The Cart Before the Horse in China’s Patent Linkage Regime

Since China’s legislature amended the patent law on October 17, 2020 and China’s National Medical Products Administration (NMPA) and  its National IP Administration (CNIPA) published the Implementation Measures for the Early Resolution Procedures for Drug Patent Disputes (Trial) (Draft for Comment) ( 国家药监局综合司 国家知识产权局办公室公开征求《药品专利纠纷早期解决机制实施办法(试行)(征求意见稿)》意见) (the “Rule”) on September 11, 2020, several people have written to me who are bewildered about the sequence of rules being proposed on patent linkage in advance of the enactment of patent linkage into law.  This post analyzes whether this “cart before the horse” scenario should be a concern for US pharmaceutical companies, and what this counter-intuitive sequencing may suggest for China’s new patent linkage regime.  

This is indeed an unexpected circumstance.  There was no advance word that the Rule was being prepared for public release. CNIPA and NMPA’s parent agency, the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR), did not include a patent linkage rule in its 2020 legislative work plan.  CNIPA also had not included a patent linkage rule among its top 100 IP projects for 2020.  However both SAMR and CNIPA did include the more general Implementing Regulations for a revised patent law in their anticipated legislative work for 2020.   By contrast, the Beijing IP Court issued a research report on Patent Linkage (中国药品专利链接制度研究) in late September, which advocated judicial reforms to support a linkage regime.  In addition, the Supreme People’s Court in its 2020 annual plan announced its intention to draft a judicial interpretation (JI) for patent linkage cases.  They have not yet released their draft JI.

This “cart before the horse” Rule may trace part of its origins to the Phase 1 Trade Agreement (January 15, 2020) (the “Agreement”).  The Agreement did not explicitly require that the civil courts play the leading role for patent linkage disputes. The Agreement also failed to establish an “artificial infringement” regime for the Courts to rule that an application for marketing approval of a patent drug constitutes infringement. Instead, it required that China adopt “procedures for judicial or administrative proceedings and expeditious remedies”, and that China “may … provide” administrative remedies for resolution of linkage disputes (Art. 1.11).   In so doing, the Agreement left open the possibility that the administrative agencies would play the dominant role in a patent linkage regime.

More generally, the Agreement also authorized a leading role for administrative IP enforcement in a range of areas with its repeated references to campaign-style administrative enforcement.  The Agreement also did not acknowledge or seek improvements to China’s notable IP-related judicial reforms.   The Agreement was also immediately preceded by an important State Council/Party Central Committee plan that called for strengthening of administrative enforcement (Nov. 24, 2019), and that was considered in its time to be a high-level policy precursor to the Agreement. This policy evolution has also been accompanied by changes to all of China’s major IP laws including the Trademark law, the Patent Law, the Anti-Unfair Competition Law, as well as proposed Copyright Law Amendments, that all further commit China to strengthened administrative enforcement of IP.

CNIPA and NMPA took the next step of securing a key role for their agencies in patent linkage when they drafted and published the Rule.  I use the term “Rule” (規章) or “Departmental Rule” (部門規章) in this blog as a term of art, consistent with China’s Law on Legislation 立法法.  The nomenclature is also consistent with China’s own descriptions of its legal system  upon acceding to the WTO.  A Rule is a legislative document enacted by a departmental agency that is inferior to a Law (法律)that has been passed by the National People’s Congress or  a State Council-enacted Regulation (法規).  As set forth in the hierarchy of the Law on Legislation, it is also inferior to many types of local legislation.  As with other Rules, NMPA/CNIPA does not use the word “rule” in its September 11 pronouncement.  It instead calls its legislation “procedures” (办法). However, do not be misled! The Law on Legislation does not use “Procedures”  as a term to categorize legislation, even if regulatory agencies use this term in their own enactments.  When a Departmental Agency enacts a legislative document it is typically a “Rule” under the Law on Legislation based on the enacting agency and the legislative process. The categorization of legislation is often not immediately clear from its own wording.  Moreover, the legal status can also become murkier if sui generis or inter-agency procedures not otherwise in the Law on Legislation are involved.

In amending the Patent Law, the NPC cemented the leading role of NMPA and CNIPA by declining to legislate on linkage in detail and delegating rule-making authority to these agencies. According to Article 76,  “procedures” (or a “Rule”) will be drafted by NMPA and CNIPA to govern “pharmaceutical approvals and applications for marketing approvals.” Article 76 further requires the “procedures” to be delivered to the State Council for its approval before implementation (国务院药品监督管理部门会同国务院专利行政部门制定药品上市许可审批与药品上市许可申请阶段专利权纠纷解决 接办法,报国务院同意后实施).  By delegating drafting authority to NMPA and CNIPA and legislating that the State Council will be the final arbiter of its contents, the Patent Law has likely placed the NMPA and CNIPA Rule within that murky class of sui generis enactments.   

In its final form the State-Council approved patent linkage Rule is unlikely to be in conflict with any explicit Patent Law Amendment provisions. The State Council approval mechanism also still leaves open the possibility for additional policy interventions that are consistent with the Patent Law.  One important modification that might be considered would be to authorize the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) take a more active role in the drafting of the Rule or craft the Rule as a Regulation promulgated by the State Council itself. Pursuant to the administrative restructuring of March 13, 2018, MOJ is required to perform the legislative functions formerly performed by the Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council  (《第十三届全国人民代表大会第一次会议 关于国务院机构改革方案的决定》,批准《国务院机构改革方案》, which previously prepared Regulations.   

If the State Council were to take a leading role in drafting on patent linkage, past practice would suggest it will ensure that all agencies concerned would have an opportunity to comment.  The agencies would not only include NMPA and CNIPA but could also include the courts, trade, health, science or industrial planning and development agencies, as well as authorities responsible for personnel and budgeting.   A Regulation or sui generis Rule which involves all relevant agencies might also obviate the  failures of a prior linkage rule in 2002 which relied exclusively on administrative rule making.  As the late Prof. Benjamin Liu wryly observed at that time: “the SFDA  [predecessor agency to NMPA] does not always succeed with its gate-keeping function.”  Deputy Director Ding Jianhua of SFDA also succinctly stated the problem:   “SFDA is not responsible for IPR.” [1]

Judicial involvement in this legislation is needed to harmonize the legal complexities of patent linkage which complex issues of patent law, civil law, administrative law, and pharmaceutical regulation.  A lack of judicial involvement confounded the implementation of the 2002 rule.  This 2002 Rule (and subsequent amendments) was further stymied by later legislative changes in the patent law when China added a “Bolar exemption” to exempt pre-marketing approval efforts by generic companies from claims of infringement.  In Prof. Liu’s words, this exemption  “swallowed the rule of patent linkage.”  Bolar exemptions are well-known in international practice, being an exemption from civil infringement claims and are within the purview of the courts.  Overly-broad Bolar exemptions can raise concerns over compliance with TRIPS and other international IP obligations.

China’s vast administrative system must surmount other challenges to lead a patent linkage regime. These challenges include: a lack of administrative enforcement transparency; uncertainty regarding coordination between judicial and administrative enforcement; differing legal appeal routes and standards for litigating infringement which may lead to undermining of one system over another; concern for the systemic impacts on China’s IP regime by relying on administrative interventions rather than the civil system; limited foreign utilization of the patent administrative enforcement system particularly for high value pharmaceutical rights; and the inherent “fox guarding the hen house” fear when the administrative agencies that grant patent rights and marketing authorizations are also tasked with enforcing these important rights. 

Long-term observers may also fret that CNIPA and NMPA are an “odd couple” to administer a linkage regime  Although they are housed in the same mega-agency, SAMR, NMPA in recent years has been a leading advocate for  patent linkage, while  CNIPA had been viewed as less supportive. There are also continuing concerns over CNIPA’s excessive invalidation of pharma patents.

At this stage, the most appropriate corrective to these various challenges would be to leverage the State Council’s authority to take a leadership role in implementing Article 76 of the Patent Law, as well insure that there is conforming language in the Patent Law Implementing Regulations which MOJ will likely be coordinating in the near future.  An effective linkage regime for China will not only need to balance the interests of generics and innovators in China’s linkage regime, but also between the courts and the range of concerned administrative agencies.

Where will China go next at this important juncture on patent linkage?  Berkeley Law will be convening a webinar on China’s patent linkage regime as part of a multi-part series on food and drug law.  I will be joined by He Jing from the GEN law firm, Cui Can from Morrison and Forster, Dr. Karen Guo from Novo Nordisk and Xuejiao Hu from Beigene.  The event will take place on November 17.  Registration information is available here


[1] Benjamin Liu, ”Fighting Poison with Poison? The Chinese Experience with Pharmaceutical Patent Linkage,” 11 J. Marshall Rev. Intell. Prop. L. 623 (2012).

Note: The Photo above by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

Revised Patent Law Passed by NPC

According to Chinese press reports, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee decided to approve the revised patent law on October 17, 2020.

The Legal Daily notes that among the key provisions that are incorporated into the new law are an increase in statutory damages, patent term restoration and early resolution of patent disputes (patent linkage) for pharmaceutical patents, and a newly added “grace period” type provision to address the Covid19 pandemic which permits initial disclosure of inventions for public benefit to address national emergencies without compromising the novelty of an invention in a patent application.

Beijing IP Court Report on Proposed Patent Linkage Regime

The Beijing IP Court has recently released a Report on patent linkage, which highlights the legal challenges that the courts may face in implementing the proposed linkage regime, entitled  “Research on the China Pharmaceutical Patent Linkage System” (中国药品专利链接制度研究) (the “Report”) (China Trial magazine (中国审判).  The Report references the various developments in patent reform as well as Notice 55 (2017) of CFDA “Policies Relevant to the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Innovators for the Encouragement of Innovation in Drugs and Medical Devices (Draft for Public Comment)” (食品药品监管总局就鼓励药品医疗器械创新保护创新者权益征求意见) (the “Innovation Proposal”), which I discussed here.  The legal challenges identified in the Report include the following:

1.The Report notes that the proposed regime does not currently impose a compulsory litigation system. In the absence of such a legal requirement to litigate, the administrative power cannot interfere with the free will of the parties, i.e., it cannot require the parties to avail themselves of a linkage system. 

My comment: For a generic company to be able to enter the market in advance of patent expiration, it will need to utilize the litigation system.  Otherwise, it should be denied marketing approval.  On the other hand, if an innovator wants to challenge a generic company that has obtained a marketing approval without a finding of non-infringement/invalidity/patent expiration, it should be able to bring a litigation through the linkage regime as plaintiff.  According to recently proposed rules, generic applicants claiming to fall outside of existing patent scope or seeking to invalidate patents, would be subject to suit by the innovators via a court or CNIPA within 45 days of seeking regulatory approval (Art. 7).  In addition, there should be little incentive to sue outside of the newly established linkage process for generic or innovative companies.  If a generic company wishes to use normal civil and administrative procedures to sue an innovator, courts should be required to implement similar expedited procedures to the linkage regime.

2. The second issue identified by the Court is the conflict between “artificial infringement” and the current Patent Law. According to the Report, the patent linkage system adds the new concept of an application for regulatory approval to the scope of infringing patent acts, or a concept of “artificial infringement.” However, the Patent Law does not stipulate the act of applying for regulatory approval as an act prohibited by patent rights and subject to injunctive or other relief. This will bring a series of problems in the judicial process. In addition to the risk of dismissal due to the lack of a legal basis, a court can determine the accused infringement generic drugs fall into the scope of patent protection, but due to the Bolar exemption, the acts of preparing a generic drug for market may not constitute patent infringement.  

My comment: China’s Bolar exemption is being used, once again to advance an extensive safe harbor from commercial scale infringing acts done in anticipation of market entry, which is a potential TRIPS violation (Art. 30). Although I agree with the Report that this issue should be clarified, I disagree with the absolute necessity of clarifying what constitutes an artificial infringement, as the statute should be interpreted in accordance with China’s international obligations (including the TRIPS Agreement, and the Phase 1 Trade Agreement), as well as with prior practice of China.  It is also wrong to assume that linkage is a wholly new concept to China’s legal system, which this analysis might imply.  China had a limited patent linkage regime in the past without a concept of “artificial infringement.”  It was also administered by the courts.  The late Prof. Benjamin Liu discussed this regime in an article in 2012:

“Previously, Chinese courts reached inconsistent decisions as to whether the unauthorized making and using of patented products during the course of preparing for a drug registration constituted patent infringement. For example, in 2000, the Chongqing Intermediate People’s Court imposed damages against generic company for the unauthorized use of patented technology in connection with drug approval in Glaxo v. Southwestern Pharm.  Later, in 2005, the Jilin Intermediate People’s Court ordered a generic defendant to stop its drug registration process after finding that the unauthorized use of patented traditional medicine formulation in the course of registration is intended for infringing production in Chengdu Kanghong Pharm. v. Liyuan Pharm.Other courts were less sympathetic to the patentee….”

3.The third issue that is there is no guarantee that the specific deadlines will be observed. The Report notes that the timelines are tight, and there could be difficulty in communicating and responding.  Moreover, many of the innovators are multinational companies.  Even if there are representative offices of such multinationals in China, the 20-day period is obviously insufficient to inform the decision-making department and respond. 

My comment: I agree with this assessment. The relationship between the periods being established by the linkage regime and China’s Civil Procedure Law  (Art. 250) which permits the suspension of certain litigation time frames for foreign related cases also needs to be clarified.

4. As a fourth issue, the Report notes that the way to challenge others’ patents is incomplete. The Report notes that in the drug patent linkage systems in the United States, Canada, and Taiwan, the patent challenge program has set two challenges — patent invalidity and patent non-infringement.  However, the challenge set by the Innovation Proposal is only the challenge of non-infringement of patent rights, and not patent invalidation. In fact, a patent invalidation challenge approach is more conducive to competition among generic drug companies as a whole, and it is conducive to subsequent imitation by other generic drug companies, which can play a greater role in drug accessibility. 

My comment: I agree that this is a potential problem.  One solution would appear to be in the first instance to permit the Beijing IP Court to hear both validity and infringement combined, much as has the new national appellate IP Court has piloted late last year in Xiamen Power Electronic Technology Co., Ltd. v.  LG Electronics (Tianjin) Appliances Co., Ltd.  Secondly, administrative validity procedures should be expedited, with the Beijing IP court authorized to reach a final administrative decision on validity, rather than requiring remands to CNIPA.

5.As a fifth issue, the Report notes that many operational regulations of the patent linkage system need to be refined. For example, issues such as the determination of the court of jurisdiction, the choice of the cause of the case, the time limit for prosecution, procedures for challenging invalidity and non-infringement, and the connection between judicial and administrative agencies need to be determined.

My comment: I agree with this assessment as well. 

In addition to the above, the Report makes a recommendation regarding which court should have jurisdiction over linkage disputes. The Report notes that “the Beijing Intellectual Property Court specializes in national patent administrative authorization and confirmation cases and Beijing patent infringement cases. The case has a complete range of categories, a large number of cases, a large number of technical judges, a deep legal literacy, and solid practical skills, and can undertake the trial of patent challenge cases.”

My comment: I agree with an assessment that the Beijing IP court should take exclusive jurisdiction over China’s linkage regime for the reasons stated.  However, in order for a linkage system to work well, it is also important that the courts take a less restrictive view regarding pharmaceutical validity cases, particularly involving post-filing supplementation of data which has long been a bilateral bone of contention.

Any discussion regarding patent linkage in China must also return to basics: if the innovator’s patents are not being granted, then there are not patents to “link” to, and the linkage regime would be of little use.