Towards a Better Understanding of “Forced Technology Transfer” Policies in China and Their Strategic Implications

In August 2017, President Trump issued an executive order setting in motion an investigation of China’s trade policies including IP, technology transfer, and investment policies. The “Section 301” report on this investigation came out earlier this year. The Report itself uses the word “force” or “forced” 47 times and identifies a range of practices that result in “forced technology transfer.” However, there is a significant amount we still do not know regarding how these controversial Chinese policies actually work and the degree to which a technology owner’s behavior has in fact been compelled by state actors. A new paper by Dan Prud’homme, Max von Zedtwitz, Joachim Jan Thraen, and Martin Bader published in Technological Forecasting & Social Change explores this important issue.

The authors evaluate the ability of “forced technology transfer” (FTT) policies – which they define as policies meant to increase foreign-domestic technology transfer that simultaneously weaken appropriability of foreign innovations – to contribute to technology transfer. They draw on a survey of foreign firms, interviews with foreign firms, and case studies of Chinese firms.

The authors identify three categories of FTT policies that have significantly impacted foreign-Sino technology transfer in recent years:

(1) Policies which risk market loss (including market access preconditioned on meeting technology transfer requirements),

(2)  Policies that offer no choice regarding compliance (including unfair court rulings in IP civil litigation), and

(3) Policies that are based on legal obligations (including provisions in the technology import-export regulations; and certain policies related to the intersection of anti-trust and IP, and IP and technical standards).

Several other controversial policies were also identified, including disclosure of confidential business information through regulatory approvals, pharma patent issues, and certain tax schemes and subsidies.

The authors find that, with the exception of no-choice policies, foreign firms are allowed some flexibility to decide whether or not they want to comply with China’s FTT policies. Therefore, even though non-compliance with the policies is always met with consequences, the technology is not actually “forced” against a party’s will. After noting this limitation of the term, the authors explain that they retain the term “FTT policies” in their research for readability and because it is part of well-established lingo, but only use it to the extent that it meets their aforementioned definition.

Much of the research focuses on foreign-Sino transfer of frontier technology, i.e. the most advanced technology emerging from research and development which is generally not at the point of mass commercial adoption. According to the authors, not only the design of FTT policies per se helps determine if they exert substantial leverage over (i.e., force) frontier technology transfer, but the environment in which they are deployed is equally important. The authors find that FTT policies appear to exert the most leverage over frontier technology transfer when accompanied by seven conditions: (1) strong state support for industrial growth; (2) oligopoly competition; (3) other policies closely complementing FTT policies; (4) high technological uncertainty; (5) policy mode of operation offering basic appropriability and tailored to industrial  structure; (6) reform avoidance by the state, and (7) stringent policy compliance mechanisms.

Based on each of these conditions, the authors developed an FTT Strategy & Risk Forecasting Matrix with corresponding strategies the state may adopt to fully exploit, i.e. maximize the leverage of, FTT policies.

The authors’ analysis has several possible implications for technology transfer policymaking. In the authors’ view, Chinese FTT policies may enable domestic acquisition of frontier foreign technology if all seven conditions determining policy leverage are fully exploited by the state. However, if the state does not fully exploit all seven conditions, the FTT policies have less leverage. Moreover, if the state exploits none or only a few of the conditions, the FTT policies may result in a lose-lose game where foreign firms are discouraged from transferring valuable technology and domestic firms’ acquisition of new technology is made more difficult.

With this analysis, the authors provide evidence that can be used to appeal to the Chinese authorities to change some of their FTT policies: some of the policies are actually counterproductive in meeting their aims. The risks of loss of technology acquisition posed by Chinese policies is an important phenomenon which this blog has also identified, particularly as an unintended consequence of China’s Technology Import/Export Regulations (especially for start-ups and litigation-prone technologies, but also for technological collaboration) and which has been mentioned by the US Chamber of Commerce in its IP Index and its report on licensing.

The authors argue that in order to increase the chance that FTT policies will spur sustained transfer of frontier technology, Chinese regulators should not deprive foreign firms of  minimum level of appropriability. The policies should also allow foreign firms to benefit in at least minor ways from technology transfer arrangements.

The research also has important implications for technology strategy formulation and risk management. The authors’ FTT Strategy & Risk Forecasting Matrix can guide foreign firms to anticipate risks associated with FTT policies and serve as a starting point for understanding how to further quantify or mitigate these risks. The risks are of course compounded by potential trade secret theft, cyber intrusions, and less formal pressure points on foreign licensors to assign or transfer their technology in China. And these risks must be considered alongside major rising challenges to doing business in China, which Prud’homme and Zedtwitz have also discussed (in MIT Sloan Management Review), including: problematic areas of regulation in China and rising competition from Chinese rivals in terms of their recruiting and retaining top talent, more large-scale and strategic use of intellectual property, and ever faster time-to-market of products and services. Mitigating these many risks requires carefully integrated intellectual property, innovation, non-market, and human capital strategies, alongside yet other responses.

Edited of June 23, 2018:  An interview with Prof. Liu Chuntian of Renmin U. Law School on this same topic of forced technology transfer is found on page 2 of the People’s Daily (June 22, 2018, 2nd edition) (reporter Wang Yu)   A machine translation by Google is found here.  Liu focuses primarily on market access as a separate discpline from intellectual property under the WTO and as being essentially voluntary; he does not support formal and informal incentives in place (including the Technology Import/Export Regulations as noted in the article by Dan Prud’homme.

Edit of July 15, 2018: Here’s a link to Prof Prud’homme’s article outside of a paywall.  It may only be available for a short period of time.

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 remedies.

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!

US-China Security Commission – Readout of Hearing on June 8, 2018

On June 8, 2018, I testified before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission on “U.S. Tools to Address Chinese Market Distortions.” This was my second time testifying in the past three years.  My written submission is available here.  The written submissions of other speakers, including a video of the proceedings is available through this link.  The presentations of my colleagues were all excellent.

I suggested several non-tariff alternatives for dealing with IP-related concerns with China, and underscored the necessity of developing appropriate domestic government structures to engage China on technology and innovation issues.  For example, the Commission seemed generally supportive of raising the diplomatic rank of USPTO attaches overseas.   I also discussed the importance of data-driven analysis, including use of the case database to look at how foreigners actually fare in the courts.  The Commission seemed skeptical that the data captured some of the more egregious judicial cases of foreign mistreatment, which they viewed as undercutting the credibility of the data that is being generated.  In my written submission, I encouraged the Commission to consider a hearing devoted solely to transparency in the courts.

The President’s recent decision to impose tariffs on Chinese imports in response to Chinese IP practices may render many of suggestions superfluous for now.  Nonetheless, I believe the increasing complexity of China’s IP and innovation environment are issues that cannot be ignored.  As I noted in my written testimony:

“The US experience suggests that innovation flourishes in open ecosystems where there is a free flow of capital, talent and technology. At the same time, the US needs to address mercantilistic practices which not only pose competitive threats to the United States but can also undermine the innovative ecosystems that have driven growth in the US economy, such as exist in Silicon Valley. Any steps taken to reduce collaboration with China or any other country needs to be carefully evaluated about its potential impact on our own technological competitiveness.”

In a separate, but nonetheless related matter, I spoke at the IPBC Global 2018 Conference in San Francisco on June 12 regarding developments in IP monetization in China.  Here’s a good summary of my presentation.  I thought one of the more telling moments in the panel I participated in involved China’s Technology Import/Export Regulations.   One lawyer acknowledged that “the regulations are stupid” and that “what we try to do is have parties to a technology transaction acknowledge that the regulations exist and agree not to enforce them.”  I discussed the regulations as potential “landmines” which could be invoked at a later time by a licensee.  Many licensors appeared to be unaware of these regulations.

Updates for March 27 – April 2, 2018 – China steps up control over technology exports

China steps up scrutiny of IP transfers to foreign firms on national security grounds Under new regulations issued by the State Council on Thursday, technology transfers include IP transfers that are part of acquisitions made by foreign firms involving patents, integrated circuit layout design, computer software copyright and plant varieties. Such transfers will be assessed in terms of their impact on national security and the country’s “key technology innovation capability in key areas,” said the document.

This move is not intended to “upset foreign investors” but rather to formulate “concrete measures to secure a better business environment,” said Zhang Zhicheng, director of the Protection and Coordination Department at SIPO. Zhang also noted the importance for China to strictly review core IP transfers.
Our preliminary observations: Some observers believe the measures are drafted in retaliation to the Section 301 report of the US government which addresses Chinese investment in the United States as well as the US request of China for consultations of China over the Technology Import / Export Regulations, which are also referred to in these regulations. We are also unclear at this point if these regulations were previously “in the works” or otherwise accelerated in response to the Section 301 investigation.
Companies should consider consulting counsel on the impact of these regulations. First, it appears likely that a foreign-invested company’s acquisition of Chinese technology is an IP ‘transfer’ for purposes of these regulations. Under US law, these might be considered a “deemed export if a foreign national obtains technology while in the United States These regulations do not use this terminology. The regulations may impact foreign companies based on their source of capital rather than the presence of foreign nationals. For example, the regulation’s scope appears to include transfers that occur wholly within China, as they refer to transfers “to foreigners” of Chinese IP, and earlier regulations, by contrast, focused on transfers to enterprises overseas. .(本办法所述知识产权对外转让,是指中国单位或者个人将其境内知识产权转让给外国企业、个人或者其他组织.)    Compare with the Provisional Regulations on the Administration of Technology Exports 技术出口管理·暂行办法 (对外经贸部/国家科委) (June 26, 1990) (本办法所称的技术出口是中国境内的 公司, 企业, 研究机构以及其·他组织或者个人(不包括外商投资企业, 外国在中国公司。。。。)向境外的公司。。。。).  Further clarification on this important issue would be helpful.

Another issue requiring clarification is the difference between technology transfer from an assignment or licensing of a patent. This has been a subject of confusion under Chinese law for some time, and these regulations appear to carry that forward. The earlier 1990 regulations also regulated the transfer of patents, as well as registered trademarks (!) as a form of “technology transfer” (Art. 2).  However, in most cases, any “leakage” of technology arising from a patent application occurred at the time of the publication of the patent application or grant. An added complication is that China already has procedures in place for regulating foreign filings of patents for national security purposes. Article 20.1 of the Chinese Patent Law provides for confidentiality examination of these applications. These measures be redundant with these procedures, particularly in regulating the transfer of patent applications to foreigners.
Until further clarity is established by implementing rules, these regulations could therefor have an impact of disrupting existing foreign invested R&D or cooperation across national borders. Two questions come immediately to mind: if, for example, a Chinese national is under contract to conduct R&D for a foreign invested company, or is an employee of that company, is the transfer in ownership of the patent application, from the employee to employer a “transfer of technology” for purposes of these regulations? Another question is what is the standard that applies to determine whether an invention created by individuals in China and overseas was “created in China” and is transfer is subject to these regulations? It is also worth noting that the 1990 regulations specifically exempted bilateral scientific cooperation (Article 2). These do not.
In a separate development, the State Council  released measures this week to strengthen security management of scientific data. The measures, which prioritize data security and focus on data sharing, order strengthening supervision of the use and sharing of scientific data with both domestic and foreign parties.

Finally, this blog, and its preliminary observations, is not a substitute for legal counsel and serious research that is necessary on these and other issues arising under China’s texport control regime.

Please advise of any necessary corrections.

January 30-February 12, 2018 Updates

Here are some updates on IP developments in China from prior two weeks.

  1. China’s tough cyber rules raise risk of infiltration US business group says In a report released on Monday, the US-China Business Council urged Beijing to loosen limits on data flow and storage that raise the risk of security breaches for foreign companies. The council said China should follow best international practice by opening access to cloud computing services, levelling the playing field in technology procurement and allowing foreign firms to send copies of data abroad for analysis and processing. The Council’s report also recommended that foreign partners in joint ventures be allowed to own and control software and other technology licensed to the joint ventures.
  2. MIIT Chief says China does not force foreign enterprises to transfer technology, says MIIT chief China did not and cannot force foreign enterprises to transfer technology to the country, and any cases of technology transfers are enterprises’ own choices driven by the market, Miao Wei, head of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), said at a press conference on Tuesday, adding that China has been taking steps to better protect intellectual property rights.
  3. .The Supreme Court of China Issued Seven Typical Cases on Property Rights Protection最高法发布7起保护产权典型案例 on “property rights protection” last Tuesday. Among those seven cases, two focused on intellectual property rights, with one on trademark infringement and unfair competition, and the other on criminal trade secret protection in an employment context. Details of those typical cases are available here.
  4. FTC, Justice Department Officials Meet in China On Antitrust Enforcement The head of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and a representative from the Justice Department met with Chinese officials from NDRC, MOFCOM and SAIC in Beijing this week to discuss efforts to ensure effective antitrust enforcement and increased interagency cooperation. This is the U.S. delegation’s fourth meeting in China since the between the countries signed an antitrust memorandum of understanding on July 27, 2011.
  5. Baidu Accused of Not Playing Fair by Popular News Aggregator Beijing ByteDance Technology, which runs the Jinri Toutiao app that had 232 million monthly active users as of December last year, said on Tuesday that it filed the lawsuit against Baidu at the Haidian District People’s Court in the Chinese capital. In a post on its official WeChat account, ByteDance said Baidu used its “monopoly advantage” to mislead users and damage Toutiao’s reputation, the details of which it has filed in court. Ahead of the ByteDance filing on Tuesday, Baidu issued a statement that described ByteDance’s lawsuit, like its public relations efforts, as reflecting “anxiety over its own challenges in development”.
  6. China sees robust growth in technology transactions More than 367,000 technical contracts were signed in China in 2017, up 14.7 percent from the previous year, according to the Ministry of Science and Technology. The transaction value of the contracts totaled 1.34 trillion yuan (213 billion U.S. dollars), with a year-on-year increase of 17.7 percent. Electronic information, urban construction and social development, and transportation are the top three fields that gained the most value.  Among four types of technical contracts, technical service contracts (技术服务合同) and technological development contracts (技术开发合同) had strong growth. However, technology licensing contracts (技术转让合同) and technical consulting contracts (技术咨询合同) in fact had a decline.  Over 40 percent of transactions were contracts involving intellectual property rights. Biotechnology and pharmaceutical contracts had a strong growth of 62.94%, with a total overall transaction value of 1.19 billion yuan. The transaction volume of invention patents grew by 19.2 percent in overall transaction value year on year.    IP utilization has been a focus of China’s IP efforts since the third plenum of the Communist Party in 2014. However, foreigners continue to view China as very challenging licensing environment. In the US Chamber’s recently released IP Index, it was noted that IP commercialization in China was hampered by “[s]ubstantial barriers to market access and commercialization of IP, particularly for foreign companies.” China received zero points for “Regulatory and administrative barriers to the commercialization of IP assets”  Here is a link to the discussion of Chinese licensing practices. The US Chamber’s conclusion is not unlike that of the Global Innovation Index (2016) which, as we previously reported, scored intellectual property payments according to a formula as a percentage of total trade. China came out at 72nd place, while it ranked number 1 in high tech exports.
  7. The rise of Chinese groups applying for US patents The breakdown of patents granted in the U.S. per country changed little in 2017 from previous years, with China the glaring exception, according the analysis by patent service and analytics company IFI CLAIMS.  China’s overall slice of the pie remains relatively small. Just 11,240, or 3.5%, of the 320,003 utility patents granted in the U.S. last year went to Chinese companies, compared with 31% to other Asian businesses. But it is the pace at which certain Chinese tech companies have risen in the rankings that will have rivals from the U.S. and elsewhere taking note. For instance, BOE Technology Group (京东方科技集团股份有限公司), whose core business centers on display sensor technology and the Internet of Things, was granted 1,414 patents during the year, compared with 19 in 2013.  
  8. Guangdong’s accumulated invention patents top China Guangdong Province topped the country in the number of valid invention patents granted over the past eight years, according to local authorities. By the end of 2017, the accumulated number of valid invention patents in the province reached 208,500, said He Jufeng, deputy director of the Guangdong Intellectual Property Office. Note that although Guangdong has the most accumulated patent grants, in recent years Guangdong has met some competition.  Jiangsu Province, for example, was the No.1 for invention patent application in 2015, while Guangdong was No. 2, based on data from SIPO for 2015. Meanwhile, in 2014, Jiangsu was the No.1 for invention patent application and Guangdong was No.3. Guangdong has also been a source of many of China’s PCT filings, from companies like Huawei and ZTE.   
  9. Conference proposes int’l e-commerce cooperation An e-commerce conference held in Beijing called for coordinated regional cooperation on areas including supervision and standard setting to promote sustainable development of the emerging sector. The first global regulatory framework for e-commerce was put forward during the conference. Proposed by Chinese customs, the document listed eight core principles in e-commerce management including clearance procedures and the role of online retailers.
  10. New Intellectual Property initiative extends Berkeley Law’s reach in Asia China’s push to create a dynamic economy with innovative companies is creating opportunities for new academic, commercial, and government partnerships. Eager to maximize those opportunities—and to deepen its foothold overseas—Berkeley Law has launched the Asia IP Project.  Led by Professor Mark Cohen, and powered by the school’s Berkeley Center for Law & Technology (BCLT), the initiative seeks to enhance existing collaborations and develop new ones with academic institutions and other partners in Asia. Center leaders will bring together Chinese and U.S. academics, government officials, and practicing lawyers to better understand Asia’s intellectual property law issues through research, workshops, conferences, and other eventst. The program had its first US meeting on February 9, 2018.

We hope to be providing more updates in the year ahead from the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology. As usual the information contained herein does not necessarily represent the opinion of any government agency, company, individual or the University of California.

 

By Berkeley staff.

GAI’s Comments on AUCL

Ahead of schedule, George Mason University’s Global Antitrust Institute (“GAI”) has prepared its comments on the NPC’s proposed revisions to the Anti-Unfair Competition Law, available here. 

GAI commended the National People’s Congress for deleting Article 6 on abuse of superior bargaining position and recommended that any provisions that relate to conduct covered by China’s Anti-Monopoly Law (AML) be omitted entirely. GAI also strongly urged that Article 11 (which provides that “[b]usiness operators selling goods must not bundle the sale of goods against buyers’ wishes, and must not attach other unreasonable conditions”) be omitted in its entirety, as such conduct is already covered by Article 17(5) of the AML or at the very least, Article 11 should be revised to adopt an effects-based approach.

In my opinion, the argument that the AUCL shouldn’t duplicate the AML can also be said of other laws in China, notably the Technology Import / Export Regulations and Article 329 of the Contract Law regarding monopolization of technology.  Other laws, such as the Pricing Law also have a strong overlap with the AML, particularly as administered by NDRC. 

GAI’s comments on a prior State Council Legislative Affairs Office draft, along with the comments of the American Bar Association and American Intellectual Property Law Institute are available through this link.

I hope to post the comments of other organizations on the AUCL on this blog in the future. If you would like your organization’s comments to be considered for distributing here, please send your comments to me at: chinaipr@yahoo.com.

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.