China’s SPC streamlines IP jurisdictional rules
The water has been murky in terms of the jurisdiction over first instance IP cases in China. Four specialised IP courts in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hainan, 27 IP tribunals, numerous competent intermediate courts (in the cities where the governments of provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the Central Government are located) and an array of basic level courts designated by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) exercise jurisdiction over different categories of first instance IP proceedings.
However, the jurisdictional rules expounding the geographical range covered by these courts or tribunals and the jurisdiction thresholds over object of action (in terms of civil proceedings) have been scattered, and often not easily accessible to practitioners. The occasional inconsistency and ambiguity of the existing rules, in particular those concerning the basic level courts, further complicates the nation’s IP jurisdiction landscape.
In response to this conundrum, on 20 April 2022 the SPC promulgated “Several Provisions on the Jurisdiction over First-instance Civil and Administrative IP Cases” (the new Judicial Interpretation) and the “Jurisdiction Thresholds of Basic Level People’s Court over First-instance Civil and Administrative IP Cases” to streamline the jurisdictional rules. The new Judicial Interpretation came into force on 1 May 2022.
In principle, the new Judicial Interpretation breaks down all IP proceedings into three categories:
- those highly technical (as enumerated in items 1 and 2);
- those less technical (as in item 3) or those pertinent to certain administrative authorities (as in item 4); and
- those of general nature (as in item 5).
The rationale behind this is that the first two categories of cases are to be adjudicated by the more experienced judges in the specialised IP courts and competent intermediate courts, while the cases of general nature could be delegated to, and decided by, basic level courts sanctioned by the SPC.
For ease of understanding, the jurisdictional rules stated in Articles 1, 2 and 3 of the new Judicial Interpretation could be delineated as follows:
|Item number||First-instance proceedings concerning||Governed by|
|1||Civil and administrative disputes over the ownership and infringement of invention patents, utility model patents, new varieties of plants, layout design of integrated circuits, technical secrets and computer software.|
|2||Civil and administrative monopoly disputes.|
|3||Civil and administrative disputes over the ownership or infringement of design patents and the recognition of well-known trademarks.|
|4||Administrative actions involving the ministries, institutions, departments affiliated to the State Council, governments at or above country level or Customs.||Intermediate courts (ditto).|
|5||Other civil and administrative IP disputes.||Basic level courts appointed by the SPC.|
The new Judicial Interpretation displays a definite tendency: the SPC is delegating the jurisdictional power over the first instance civil and administrative IP cases to a much bigger pool of courts. There are a few changes that merit attention.
First, the new Judicial Interpretation rules out contractual disputes concerning invention patents, utility model patents, new varieties of plants, layout design of integrated circuits, technical secrets and computer software from highly technical cases. These contractual disputes will fall within the remit of the basic level courts or, in very rare cases, the higher level courts if the value of the case exceeds certain thresholds.
The SPC then gives a greenlight to allow intermediate courts and some eligible basic level courts to adjudicate civil and administrative disputes over the ownership or infringement of design patents and the recognition of well-known trademarks.
It is very welcome that the SPC released the “Jurisdiction Thresholds of Basic-level People's Court over First-instance Civil and Administrative IP Cases”, which explicitly enumerates the geographical range and corresponding threshold of jurisdiction of 556 basic level courts, some of which, such as the six basic level courts in Beijing, are given more leeway in docketing cases.
The new Judicial Interpretation leaves the jurisdiction of the IP courts unchanged. Moreover, the general jurisdictional rules governing civil or administrative litigations that have been in place remain effective, meaning that if an IP matter is of national or provincial impact, the SPC and the high courts may take the case in the first instance proceeding.
There are also exceptions to the jurisdictional rules though.
In any of the following scenarios, the court at a higher level may opt to grant the request of a lower court or decide of its own accord to move a case, originally governed by the lower court, up to its jurisdiction where a civil or administrative IP case is of a new type, is intricate or complex, or is of guiding significance in terms of the application of law.
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