At a press conference on Wednesday, China’s leading IP jurist, Supreme People’s Court vice-president Tao Kaiyuan, announced that 2017 saw a 40% jump in IP-related litigation in the country. The figure for new first-instance cases for all categories of rights nationwide was 213,480. Justice Tao also made the first public comments on a new roadmap for IP reforms unveiled this week by the very highest level of the Chinese state.

Surging past the 200,000 mark for the first time, Chinese IP cases have more than doubled in four years. That is about 18 times greater than the total figure for new patent, trademark and copyright cases in US federal courts during 2017, which according to Lex Machina was 11,602.

While we know that the vast majority of this activity was generated by domestic parties, Justice Tao did not provide an overall figure on suits involving foreign parties. She did, however, note that in the Beijing IP Court – a premiere first instance venue – up to 30% of cases are ‘foreign related’. Justice Tao said that judicial authorities strive to make Chinese courts preferred venues for international IP disputes which are trusted by litigants.

The main occasion for the press availability was the release of an IP policy document by the General Office of China’s State Council – the equivalent of a cabinet. Back in this November, this blog reported that a top Communist Party policy organ led by Xi Jinping had placed judicial IP reform near the top of its priority list. Only titbits of that body’s recommendations were announced at the time. The blueprint released this week by the State Council details the overarching priorities, and calls on all localities and government departments to get to work.

The document sketches out a series of key points:

  • There is no doubt about what motivates the effort to continue developing the IP judicial system. IP is described as the “core element of international competitiveness”, and something that is of great significance to “building a world leader in science and technology”.
  • As a high level government document, there is plenty of ideological underpinning. At the IP Dragon blog, Danny Friedmann breaks down the many slogans (‘four conciousnesses’, ‘four comprehensives’, ‘two centennial struggles’, etc) and links to English language summaries of what each one is all about. Well worth a read if you are interested in what’s driving all kinds of economic and legal policies in the Xi Jinping era.
  • Big play is given to issues that are major concerns for foreign companies. On damages, the policy calls for a compensation system which “reflects the value of intellectual property”. Increased penalties called for by Xi last summer are definitely on the cards. Relatedly, the document also calls for reform to evidence collection procedures. Judicial officials will explore ways to “rationally allocate the burden of proof” in order to solve what are described as problems of ‘hard evidence’ facing rights holders.
  • Specialised courts are in. After taking in lessons learned from the opening of flagship IP courts in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, policymakers will now “study the establishment” of an IP appeals court with centralised jurisdiction. Smaller-scale IP venues continue to spring up around the country, the latest announced just yesterday in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province.
  • Human assets are key. The policy says the number of IP judges should be “adjusted dynamically” based on case load and complexity. Through enhanced training and exchanges with foreign courts, it calls for a body of jurists who are “politically determined, globally oriented, proficient in law and familiar with technology”.

On that last point, Justice Tao revealed that across 300 different IP-related tribunals in the country, there are currently around 3,000 judges and 2,000 judicial assistants. She further made a point of mentioning that the number of IP judges has not increased significantly amidst the surge in new cases. The competition for talent in the IP space is going to continue to be centrally important dynamic across both public and private sectors in China.