In the U.S., the risks of frivolous patent lawsuits is greater because the merits are decided by a group of jurors who lack patent expertise and can incorrectly conclude that a patent is infringed. In China, however, these inefficiencies and imbalances do not exist. The specialized intellectual property courts and tribunals in China are equipped with specialized judges who are able to quickly and accurately identify frivolous lawsuits. Because there is no discovery process and a decision on the merits can often be achieved within one year, the abusive tactics employed by patent trolls in the U.S. can be avoided in China.
The trade dispute between the US and China started with a US accusation of intellectual property theft on the part of China. Is China really “stealing” intellectual property? I’m not so sure. Perhaps the Chinese are stealing trade secrets, and if parties are engaged in such activities they should be punished, but there is a lot of taking that has been legitimized – even authorized – by the Congress and the Supreme Court in recent years. U.S. patent law is today enabling foreign corporations, including Chinese corporations, to legitimately take intellectual property developed in the U.S. That is not theft. It’s just business. And far more damage is being done to the U.S. as the result of legalized appropriation of patented innovations than could ever be done by the theft of trade secrets.
Bloomberg recently published an article providing data analysis on Chinese patent applications to claim that, while China receives more patent applications than any country, “most are worthless.” If you were trying to usher in a culture change, moving from no patent system just a few decades ago to a thriving and high functioning patent system, you would look to incentivize your own citizens and corporations to file patent applications. That is precisely what China has done and is continuing to do. Thus, the mantra about Chinese patent applications being worthless, or nothing of a concern because they are overwhelmingly only filed in China, completely misses the enormity of the change taking place in China, and why it bodes well for the Chinese moving forward.
For many years, foreign companies were reluctant to seek and enforce intellectual property protection in China. A combination of challenging litigation with low damages, the lack of ability to effectively enforce judgments, allegations of protectionism by the courts; a lack of ability to patent certain subject matter, a lack of transparency on legal matters and other factors made China a less desirable jurisdiction. The Chinese intellectual property legal system has matured rapidly, however. From improvements in the scope of allowable patent subject matter to enhancements of litigation options, and a strong desire by China to be seen as having a level playing field for all parties, China deserves a second look… More companies are looking to China as a stand-alone enforcement jurisdiction, as a cost-effective second front to open in conjunction with US litigation.
The Chinese have absolutely without question focused hugely on patents over the last 10 to 15 years and over the last five years there’s been an absolute explosion in strategic thought around patents. It’s really unparalleled anywhere else in the world. It’s extraordinary… I think the Chinese understand the very close link there is between patents and the encouragement and incentivization of innovation and invention in a way that perhaps we’ve lost sight of in the West to an extent. In the U.S. you get the feeling that over the last three or four years people felt they could do without patents. I don’t think the Chinese see it that way.
The patent boom China has been experiencing is easy to explain. China as a country has been unwavering in its support for domestic patent production in recent years. Indeed, the Chinese government has been actively encouraging not only increased innovation that makes it more likely there will be patentable innovations, but that government has been aggressively incentivizing increased patent filings. Incentives include subsidizing patent filing fees, providing rewards for patent filings, and tax credits that are tied to patent output. In many ways, China’s innovation economy is a near photo-negative of the current iteration of the U.S. patent system.
If you are an in-house counsel at a U.S. technology company, managing its global patent portfolio with a potentially significant exposure in China, you face some special challenges trying to effectively and efficiently manage the Chinese patent prosecution through your Chinese IP firms. You might assume that these challenges would be caused by some undefinable “Chinese” element. You already knew how to manage U.S. prosecution, performed by the outside U.S. law firms, and in theory you can apply that learned expertise to managing the process in China. But this is not U.S.-style patent prosecution in another place. The working language will be Chinese in addition to English, the communications will generally be over long distances, 12 to 15 time zones away, and you will have to deal with significant differences in laws, practices, and cultures. This article provides a roadmap and tips for making this process productive and successful.
NPEs are uniquely positioned to help China by attacking foreign entities to clear the way for Chinese companies by exerting pressure in ways that only NPEs can. Even if Chinese semiconductor companies had the necessary patents and experience to engage their foreign competitors, they would risk retaliation from these foreign parties. NPEs, on the other hand, can unilaterally attack foreigners without fear of retaliatory patent suits. Although there are a few of antitrust issues, I do not believe that NPEs that act in the best interest of China should, or will, be attacked by the NDRC or any other antitrust agency in China.
In late October, China’s State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) released a set of guidelines for Chinese patent examiners that revises the last guidelines put in place in 2010. Although SIPO has made the revised guidelines available online in the Chinese language only, analysis of those guidelines by the European Patent Office (EPO) and others indicates that, in some important ways, the new guidelines represent a veritable inverse of the current patent examination environment seen here in the United States… China is about to become friendlier to software patents in particular and patent owners more generally by reducing the complexity of prosecution procedures and making more information publicly available. Given the large number of patent applications being filed with China’s patent office, a high percentage of which are not filed with foreign offices as well, and the growing preference for China as a patent infringement litigation venue, it’s likely that these new guidelines are further proof of the growing divide of IP regimes in the United States and China which, if left unchecked, will probably be to the detriment of the U.S. and its economic prospects in future years.
Of the 2.9 million patent applications which were filed in patent offices across the world in 2015, more than one million of those applications were filed with the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, the first time that a single patent office has broken that milestone according to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). China’s huge number of filings is a big reason why worldwide patent applications rose 7.8 percent from 2014’s totals. WIPO also notes that China received more patent applications than its next three rivals combined: the United States (589,410 patent applications); Japan (318,721); and the Republic of Korea (213,694).
Chinese patents and patent applications are citable as prior art in most Western countries if they meet the usual criteria regarding publication dates of the cited patent and filing or priority dates of the examined patent. They always have been. However, recent developments have made them more problematic for Western country applicants, especially for independent inventors and small businesses… While in the past an inventor may have decided that it was not worth getting a patent, and many inventions have been forgotten in this manner, there is a large number of people in China who are now encouraged to file patents applications and utility model applications even for the simplest of invention. What we can do as patent agents and attorneys, is to start searching for Chinese documents when doing prior art searches. This may result in bad news for inventors who receive negative patentability reports, but at least they will not spend a lot of money only to have their patent application rejected later.
Although the Chinese Patent Law is a mere 31 years old, it has already gone through 3 major revisions, the last being 6 years ago. In its most recent effort, China just released the “Draft 4th Amendments to the Chinese Patent Law” for public comments, which are due by Jan 1, 2016. The proposed amendments will significantly strengthen areas such as patent enforcement and broaden design patent protection.
Even with the discretionary substantive examination in a utility model patent application, they are generally much easier to obtain and much cheaper to get. There may also be advantages to utility model patents in China. While the fact that they are not substantively examined might make it seem that they would be easier to invalidate, that isn’t the case in reality. Under the Chinese system a maximum of 2 references can be used to fashion an obviousness rejection. “In our industry there is rarely a silver bullet,” Moga explained. It is certainly true that obviousness is the real hurdle to patentability and it is extremely common to see obviousness rejections in the U.S. that weave 3 or more references together to provide the foundation for an obviousness rejection.
As a result of filing the world’s highest number of patent applications, China is often attacked for trading in quality for quantity. However, Michael Lin of Marks&Clerk explains that a better understanding of the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) and the Chinese patent system shows that patent quality is in fact, not declining but increasing.
Nothing has fundamentally changed about the nature of design patents. The first US design patent was granted in 1842. The Statue of Liberty, Coke bottle, Volkswagen Beatle, Stealth Bomber and Star Wars’ Yoda are all protected by design patents. Design patents have long played an important role in consumer electronics, automotive, apparel, jewelry, packaging and other industries. But industrial design is becoming increasingly important, Mr. Kappos explains, because the increasing functionality of man-made devices brings with it increasing complexity, so innovative companies are constantly seeking superior designs, a convergence of form and function that helps make the complex simple and sets their companies apart; and protecting such designs is critical.