By Max Lin, Foley & Lardner LLP
This article is part of our Spring 2011 edition of Legal News: China Quarterly Newsletter, Eye on China.
China’s National Patent Development Strategy (2011 – 2020) (Plan) was announced in November 2010. The proposed measures focus on enhancing China’s IP system and encouraging local individuals, institutions, and companies to pursue IP protection domestically and abroad. By the end of 2015, the number of Chinese patent applications are projected to double. Chinese authorities clearly view patents as vital commercial assets central to the country's development.
Fully achieving the Plan’s potential economic value depends upon establishing an effective framework for the commercialization of government-sponsored technology through licensing and transfer. Those seeking to buy or license cutting-edge technologies from Chinese universities or scientific research institutes should be familiar with China’s regulation governing such technology transfers or licenses — the so-called "China Bayh-Dole Act."
Before 2002, China’s regulatory system did not address regulating the intellectual property ownership of technology developments sponsored by government funding. As a result of China’s booming economy, there was increased demand for advanced technologies by private individuals or companies, who then sought the commercial development of technologies that remained in universities or research institutes. As a result, technology licensing or transfer activities began to emerge from universities or research institutes. The primary challenge for those activities was the intellectual property ownership of the technologies. Most Chinese universities or research institutes are state-owned, and the cost of research is sponsored by government funding. As such, it was unclear and undefined under the law who owned the involved technology.
In March 2002, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Science and Technology co-issued Several Regulations Concerning Intellectual Property Management of State Scientific and Research Program Result (Regulations) to improve the process of technology licensing or transfer. The Regulations first emulated the core spirit of the U.S. Bayh-Dole Act and set forth the ownership of intellectual property. Except in cases where national security, national interests, or significant public interests are involved, the state granted the intellectual property developed in scientific research programs sponsored by government funding to the performing organization so that it can implement, license, or transfer the intellectual property independently. The state retained the right to use the intellectual property freely. If the performing organization — as the intellectual property owner — does not implement the intellectual property or obstructs the public from utilizing the intellectual property, the state can intervene by licensing a designated party to implement it freely or by paying royalties to the performing organization, depending on the specific circumstances. The Regulations do not detail the circumstances, leaving the decision up to government discretion.
In December 2007, China passed the Scientific and Technological Progress Law, which upgrades the provisions of the Regulations with respect to intellectual property ownership to the level of national law. The law sub-divides intellectual property rights into four items, namely, invention patents, computer software copyrights, exclusive rights to layout-design of integrated circuits, and new variety right of plant. Utility model patents and design patents as well as other intellectual property are excluded from the scope of intellectual property defined in the law. In addition, the law uses the name "project undertaker" to refer to units undertaking a project, such as scientific institutions, universities, enterprises, and so forth, but it does not exclude individuals.
The law grants the intellectual property ownership that is formed though a project sponsored by treasury money to the project undertaker, which encourages the project undertaker to continue being innovative. With intellectual property ownership in hand, the project undertaker has more motivation for the highly efficient commercial development of the intellectual property. Besides implementation by the project undertaker himself, the project undertaker can transfer or license the intellectual property. However, there is restriction on such transfer or license: Because the state has paid for the formation of the intellectual property, the state encourages such intellectual property to be utilized domestically. It is noted that such encouragement does not forbid transfer or license outside of China. However, the transfer of intellectual property rights to overseas organizations or individuals, or the licensing of exclusive use rights to overseas organizations or individuals, is subject to governmental approval. No approval is required for the licensing of non-exclusive use rights.
It is important for companies to secure key positions in their intellectual property. The acceleration of IP creation and protection for Chinese innovation under the Plan creates increased commercial opportunity for licensing and technology transfer. For companies seeking to acquire government-funded technology through license or technology transfer in China, it is important to become familiar with the regulations governing such transactions.