Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Zhejiang Courts Making a Mark on China's IP Law (Republish)

Over the years, folks familiar with China’s IP laws know in general that courts in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong are pretty good.  These courts are good for many reasons: the judges are well trained and versed in intellectual property laws; the judges make reasonable decisions; the courts are not terribly biased toward foreign parties.  Overall, foreign IPR holders are more likely to have a fair trial in courts situated in these locales. 

However, I have noticed another trend–IP courts in the eastern province of Zhejiang are also making noticeable decisions as well.  In fact, in a conversation with Toronto-based international lawyer, Paul Jones, both of us were pretty impressed by the some of the courts in Zhejiang because the judges seem to “get it.”

A recent piece out of the American Daily confirmed my observation and hunch about the Zhejiang Courts.  In that piece, the author notes:

For years, foreign companies have complained that patent and trademark infringers in China are treated too lightly. With damages typically capped at 500,000 yuan ($73,000), actual awards are often much lower.

But some courts in China’s Zhejiang province have recently gotten tough, ordering high-profile infringers to pay millions of dollars in damages. Unfortunately for multinational corporations, the verdicts have all been against them.

Last month, Samsung Corp. was ordered by a Zhejiang court to pay 50 million yuan ($7.3 million) for infringing  local company Holley Communication’s cell phone technology patent. Earlier in 2008 another Zhejiang court ordered well-known Hong Kong clothing chain G2000 to pay 20 million yuan ($2.9 million) for violating a local entrepreneur’s “2000″ trademark. In 2007 brewer Zhejiang Lanye won a 3 million yuan ($439,000) judgment against Pepsi over the latter’s use of the phrase “blue storm” in a marketing campaign.

These verdicts follow the most closely watched case of all: In September 2007 France’s Schneider Electric was ordered to pay a whopping 334.8 million yuan ($49 million) for violating Wenzhou-based CHINT Group’s circuit breaker patent. Schneider says the damages are more than 20 times greater than the next-highest award by a Chinese court in a similar case.

China Business Law Blog discussed most of the cases in the past.  Read the post about Lanye here, where I analyzed why the Court held in favor of a little known brewer and against the American beverage giant Pepsi.  Read the post about G2000 here and here , where I analyzed how G2000 fell short in protecting its trademark rights by not registering for a wider range of goods and the bitter fruit of that failure.  Taken as a whole, the four notable IP cases out of Zhejiang Province all bear the same remarkable characteristic–very large award for damages.  The $49 million hit against Schneider Electric is a pretty hefty chunk of money to fork over for any IPR holder, in any jurisdiction.

So, what do all these cases out of Zhejiang mean?  Will the Zhejiang courts lead the way for large awards in IP infringement cases in China?  So far, we know that three of the cases referred to above have not been reversed/remanded yet, and that means the Zhejiang courts will likely continue to hand out heavy fines for IP infringements.  However, as suggested by the American Daily article, the large fines have so far been levied against foreign/Hong Kong defendants, which tends to lead one to conclude that the Zhejiang courts hold foreign IP infringers to a higher standard, thus subjecting them to harsher penalties.  We don’t know yet, if and when given an opportunity, if the Zhejiang courts will be willing to levy harsh fines against Chinese infringers where the circumstances require as such.  

Assuming that the courts do not, then this local favoritism will not go challenged.  When the Chinese courts do adhere to the 500,000 RMB damage limit, foreigners cried foul.  Now, when the Chinese courts do hand out much larger fines, as had been wished for by foreigners, foreigners held accountable cry foul too.  Of course, this complaint is a legitimate one if there is indeed local favoritism.  To confirm, a comprehensive study based on statistics is warranted.  However, if no study or reliable data can confirm that the Zhejiang courts are biased, then foreign IP holders really have a problem themselves because they cannot have the best of both worlds on the damage issue.

I see that the Supreme People’s Court may need to speak up once again on damages in IP lawsuits.

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