On June 1 2018, the Supreme People’s Court of China (SPC) issued Provisions on Several Issues in Adjudicating Patent Granting and Affirming Administrative Cases I (the Draft Provisions). The general public can submit its opinions and comments by July 1 2018. 

In the last couple of years, the SPC has issued two sets of judicial interpretations on patent infringement disputes. This is the first time that the SPC has issued a judicial interpretation concerning patent examination and patent validity. In China, the decisions of the patent office or the patent review board (PRB) on examination and validity are subject to review by the judiciary. These are known as administrative legal proceedings and take place at the Beijing Intellectual Property Court and Beijing Higher People’s Court. The SPC has at times granted a petition for retrials of such reviews by the judiciary. The Draft Provisions are intended to consolidate the rulings and consensus among Chinese judges on the way patents should be examined and validity should be reviewed.  

The Draft Provisions have 40 articles in total and cover several issues including scope of adjudication, claim construction, data supplementation for drug patents, and rules of evidence. We highlight some of the important provisions for your

Claim construction 

To increase the value and quality of published patents, Article 3(1) of the Draft Provisions states that for patent examinations, the claims should be constructed according to the common understanding of a person skilled in the art, and where the claims use self-defined terms and the specification and drawings have clear definitions or explanations for such terms, the special definitions and explanations should be used in claim construction.  

For claim construction in patent validity cases, the Draft Provisions provide two options to be decided upon, in Article 3(2): (1) in a similar way to claim construction rules in patent infringement disputes, the court can use the claims, specification, and drawings when construing claims, and where the specification and drawings have special definitions for terms in the claims, such definitions should be used. File wrapper can be used to construe the claims. Technical dictionaries, technical manuals, reference books, textbooks and national or industrial technical standards etc. can be used in claim construction where none of the above method works; (2) the same rules as those in patent examination cases. It seems that the SPC might prefer the first rule.  

It should be noted that Article 4 of the Draft Provisions provides that, when construing the claims in patent validity cases, the court can refer to statements made by a patentee in patent infringement proceedings. This is the first time that the Chinese courts have stated that the doctrine of estoppel works both ways.   

Data supplementation 

For chemical and drug patents, one of the much debated issues is whether supplementary experimental data submitted by applicants or patentees during patent prosecution or validity proceedings should be accepted, and whether such data can be used to explain and prove enablement and/or inventive step. 

The SPC tries to solve the issues around supplementary experimental data in the Draft Provisions and provides two options: (1) where such data is to prove sufficient disclosure and the technical effect can be confirmed by a person skilled in the art based on the description, drawings and common knowledge on the application date, the court should examine such data; (2) where such data is to prove the claimed invention has a different technical effect from the prior art, and such technical effect directly derives from and can unambiguously be confirmed by a skilled person in the art from the specification, the court should examine such data. 

The Draft Provisions further provide that where a party submits experimental data, the court can ask the party to submit evidence and prove the source and forming procedures of the experimental data which can prove the authenticity of the data, including the raw materials and source of the raw materials, the steps of the experiment, conditions or parameters, people conducting the experiment and experiment facility etc. If the parties have a dispute over the authenticity of the data, the court may appoint qualified judicial appraisal centres to conduct an appraisal. 

It seems that the SPC is still debating the appropriate requirements for data supplementation. The proposed rules, which follow the recent decision involving Novartis, are arguably overly stringent for originators. The SPC probably still believes that more flexibility will allow applicants/patentees to introduce new matter, undermining the first to file principle.  

Amendments to the description and claims 

According to Articles 15 and 16, where amendments to the description and drawings by the patent applicant are clearly recorded in the original specification, drawings and claims, or can be directly and unambiguously confirmed by a person skilled in the art, the court should consider such amendments to have met the written description requirements under the Patent Law.  

The significant changes relate to claim amendments. The SPC proposes that as long as the claim amendments have met the requirements of written description, such amendments to the claim are regarded as acceptable under Article 33 of the Patent Law, which sets out general requirements for patent amendments. The intention seems to be to change rigid practice in the patent office with respect to claim amendments. If the rules are applied in the future, applicants will have more opportunity to amend claims, and generalise certain elements based on the description. 

Determination of inventive step 

Determination of non-obviousness or inventiveness is one of the most challenging issues in patent law. The Draft Provisions only include two provisions to deal with this matter without elaboration. To determine the technical effect of distinguishing features and the technical problem actually solved by the invention, the SPC emphasises that a holistic approach should be adopted. In other words, the distinguishing features should be put into the context of the claimed invention, and the effects of the distinguishing features should be determined based on the knowledge and skill of a person skilled in the art. Based on this, the court will be able to realise the true technical problem to be resolved by the claimed invention. After all this is done, the court will then determine whether there is technical motivation in the prior art as a whole. 

Design patents 

There are eight articles in the Draft Provisions dealing with design patents and these articles are mainly about design space and functional features in the design patent.  

According to the Draft Provisions, the determination of identity or similarity of design patents should be based on the knowledge and cognitive capability of a normal consumer of the design patent. The knowledge and cognitive capability of a normal consumer of the design patent partly depend on the design space of the product incorporating the design patent.  

Factors to be considered in determining design space include: product function and use, density of current designs, usual designs, compulsory rules under law and regulations, and national and industrial standards.  

The Draft Provisions also provide that functional design normally does not influence the overall visual effect of the design patent except the positional relationship of such design feature with other design features. Functional design includes the only or the necessary feature for achieving a certain technical function. Where the design feature is not the only or necessary choice for achieving a certain technical function, the choice or change of the design features should not be based on visual effect. 

Putting an end to abuse of administrative patent trials 

China has a bifurcated patent system in which the PRB determines validity of a patent. The court can only decide whether or not the PRB decision is correct but cannot replace the PRB decision and directly determine the validity of the patent. Therefore, if the court considers a PRB decision to be wrong, the court can only decide to annul the decision and remand the case to the PRB. The party can still file an administrative suit against the reissued PRB decision and normally the court will accept it.  

However, such an endless loop of patent trials is inefficient in terms of time and money and causes severe delay in patent infringement suits. To solve this problem, the Draft Provisions provide that where the court has made a decision on the relevant facts and application of law and the PRB reissues its decision based on the court decision, the court will not accept administrative suits filed by the parties against the reissued PRB decision.