Applications for design patents have grown rapidly in China in the last decade, but foreign companies are still reluctant to use design patents to protect their products.The design patent was first introduced in China in 1985 as part of the country’s first modern patent system, which also included the invention patent and the utility model patent. Design patent protection in China is established under the Patent Law and the Implementing Regulations of the Patent Law. Broadly speaking, designs patents cover new designs, shapes, patterns, or colors, which are rich in an aesthetic appeal and are fit for industrial application. Conversely, the invention patent protects technical solutions or improvements relating to products or processes, while the utility model patent covers mostly structures and shapes of mechanical structures.
Since its introduction, the design patent has been enthusiastically embraced by Chinese entities. In 2011, Chinese applicants filed for 327,565 design patent applications compared with only 188,027 filed just five years earlier. In fact, the design patent is preferred over the invention patent by Chinese applicants, accounting for 35 percent of all types of patents filed in China that year. Design patents are generally cheaper to apply for, granted faster, and contain a relatively broad scope of coverage, while the invention patent is more expensive and takes longer to process.
Foreigners in China, on the other hand, have not been so enamored, having filed just over 10,000 design patent applications in 2011, or about 11 percent of all types of patents filed by foreign applicants. This is partly the result of experiences with design patents in other countries, such as the United States, where design patent application standards are stricter than in China.
While some foreign companies are building their design patent portfolios in China, convincing others that the cost of obtaining such patents in China is justified is difficult. Many foreign companies believe that that the enforcement system in China simply does not work, that the PRC government is not truly committed to protecting intellectual property rights (IPR), and that rampant corruption at multiple levels stymies provincial and local efforts to stop counterfeiting. While much more work needs to be done to bring China’s enforcement regime to a world-class level, China’s intellectual property enforcement system today is vastly improved over what it once was. Assuming this trajectory continues, a design patent secured today will have a much better chance of being enforced as time goes on. While success enforcing a design patent down the road is not a sure thing, one outcome is certain—failure to obtain the design patent in China while the opportunity to do so is available will guarantee there will be no relief against future infringers in that country.
FILING PATENT APPLICATIONS
The design patent application in China is a fast, low cost way to obtain protection. The design patent application does not require substantive examination, but rather faces only an examination as to formalities in which applicant information, completeness of the application, and acceptability of the drawings are considered. No comparison with earlier designs is made, although a third party may challenge a patent after it is granted through a proceeding before the Patent Reexamination Board (PRB). Time from filing to grant varies, but generally is between three and eight months. The term of the design patents in China is 10 years from the filing date. Translation and filing fees are also minimal.
The timing of filing is also important. China is a first-to-file country, so whoever gets to the patent office first with the application generally wins. Foreign applicants can overcome this disadvantage by filing early in their home country followed by a timely filing in China. Failure to file first can result in lost design patent rights. The date of filing is also important as China is an “absolute novelty” country, meaning that the “prior design” that can be cited against the application includes “any design known to the public in this country or abroad before the date of filing.” Accordingly, all applicants seeking design patent protection in China need to file a patent application somewhere in the world before the design is known publicly, either inside or outside China.
In the eyes of patent counsel of a major US sport shoe maker who has been “reasonably impressed” with the quality of patent examination, dealing with China’s drawing practice has been the greatest challenge in obtaining design patents. In his company, harmonization of drawing practices has been difficult—and costly—to develop.
Foreign applicants frequently find that the drawings they submit to other patent offices, such as the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), may not be acceptable to China’s State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) without changes, such as removing surface shading or broken lines.
Design patent applications in China also require the applicant to provide a brief description that “may be used to explain the said design as shown in the drawings or pictures.” Initially, applicants worried that the written description could be used by a court to interpret the scope of the patent. However, experience has demonstrated that a general statement identifying the “essential portion” of the design as being “the shape of the product of the design” would be acceptable to SIPO.
Design patents can overlap with copyright protection in China. Currently, works of “applied art” (defined as “artistic works with utilitarian functions”) are eligible for copyright protection in China, but only to foreign applicants. Products such as sneakers, tire treads, and even Lego bricks may be eligible for copyright protection in China as “works of applied art.” In March 2012, the National Copyright Administration of China issued a draft of proposed amendments to China’s Copyright Law, which remedies the current law by making copyright protection for works of “applied art” available to both domestic and foreign parties.
THE QUESTION OF FUNCTIONALITY
Under the Patent Law, patented designs must be distinctly different from existing designs or the combinations of the features of existing designs and must not be in conflict with the lawful rights acquired by others prior to the date of application. But there is an ongoing debate in China about how much functionality a design patent can have in China before it falls outside the scope of design protection. For example, vehicle components, including exhaust systems, have been patented as designs in China, even though these items would not receive design patent protection in the United States.
Because design patents protect designs of industrial products, most of these products have specific functions. No design patent has been invalidated by the PRB merely because it was “functional.” At present, the criteria for determining the patentability of a product under design patent in China is whether or not the article is identical with or similar to any prior design. As it stands today, the system in China allows the applicant to obtain a broader scope of design patent protection than is available in most other countries.
China has experienced significant growth in the number of filed patent applications over the last 10 years. In 2001, 203,573 patent applications were filed, of which 60,647 were for designs. In 2011, more than 1 million patent applications were filed, of which 337,796 were for designs. Patent litigation in China has kept pace, making China today the most litigious country in the world when it comes to intellectual property enforcement. In 2001, only 1,597 infringement actions had been filed. By 2010, that number had risen to 5,700, compared with 3,605 patent infringement actions filed in the United States in the same year.
Over the past couple of years, PRC courts have witnessed noteworthy infringement actions that involved design patents, but it is still unclear how similar an accused product has to be before it is found to be infringing. In an effort to provide guidance to courts wrestling with this question, the Supreme People’s Court issued an interpretation in January 2010 specifying that in determining infringement an “eye of the ordinary beholder” test will be applied to determine whether or not there is substantial similarity. This same “ordinary beholder” must undertake a “comprehensive assessment” of the overall configurations of the competing designs when determining whether or not there is sufficient identity to support a finding of infringement. However, previous court decisions suggest that treatment of identity by Chinese courts remains inconsistent and contradictory.
In 2003, Honda brought a case against Chinese auto maker Heibei Shuanghuan alleging that the Chinese automakers “Laibao S-RV” infringed its design patent for the C-RV. The case ultimately made its way to the Supreme People’s Court. Honda’s patent was challenged by defendant Heibei, which claimed that the C-RV design was known and was thus shown in the “prior art” before Honda applied for patent protection. The court determined that, at least with sedans, a review of the overall view of the vehicle does not help because sedans have common configurations. In such case, the “ordinary consumer” is able to distinguish between particular products by distinguishable features, such as headlamps. Certain design features were used to determine brand identity, at least with sedans.
In 2009, German company Neoplan Bus won more than $3 million in damages after bringing a design patent case against Chinese auto maker Beijing Zhongtong Xinghua. The First Intermediate People’s Court of Beijing found that there had been infringement of a bus design. In ruling in favor of Neoplan, the court ignored “partial and minor” differences that did not impact the overall design of the bus. The court may have come to a different conclusion than the Honda case because a bus is a “less common article” than a sedan.
The director of intellectual property for a US-based global manufacturer of footwear and athletic apparel says he hesitates to obtain more design patents in China because of the inconsistency in court decisions and because even a slight difference between the design patent and the product results in a finding of non-infringement. He says his company enforces its trademarks in China so it does not hesitate to enforce its IPR in general, but he believes the narrow interpretation of the scope of design coverage demonstrated by the courts outweighs the value of design patents. But he says he does not have plans to ramp up his modest design patent portfolio given the unsettled state of design patent interpretation by the Chinese courts.
HOW THE SYSTEM IS FAILING
While China’s patent laws today are world-class, the challenges involved in enforcement remain considerable. This fact, coupled with rampant infringement, forces many prospective foreign design patent applicants to re-consider and frequently abandon plans to file many (or any) design patent applications in China.
Patent coverage must be expanded
In China, design protection is directed to physical objects and excludes products with graphical user interface (GUI) from design patent protection. The GUIs, such as icons, menus, and pointing devices, allow humans to interact with their computers and cell phones. However, China now has the opportunity to join the majority of countries that grant design patent protection for GUIs. David Kappos, undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and director of the USPTO, stated that “design protection of GUIs is important in addressing the increasing phenomenon of migration of real objects to virtual objects, such as cell phones or laptops, or the GUI of a refrigerator to enable its remote control. There is also a need to provide more robust protection for designs in the borderless computing ‘cloud.'”
“Junk” patents filings must be policed
Because the system of granting design patents does not require SIPO to undertake a substantive examination, the filing of frivolous design patent applications is common. The resulting “junk” patents are either based on previously known designs or issued design patents with or without minor modifications. For example, a licensee of a design patent re-submitted the same design in his own design patent to “double” and thereby “improve” the rights of the legitimate design patent holder—all without the authorization of the licensor. To reduce the number of junk patents, China could adopt a system of substantive examination. This step would be consistent with China’s push for increased domestic innovation. Other possible modifications include the requirement that an oath or declaration attesting to originality of the design be submitted with the application (currently not required) or the requirement of a SIPO-issued evaluation report prior to the filing of an infringement action. Along these lines, penalties for knowingly asserting an invalid design patent should be levied. A separate opposition proceeding should also be established for design patents.
Encourage more flexibility in infringement cases
A more flexible approach to interpreting the identity of a design patent would make use of the system in China more attractive to foreign applicants. It would also make the system fairer to all design patent holders who engage in infringement litigation. For example, in the United States, a product infringes a patented design when “in the eye of an ordinary observer, giving such attention as a purchaser usually gives, [the] two designs are substantially the same … the resemblance [being] such as to deceive such an observer, inducing him to purchase one supposing it to be the other.” The ordinary observer is deemed to view the differences between the accused product and the patented design in the context of prior art, such that differences between the claimed design and the prior art are likely to be relevant. (However, there is no separate explicit requirement that the accused product appropriate the novelty of the patented design.)
The design patent in China is underutilized by foreign companies, but it is a valuable tool that can both protect investment and potentially halt infringement. China has taken several positive steps to improve its design patent protection, at least on paper. However, a sustained and focused effort to halt rampant counterfeiting and to overcome inadequate enforcement by broadening the scope of design patent coverage will be required if China’s IP system is embraced without reservation by the international patent community.
[author] Thomas T. Moga ([email protected]) is a partner at Shook, Hardy and Bacon LLC in Washington, DC, and is registered to practice before the US Patent and Trademark office. [/author]