The TPP’s IP Challenge for China

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The release of the TPP text on November 5, 2015 has caused many friends in Chinese IP colleagues to wonder what implications, if any, there are for China’s development of its IP system.

China’s recent experience of bilateral investment or free trade agreements has not prepared it for a major regional  IP-related agreement such as the TPP.  China’s  FTA  experience has thus far focused on a limited range of issues, most of which are not “core” IP.   As one academic researcher noted “the majority of China’s RTAs [Regional Trade Agreements] focus… on specific categories of IPRs, namely GIs and genetic resources and traditional knowledge or border measures, often omitting any reference to other categories, i.e. copyright, patents, trademarks or IPRs enforcement.”    The last comprehensive IP agreement that China entered into was its accession to the WTO  with  adherence to the TRIPS Agreement (2001).  The TPP is however more comprehensive and forward looking than TRIPS.

The China-Swiss FTA (2013) calls for some important, but limited improvements in China’s IP regime, particularly in areas involving designs, customs protection and plant variety protection.  To take plant varieties as one limited example, the TPP requires all member countries to sign on to UPOV ’91.  This was a step that Switzerland, a member of UPOV ’91 since 2008, did not secure in its bilateral FTA with China despite Switzerland’s having a flourishing agroscience sector.   By any measure the demands that would be placed on China by acceding to the TPP would be greater than most of the developed world, particularly for countries like Singapore, Chile, and Australia that have concluded free trade agreements with significant IP chapters with the United States in the past several years.

Despite these challenges, it would be difficult for China to stay outside of a regional trade agreement that includes such important regional trade partners.  Leaving China outside of the TPP may also not be the most desirable IP strategy.  China is the second largest global economy with the largest IP system in the world, and with rapidly growing innovative sectors and global business models (including in e-commerce).   The TPP and the global trading system could also be greatly strengthened if China were to play a constructive role, conform to and join TPP, and if reformers in China were empowered to bring China in adherence to TPP to spur another effort at market-reform.   As Amb. Holleyman recently noted in discussing the TPP: “the rules that China adopts to promote IPR protection directly impact our economy.  If IPR protection in China were improved to a level comparable to the United States, U.S. net employment might increase by 2.1 million jobs and American companies would benefit from an estimated $107 billion in additional annual sales, according to U.S. International Trade Commission estimates.”

A further systemic challenge is that the TPP appears to be based in part on its members experience on the difficulties in engaging China on IP.  As one former senior diplomat recently noted before a Japanese audience:

Rampant violations of intellectual property continue, state-owned enterprises are advantages over private competitors, and U.S. companies invested in China have become increasingly disillusioned by China’s unique standards and preference for “indigenous innovation”—not to mention evidence of large-scale cybersecurity violations…

TPP allows the U.S., Japan and our partners, to offer a high-standard, rules-based alternative to China’s state capitalism.

China has already acceded to all the major treaties enumerated as required for TPP accession with the exception of UPOV ’91 — namely the Madrid Protocol, Budapest Treaty,  Singapore Treaty, WCT. WPPT, as well as the Patent Cooperation Treaty, Paris and Berne Conventions, and of course the TRIPS Agreement.    I believe that most of the challenges to China are likely not in the form of adherence to required treaties, but in the more granular implementation of those treaties and in commitments that are not found in any current treaty that China is a part.  For example, in the pharma sector, the TPP contains extensive provisions on patent linkage, patent term restoration, and data exclusivity which go beyond the TRIPS Agreement.  In addition to these substantive IP issues, there are significant challenges in non-IP area chapters that affect commercialization and utilization of IP, such as in market access for lawyers, restrictions on state owned enterprises, e-commerce, and investor-state dispute resolution.

The focus in the TPP on treaties that support greater IP office to IP office cooperation in the TPP (e.g, PCT, Madrid), also underscores that this is a treaty that not only aims to raise substantive norms, but also aims to facilitate greater utilization of IP in the TPP region among its members to facilitate economic integration.   It would be wrong of critics to characterize this agreement as solely a North-driven effort to impose its IP norms on the South.  In addition to cooperative commitments, there are also provisions on genetic resources, access to medicines (aligning with the Doha Declaration), traditional knowledge and capacity building that reflect the interests of developing countries.

China’s recent past has shown that China can enter into WTO plus commitments on IP.  The most notable are China’s  joining the WIPO Internet Treaties, and thereafter hosting and ratifying the Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances.  However, there are also important areas that have not been specifically addressed in recent trade-related agreements, such as trade secrets, have generally shown little norm setting progress since China first enacted its trade secret law in 1993, which had arguably been undertaken in response to US pressure in 1992.

The history of the past several decades of foreign engagement with China has, however, generally shown that linkage-based diplomacy, where trade concessions may be extended or removed in exchange for / or due to violations of IP-related commitments, has likely been the most effective single factor in driving IP-related changes in China.   Many of the key IP-related commitments  evolved in response to normalization of US-China trade relations, as well as WTO accession.

With modern China’s professed interests in becoming an innovative economy, will the TPP spur additional changes that are in China’s long term interests?  What kind of challenge does the TPP set for China’s own economic plans, including the revisions to the current five year plan, the National IP Strategy and China’s efforts to become a strong IP country?

While TPP members were negotiating the final text of their agreement, China’s state planners were drafting a new five year plan, which will further underscore China’s commitment to developing an innovation-oriented economy (see chart below, prepared by Barclays on frequency of ‘innovation’ in the current five year plan).  China will need to look at what it gains in TPP accession in exchange for IP commitments which China may believe it is not yet prepared for, but that in the long run will clearly benefit in the Chinese economy and enable it to become more innovative.  Hopefully, Chinese reformers will seize on the TPP as a way to drive a new era of economic reform, prosperity and IP harmony.

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Top picture: Amb. Robert Holleyman noted at a November 8, 2015 US Chamber event discussing TPP.

“Case Filing” In China’s Courts and Their Impact on IP Cases

In my experience over the past decade and in talking to local IP courts in China, the IPR judges have for the most part been very forthcoming, knowledgeable and engaging.  However, their colleagues in the Case Filing Division (立案庭) (“CFD”) have operated in a much more opaque way, typically not willing to meet at all, despite their playing a critical role in certain WTO / TRIPS obligations of China, such as granting/denying preliminary injunctions, and preliminary evidence or asset preservation measures (“provisional measures”) (TRIPS Art. 50).  The CFD of a court is more than a court clerk or docketing officer.  The CFD actually accepts or rejects cases, typically without handing down written decisions of any kind.

The generally opaque nature of the CFD was highlighted in some recent postings on China Law Net, hosted by Prof. Don Clarke.  Dr. Liu Nanping and Michelle Liu recently authored an article on the significance of the CFD.[1]  The article argues, generally without the benefit of IPR-related cases, that a right to justice can often be taken away by the CFD by denying a court case before the dispute  ever reaches the courtroom for trial. In theory, the CFD was designed to filter disputes for resolution through other channels, thereby limiting the judges’ power and controlling court jurisdiction.  In practice, however, it has been found that the division often abuses its discretion, including by pushing off controversial cases.  The authors point out that the CFD rejects cases that should have passed the initial threshold and leaves litigants with reduced channels to pursue justice.

Case filing IP became especially important after China joined the WTO, as decisions on provisional IP civil measures are initially sent to this division.   As China did not yet afford these provisional measures in other civil cases, the experience of the CFD in handling these matters was likely limited or non-existent before WTO accession.  Regrettably, the statistics to date show only a limited number of these measures actually being made available to rights holders, and call into question whether use of the CFD is the optimal means for China to fully make this right available to litigants.

China’s statistics in this area are confusing:  they show a high “grant” rate of accepted cases involving provisional measures – but they don’t reveal how many cases were rejected by the CFD, since such cases were deemed to have never been “filed”.  This “pre-screening”, I believe, contributes to the high grant rate. A more revealing data point is made by comparing the numbers of such provisional measure cases with the total number of IP cases filed.  The incidence of such cases is very low, most likely because the cases never appear on the docket.   If one were to look at the grant rates alone, one might think that China had particularly robust preliminary injunctions in all IP rights.  In 2009, 85.42% of pre-trial preliminary injunction applications admitted in IP cases were granted.  The number is especially striking because in US practice, preliminary injunctions for patents are rarely granted.  China also showed even higher grant rates for other provisional measures: 98.72% of admitted applications for pre-trial preservation of evidence were granted and 100% of admitted applications for pre-trial preservation of property were granted. In 2010, the grant rates for these provisional measures were 89.74% for preliminary injunction applications, 97.46% of preservation of evidence applications, and 97.41% for preservation of property applications.

Data comparing the number of provisional measure cases with the total number of IP cases filed is also revealing.  In 2009, there were 59 pre-trial preliminary injunction applications, 237 pre-trial preservation of evidence applications, and 56 pre-trial asset preservation applications admitted out of a total of 30,626 IP-related civil cases admitted at first instance. In 2010, 55 pre-trial preliminary injunction applications, 294 pre-trial preservation of evidence applications, 126 pre-trial asset preservation applications were admitted amongst a total of 42,931 IP-related civil cases admitted at first instance. The high grant rate undercuts the reliability of the overall data: if preliminary injunctions, evidence and asset preservation measures were so readily available, why then did only 0.12% of the civil IPR cases “request” preliminary injunctions, 0.68% of the request evidence preservation, and 0.29% of the cases request asset preservation?

If one compares China to the United States, the rate of grants is likely higher than that of the U.S. for similar types of motions, but the actual number of cases considered by judges is dramatically lower. Moreover, if US experience is a guide, one would expect different grant rates for different types of provisional measures, depending in part on the right being asserted and the context of the case.  Preliminary injunctions in patents are likely to be rare, because of the technical difficulties in adjudicating patent cases and the hardship that might be imposed on an industry if the preliminary injunction was improperly granted.  For example, in the US, traditionally the likelihood of winning of a plaintiff winning in a patent case were 51.45%, versus 85% in trademarks and 75% in copyright.  Patent cases are also generally more complex to adjudicate, making them less amenable to preliminary injunctive relief.  According to one database, patent cases last 417 days on average, compared to 265 for trademark and 331 for copyright.  Because of the significant potential impact on an industry if a patent injunction were granted, injunction rates for final judgments were 30% for patents, versus 48% for trademarks and 21% for copyright (this data was based of FY 2000 data, from a now-defunct database run by Cornell University).  The mean award for patents is $1,759,345, while that of trademark cases is $484,428 and copyright was $837,525.

This U.S. data shows that patents, copyright, and trademark cases are not equal in damages, the length of time to adjudicate or availability of injunctive relief. In China, based on data from http://www.Ciela.cn, in 2008, the average damage award for patent, copyright, and trademark cases were 402,277 RMB, 17,912 RMB, and 88,444 RMB respectively; the duration for the respective types of cases were 8 months, 5 months and 6 months; injunction rates were 74%, 69%, and 85%.  Taken together, these indicate that there are major differences in damages and relief based on right and type of right at stake, which is to be predicted based on the nature of the right and the experience of other countries such as the United States.

It is likely that all types of provisional evidence and asset preservation measures for trademarks and copyrights should be higher, particularly as a remedy to dealing with commercial scale or willful infringement in China, and also because of the difficulties parties have in obtaining evidence from their adversary due to an absence of discovery-type procedures.  Unfortunately, China often comingles provisional measure data for all rights, making it impossible to determine if China is more readily granting those forms of relief in cases where it is more necessary, or more easily adjudicated.   This lack of distinction adds to the difficulties of evaluating the opaque CFD.

Preliminary evidence preservation measures can be especially critical when evidence is ephemeral, such as in the on-line environment.  Considering the rapid increase of civil copyright cases, the high incidence of on-line copyright cases in China today, as well as the lack of discovery type procedures for all civil cases in China, one would expect a very high incidence of preliminary evidence preservation measure requests and grants.  This is not the case.

There are potentially other explanations for the low rate of provisional measures. Victims wanting a quick remedy, including preservation of evidence, may file administrative trademark or copyright cases.  Administrative agencies can also issue orders stopping infringement, which are enforceable in their administrative district.  These administrative remedies may decrease the burden on the civil courts to seize assets.  Another explanation is that the unclear division in China between civil and criminal remedies may also drive rights holders to use criminal remedies, as the police can seize evidence even more effectively than the courts. This has been the developing trend in China in trade secret cases, where lack of discovery proceedings and the need for expeditious action, frequently drive rights holders to use a criminal remedy when a civil remedy might have been adequate for similar actions in the United States.

Another observation that may be drawn from this data is that IPR cases offer a useful window with which to view other general rule of law developments in China.  The transparency and enforcement obligations in TRIPS and other agreements can especially help to drive reform in other areas as well.  Where civil IPR remedies and the enforcement obligations in TRIPS help to establish international standards for their fair and equitable adjudication, such standards might help lift to the standard for all litigants.

Updated: June 29, 2018 and Dec 31, 2020 with minor typographical/non-substantive changes.


[1] Nanping Liu & Michelle Liu, Justice Without Judges: The Case Filing Division in the People’s Republic of China, 17 U.C. Davis J. Int’l L. & Pol’y 283 (2011)