Practical Pieces & Perspectives
Dedication: Post-Doctoral Research Associate & J.S.D., University of Illinois College of Law. I thank professor Thomas S. Ulen and Professor Jay P. Kesan for cultivating the ideas of this Paper, Carlos Delvasto Perdomo for his suggestions, and Zishu Wang and Samuel Branum for the editing.
The Chinese government has strongly encouraged patent application and patent protection in the past decade. As a result, China contributed 89% of the worldwide growth in patent applications in 2014, whereas the United States contributed 6%. Statistics from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) show that China has received the most patent applications since 2012 and that Chinese domestic patent applicants are filing more applications than applicants from any other country. This Paper introduces how third parties, referring to various types of patent service providers, are involved in the increasing patent market of China.
The WIPO statistics show that only a fraction of Chinese patents were filed abroad and that most of the patents only enrolled one foreign country, which indicates that the patents filed by China’s domestic applicants do not have a very wide geographical coverage. This may also imply that the average quality of Chinese patents is still low.
Empirical evidence confirms this inference of low quality; still, some scholars believe there is a trend of Chinese patent applicants improving the quality of the patents. This Paper discusses the difficulties, such as moral hazard, created by the different quality of patents in innovation commercialization, especially in patent transactions and patent financing, and how Chinese patent law exacerbates the difficulties. The goal of this Paper is to encourage third parties to rethink their service for overcoming these difficulties.
Section II introduces the main categories of patent services provided in China. Section III discusses the problems of the patent service and the paradox of promoting patent transaction and patent financing by policies and patent law. Section IV suggests the opportunities for patent service providers in China.
Most patent applicants are represented by a registered patent agent when they apply for patents. Patent agents facilitate patent applicants by drafting patent applications and dealing with patent prosecution, such as conducting a prior-art search, drafting and filing patent applications, and answering examiners’ questions. As the number of patent applications increases in China, the demand for patent procurement also increases.
The State Intellectual Property Office of the People’s Republic of China (SIPO) received 6.06 million (utility) patent applications from domestic applicants in 2016. The statistics by the All-China Patent Agents Association (ACPAA) show that China had 1,457 patent agencies and 14,795 patent agents in 2016. One patent agent deals with an average of eight new patent applications every month, which is much higher than the rates in the United States, Japan, and Korea, which suggests an insufficient supply of patent procurement in China.
At the same time that the number of patent agents has been increasing in China, the average level of their education has also been increasing. In 2013, 29% of Chinese patent agents held a master’s degree and 3% of them held a Ph.D. degree. In the first-tier cities of China, such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, most patent agents held a master’s degree. Peking University Law School even established a graduate training program for patent agents.
After patents are granted, they can be deployed to secure financing as intangible assets. For example, patentees can invest their patents for firm shares. Statistics by SIPO show that 34.3% of patents produced by universities are assigned to firms as investments in 2013.
It is also common to use patents as collateral for loans in China. Loans of 25.4 billion RMB were collateralized by patents in 2013 and increased to 48.9 billion RMB in 2014. Moreover, China’s patent market also provides patent insurance in more than fifty cities. Even though some international insurance carriers, such as AIG, IPISC, and Willis, have developed some mature patent insurance policies, the patent insurance policies provided in China do not exactly follow those carriers since patents are “jurisdiction-specific.” Two major types of patent insurance provided in the Chinese market are patent-infringement liability insurance for firms, as potential patent infringers, and patent-enforcement issuance for patentees. However, patent insurance has not been completely accepted by the market: the insurance coverage accumulated only 0.27 billion RMB between 2012 and mid-2015.
Innovators expect monopoly rewards for their innovation. However, some scholars argue that innovators cannot be directly rewarded or compensated enough because their trade secrets related to the patents are more likely to be explored by their rivals through reverse engineering when they disclose the technology of the patents. More scholars believe that innovators have strong perspectives on commercializing and improving their innovation after the monopoly rights exist. In addition to selling the patented products and generating revenue, licensing patents for expanding commercialization of products or co-inventing is also a critical measure that patentees use. Meanwhile, firms can license universities, public research institutes, or other firms for joint-R&D to share risks and profits, rather than independently develop technology. The statistics by SIPO show that smaller firms are more likely to license or transfer patents.
There are patent agencies, such as CHOFN, and specialized patent transaction platforms that supervise patentees to transfer or license patents. Gaohangip is the largest intellectual property transaction platform, which is like Amazon, where patentees can put their patents up for sale. Patentees or Gaohangip lists the patents along with their prices, which are available to be searched by interested licensees for potential patent transactions. Gaohangip functions as an agent and provides legal services for the patent transfer.
However, the statistics by SIPO show that in 2015 only 8.2% of patents were licensed by patentees and 5.2% patents were transferred, suggesting an insufficiency in the business of patent transaction and patent transfers, as discussed in Section III.
Out of the total firm patent owners surveyed, 62.1% believe that the major restriction of their profitability is that they cannot effectively prevent others from imitating the patents. On one hand, regardless of the arguments over the strength of patent protection in China, this relates to the low quality Chinese patents that are less competitive. On the other hand, this concern suggests a mixed culture of copycat and innovation in China, in which the competition increases as the follow-on innovation and downstream innovation raises in the market. In this increasingly competitive market, moral hazard of patent transactions arises and grows too big to ignore because those licensed patents and any potential patents from the patentees are more likely to be circumvented.
As a result, when the innovation ability of the licensees is high, patentees are less likely to transfer their valuable technology to avoid increased competition. Patentees may agree to transfer core technology only if the license includes a grant-back clause so that patentees are allowed to freely use further inventions by the licensees. However, given the low transaction rate, the moral hazard issues are not successfully mitigated in practice.
As a result, only 9.4% of the surveyed firms license patents or buy patents from domestic or foreign inventors. Out of the total number of firms surveyed, 19% invest R&D mainly in digesting the existing technology, while 54% invest R&D mainly in technology transformation. Even though firms are interested in purchasing technology instead of investing in learning, in this moral hazard scenario, licensing patents per se are not enough to learn core technologies from the patentee. This is also a challenge for third parties to successfully bridge the parties in patent transactions when both sides do not have strong incentives to make a deal given the high cost of moral hazard.
While it is convenient to purchase and sell patents through an agency or a platform like Gaohangip, the agency or platform usually does not facilitate licensing. Those agencies and platforms usually only facilitate drafting legal documents after parties enter into a patent transaction; they do not help with bargaining for the agreement. Bridging the parties of patent transactions through those platforms with basic legal services effectively decreases the searching costs, but they cannot fill the moral hazard gap in patent transactions.
Patent validity in China is stable: SIPO only received 3,724 invalidity petitions including utility patents, utility models, and design patents. With regard to litigation, the district courts in Shanghai decided 526 patent cases between 2002 and 2015. Only 15.97% of plaintiffs argued patent invalidity, while only 2.85% of third parties argued patent invalidity. Even though 20.7% of the plaintiffs in Beijing argued patent invalidity, for 487 patent cases between 2004 and 2015, only 2.04% patents were invalidated by courts.
Nevertheless, this low invalidity rate does not provide patent owners strong incentives to purchase patent insurance. They try to avoid litigation when they claim the insurance and when they do not have strong confidence in their patents’ validity.
Therefore, the low patent invalidity rate does not mean a high quality of patents in China. Indeed, lenders still hesitate to adopt patents per se as collateral. Bank lenders usually ask for a loan guarantee in addition to patent collateral, and they even prefer a combination of patent collateral, insurance, and guarantees to minimize risks. A loan guarantor in this circumstance is usually provided by the government or a government-funded mutual fund or incubator.
Due to the high and complex thresholds, patent owners still have material difficulties in securing finance through loans. The survey by SIPO shows that 45.3% of the firms that own patents rights complained about cash flow problems that can lead to a failure to finance patent commercialization. This could also be a result of the inevitable high cost of moral hazard in the loan market for patents. Weak patent enforcement in this litigation-averse society exacerbates moral hazard issues. These issues cannot even be mitigated by an emerging market of patent valuation in China, in which lenders can estimate patent value through economic analysis by patent valuation institutes.
In order to encourage patent applications and minimize the transaction costs in patent transactions and patent financing, both the central government of China and the local governments have adopted various favorable policies for patent applicants, patent holders, and patent service providers, such as the patent transaction platform—Shanghai United Assets and Equity Exchange.
Patent issuance in China was initiated by SIPO and the People’s Insurance Company of China (PICC). Meanwhile, local governments subsidize patent insurance to encourage the innovation firms to purchase the insurance. For patent collateralization, local governments actively provide interest subsidies or guaranties to facilitate innovative firms to acquire loans.
The government also actively intervenes in patent applications and patent management by firms. SIPO supervises local governments’ training for firms on patent management and patent strategies. Local governments provide subsidies and grants to fund firms to apply for patents and establish a patent management department. Many local governments also subsidize patent agents to improve the quality of patent applications.
Most of the policies are enacted through economic instruments to decrease the transaction costs in patent applications, patent transactions, and patent financing. However, even though the government can subsidize the application cost with SIPO, those current economic instruments cannot fully offset the cost of moral hazard that arises from the issues like low patent quality, weak patent enforcement, and the copycat culture. Indeed, Chinese patent law is designed to prohibit patent transaction and patent financing to some degree.
I am the first to argue that there are two main articles in Chinese patent law that could impede innovation commercialization, including patent transaction and financing. First, Article 24 limits the scope of publication before the effective filing date of a claimed invention: the six-month grace period for novelty is only for the inventions that are disclosed in the exhibitions hosted or approved by the Chinese government, published at a specified academic or technological conference, or divulged by a person without consent by the applicant.
The exceptions of lack of novelty in 35 U.S.C. 102(b) regulating the one-year grace period does not restrict the manner of publications, including patentees’ sales and uses before the filing date, so inventors can test their market and consumers at an early stage. Moreover, Japan even has an Extensive Experimental Use Doctrine, which is not limited by a grace period, which helps with the understanding of the advanced technology and assisting with faster investing decisions.
By contrast, Article 24 does not only provide a shorter term for inventors understanding the advancement of technology, but also does not provide a chance for inventors to test the market and consumers. Therefore, it is not surprising to observe deficiencies in innovation commercialization in China. Some patents may not have commercial value at all, but the law does not allow patentees to understand the practice before they file the applications.
Second, Article 69(2) defines broad prior user rights. While western scholars often argue that trade secret owners should have relatively narrow prior user rights to promote innovation, prior user rights are relatively broad in China. “Prior” means the time prior to the patent filing date rather than the publication date or the beginning of the grace period as under U.S. patent law. The scope of “user” is also vague, which could suggest a person who has manufactured identical products, utilized identical methods, or is fully prepared to do so. Article 69(2) does not mention a person who conducts an arm’s length sale or other arm’s length commercial transfer or uses with respect to the technology, which confuses many judges and legal scholars in China. Accordingly, Chinese patentees, most of whom are follow-on inventors rather than initial inventors, may be unwilling to enforce their patents since they do not know whether the infringers are excluded from patent infringement for prior user rights that may also threaten their patent validity for lack of novelty.
Overall, these two articles include an underlying notion that patents should be filed at an early stage. As the government provides many subsidies and grants to encourage patent applications, it is not surprising to observe a dramatic increase of patent applications and a strengthening mechanism of patent agencies in the recent years in China. However, the law may also raise the cost of patent commercialization, patent transaction, and patent financing. In this patent regime, it is hard to accurately estimate the patent value, so lenders cannot completely rely on patent valuation reports to adopt patents per se as collateral. Firms also hesitate to license patents or conduct joint-R&D with potential licensees.
The most solid business of patent service in China is patent procurement, which assists inventors in drafting and applying for patents. Both the market demand and the government support are great in this area. Even though the government heavily funds patent commercialization, patent transaction, and patent financing, the limited technology value, the culture of copycat and litigation-aversion, the strength of patent protection, and the design of some articles in patent law are the main barriers to conquer. These barriers increase the cost of moral hazard in patent transactions and financing when the government instructs inventors to file more patents, and manage and commercialize their patents through subsidies and grants. While there are agencies or platforms bridging patentees and potential buyers or licensees, the decrease in the transaction costs does not effectively eliminate the high cost of moral hazard when bargaining for an agreement.
Also, this cost cannot be reduced when the government directly or indirectly provides guaranties for patent loans. These guaranties from third parties are used as substitutes for patent collateral rather than as supplementary to the patents. Loans are offered for those guarantees or other financing packages in the name of patents, which shifts the risk burdens to those third parties. Even though there are institutions evaluating patents’ economic value and even though SIPO provides patent evaluation reports for patents’ validity, lenders who ask for financing packages in addition to patent collateral do not completely rely on these reports. Then, we cannot conclude that these reports are enough to eliminate the risks for those third parties.
Even though China has emerged as the country with the largest number of patent applications, there are material difficulties for Chinese patentees to commercialize, transfer, license, or finance their patents. As the business of patent procurement and other supplementary service of patents grows, the market demands more third parties to fill in the gap effectively reducing the moral hazard to promote patent transaction and patent financing, such as promoting joint-R&D, facilitating inventors to improve patent quality, educating patentees to license their patents at an early stage, establishing reliable patent quality evaluation mechanisms, efficiently managing patent licenses, or monitoring the follow-on activities of licensees or patentee lenders.
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