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.

Qualcomm’s ITC Action Against Meizu Instituted

 

According to a USITC press release, Qualcomm’s Section 337 case against Meizu was initiated  on November 15, 2016 (337-TA-1029).  The products covered by this investigation are electronic mobile devices that include hardware and software components within the mobile electronic devices, such as integrated circuits, cameras, RF transmitters, capacitors, and System-on-chips.  The Federal Register notice is found here. Qualcomm had announced on October 14, 2016 that it was filing a complaint with the United States International Trade Commission (ITC), filing a patent infringement action in Germany with the Mannheim Regional Court, and initiating an infringement-seizure action in France to obtain evidence for a possible future infringement action there.  Qualcomm had previously initiated litigation against Meizu in Beijing and Shanghai.

Qualcomm’s Litigation Strategies and Recent IP Developments in China

反者道之動。弱者道之用。 (, Chap. 40) (Return is the movement of the Dao. Yielding is the way of the Dao.  Daodejing, Chap. 40.)

To the uninitiated, Qualcomm’s licensing practices in China must appear confusing.  Since paying a fine of 975 million USD to NDRC – about 50,000 times average patent damages according to the CIELA database for its Standards Essential Patent licensing practices, Qualcomm has entered into approximately 100  licensing settlements with Chinese companies.  How can the weak become so successful, so soon?

According to press accounts, Qualcomm has settled with the major cell phone manufacturers in China,  most recently with Chinese cell phone companies Vivo and Oppo.  Both deals came after Qualcomm decided to bring law suits against cell phone manufacturer Meizu in the Beijing and Shanghai intellectual property courts for damages that reportedly total about 520 million RMB.  The first law suit was filed by Qualcomm around June 23 at the Beijing Intellectual Property Court.   The complaint essentially sought to enforce an NDRC rectification plan imposed on Qualcomm against other infringers/potential licensees.  The original complaint, according to Qualcomm’s press release “requests rulings that the terms of a patent license offered by Qualcomm to Meizu comply with China’s Anti-Monopoly Law, and Qualcomm’s fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory licensing obligations.  The complaint also seeks a ruling that the offered patent license terms should form the basis for a patent license with Meizu for Qualcomm’s fundamental technologies patented in China for use in mobile devices, including those relating to 3G (WCDMA and CDMA2000) and 4G (LTE) wireless communications standards.”  Since that filing, Qualcomm filed 17 new complaints were filed in Beijing and Shanghai.

Given the risks to Qualcomm posed by seeking injunctive relief for standards essential patents, Qualcomm appears to have initially launched its litigation campaign against Meizu by enforcing the NDRC approved licensing terms against one hold out company who might thereafter be left with an unfair competitive advantage.   Qualcomm appears to be reducing its antitrust risks by first getting “immunized” by NDRC, and then enforcing the terms of the NDRC “rectification plan” and couching its patent infringement litigation in terms of promoting fair competition.  This in effect has turned the tables on recalcitrant licensees who have previously relied on Qualcomm’s FRAND commitments to reduce the risk of being sued by Qualcomm by threatening an antitrust counterclaim.  What remains to be seen, however, is the legal status the court affords the rectification plan given the often unclear relationships between judicial and administrative decision making.

Qualcomm’s GC, Don Rosenberg said Qualcomm is taking legal action out of a sense of fairness to other companies that are paying what they owe.  In addition, the case represents a vote of confidence by Qualcomm in the court system.  As Don Rosenberg noted “”We’re putting our faith in the court system there and we wouldn’t do that if we didn’t think we were in capable hands.”  Qualcomm may no doubt have been inspired by the success of its licensing program as well as the perfect or near perfect win rate in the sixty five infringement cases filed by foreigners in 2015 in the Beijing IP court.  As I have noted repeatedly on this blog, foreigners do win IP cases in China.

In China’s current legal environment,  where licensing is burdened by seemingly contradictory norms – e.g., where the Chinese government sets prices for license transactions in antitrust cases, restricts the freedom to negotiate of foreigners, provides tax incentives for licensing in to China for high tech enterprises, sets national goals for licensing transactions, and where the courts seem to have difficulty imposing damages based on actual or implied royalties, Qualcomm appears to be turning the 975 million dollars of “lemons” of the  NDRC fine, into a vat of lemonade.

Qualcomm’s vote of confidence in the courts in a high stakes case may also help set an important model for other foreign and Chinese rightsholders, potentially by highlighting such important issues as: Yes, foreigners win cases in China, the importance of actual or explicit license agreements for determining damages (already being tried in some jurisdictions, 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 (Jiangsu, 2015), and the respective roles of patent law,  antitrust law, the courts and administrative agencies, in obtaining SEP licenses in China.

Qualcomm and China both have a lot at stake in the handling of SEP issues.   A recent report by Thomson Reuters (The Evolving Landscape of Standard Essential Patents: Keeping What is Essential, Sawant and Oak), showed that Qualcomm owns 17% of the patent declarations before the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, followed by Nokia, Huawei, and InterDigital.   Decisions in Europe such as Huawei vs. ZTE may also have underscored the importance of looking at whether a putative licensee/infringer is in fact negotiating in good faith with a FRAND encumbered licensor.

Judges such as  Zhu Li of the SPC have noted some of these changes publicly.  As Zhu Li said in a recent blog:

…标准必要专利权作出FRAND承诺即自愿放弃了在任何情况下寻求禁令救济的选择,更不意味着其寻求禁令救济一定产生反竞争的效果。因此,作出FRAND承诺的标准必要专利权利人寻求禁令救济的反竞争效果仍然需要具体分析判断。

[T]he owner of standard essential patent FRAND commitment that is made voluntarily does not give up under all circumstances the choice of seeking injunctive relief.  Furthermore, it does not mean seeking injunctive relief must produce anti-competitive effects. Therefore, when a holder of a FRAND encumbered SEP seeks injunctive relief, the anti-competitive effects still need specific analysis and judgment。

The evolving practice appears to be that the evidentiary burden to demonstrate that the infringers have refused to pay a license fee is on the licensor and, as Zhu Li noted,  a monopoly is not necessarily constituted when an injunction is requested by SEP owners.

The State Council’s recent opinion on how China should become a “strong” IP country, also highlighted how China needs to draft rules on standard essential patents that are based on FRAND licensing and “stopping infringement” (Art. 38) (with the involvement of AQSIQ, SIPO, MIIT, and the Supreme People’s Court) and that encouraging standardization of Chinese patents also remains a priority (Arts. 61, 71).

As I indicated elsewhere, a key question for China is “What circumstances exist to suggest that a prospective licensee is engaged in patent hold-out, i.e., refusing to license in good faith which might suspend the licensor’s F/RAND obligation…”  Hopefully China is beginning to ask the better questions that are suitable for its licensing environment and its efforts to become a “strong” IP economy.

What are you observing in this hot area? Please post your comments and corrections!

The preceding is the author’s personal opinion only.

lemonade

WIPO, SIPO and USPTO: US-China Patent Filing Trends

Chinese Activity at WIPO

A WIPO report released on March 19 noted that Huawei, with 3,442 published PCT applications, overtook Panasonic as the largest applicant in 2014. Qualcomm was the second largest applicant in 2014, with 2,409 published applications. ZTE Corp. took third place with 2,179 PCT applications.

These top three applicants have similar patent filing profiles, with digital communication accounting for the bulk of their total filings.

The report highlights some weakness amongst Chinese academic institutions: among the top 25 educational institution filers, there were only two Chinese academic institutions – Peking University (no. 19) and Tsinghua (no. 23).

United States Activity at SIPO

SIPO’s 2014 Statistical Report (no. 164), analyzes filing trends from foreign countries, including the United States that further underscores the competition amongst Qualcomm, Huawei and ZTE and in the ICT sectors.

United States China invention patent applications with SIPO amounted to 135,138 pieces over the previous five year period analyzed.   The annual growth rate during this period was 8.3%. In 2013 United States patent applications were 29,992, about 1.4 times 2009.

According to SIPO, the following companies from the United States filed more than 3,000 patents from 2009-2013: Qualcomm (6,029); GE (5,875); General Motors (5,697); Microsoft (3,957) and IBM (3,293). Also of note during this period, Apple’s patent filings have increased rapidly, while Microsoft’s decreased after 2011 to 327 in 2013, falling to 11th place among US applicants.

SIPO’s description of Qualcomm’s role in communication technologies underscores highly competitive relationships in China:

Over the five year period of this survey, Qualcomm’s 5-year filings have ranked amongst the top three United States applicants. Chinese enterprises have also substantially increased their communication invention patents, and this substantial growth has a number of advantages. However, in key areas such as mobile phone chips, Qualcomm still owns core IP. It provides licenses to patented technology to Chinese communications equipment and consumer electronics equipment enterprises, and uses this technology to charge exorbitant license fees.

What about Chinese activity in the US?

USPTO’S Fiscal Year Report (ending September 30, 2014), provides partial data on Chinese filing trends in the United States. In 2013, there were 15,496 patent applications from China, having nearly doubled from 8,358 in 2010. Patent grants to Chinese residents more than doubled from 2010-2014 from 3,059 to 7,717.

Additional data is necessary to compare Huawei and ZTE’s filing trends in the United States and whether they reflect similar competitive trends in PCT filings and in China.

Zhang Xinzhu Dismissed from AMC Expert Committee

Xinhua reported on August 12 2014 that  the State Council Antimonopoly Commission today fired Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher Zhang Xinzhu 张昕竹as a member of its expert advisory panel.  The official reason given was violating AMC expert advisory committee discipline. Zhang claimed the real reason was that he was speaking for foreign firms. Subsequent press reports have identified the relevant conflict of interest rules that Zhang is alleged to have violated. The relevant ethical code (enacted September 2008) is said to be “In order to protect the reputation of the experts committee, members cannot participate and effectuate activities conflicting with the interests of the experts committee; without the consent of the experts committee, they cannot use their title as a member of the experts committee to engage in activities unrelated to the work of the work of the experts committee” 《国务院反垄断委员会专家咨询组工作规则》第三章工作纪律中,第十三条规定了专家咨询组成员工作守则,其中第(三)项明确规定:“维护专家咨询组的声誉,不得从事与履行专家咨询组职责利益冲突的活动;未经国务院反垄断委员会同意,不得以专家咨询组成员身份从事与履行专家咨询组职责无关的活动。The conflict of interest appears to be that Zhang is identified as the second listed author of an AML report “Concerning Economic Evidence of Qualcomm’s Licensing Prices” “关于高通许可定价的经济学证据.”

This issue also continues to play out in the Chinese media and the facts remain unclear. Fortunately thus far it appears to me to be unrelated to efforts to rectify the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences from foreign influence. In early August, the South China Morning Post, reported that Zhang Yingwei, head of the party’s discipline inspection office at CASS, said the academy had been “infiltrated by foreign forces” and “was conducting illegal collusion at politically sensitive times”. At the same time, no information has been provided about other ethical issues arising in AML investigations or whether this type of activity had otherwise been tolerated if, as Zhang might be suggesting, it had been conducted on behalf of a Chinese company despite any specific ethical rule.

 

Qualcomm Subject of AML Investigation – Other Developments on the Way

China’s use of the Antimonopoly Law to deal with pricing for royalties may have taken another turn with recent launch of an Antimonopoly Law investigation by the National Development and Reform Commission against Qualcomm. Although the exact basis for the investigation is unknown, the press reports speculate that the investigation is related to the forthcoming launch of TD-LTE by China Mobile in early 2014 as well as negotiations on chip and licensing pricing between Qualcomm and China-based companies.

Qualcomm announced the case on Monday November 25. The investigation has been covered in several articles in Reuters as well as other press sources, including the Chinese press. An NDRC spokesperson was quoted in China’s official press on Sunday November 24 that China’s AML authorities would focus on six areas of technology and pharmaceuticals. Some observers have also tied the case to the impactful recent Huawei-Interdigital case(https://chinaipr.com/2013/10/29/huaweiinterdigital-appeal-affirms-shenzhen-lower-court-on-standards-essential-patent) adjudicated in Guangdong, which also involved standards and royalties.

In separate developments, at a conference sponsored by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology that I attended in Beijing on November 13, it was announced that the State Administration for Industry and Commerce will be revising its rules on AML and Intellectual Property. Last August a draft revision to its IPR enforcement guidelines was floated selectively for public comment(https://chinaipr.com/2012/08/26/a-quick-read-of-the-aml-ipr-enforcement-guidelines-fifth-draft/). Additionally, at this November 13 conference, the Supreme People’s Court noted that it would be looking into revising its judicial interpretation on patent infringement regarding availability of injunctions, presumably to make injunctions less automatic (or presumably, denied) in the case of standards-essential patents.

There are some areas where there appear to be less momentum, at least for now. I am unaware of any public initiative to deny orders stopping infringement in the case of standards-essential patents and administrative patent enforcement. In addition, I am unaware of any public request to date for an administrative compulsory license of patents through the State Intellectual Property Office for an antitrust violation or a refusal to license. To judge by the recent MIIT conference, there is also no active discussion on patent “hold-out” for refusal of a licensee to take a license under a standards-essential patent, and what that would mean in the Chinese context, where damages are low in litigation, injunctions are almost always granted, the state plays an active role in standardization, the statute of limitations is short and China’s equities as a patent holder and manufacturer are in flux. Also, noticeably absent from the November 13 program was Ms. Dai Hong from the Standards Administration of China, who had been active on these issues for SAC – an agency which had been relatively active on these issues some years ago. Please send in your comments if you know of other developments.

Overall, China’s ramp-up on AML is not unlike its ramp up for other disruptive economic laws, such as the bankruptcy law. Frequently these laws are enacted for “trial implementation” or alternatively they are not actively enforced until after regulators and the public have had time to become familiar with the laws and their implications and/or the political timing is “ripe.” It will be very interesting to observe future developments.