First US President (-elect) to litigate in Chinese court

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Donald Trump vs. PRC Trademark Review & Adjudication Board

President-elect Donald Trump is a person of many firsts. It is well known that he is litigious (involved in at least 3500 lawsuits in the US federal and state courts).  What is not known outside of China is that he is the first person to be elected president of the United States who has sued in the Chinese courts (and lost).  The image above is of the judgment of the Beijing Higher People’s Court (the official version in SPC case database linked here, but also available here), upholding a decision by the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court (up to 52,000+ pageviews). The Beijing Intermediate People’s Court reviewed Trump’s challenge of a ruling of the PRC Trademark Review & Adjudication Board (TRAB) on the use of the TRUMP trademark. He is one of many in the foreign business community who have been losers in China’s first to file trademark system (summarized here).

Before getting to the legal issues, a note about Trump’s name. In this case his name is translated as唐纳 川普 (his last name is the contraction for Sichuan Putonghua).  It is the translation used colloquially in China, but the official media translates his name as 唐纳德·特朗普.

Trump’s 2006 Chinese trademark application was made to the Trademark Bureau on 7 December 2006 in class 37 (Building construction; repair; installation services), while individual Dong Wei applied for the TRUMP trademark on 24 November 2006 in a subclass of class 37, for building construction supervision.

On 30 November 2009, the Trademark Bureau rejected Trump’s trademark application as it related to hotel, residential, and commercial real estate construction information.  Trump sought reconsideration of the Trademark Bureau’s decision by TRAB. TRAB upheld the Trademark Bureau’s ruling in its 2014 decision (评字(2014)第2758号)

Will this case mean that the new administration is more or less interested in continuing judicial exchanges with the Supreme People’s Court, such as the U.S.-China Judicial Dialogue in Support of Reform and Economic Growth ?

 

Supreme People’s Court’s new document protecting private enterprise

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The Supreme People’s Court (SPC) recently published a policy document on protecting private (民间) enterprise, although the document itself was approved almost two months previously.  It is linked to State Council and Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform policy documents of earlier this year.  The State Council policy document admitted that private companies have trouble receiving “national treatment (“难以享受同等“国民待遇”). The SPC policy document further relates to a 2014 SPC policy document on private (non-public (非公有制) enterprise.  It conveys the following messages:

  • Too many lower courts are invalidating contracts because contracts have not received government approval, instead of applying the Contract Law on this point properly;
  • Too many lower courts are causing private investors to lose ownership of their companies, particularly those that are affiliated (挂靠) with government (the affiliation system was a way for entrepreneurs to avoid restrictions on private business by affiliating their operations with government).
  • Courts are preventing private investors from transferring their shareholding;
  • Courts are not sufficiently protecting the rights of private investors  who take a minority stake with other investors (especially state-owned ones). As this blogpost pointed out, it is not unusual for majority/controlling investors to engage in illegal, unfair, and abusive acts, such as abusive related company translations, creating fraudulent or defective board resolutions, failing to distribute profits, failing to keep other shareholders informed (the SPC’s judicial interpretation on this issue has not yet been issued);
  • Courts are failing to distinguish between corporate and personal/family assets, requiring private investors to repay corporate debts with their personal assets;
  • Courts are failing to uphold lending contracts between companies, although a 2015 SPC judicial interpretation confirmed their validity (under certain conditions);
  •  Courts are failing to protect the ownership rights, intellectual property rights, and operational rights of private companies, and prevent the “illegal seizure” of private property.
  • Courts are failing to uphold the rights of private enterprises to invest abroad.
  • On labor issues, courts should seek to balance the interests of the workers with the continued survival of companies, and seek to reduce labor costs.  Especially for small and medium enterprises (this earlier blogpost highlighted how often private companies are sued in Guangdong in labor cases), courts should seek to resolve disputes through conciliation. For companies in trouble, courts should use measures such as taking security to prevent employers from maliciously harming worker’s interests.

Commentary in People’s Court Daily had this to say:

Private entrepreneurs face hidden obstacles and difficulties, both from the legal system and in practice.  There are hidden inequalities in their legal status, particularly when they are facing monopoly [duopoly] state owned enterprises (SOEs), given huge power of the SOEs. Second, the investment environment for private companies is unstable. Government policies and measures often change, such as when government signs basic infrastructure contracts with private companies, but then government changes the related urban plan.  Third, private entrepreneurs in the past have failed to receive equal legal protection, because of judicial local protectionism and inconsistencies in judicial decision-making.

A prominent legal blogger suggested that local courts frequently abuse their authority to seal up or freeze business assets of private companies, causing significant losses.

Comments

The Chinese government is promoting public private partnerships (PPP) but has not been able to attract substantial interest in the projects for a number of reasons, including regulatory risk. Private investors are also concerned that the local courts will not protect their rights in the event of a dispute.

Statistics released by the Chinese government earlier this fall reveal that overseas investment by Chinese private enterprise in 2015 surpassed investment by state-owned enterprises, accounting for 65% of outbound investment, with observers disagreeing on the extent to which it represents capital flight. The failure of private investors “to feel justice in every case” (linked to the lack of autonomy of Chinese courts hearing cases involving the rights of private entrepreneurs) will lead them to invest less in the Chinese economy, and diversify even more assets to jurisdictions more protective of private property interests.  Those other jurisdictions will benefit from an inflow of capital and entrepreneurial spirit.

On labor issues, the SPC has indicated what current government policy is and what the courts need to do to implement it. It is unclear whether these policies will be effective in reducing labor unrest.

 

 

 

 

A model copyright infringement case–“A Bite of China”

A Bite of China (rts CCTV International)

A Bite of China (© CCTV International)

The blogpost below was kindly provided by a former Chinese judge, Jianwei “Jerry” Fang, who practices with a New York-based law firm in Hong Kong.

The Bite of China case

As announced in a press conference on 30 April 2014, the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) has started to issue model cases(典型案例) on a monthly basis to guide the lower courts. On June 23, 2014, the Court issued five model cases decided by lower courts, which included one criminal, two civil and two administrative cases. Among those, the civil case concerning copyright infringement, CCTV International vs. Shanghai TuDou Network Technology Co., Ltd. (news report linked here and case description here), has been closely watched by and is of particular interest to practitioners, especially  intellectual property lawyers.

Facts:

A Bite of China (舌尖上的中国) is a documentary series on Chinese food produced by China Central Television Station (“CCTV”) that is very famous in China. The series was first broadcast in May 2012 and became a very popular and well-known show in China. CCTV granted the copyright of the documentary series to CCTV International Network Co. Ltd. (“CCTV International”). However, it was found that within a week of the original broadcasting, the show had appeared on the website of TuDou.com, the famous video portal operated by Shanghai TuDou Network Technology Co., Ltd. (“TuDou Network”). After securing the evidence with help from the notary office, CCTV International sued TuDou Network for damages and reasonable costs of RMB 850,000.

Issues:

Is TuDou Network liable for providing storage of the copyrighted video on its site, and if so, how should damages be determined?

Courts:

First instance case heard by Shanghai Minhang District People’s Court; Appeal case heard by Shanghai First Intermediate People’s Court.

Ruling:

The defendant is liable and ordered to pay damages of RMB 240,000 and reasonable costs of RMB 8,000.

Reasoning:

The documentary series is in the category of cinematographic works and works created by a process analogous to cinematography, and is therefore protected by the PRC Copyright Law. The defendant provided an online on-demand link to the show without proper authorization from the copyright owner, which is a typical infringement of copyright though internet broadcasting and therefore he bears liability for infringement. While the defendant argued that the video was uploaded by an internet user, the courts found that the defendant failed to provide evidence to support its argument. The courts reasoned that because that the portal is required to control and manage the information and identity of the uploader, the website has the burden of proof. Since the defendant had deleted the original uploading information on its own, it should bear the adverse legal consequences.

Of note:

This case is a typical copyright infringement through internet sharing. In assessing the damages, the courts considered the copyright type, social recognition of the video, the nature of the infringement action, as well as the internet portal’s operational size, business model and influences, among other factors. The damages of RMB 240,000 can help to compensate the copyright owner, and force internet video portal operators to discipline themselves and manage their business. This case shows the trends of increased protection of intellectual properties, and serves as a warning to other internet video copyright infringers.

Comments:

As the Supreme People’s Court Observer has noted in earlier blogposts, the Court has recently started to publish more systematically model cases as an important supplement to legislation, judicial interpretations and guiding cases (指导案例, but long before this, had been publishing model cases in the Gazette of the Supreme People’s Court (最高人民法院公报).

While model cases are not binding on judges deciding subsequent cases, they will likely influence the decision of judges considering cases of similar type and with similar facts. Most Chinese judges I know would agree with this view. Back in 2006 when I was a junior judge at a trial court in Zhejiang, I wrote an article discussing the possibility of judicial precedent in China in the Chinese academic journal Public Administration & Law (2006-1). In my view, since I left the court to study and to work in private practice, the Chinese judiciary has made a lot of improvement and progress, which I applaud.