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.

IPR Abuse and Refusals to License

The US Chamber and American Chamber of Commerce (the “Chambers”) have recently made available its recent comments on the NDRC and SAIC drafts of the IP abuse guidelines to be promulgated by the Antimonopoly Commission of the State Council.  Here are the links: NDRC IP Abuse Guidelines Chinese; NDRC IP Abuse Guidelines English; SAIC IP Abuse Guidelines Chinese; SAIC P Abuse Guidelines English.  As there is no public database of comments received on most Chinese legislation, I will continue to try to make available comments by private entities here on this blog.

The NDRC and SAIC comments of the Chambers continue to focus on certain key areas of concern, including China’s endorsing of an essential facility doctrine without considering the pro-competitive aspects of licensing (or standards setting).  The Chambers have expressed concerns about “an approach that imposes restrictions on licensing because it is possible to imagine a license that creates more competition”, which (in my view) is essentially a state-management approach to licensing and intellectual property.    The Chambers also focus on burdens of proof – an increasingly important issue in IP cases generally, as well as extraterritorial authority based on “effect” on the Chinese market, without regard to substantiality or immediacy.  As I have noted elsewhere, concerns over extra-territorial issues have been of increasing concern bilaterally. 

The Chambers also support provisions to enable portfolio licensing, which may include expired patents and would otherwise need to be adjusted or renegotiated every time a patent expires or is found invalid.  The Chamber also takes issue with presumptions that cross-licenses and grant backs are anti-competitive.   The Chambers also address concerns about aggressive regulation of refusals to license patents, particularly those that are not encumbered by a F/RAND obligation (eg., Article 24, SAIC draft).

An important development on refusals to license in China has been noted by Benjamin Bai in a recent blog on a non-SEP refusal to license case now pending in China.  According to Benjamin:

Hitachi Metals At the time of writing, there is an ongoing litigation on whether a refusal to license non-essential patents constitutes IP abuse. Four Ningbo companies brought this case against Hitachi Metals in the Ningbo Intermediate Court. The dispute centers on neodymium-iron-boron magnets, which are widely used in the electric engineering, wind power, automotive, and high tech industries. About half of the global consumption of rare earth metals relates to this magnetic alloy, whose intellectual property rights are mostly held by Hitachi Metals. It owns more than 600 neodymium-iron-boron magnet patents globally but has only licensed selected patents to eight Chinese companies. Hitachi has refused to license to other Chinese companies.

 Hitachi’s refusal to license its patents to the plaintiffs is the basis for the suit. The accused abusive conduct includes refusal to license, bundling, etc. This is the first case in which plaintiffs have requested a Chinese court to license non-essential patents based on the notion of “essential facilities”. The plaintiffs argue that Hitachi’s patent portfolio on neodymium-iron-boron magnets should be considered as essential facilities for the industry because its patent portfolio cannot be substituted and avoided. The plaintiffs seek damages of RMB24 million (~USD3.4 million). A nine-hour hearing was held on December 18, 2015. The court has not yet issued any decision. This case will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the Chinese jurisprudence on refusal to license and IP abuse.

Benjamin concludes his blog by noting:

When it comes to non-essential patents, however, the rationale of Huawei v. InterDigital does not apply. Instead, the analytical framework laid out in Qihoo v. Tencent should be followed. According to the Chinese Supreme Court, market dominance refers to the position of an undertaking with the ability to control the price, quality of other transactional terms of products in the relevant market, or the ability to impede or affect the entry into the relevant market by other undertakings. The determination of market dominance is a multifaceted process. No single factor is necessarily outcome-determinative. A high market share in and of itself should not lead to a presumption of market dominance, especially where the high market share is due to high efficiency or better-quality products. Therefore, a high market share conferred by technology superiority might not lead to a finding of dominance.

Extension of essential facilities outside of the F/RAND context where a company may not have willingly abandoned certain rights in exchange for incorporation in a standard is problematic, as Benjamin notes. I believe there are also implications for China’s IP system.   Neither recent draft guidelines or court decisions to date recognize patents as a unique form of property which is based on a right to exclude offered in exchange for disclosure of an invention.   Aggressive antitrust enforcement could erode that incentive.  This can be of great concern in the non-SEP space, where a patentee may have a choice whether to disclose an invention or keep a proprietary method secret.  As disincentives to patenting continue to mount due to narrowing scopes of patentability, procedural changes making litigation more difficult and patents less stable, and/or increased antitrust enforcement, the technological “commons” created by patent disclosures, as well as the incentives that patents provide for investment and product development, may narrow. The dynamic efficiencies of the patent system, which frequently creates new technologies which is not even in current manufacture and “include[es] societal gains from innovation” (GAI comments on NDRC draft) could be placed at risk.

I also remain concerned about disproportionality between antitrust damages and a continuing low level of patent damages.  CIELA currently lists average patent damages in China at 419,366 RMB, based on a cohort of 511 cases where the plaintiff won its claim of patent infringement.  This is about 70,000 dollars, or about 1/10,0000 of the fine imposed on Qualcomm in its recent NDRC investigation.  Of course,  patent damages address harm to the rights holder and antitrust damages address harm to competition, making comparisons somewhat inexact.  A legal argument however is that, whatever the calculation of antitrust damages, China has an explicit international obligation to insure that patent infringement damages “constitute a deterrent to further infringements” (TRIPS Article 41).  WTO members may even impose criminal remedies for patent infringement where willful and on a commercial scale (Article 61).   The authorization for WTO members to address IP abuse under the TRIPS agreement is only to take “appropriate” measures (Art. 40).   In my view, overly aggressive antitrust enforcement in China when the IP system is fundamentally weak, is “inappropriate” for China, and could weaken market-based incentives to license and patent, as well as incentives for disclosure at a critical time in China’s quest to become an innovative economy.