Trends in Intellectual Property Litigation in China

By Brian Whitehead, Partner

Haseltine Lake Kempner has operated in China since 2009. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of our Chinese office, we take a quick look at trends in Chinese IP litigation since 2009.

  • The total number of civil disputes involving IP has increased explosively, at an average rate of 25% per year. In 2009, local people’s courts admitted 30,626 new civil cases. By 2018 this had grown to an incredible 283,414 new cases admitted.
  • A similar trend is seen in the Supreme People’s Court, which admitted 297 IP-related civil cases in 2009 and 913 in 2018, representing an average annual increase of over 12%.
  • The exponential increase in the number of cases admitted does not appear to have overburdened the courts. The numbers of cases closed each year has kept track with cases admitted, growing from 30,509 in 2009 to 273,945 in 2018 in the local people’s courts, and 390 to 859 over the same period in the Supreme People’s Court.
  • Copyright-related civil disputes comprise the bulk of the civil disputes, with copyright cases making up almost 70% of new civil cases in 2018. Trade mark cases made up 18%, and patent-related disputes 8% of the total.
  • As might be expected, the number of appeals has also grown dramatically, from 5,340 in 2009 to 27,621 in 2018. However, the reversal rate has remained static at around 6% over the period.
  • Civil IP disputes are overwhelmingly between Chinese parties. In 2009, only 1,361 (4.4%) involved a foreign party, and that ratio had fallen to 1.2% by 2016 (the last year for which records are available).
  • The Chinese courts are also very active in administrative IP matters, reviewing the decisions of bodies responsible for granting and validating IP rights. The number of such matters increased from 2,072 in 2009 to 13,545 in 2018 in the local people’s courts, and 54 to 642 over the same period in the People’s Supreme Court.
  • Criminal cases involving IP, whilst substantial, are very much smaller in number than civil cases. In 2018 the local people’s courts accepted 4,319 IP criminal cases, an increase of only 20% since 2009.
  • There are specialist intellectual property courts in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, and intellectual property tribunals in Nanjing, Suzhou, Chengdu, and Wuhan. IP cases can also be heard by the hundreds of local people’s courts around the country.
  • Since 2018, there has been a specialist division of the Supreme People’s Court – the IP Court – to deal with civil and administrative patent-related appeal cases. Parties can now appeal directly, rather than appealing to local appeal courts.

Over the next 10 years, it will be interesting to see whether exponential growth of the past decade continues, and also whether there is an increasing number of foreign litigants making use of the Chinese courts for IP disputes.