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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update on Research on Technology Protectionism and the Chinese Patent System

Prof. Gaétan de Rassenfosse and Dr. Emilio Raiteri (both at EPFL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland) have recently offered interesting statistical evidence for preferential treatment of domestic applicants and a potential issue with national treatment in patent applications in China. Their work shows that inventions by foreign firms were less likely to be granted patent protection, after adjusting for a range of other factors. However, their study of more than half a million patent applications reveals that only applications in “strategic” technology areas faced negative discrimination. More precisely, the probability that strategic patent applications by foreign firms will be granted is 5 to 15 percentage points lower than expected in the absence of discrimination.

Strategic technologies were identified using the ‘‘National Medium and Long-Term Program for Science and Technology Development 2006–2020’’ (citation to plan or to my blog) (“MLP”). The MLP, issued by the State Council, seeks to make China an innovation-driven nation by fostering indigenous innovation in selected technologies, including telecommunications, biotechnology and energy. Regarding telecommunications, the authors (with the co-authorship of Rudi Bekker of the Netherlands) find in another article that discrimination against foreigners was particularly strong among standard essential patents, an issue that was recently discussed by Professor de Rassenfosse in a recent webinar.

For background, one useful comparison of the MLP with other macro innovation/industrial policies has been prepared by Prof. Scott Kennedy.

There has been many complaints related to unfair treatment of foreign rights holders in the judicial system, and there has been some recent scholarship and support in analyses of newly launched databases, that suggests that China made significant progress in the area. Some of the sociological studies suggest that larger companies in China (as elsewhere), however, generally fare better in court.

The current paper focuses on consideration of disparate treatment and its causes in the patent system. However, the reason(s) for the effect are unclear and the authors are cautious not to infer that discrimination is intentional. They have ruled out a large number of possible explanations (such as differences in patent quality or in the quality of the translation into Chinese), but they suggest more work is needed to fully understand the source of anti-foreign outcomes for applicants.

The authors are not alone in looking at differential treatment by national patent offices.  Using data on about 50,000 patent applications granted by the USPTO and filed in the years 1990–1995 at the EPO and the JPO, Prof. Elizabeth Webster and colleagues (then at the University of Melbourne, Australia) had found that domestic applicants were more likely than foreign applicants to be granted patent protection, after certain normalizing adjustments. The authors in another paper noted that despite the efforts then subsisting of the trilateral offices (and other supporting efforts under the umbrella of patent harmonization), there is significant disharmony in the patent application outcomes across the trilateral patent offices. For instance, the overall rejection rate for patent applications which have been granted by the USPTO was 25 per cent for the JPO and 5 per cent for the EPO.  Webster and her co-authors note that there are numerous reasons why patent application outcome may vary with priority country status.  In light of recent changes in US practice due to Supreme Court decisions, one may also wonder whether differences in examination in certain areas, such as software-enabled inventions and biotechnology can also skew results in favor or local companies who have more up to the date information, are focused on the domestic market and may even have attracted capital upon the expectation of a local patent grant.

The papers on Chinese patent applications however are notable in that they (a) utilized a larger cohort of patent applications, (b) made comparisons in treatment by one office (SIPO) and (c) analyzed such treatment in light of articulated national industrial policies, and in comparison to treatment where no such national industrial policy is implicated.   The papers may suggest that political pressure, when it exists in China, may be more likely where there are clear national interests at stake rather in any matter in which a foreigner is involved.  Indeed, litigation data suggests that foreigners do well in Chinese courts; there is limited research on litigation outcomes when the subject is a matter of an articulated national industrial policy, such as these studies might suggest.

Written by Gaetan de Rasenfosse, edited by Mark Cohen.

The views expressed herein are the author’s own.

SIPO Publishes Proposed Revisions to Patent Examination Guidelines

On October 27, 2016, the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO)  published the  Draft (For Public Comment) of Revisions to the Patent Examination Guidelines .  The Chinese text is available here. Comments on the draft should be submitted before November 27.

 In the important area of post filing data supplementation for pharmaceutical inventions, the proposed revisions clarify that such supplementation is permissible where “the technical effect to be proved by the supplemental experimental data shall be that which can be obtained in the contents of the [original] application disclosure by one who is ordinarily skilled in the art.” 对于申请日之后补交的实验数据,审查员应当予以审查。补交实验数据所证明的技术效果应当是所属技术领域的技术人员能够从专利申请公开的内容中得到的。

 The examination guidelines also loosen the standards for obtaining business method patents if there is a technical element to the novel business method.  Presumably these inventions were previously denied patentability on the basis that they were intellectual rules or methods under Article 25 of the Patent Law.  The proposed guidelines state:

 Claims related to business methods that contain both business rules and methods and technical characteristics, shall not be excluded from the possibilities of obtaining patent rights be Article 25 of the Patent Law. 涉及商业模式的权利要求,如果既包含商业规则和方法的内容,又包含技术特征,则不应当依据专利法第二十五条排除其获得专利权的可能性。

The examination guidelines also appear to loosen the standards for obtaining software enabled inventions:

In the second line of Part II, chapter IX, section 5.2, paragraph 1, the third sentence of the Patent Examination Guidelines are amended from, “and describe in detail which parts of the computer program are to be performed and how to perform them” to provide that “The components may not only include hardware, but may also include programs. 将《专利审查指南》第二部分第九章第5.2节第1段第3句中的并详细描述该计算机程序的各项功能是由哪些组成部分完成以及如何完成这些功能修改为所述组成部分不仅可以包括硬件,还可以包括程序”.

Postscripts (Nov 18 and 28, 2016):

1.  Here’s Jacob Schindler’s October 31, 2016 commentary in IAM on this blog, and  here’s another blog comparing US and Chinese software patent developments. 

2.  Here are AIPLA’s comments on the proposed revisions to the patent examination guidelines (Nov. 25, 2016 – bilingual).