. Thus, activity in the Chinese plant variety protection offices will likely continue to dwarf that in the US. 

More Thorough Plant Variety Protection Guidance from Chinese Litigation than U.S. Litigation

There is significantly more PBR litigation in China than in the US. As of November, 2019, there have been at least 338 Chinese cases referencing the Regulations (华人民共和国植物新品种保护条例). At least 18 of these cases discuss molecular markers (分子检测). Although China is a civil law system where cases do not create binding precedent, for the past decade the Chinese Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has issued “guiding cases” that are “intended to be de facto binding decisions” to guide lower courts’ decisions in similar cases. The SPC has issued several guiding cases on PBRs. Stanford University Law School has also initiated a “China Guiding Cases Project” which provides a platform for research on these judicial developments.

Two guiding cases have discussed molecular markers specifically. These cases, discussed below, reveal that the SPC embraces the use of molecular markers—but is wary of overreliance thereon, and is careful to balance genetic results with observations from field trials.

In Guiding Case No. 2633, the SPC denied retrial after a lower court found non-infringement when there were no genetic differences between the varieties at issue, but there were phenotypic differences during field trials. In reaching this decision, the SPC noted that the genetic testing only assessed 40 locations in the genome, which does “not necessarily correspond to the traits” observed in phenotypic field tests.

Guiding Case No. 92 was essentially the reverse situation: the SPC found infringement when markers revealed a single genetic difference but field tests showed no phenotypic differences. In doing so, the SPC formulated a technical balancing test for reconciling field and genetic tests that tempers over-reliance on molecular markers.

By late 2019 there were no reported Chinese cases that specifically referenced EDVs. But the molecular marker cases likely hint at how courts will address them. Intriguingly, the facts of Guiding Case No. 92 seem remarkably similar to an EDV situation, in that the accused variety retained the characteristics of the first variety while displaying minor genetic differences. If Chinese PBR agencies or the Courts formally adopt EDVs, they may determine essential derivation with a test much like the one set out in Guiding Case No. 92, as the Chinese concept of EDV would likely cover most types of genetic changes.

Neither of those two guiding cases have been cited by name, however, in published subsequent cases according to a March 23, 2020 search on Caipanwenshu 裁判文书 (the official SPC database). This is not unusual, as most guiding cases are not widely cited by lower courts, who, along with practicing lawyers, still remain unfamiliar with citing and distinguishing cases in rendering decisions. Rather than being “precedential,” guiding cases such as these may also be issued primarily to illustrate examples of good reasoning for judges, or to provide political coverage for consistent decision making.

Ironically, although China is a civil law country, its case law fills the statutory gaps for plant variety protection far more comprehensively that in the U.S. In contrast to the robust Chinese case law, there have been only 19 reported (and 28 unreported) U.S. cases referencing 7 USCS § 2541 (PVP infringement) as of March, 2020. These include 4 Supreme Court cases and 5 at the Federal Circuit. The Supreme Court cases either reference the PVPA only in passing or are outdated.

A handful of U.S. cases reference genetic testing, but do not address the concept in much detail (See Ark. Seed Co., Inc. v. Williams, No. 10-1231, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 100224, at *3 (C.D. Ill. Sep. 6, 2011)). Despite the presence of EDVs in the PVPA, there has not been reported EDV litigation in the U.S. as of March, 2020. The closest case was the denial of a motion to stay litigation pending the PVPO’s assessment of an application for an allegedly infringing variety of lettuce, but the court did not decide whether the variety was an EDV, and the case has no subsequent appellate history. (See Genecorp, Inc. v. Progeny Advanced Genetics, Inc., No. C 97-20706 RMW, 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21910, at *7 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 9, 1998)).

Conclusion

If China adopts its current proposed amendments, it would offer protection to plant breeders in line with “or even above” UPOV ’91. Given that Chinese PBRs represent the lion’s share of all such rights worldwide, this would be a significant change. It seems likely that legislators will approve a version of these Regulations in the next few years, though it is unclear when. Notably, the “Opinions on Strengthening the Protection of Intellectual Property Rights” recently released by the Chinese Communist Party and State Council (November 27, 2019), also explicitly calls for encouraging Chinese innovation by improving the protection, examination, and international sharing of examination results for new plant varieties. If China does adopt the proposed amendments, China would likely become a de facto member of at least part of UPOV ’91, as Chinese officials reportedly “want legislation in line with the 1991 UPOV convention but do not want to actually accede to the 1991 UPOV convention.” This pattern of gradual and partial adherence to international treaties has also manifested itself elsewhere in China’s legal regime, including in the gradual piloting of civil or economic legal reforms before wider introduction into the Chinese legal system or economy.

The nuanced treatment of molecular markers in the proposed amendments and in Chinese guiding cases is ahead of that in the US, and the US may very well follow China’s lead in adopting a more systematic use of molecular markers in the application process. The proposed amendments’ concept of EDV strengthens the incentive for innovation by expanding the scope of the breeder’s right.

Moreover, the definition of EDV put forth in the proposed amendments is arguably broader and clearer than that under UPOV ‘91 and in the US, which may give holders of Chinese rights a competitive advantage and increase the incentive to protect new plant varieties in China. But the extent of foreign investment these amendments would engender is unclear, given that China requires that Chinese parties be controlling shareholders for “selection and cultivation of new varieties of crops.” 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Many thanks to Mark Cohen, Elaine Wu, David Kappos, Edgar Krieger, Cynthia Mathiesen, Alanna Rennie, Xiaofan Xu, and Alexandra Draggeim for valuable discussion, comments, feedback, editorial help, and research and translation assistance.  Photos (c) by Mark Cohen of Huntington Gardens and US Plant Patent.

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Spring Time for IPR Case Law in China?

Guidingcase.jpgRecently, there have been two important developments involving IP-related guiding cases and precedent that shed light on these different approaches of the Supreme People’s Court, which is in charge of guiding cases, and the Beijing IP Court, which is looking at the role of precedent in China’s court system.  But first some background:

One of the most important continuing efforts on guiding cases is the Stanford Guiding Cases Project (SGCP), which is under the able, enthusiastic and collaborative leadership of Dr. Mei Gechlik.  The SGCP recently hosted a lively seminar at American University to discuss the latest developments, with a keynote by Judge Sidney Stein of the Southern District of New York (picture above).  In addition to the Stanford project, Susan Finder has written about guiding cases in her excellent blog and other postings, Jeremy Daum wrote an excellent recent article on the actual use of guiding cases, and of course there is this blog and others, in addition to  academic articles and recent  SGCP research.

Another significant development in exploring a system of case precedent is the research base established with the approval of the Supreme People’s Court at the Beijing IP Court.  The ecosystem evolving around that research base appears to me to be more practice oriented than theoretical.  As an example of this practice-oriented approach, the IP court is looking at the role of amicus briefs to ensure the interests of non-parties are heard, or en banc rehearings to reverse prior precedent.  A small, but important step in soliciting third party opinions has already been undertaken by the Beijing IP Court in a case involving trademark agents.

Among the two contrasting recent developments  Regarding the guiding cases project, on March 9, the Supreme People’s Court released 10 IP-specific guiding cases; nine of these are civil and one is criminal. The cases span all relevant IP laws, including copyright, trademarks,patents, plant varieties and antitrust.  Here is a link to a Chinese summary of the cases, and a  machine translation of these summaries (source: IPRdaily.cn, google translate).  I assume that the SGCP will do a professional translation of these in due course.  According to the SPC press conference, IPR-related guiding cases now constitute 23% of the total number of guiding cases.

Nonetheless, recent citation data  suggest that there has been little uptake of guiding cases in actual case decisions, as Jeremy Daum’s article points out in his posting:

“Guiding Cases are almost never referenced: Over a five-year period, Stanford found a total of 181 subsequent cases, and PKU found 241. To provide a frame of reference, Chinese courts complete trial of well upwards of 10,000,000 cases per year…

50% of the guiding cases were never referred to at all

Almost half of the references found were to a single case; GC #24. …That case concerns traffic  accidents,…”

If one compared the nationwide references to guiding cases using, as an example, the 561 opinions referencing a guiding case out of 8,723,182 cases on the China Judgments Online website for 2016 (using a simple keyword search to “guiding case”), the citation rate would be about  0.0006%.

These developments on IP related case law at the SPC might be compared to the data in the January 10, 2017 report of Beijing IP Court.  The Beijing IP court cited 279 case precedents in 168 cases since the time the precedent base was established in 2016 until October 2016.  Cases were cited 121 times by parties, and judges undertook their own effort to cite cases in 47 instances.  In total, 117 cases relied on precedent in their decisions.  Of the 168 cases, there were 51 instances where cases were not relied upon due to a difference in facts.  There was no instance where a reversal was obtained of an earlier precedent.  Of the cases cited, 31 were from the SPC, 132 from High Courts (including 117 from Beijing), and others were from local courts.  If this data was further compared to the 8,111 cases concluded by the Beijing IP Court in calendar year 2016, the citation rate was a minimum of 2.1% based on the data provided through October, which is considerably higher than the guiding cases effort.

My impressions: the data from the Beijing IP Court suggests that the bar is using cases in its briefs, and the court is looking at these cases and exploring how to handle them as part of an overall system including amicus briefs, en banc review and other mechanisms.  The SPC’s guiding cases project is a more intensely curated project that also addresses a much larger national challenge in introducing a new way of developing law to civil law educated judges and the bar.  The comparisons between the two experiments are inexact as the Beijing IP court sits in one of China’s wealthiest cities, with a well-educated bench and bar, a sophisticated IP environment and considerable foreign (including American) interaction.  It is not surprising that nationwide uptake of a precedent system using a limited number of  guiding cases for a vast judicial system is more theoretical and slower than the one taking place at the Beijing IP Court using the 100,000 plus IPR cases that are adjudicated nationwide each year.

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Counterfeits in Microchannel Marketing … and Case Law

Amidst the escalating focus on online counterfeiting, piracy and patent infringement, online social media, such as WeChat are also becoming a source of infringing products, as documented in a Wall Street Journal article and other journals.  

James Luo (罗正红), a prominent IP lawyer in China, has been following these developments in his blog, where he recently reported on a Supreme People’s Court promoting of  ten model cases that promote “core socialist values” (最高人民法院关于弘扬社会主义核心价值观典型案例). One model case involved a couple that sold counterfeit goods through WeChat Moments, which was held to  constitute the crime of selling commodities bearing counterfeit registered trademarks 微信朋友圈销售假冒注册商标的商品案)。

The reason for the insertion of the case according to the court, was to promote “honesty in business.” As the court noted:

The case was a typical case of selling via microchannel marketing circle of friends, goods bearing counterfeit trademarks. …Compared with the traditional IPR criminal cases, the perpetrators of such crimes use relatively covert means, but the scope of their promotion and sale of counterfeit goods is broad with an adverse social impact.  …Currently, the “Consumer Protection Law” and the “Rules for Network Transaction Management” do not have specific provisions addressing microchannel shopping, and microchannel marketers do not have to register their business with the State Administration for Industry and Commerce.  The relevant laws and regulations need further improvement in this area. “

本案是一起通过微信朋友圈销售假冒注册商标的商品的典型案例。,利用微信朋友圈等新平台售假者也越来越多。与传统侵犯知识产权犯罪案件相比,这类犯罪作案手段相对隐蔽,但传播面广及推广速度快,销售假冒注册商标的商品涉及面广,社会影响恶劣。目前,消费者权益保护法和《网络交易管理办法》在微信购物方面还没有明文规定,而且微商没有经过工商注册登记,相关法律法规还需要进一步完善。

As the accused had intentionally sold a relatively large amount of counterfeit goods, the defendants were found guilty of the crime of selling commodities bearing counterfeit registered trademarks by the Shaoguan Zhengjiang District People’s Court of Guangdong Province.  Sentences were imposed of  6 – 7 months and a fine of RMB 15,000.

In my opinion, this case appears to be headed in the right direction in terms of addressing the use of social media to commit IP crimes.  The court suggests that the case was important to fill in the gaps in the current legislative regime based on technological changes – the way in which criminals do business online.  This is a typical evolution for IP-related case law in the United States, where courts have a record of using existing statutory provisions to address emerging technologies or ways of doing business.

Why this case was categorized as promoting core socialist values?  Perhaps it promotes socialist core values because it addresses problems in the market of unscrupulous unlicensed individuals who transact business without basic principles of good faith and fair dealing and is thus intended to send a policy signal to other courts and the legislative agencies.

How do these cases compare to other types of cases that the court is promoting?  In my opinion, China is paying more attention to cases to guide judicial decisions and create a more predictable legal environment, with 20,000,000 court cases available on line and new regulations on publishing cases in effect.  China is seeking  to develop a Chinese style system of precedent, and has elicited  much government and academic involvement, including scholarship in journals.  These cases need to be compared to the efforts to become more transparent, promote “model cases”, the system of guiding cases,  judicial interpretations, etc., which are all part of an evolving system intended to insure greater consistency of judicial decision making and address emerging issues.

Addendum of 1/1/2017: Here is a useful blog by Jeremy Daum  from 31 August 2016 on the Beijing IP Court’s experiment in precedent, which lines up nicely with the perspective in my blog.

IPR Model Cases: Part of the Long Journey towards IPR Case Law with “Chinese Characteristics”?

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Late last month the SPC published a list of eight model cases (Dianxing Anli,典型案例).  The cases highlight some important new trends in the court, and also suggest directions that the court is headed in with regarding to publishing cases.  Here are the cases and our analysis:

1.  Eli Lilly v. Huang Mengwei (黄孟炜) – preliminary injunction order for theft of trade secrets (Shanghai).  This case adopted provisions in the Civil Procedure Law Revision (effect Jan 1, 2013) making preliminary injunction orders available for all civil remedies.  The case involved the misappropriation of trade secret documents by a departing employee of Eli Lilly.  This summary is especially important as the case may not otherwise be available to the public due to its containing confidential information.  As noted elsewhere in this blog, the US-China Business Council, as well as other organizations and governments have placed pressure on China to improve its trade secret regime, including making provisional remedies available, as they are in other IP-related cases.  The Supreme People’s Court also issued a useful study on this topic. By disseminating this case, the court has assisted the public in understanding the basis of preliminary injunction order in trade secret matters and helped to address foreign complaints.

2.   Foshan Haitian Flavoring & Food Co., Ltd. (佛山市海天调味食品股份有限公司) v. Foshan Gaoming Weiji Flavoring & Food Co., Ltd. (佛山市高明威极调味食品有限公司) – trademark and unfair competition case. This case in Foshan, Guangdong involved misappropriation of the brand of the Haitian company, “Weiji” (威极).  Weiji Company, the infringer, used industrial brine in the production of soy source.  When this scandal was exposed, sales of Haitian Company, a household manufacturer of soy source and the lawful holder of the Weiji trademark, dropped dramatically. Weiji Company’s action was determined to be illegal under the unfair competition law and Weiji was obliged to change its company name.  Although Haitian failed to prove direct losses, the Court held the infringer to be liable for Haitian’s advertisement fee and other expenditures for eliminating negative effect of the scandal to minimize Haitian’s loss.  As in other IP-related cases, an exacerbating factor seems to have been consumer harm.  In addition, the case appears to be addressing problems of unfair competition/company name misappropriation, which has often been a difficult area in China’s IP regime.

3.  BMW v. Guangzhou Shiji Baochi Apparels Ltd.(广州世纪宝驰服饰实业有限公司) – trademark and unfair competition. According to Article 56 of the PRC Trademark Law, when the exact amount of the infringer’s benefits derived from the infringement and that of the loss caused by such infringement are hard to determine, the current ceiling for the compensation to the trademark owner is 500,000 RMB. However, in the BMW case, the Beijing High People’s Court upheld an award of 2,000,000 RMB in TM infringement damages due to the infringer’s apparent bad faith, the length and benefit of infringement, BMW’s renowned reputation and BMW’s efforts to eliminate the negative effect of this infringement. Moreover, the Court also punished the infringer with a 100,000 RMB civil sanction and gave a judicial suggestion to SAIC (State Administration for Industry and Commerce) for a nation-wide investigation of this infringement. This case is significant in part because of a more active role by the court to address willful infringement, which has been incorporated into China’s newly revised Trademark Law.  Moreover, the court is seeking to integrate both civil remedies and administrative/criminal remedies.  China’s courts have the authority, which is rarely used and which I have long advocated for, to refer matters to criminal investigation in appropriate circumstances.  This case may anticipate a more active role for the courts in addressing willful infringement.

4.  Zhuhai Geli Electrical Co., Ltd. (珠海格力电器股份有限公司) v. Guangdong Meidi Refrigeration Equipment Co., Ltd. (广东美的制冷设备有限公司) – presumption of infringement in invention patent litigation.  In this case, both parties are renowned Chinese electrical appliance enterprises. Geli claimed that the technological solutions applied in four types of Meidi air conditioners infringed its invention patent. There was no dispute that one of the four types of air condition infringed Geli’s IP right. The defendant failed to distinguish the remaining products with the infringing one.  The Guangdong High People’s Court shifted the burden of proof to Meidi and held the remaining three types of Meidi products to be infringing.

5.  Ashland Licensing and Intellectual Property LLC  (亚什兰许可和知识产权有限公司) v. Beijing  Ruishibang Fine Chemistry Technology Co., Ltd.(北京瑞仕邦精细化工技术有限公司) and Wei Xingguang – infringement of manufacturing process. While it is hard to prove infringement of a manufacturing process, Ashland, the patent owner, and its Chinese licensee secured 15,000,000 and 7, 000,000 RMB compensation respectively under the Court-hosted mediation.  In this case the patented manufacturing process is a method to produce a certain industrial chemical that has a specific customer group and is impossible to obtain from the open market.  The plaintiff had no access to defendants’ manufacturing process. However, considering that the main technical and management staff of defendant companies had had access to the patented manufacturing process as the licensee company’s former employees, Suzhou Intermediate People’s Court determined that the defendants production of that certain chemical constituted infringement based on a burden of proof reversal.

6.  Beijing Ruibang Yonghe Technology and Trading Ltd. (北京锐邦涌和科贸有限公司, Ruibang) v. Johnson & Johnson Medical (Shanghai) Ltd. and Johnson & Johnson Medical (China) Ltd.  As many observers know, many local IPR tribunals and the SPC IPR Tribunal are also authorized to handle antitrust cases.  This minimum resale price maintenance case is highlighted as the first anti-monopoly case under Chinese AML where plaintiff won and the first case in China that involved a vertical monopoly agreement. The plaintiff, a former distributor of J&J, won a bid at a price lower than the minimum resale price fixed by J&J in the distribution agreement. In response to plaintiff’s breach of contract, J&J terminated plaintiff’s distribution rights, cut further supply and refused to renew the distribution agreement. Plaintiff claimed that such price fixing provision violated the AML in respect of a vertical monopoly agreement. The Shanghai High People’s Court held J&J liable for the distributor’s normal revenue losses, 530,000 RMB.  The Count held that J&J’s minimum resale price provision excluded or at least restricted competition in relevant market, and that J&J’s actions were monopolistic in nature.  For watchers of how American companies fare in litigation in China, this case along with Huawei/Interdigital suggest that foreign companies may be a focus on AML investigations.  However the Eli Lilly and Ashland cases, amongst others, also demonstrate increasing success in IPR-related litigation by the same tribunals that hear IPR cases.

7.  Jiangxi Yibai Electronic Technology Co., Ltd. (江西亿铂电子科技有限公司) , Yu Zhihong, and others  – criminal trade secret case.  A 37,000,000 RMB penalty made this case the largest business information trade secret criminal case in China, and may be a harbinger of harsher punishment in this area. In 2011, one the defendants established a manufacturing company called Yibai along with several sales companies. These companies sold $7,659,235.72 of competing products based on misappropriated information from Saina Technology Co., Ltd. The prices and sales channels of these products were all set on the basis of Saina’s operational information that the four defendants obtained through their previous employment at Saina in violation of their non-disclosure duty. Zhuhai Intermediate People’s Court sent the four individual defendants into jail.  This case was also marked as a model for Guangdong province’s pilot program of intellectual property cases “three tribunals in one”, where civil, administrative and criminal IP jurisdiction are combined.

8.   Zong Liangui and Huang Li’an  and 26 other individual defendants – criminal trademark counterfeiting case.  In November 2007, the defendants founded a factory to manufacture and sell fake cooking oil with registered trademarks “Jin Long Yu”(金龙鱼) and “Lu Hua”(鲁花). Meanwhile, the factory was also involved in trafficking of counterfeit “Jin Long Yu” and “Luhua” labels. The remaining defendants included workers of this factory, who participated in such production knowingly and obtained illegal earnings, and retailers of the fake cooking oil.  [d2] This case in the Henan High People’s Court resulted in a total penalty of 27,040,000 RMB. The case also highlights the importance of piercing the corporate veil in criminal IPR matters, as well as the role of the combined civil/criminal/administrative IP tribunals in the courts.

While many of these cases are of great interest in their own rights, there also remains the broader question of what is the significance of the courts publishing cases?  For some time there has been interest among academics and business people in the United States in a greater adherence in China to case law.  There appears to be some interest in the court as well in having their cases to gain greater legal significance, beyond that of adjudicating the case in dispute.  Back in 1981, the National People’s Congress formally delegated the authority to the SPC and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate to promulgate Judicial Interpretations (JI) – to interpret laws in the course of their work.  As in traditional civil systems, Chinese courts are not supposed to interpret law; JI’s provide a basis for the courts to interpret laws in the form of a statutory type document, typically based on actual judicial experience.  However the tribunals in the SPC have not confined themselves only to JI’s to guide lower courts and help insure greater predictability in decision-making.

United States interest in Chinese case law has manifested itself in the “China Guiding Cases Project” underway at Stanford University.  The SPC’s guiding cases are intended to guide the courts in judicial decision-making in all adjudicated areas.  The advisory board of Stanford’s project includes several IP notables – including Chief Judge Kong of the SPC IPR Tribunal and Chief Judge Rader of the Federal Circuit.  The American Intellectual Property Law Association has a similar interest in model cases, with its China Precedents Project, in which “significant Chinese IP cases will be selected, reviewed, translated, commented on, and posted in a database available to AIPLA members.”  However, the application of cases in China’s judicial system remains controversial in light of the limitations places on the court in interpreting the law.

It is clear that the use of precedents in China at this time is quite different from the United States.  Among the most obvious reasons are that these cases are a small group selected by the courts themselves.   In the usual practice of courts, they are not to be cited.  Moreover, they are inferior to Judicial Interpretations.  The context of the release of these cases may also be important.  For example, these cases were released around October 22, by IPR Deputy Chief Judge Jin Kesheng (金克胜) at a press conference.   These eight cases follow relatively closely on the heels of  model criminal IP cases announced by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in September.  These cases may also be read to suggest that the SPC Civil IPR Tribunal is not to be outdone by the Procuratorate, particularly as they have shown the importance of higher civil damages and punishments, successful experiments in combining civil, administrative and criminal cases in lower level courts, improvements in civil procedures, an enhanced focus for trade secrets, the use of burden of proof reversals for patent protection[d3] , and other issues that are of timely, and even international importance.

There are many other types of instructional IPR cases that national and local courts issue have published, typically around the time of IP week (around April 26) each year – leading one to wonder what the relative value of these different kinds of cases are.  For example, SPC or its IPR Tribunal now publishes “innovative cases”, “big cases” and “typical cases.” Some local courts also publish similar cases.  And of course, there are the SPC’s guiding cases. According to relevant guidance “Senior Judges Chat about the Chinese Characteristics of China’s Case Guidance System” (大法官畅谈中国特色案例指导制度) on the SPC’s website, the legal power of these typical cases is different from that of guiding cases. It is at judges’ discretion to decide whether or not to follow these cases or to take them as reference in trial. These typical cases have no express binding power.  Nonetheless, these Senior Judges point out that China is evolving its own approach towards the role of cases in guiding its judiciary.

If these cases are intended to be instructional in nature, I also wonder if the case summaries indeed correspond to the actual facts of the case, or are the facts selected to make the point clearer in light of China’s current needs.  If so, the use of exemplary cases would follow a long tradition in Chinese society including model workers, model party members, and perhaps dating back to Confucius, who looked to “rectify names” () and believed that the proper use of names would improve society: “When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately.” (Analects, Legge, trans.)

Apart from this positivistic value, the cases may also present an opportunity for particular agencies to spotlight on their own accomplishments, such as the role of combined civil, criminal and administrative tribunals in these cases in these “typical” cases.  In light of their positivistic value, the case summary and its instructional nature may be of greater precedential impact than the case itself.  If however, their primary function is not to bind other courts.  Indeed, if they are not binding, it may be some time before Chinese lawyers are arguing before a judge about whether a particular case is “on point”, or can be “distinguished” like a common law lawyer.

Photo: Moot court before the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit at US-China Joint Adjudication Conference, May 2012 at Renmin University, Beijing.  The attorney representing the USPTO at this joint moot court was former Solicitor, now Judge at the CAFC, Hon. Ray Chen.

(rev. Nov. 13, 2013, Jan. 18, 2016)