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China employment law
Root out differences between your employee contracts and rules and regulations

A well-written employment contract, along with a set of China-centric employer’s rules and regulations are the starting point of what you must do if you have employees (or plan to have) in China. Though it is good thing to have both of these documents in place, it is even better when these two actually work together. Our employer audits often find a company’s employment contracts and employer rules and regulations to be in conflict with each other, with internal inconsistencies or discrepancies that confuse employees (and employers) and can work against the employer in a labor dispute.

Let’s look at a case in Shanghai for an example of this, with the facts simplified for this post. The parties entered into an employment contract for a fixed term under which the employee would be working as a cargo driver. The employee’s contract stated that if the employee is absent from work for five days without good reason, he will be unilaterally terminated without severance. But the employer’s rules and regulations say that an employee may be terminated for three days of absenteeism. The employee was designated to work flexible hours and the employer would give direct orders to the employee by phone regarding specific assignments, and absent such work orders, the employee would stand by at home.

It is undisputed that on August 11, 2015, the employee failed to dispatch per the employer’s direct order. On the very next day (the 12th), the employee was late in dispatching after having received an urgent work order from his employer. Then on August 19th, the employee received a work order and he then verbally notified his employer that he could not perform his duties because he was sick, but he did not provide a doctor’s note at that time. On August 20th, the employer issued a written notice to the employee giving him two days to provide a doctor’s note to prove he was indeed sick as he claimed to be. The employer also served a serious warning on the employee for being late on the 12th. Further, the notice required the employee to return his driver’s permit and operation permit to the company so someone else could operate his assigned vehicle. Then again on August 25th, the employer sent another notice to the employee requiring him to report to work by the following day (August 26th) or be treated as absent. The employer stated in its notice that because the employee had failed to return the relevant permits, the employer had suffered loss for not being able to operate the car assigned to this particular employee, and therefore this failure to return the permits constituted a serious violation of the employer’s labor disciplines. The employee returned the relevant permits and submitted a doctor’s note regarding his August 19th absence. The employer nonetheless terminated this employee for having violated the employer’s rules and regulations. The employee sued for unlawful termination.

The trial court sided with the employee and the employer appealed. On appeal, Shanghai’s First Intermediate People’s Court held as follows:

  1. The employee’s contract expressly gave the employer the right to terminate the employee for being absent from work for five days without justification while the employer’s rules and regulations say three days. The two documents contradict each other on this point. The court went on to hold that applicable judicial interpretations stipulate that when there is a discrepancy between an employer’s rules and regulations and the employment contract and the employee requests the contract prevail, the court will grant such a request. Therefore, the court applied the terms of the employment contract, so only absenteeism for five days or more would justify unilateral termination without severance.
  2. The employee produced a doctor’s note to show he was sick from August 19th through the 21st, so it does not make sense to say he was absent from work without a valid reason during that period.
  3. Even though the employee failed to submit a doctor’s note within the 2-day period required by the employer in its notice, because August 22nd and 23rd fell on a weekend, the employee was absent from work for only three days: the 11th, 24th and 25th. Because the employment contract (which allows for five days of absences before termination) is the governing document, being absent for three days does not justify unilateral termination.
  4. For the reasons stated above, the employer’s termination decision was unlawful.
  5. Because the employer had no right to terminate the employee, the employer had no right to demand the employee return all the permits for the company car, so the employee should not have been punished for returning those permits late nor can he be held liable for the alleged damages that allegedly arose from his failure to return the permit.

If the employer in this case had taken the necessary time to make its employee’s contract consistent with its rules and regulations on the number of days of absence, the employer’s termination decision would probably have been held lawful.

Bottom line: Make sure your employee agreements are consistent with your rules and regulations and make sure they work well together. In comparing these two internal employment documents, make sure that you focus on the Chinese language versions of each because that is the version that legally matters.

China movie quota lawyerWhat a wild ride it’s been for the Chinese film industry! Until July 27, it had been a year of one depressing story after another. Downward-trending box office, high-flying entertainment companies imploding, deals to purchase foreign assets falling through, the biggest movie studio on the planet sold to a real estate developer, the can’t miss co-production The Great Wall tanking. Even the Transformers franchise couldn’t save the day, with the latest installment performing well below expectations in China.

But on July 27, the action film Wolf Warrior 2 opened, and within 12 days of its release it had already become the highest-grossing film of all time in China. As of this writing the film has pulled in more than $720 million in China alone. The narratives are almost writing themselves, with pundits trying to explain why Chinese people are going in droves to see a jingoistic film about a Chinese special forces operative in Africa.

I’m not going to wade into those waters except to note William Goldman’s aphorism that when it comes to the film business, “Nobody knows anything.” The phenomenal success of Wolf Warrior 2 was anything but a foregone conclusion. The first movie was a surprise hit, earning about $89 million, but it’s not like people were lining up Episode 1-style for a sequel. Back in May, Wolf Warrior 2 was pilloried online when it came to light that its trailer had lifted footage from X-Men: First Class. Moreover, Wolf Warrior 2 was released on the same date as the government-backed propaganda film The Founding of an Army, and the latter was allotted the lion’s share of screens.

This movie – this particular movie – couldn’t have come at a better time for China. Hollywood is in the midst of negotiating the terms of foreign (read: Hollywood) films’ market access to China. American studios find China’s protectionism exasperating on multiple levels, with the biggest complaints being (1) the quota system, which only allows 34 foreign films (largely US studio films) each year on a revenue-sharing basis (2) the low percentage of receipts allotted to the foreign studio (currently 25%) for such revenue-sharing films, and (3) the foreign studio’s inability to control the release date. The last point is more serious than might immediately be apparent – not only does the Chinese government determine when each film will be released (via a largely opaque process), it also imposes unofficial blackouts during which no new foreign films are allowed to be released.

Aside from discussions about WTO obligations and fair play, US studios’ best argument for expanding access to the Chinese film market has been an economic one: Chinese audiences want to see American movies (and don’t particularly want to see Chinese movies), and with thousands of new screens every year, Chinese movie theaters need movies people want to see. In other words, limiting the number of American movies hurts the Chinese economy.

Setting aside the fallacy that the Chinese government’s interests are aligned with those of Chinese theater owners, the success of Wolf Warrior 2 upends all of those arguments. Wolf Warrior 2 was released on the first day of a blackout period, and it is already the most successful movie in Chinese history. It is a Chinese-made movie, with purely (even exclusively) Chinese content, and Chinese theaters are raking in the money – and not having to send any of it overseas. The Chinese government will likely infer that Wolf Warrior 2’s success is not in spite of their protectionist policies, but because of them. And President Trump’s saber-rattling about a trade war isn’t likely to improve their attitude.

I certainly hope the U.S. negotiating team is able to make some headway, but U.S. studios and production companies shouldn’t assume anything. They need a backup plan, and right now the best one seems to be investing in and otherwise creating productions in China solely for the Chinese market. A number of studios and production companies are already going down this road, and I think it’s the smart play. Better to be an investor in the next Wolf Warrior than to be shut out completely.

China lawyerWay back in 2008 I wrote a post immediately after one of my firm’s lawyers returned from a federal court hearing where the judge essentially said — near as I could tell without any basis in law — that service of an English language only complaint on our client was valid even though she did not speak a word of English and even though the Hague Convention rules on service of process for that particular country explicitly stated that the complaint needed to be translated into her native language. In that post, which follows, I raged (well for me it was raging) against a US legal system that fails to sufficiently account for foreign law.

This post is on private, not public international law. That means it has little to nothing to do with such hot button issues as the United Nations, the Kyoto Protocol, or the International Criminal Court. This post is on how American courts deal with business cases involving foreign parties and foreign or international law as that law applies to such cases. No more, no less.

Many years ago, I was representing a Canadian-Australian manufacturer in a big case down in Texas along with two truly excellent Dallas litigators. At some point in the case, I had the “brilliant” idea of arguing that US Federal law had preempted Texas state law, mandating dismissal of plaintiff’s claims against my client. We settled the case before the court could hear our preemption argument, but I still remember the half-joking advice I received from Texas local counsel. It was something along the lines of, “forget about federal law, this is Texas; we don’t recognize federal law down here.”

I am beginning to wonder about the willingness of US courts to apply foreign or international law, even in those instances where US law calls for such application.

In a few months, I will be in Las Vegas (I count myself among the people who love Vegas!) speaking on the Hague Convention rules on Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil or Commercial Matters, as they apply to Chinese companies. Based on my firm’s experience with getting US courts to recognize international law, I am sorely tempted to just say something like, “forget about international law. This is the United States. We don’t recognize international law here.” Go ahead, just stick your summons and complaint in a bottle, throw it in the ocean, that ought to be enough for you to get a default judgment anyway. And since China never enforces US judgments anyway, why does it matter?

I am sure my speech will be a bit more nuanced by the time I get there, but you get the point.

For at least the third time (two times is coincidence, three times is a trend), a US court has allowed a case to go forward against a defendant despite the plaintiff having clearly failed to abide by the Hague Convention Rules on international service of process. The most recent instance is in a still pending case so I cannot go into the specifics on that one.

Virtually every time we have sought to get the US courts to enforce the Hague Convention or even, in one instance, when we sought to get a US court to pretty much ignore the Hague Convention, the US court has seemed perfectly willing to rule as though the United States has no obligation to abide by a treaty it signed. I have a strong sense US Courts (both state courts and federal courts) will not enforce the Hague Convention’s technical service requirements (including that the summons and complaint must usually be translated into the language of the country in which it is being served). Oh, and getting a US court to throw out or stay (delay) a case so that an already pending case in another country can be decided first — forget it. My conclusion is that US courts are happy to ignore foreign/international law in favor of handling things under US law, whether US law should apply or not.

Since writing the above, our firm has had a Federal Court ignore Australian law in a case without even deigning to explain why and a state court refuse even to consider delaying the US action based on an already pending case in Spain, and get mad at our lawyers for even making the request!

US court judgments are rarely enforced outside the United States and one of the reasons given for this is the failure of American courts to recognize foreign law. Our foreign clients — international businesspeople from countries like Australia, England, Spain, and Germany that are not generally anti-American — are complaining more and more to our lawyers about US courts “think they can ignore the rest of the world.” Add in a President whose response to countries beyond our borders is a big FU and low-life neo-nazis marching in our streets with torches, and you can understand why so many of my non-American friends have been asking if I am concerned about the United States’ standing in the world and the impact all of this will have on our legal system.

My answer is yes.

Strangely enough, I recently thought through much of the above when analyzing an intellectual property matter on which I worked. The matter was for a European company looking to sue an American company under Chinese law in a United States court. (Please nobody ask me to explain either how the parties got into this situation nor why this contortion was even being considered.) What struck me was how despite all of the things about which I wrote above, my opinion to the European lawyers was that if they were to pursue litigation in a US court they could excpect the court to abide by the law, and since the law was clear (and did not really involve court power as did the cases above), we could expect it to apply Chinese law.

I guess I am standing on history (at least that of the U.S. legal system) for now.

Your thoughts?

China cease and desistHardly a week goes by without an American or a European company contacting one of our China lawyers wanting to retain us to “stop the counterfeits” of their products online and offline. Far too often these people believe one of our IP lawyers can within 24 hours send out a “template” cease and desist letter and within another 24 hours of that, the counterfeit sales will magically cease.
Were it only that easy.
For us to send out a cease and desist letter to a Chinese company that allegedly is engaging in counterfeiting (note the switch to alleged here), we first must determine the legal grounds we have for threatening to sue. Is the alleged counterfeiter actually infringing any registered trademark, copyright or patent? Is any trade secret being illlegally employed? Unfortunately, about half the time, there is no legal grounds for claiming either infringement or counterfeiting at all.  
Do cease and desist letters work with Chinese companies? Sometimes they do, and really well. We have sent cease and desist letters that achieved great results within days. We’ve also sent cease and desist letters that were completely ignored. A cease and desist letter regarding IP infringement usually works well when we have strong legal grounds for sending it and the company to which we are sending it is a legitimate registered company. These letters are far less effective when the legal grounds is weak or non-existent or when the “company” to which we are sending it is little more than a pop-up operation set up merely to effectuate global counterfeiting. 
Why send a cease and desist letter? What can such a letter accomplish? One reason is to get the recipient to cease the infringing. Another is to stake out your rights so as to avoid any potential waiver of those rights. Sometimes we send these letters not so much to stop infringing, but to get the recipient to pay a licensing fee to be able to use our client’s IP. If the letter does not work and we need to pursue litigation, the letter itself — and the recipient’s subsequent ignoring of it — can help prove intentional copying and thereby increase damages at trial or in settlement. 
Something few seem to consider or even realize is that sending out a cease and desist letter is not without its own, sometimes substantial risks. Many years ago, a company sent a cease and desist letter to a client of my law firm that caused our client to investigate the products of the company that sent it. Our client determined that not only was it not violating the IP of the company from which it received the letter, but that company that sent the letter was violating our client’s patent rights. To make a long story short, the company that sent the letter ended up millions of dollars poorer from having acted so precipitously. It is also not uncommon for the recipient of a cease and desist letter to flip around and sue the sender to seek a court ruling of non-infringement.
Sending a cease and desist letter alerts the recipient of your IP concerns and may cause them to destroy evidence that would aid you in pursuing an IP claim or in collecting large damages. Sometimes the better tact is to gather up infringement evidence before sending out the cease and desist letter. It is also possible your cease and desist letter will give the recipient a claim against you for defamation, libel or tortious interference in their business.
Sometimes the best tact is not to send any cease and desist letter at all. 
24 hours from hiring to firing (off) of a cease and desist letter? I don’t think so, and hopefully, you now don’t either. 

China employment lawyerI have recently been focusing on Beijing with my China employment law posts because Beijing recently came out with new employment laws. The new laws, entitled the Responses to Several Issues Regarding Application of Law in Trial of Labor Disputes (关于审理劳动争议案件法律适用问题的解答)(“the Responses”) were released earlier this year to clarify a number of key employment law issues and to ensure a fairer and more effective and consistent adjudication of labor disputes in Beijing. In this post, I focus on how the Responses lower the standards for terminating an employee during his or her probation period. A China employer is permitted to use “failure to meet the conditions of employment during the probation period” as a basis to unilaterally terminate an employee without having to pay him or her severance. But what exactly does this mean for Beijing employers today?

The Responses make clear that an employer must inform its probationary employee of the conditions of employment during the recruitment process, and must also inform the employee of the factual and legal basis for termination upon dismissal. For a unilateral termination of a probationary employee to be lawful, the employer must be able to prove how the employee failed to meet the applicable employment conditions. This is nothing new. However, the Responses go on to say that in determining whether an employee meets the conditions of employment, the standard may be lower, to the extent appropriate, for a probationary employee than for a regular employee. The Responses also then list the following circumstances under which an employee may be considered to have failed to meet the recruitment requirements:

  • The employee violates the principle of good faith, and conceals or makes up facts concerning himself or herself which will affect the performance of the employment contract, including providing fake diplomas or certificates, fake identification documentations (PRC national ID cards, passports, etc.), making statements regarding his or her experiences, expertise, skills, performances, heath or other pieces of information that are significantly contrary to the truth;
  • The employee commits work errors, which are defined in accordance with the relevant employment laws, the employer’s rules and regulations, or the employment contract;
  • The employee fails to fulfill the terms and conditions agreed by the parties which determine whether the employee passes the probation period.

Employee probation is one of the most often misunderstood China employment law issues. Many employers (and often to their detriment) wrongly believe terminating a probationary employee is much easier than terminating an employee who has completed the probation period. Though this is not the case, the Responses do provide that the standard of review on whether a probationary employee meets the conditions of employment can be reasonably (whatever that means?) lower than the standard of review for an employee during the “regular” term of employment. Our China employment lawyers always advise our clients to specify the conditions of employment in a clear writing (in Chinese!) so the employee understands the employer’s expectations from day one. In addition, employers should preserve good evidence that such conditions are communicated to their employees. None of this advice has changed despite Beijing’s new employment laws and in fact, Beijing-based employers should consider specifying in their rules and regulations and/or their employment contracts exactly what work errors can lead to termination during probation. But be careful in drafting such provisions because our employer audits often find employers that write these provisions in a way that violates applicable laws!

Notwithstanding Beijing’s new employer-friendly law on probationary employees, China employers who treat the probation period as an at-will employment period do so at their own peril. Note this law is applicable only in Beijing, and in practice, many arbitrators/judges in many places (including Beijing, no doubt) treat termination of an employee during the probation period no differently than termination during the regular employment term.

For more on Beijing’s new laws, check out my previous posts here on how to terminate an employee on the basis of there having been a “significant changes in objective circumstances, and here for on the new rule that permits Beijing employers to terminate an employee who seriously violates labor disciplines or professional ethics and here for the new rules on reinstating employees to their old jobs when an employer’s termination decision has been deemed unlawful. Oh, and once again, please check out my new book, The China Employment Law Guide, which will very soon be coming out in paperback format as well.

 

 

 

Chinese lawyers
Just say no to Hong Kong jurisdiction.

Hong Kong courts are world class and few foreign companies would not rather have their disputes against their Mainland China counter-parties resolved in Hong Kong as opposed to in Yiwu or in Harbin. Hong Kong as the jurisdiction of choice is very alluring. But for all sorts of reasons, it’s a trap.

Let me explain.

Back in 2008 China and Hong Kong entered into a reciprocal enforcement agreement to make judgments from Hong Kong courts enforceable in China, and vice-versa. Foreign lawyers (usually those not experienced with China contracts or China courts) see this and think having their clients disputes resolved in Hong Kong is the way to go. But as is so often true of China, what is on paper does not correspond so well with the real world and most of the time calling for disputes with Mainland Chinese companies to be resolved in Hong Kong is a terrible idea.

Consider a contract between a U.S. technology company and its PRC licensee. [Though our example is of a U.S. company, what we say below holds true for nearly all Western countries/companies as well.] The U.S company seeks to avoid Chinese law by providing for English as the contract language, U.S. law as the applicable law, and enforcement in a U.S. court. The Chinese side refuses and insists on the opposite: Chinese language, Chinese law and enforcement in a Chinese court. As a compromise, the U.S. side proposes the following: English language, Hong Kong law and enforcement in a Hong Kong court. The Chinese side readily agrees and the contract is signed.

Why did the Chinese side agree? It agreed because it knows this “compromise” has created the worst possible situation for the U.S. company. The contract is NOT enforceable against the Chinese company, so the Chinese company is off the hook for any liability. On the other hand, the contract IS enforceable against the U.S. company, giving the Chinese company substantial power in the event of a dispute. The U.S. company has placed itself in the worst possible position. I have Chinese lawyer friends who brag about setting up foreign lawyers with this “trick.”

There is though a chance both parties will be disappointed because there is a risk the Hong Kong court will refuse to hear the case because the matter has no connection to Hong Kong. Remember that Hong Kong is an entirely separate jurisdiction from China. For this reason, a contract between a U.S. company and a Chinese company governing conduct that will occur in the PRC has no connection to Hong Kong. It is therefore entirely possible the Hong Kong court will refuse to further crowd its docket and will simply refuse to hear the case.

But let’s just assume the Hong Kong court hears the case and renders a judgment. What then will happen? If the Chinese company is the plaintiff and if it prevails, its judgment against the U.S. defendant will be easily enforceable in the United States against the assets of the U.S. company. Hong Kong is a common law country with laws and legal procedure based on the laws of England. U.S. courts regularly enforce such common law judgments and the odds are overwhelming they would do so in this situation as well

But If the plaintiff is the U.S. company and it prevails and then seeks to enforce its Hong Kong judgment in the PRC, the situation is quite different. On the surface, it appears enforcement of the judgment should not be an issue under China and Hong Kong’s  reciprocal enforcement agreement of 2008 which on its face makes judgments from Hong Kong courts enforceable in China. However, Chinese courts regularly ignore this statute by not enforcing Hong Kong judgments.

Chinese courts avoid enforcement in two ways. Sometimes they simply refuse to act. They do not openly reject the demand for enforcement. They instead accept the demand and then do absolutely nothing. This is the most common technique.

The other approach is to find technical reasons to reject the demand for enforcement. Usually the Chinese court will reject the Hong Kong judgment based on a claim that award was based on grounds that violate Chinese public policy. Since Chinese civil law and Hong Kong common law come from an entirely different legal background and legal procedure, it is generally easy for a Chinese court to find a public policy issue.

Often, the Chinese party will not appear in the Hong Kong action. In this case, the U.S. side will obtain a default judgment. Like many Asian courts (and European and U.S. ones as well), Chinese courts are reluctant to enforce any form of default judgment. When the default judgment is from a foreign jurisdiction, the likelihood of enforcement is very low. Knowing this, good Chinese lawyers instruct their Chinese clients not to appear when sued in Hong Kong.

As noted above, a contract between a Chinese entity and a U.S. entity has no factual or legal connection with Hong Kong. Chinese law allows the parties to a contract to chose the applicable law, but when the parties choose a law with no connection to the underlying transaction, Chinese courts typically deem this to violate public policy.

Whether the Court issues a written ruling or simply does nothing, the effect is the same: no enforcement of the Hong Kong judgment against the Chinese party defendant.

So what this all means is that by writing a Hong Kong jurisdiction provision into the U.S. company’s contract with its Chinese counter-party, the U.S. company (or its lawyer) has placed itself in the worst of all positions. First, it must convince a skeptical Hong Kong court to hear a case with no connection to Hong Kong. And since Hong Kong has a loser pays system, the U.S. company usually must post a substantial monetary bond to cover the risk that it will not prevail on its claim. Then it must pay the very high attorneys’ fees and court costs demanded by the excellent Hong Kong legal system. Then it must wait as the Hong Kong court takes what can be a substantial period of time to render judgment when the facts and parties are all foreign to Hong Kong. Then, if and when it finally receives its Hong Kong judgment, the U.S. company will likely learn the hard way that its judgment has no value since it is not enforceable in China. Or even worse, the Chinese party prevails on its counterclaim and the Chinese party is free to enforce its judgment against the American company in the United States. And to top it all off, the U.S. company loses its bond, which goes to pay the Chinese company’s legal fees.

Hong Kong as the jurisdiction for disputes with Chinese companies? Great on paper, but really bad in real life.

China cyber law
Screenshot of Hangzhou Cyber-court Website, showing its Chinese name as Hangzhou Railway Transport Court as of end of June.

China has adopted a plan to establish a cyberspace court in Hangzhou lately. The plan is for this court to accept filings electronically, try cases via livestream and hear only e-commerce and Internet related cases.

Why Hangzhou? As a general rule of Chinese civil procedure law, lawsuits must be brought in the place of the defendant’s domicile. For companies, domicile means their principal place of business or the place where it has its registered address. Hangzhou is home to Alibaba and to many other technology companies, it has been dubbed the “capital of Chinese e-commerce,” and it is the site of the China Cross-Border E-Commerce Comprehensive Test Zone (中国(杭州)跨境电子商务综合试验区). Hangzhou courts have experienced a considerable increase in the number of e-commerce related cases, from 600 cases accepted in 2013 to more than 10,000 in 2016.

Before these most recent plans for a cyber-court in Hangzhou, the Zhejiang High Court launched a pilot program to create Zhejiang E-Commerce Online Court System to better handle Hangzhou’s increasing caseload in Hangzhou. Three Hangzhou trial courts and the Intermediate Court of Hangzhou initially joined this system to try certain e-commerce related cases online. Other than a different space (cyberspace versus an actual courtroom) for the actual litigation/trials, there are no significant differences between the online court and traditional courts. The Zhejiang E-Commerce Court website explicitly states that its litigation processes will strictly follow China civil procedure law.

What Cases Will the Cyber-Court Handle? The Cyber-court will have general jurisdiction over certain Internet and e-commerce related cases in the Hangzhou area. Although the Cyber-court’s website is currently inaccessible, according to the Zhejiang E-Commerce Court website, the following cases (over which the existing trial courts in Hangzhou would normally have original jurisdiction) will be tried by the Cyber-court beginning on August 18, 2017:

  • Disputes regarding online purchases of goods, online service agreements, and small [online?] loan agreements;
  • Disputes regarding “internet copyright” ownership and infringement;
  • Infringement on personal rights (e.g. defamation) using the Internet;
  • Product liability claims for goods purchased online;
  • Domain name disputes;
  • Disputes arising from Internet based administration;
  • Other civil and administrative cases concerning the Internet assigned to the Cyber-court by a higher court.

No matter in which district of Hangzhou a defendant is domiciled, cases that come within the above list should be filed with the Cyber-court instead of with the trial court in the previously relevant district.

How to file a case with the Cyber-court and Attend trials? Please note that because the Cyber-court’s website is currently offline and inaccessible we have had to base the information in this section on what we obtained from the website back when it was live in July and from news reports. The Cyber-court will use an online platform that allows people to file cases and attend trials. To be able to use this platform, users must first verify their identity and then register for an account. There are two options for doing this. One is to physically go to Hangzhou and show your ID to the court clerk, which to a large extent defeats much of the purpose of having the online court system. The other is to have your identity verified through Alipay (Alibaba’s payment service). If you already have an Alipay account and Alipay has verified your identity (because you probably used Taobao before), such a verification will be accepted by the cyber-court’s system.

Once you have a cyber-court account, you can file a complaint, submit evidence, and request service of process through this platform.

You can attend your trial remotely by entering a verification code on a webpage. Transmission of audio or video of any hearings and trials and the evidence presented and other data exchanges will be encrypted using security technologies provided by Alibaba Cloud.

Implications. For people who do not live in Hangzhou area and want to sue someone there based on causes that are within the Cyber-court’s jurisdiction, the new system sure will make that more convenient. It also will likely make rulings on internet and internet related cases more consistent and thereby give more and better guidance to potential and actual litigants

But I also wonder whether all of what has been put under the cyber-court’s jurisdiction makes sense. Take product liability as an example. How is a product liability claim for goods purchased online any different than that for goods purchased physically in a store? In what will the cyber-court be better able to handle such a claim? There may be difference in online and offline purchase agreements for issues such as where the defendant resides, the place of execution or performance of the agreement or jurisdiction. But those are typically answered by existing product liability law, contract law, and civil procedure law and there is no single “Product Liability Law for Cyberspace.” Do we need a separate cyberspace law or is it just the Law of the Horse? Many countries, including China, have separate maritime and IP courts and those have generally worked well. Does it make sense to have a separate court handle internet disputes? I hate to sound trite, but time will tell. Is this a genuine attempt to reform e-commerce and embrace technology? Will this one cyber-court eventually assume nationwide jurisdiction of internet claims (not likely)? Will other regions in China create their own cyber-courts? What have other countries done on this front? Please comment below if you know!

Does it make sense to have the system rely so heavily on one company’s technology (Alibaba’s)? Did it have any real choice? How secure is Alibaba’s technology as to data and privacy protection? What protections are in place to prevent Alibaba from appropriating and using the litigation data?

Finally, as with most new developments involving cyberspace and e-commerce in China much about the cyber-Court remains  unclear and will likely change, and fast. I will be covering the changes so please stay tuned.

China trademark registration
Do these look similar to you? Because they sure do to me.

We first wrote about the Under Armour vs. Uncle Martian dispute last May. At the time it seemed like just another story about a blatant Chinese ripoff, destined to be forgotten with the next month’s news cycle. But the story has kept on going, and was back in the news recently with the report that Under Armour had conclusively prevailed in its trademark infringement case against Tingfeilong Sporting Goods, the Chinese sports manufacturer behind the “Uncle Martian” brand.

According to Under Armour’s lawyers, on June 19, 2017 the Fujian People’s Higher Court issued an injunction requiring Tingfeilong to stop using the infringing “Uncle Martian” trademarks, destroy all infringing products, pay RMB 2,000,000 in damages, and publish a statement to “eliminate the adverse effect” of its infringement. This ruling followed a preliminary injunction issued on November 2, 2016.

The court’s ruling is surprising in two ways. First, it’s surprising that the court issued an injunction at all. Chinese courts are known for being reluctant to issue injunctions because they don’t have the same enforcement power as U.S. courts (China has no equivalent of the U.S. Marshals Service), and issuing an injunction that they know will be ignored just makes them appear weak.

Second, it’s surprising that Tingfeilong continued using its Uncle Martian logo — the infringement is about as blatant as you can get short of an outright copy, and the social media commentary in China was withering. When I wrote about this case last year, I speculated that Tingfeilong’s strategy was to get a bunch of free publicity for their cheesy product launch and the “Uncle Martian” name, then quietly drop the infringing logo and continue selling products using the “Uncle Martian” name. That may still be their strategy, but the penalty may be enough to put them out of business. Assuming they end up paying it. Tingfeilong has appealed the June 19 ruling, and I could imagine a settlement that involves Tingfeilong agreeing not to use the infringing logo so long as they can still use the “Uncle Martian” word mark. Or maybe other shenanigans are afoot – according to the CTMO website, the “Uncle Martian” word marks are now owned by another Chinese company, Quanzhou Changwan Trading Co. (泉州昌万贸易有限公司).

In an interview with Law360, Under Armour’s US counsel offered three lessons from the case. I’ve paraphrased those lessons below in underlined text, with my further comments afterward in italics.

  1. Chinese courts are willing to grant injunctions. Obviously this case is a step in the right direction, but one case is hardly enough to establish a trend. China is not a common law system and a ruling by the Fujian Higher People’s Court’s does not set a precedent. That we even have to discuss this point is noteworthy; in any court system providing meaningful injunctive relief, this case would be a slam-dunk. But it’s not the case that this sort of relief will be readily and easily available. As I understand it, the key to this case is the significant and indisputable evidence of infringement presented by Under Armour at the time it requested an injunction. To submit that amount of evidence takes a lot of time and effort – it’s not just pasting a bunch of screenshots into a complaint. Note that the Uncle Martian knockoffs were first announced last April, and the preliminary injunction wasn’t issued until November. I’m sure Under Armour would have loved to have a TRO in May – as would have happened in the US or EU — but there’s no way they could have prepared the evidence in time.
  2. Local counsel is crucial. Unquestionably true. Non-Chinese firms are not allowed to practice law in China, so it is legally impossible to proceed without a Chinese local counsel. And as with any case here in the US, the better the local counsel, the better your odds. But as the Law360 article implies, to an increasing degree in China what makes local counsel “good” is not their connections with local government officials or their guanxi but rather their expertise in the legal field at issue. That is: if you have a trademark infringement case, hire a firm that excels at IP and has a history with those cases. 
  3. Chinese courts outside Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen are issuing sophisticated, consistent legal rulings. Again, though this ruling is certainly a step in the right direction, one ruling does not make a trend. And the facts in this case were pretty much served up on a silver platter for the court. It would be a stretch to call this a sophisticated ruling, when it was obvious to just about everyone who commented on social media that this was trademark infringement. Another key point is that if you want any shot at enforcing a court ruling in China, you need to file your case in a court with jurisdiction over the defendant. If the company knocking off your products is based in Xi’an, you probably will need to file in Xi’an, like it or not. It should go without saying that you will be better off filing in a second tier city court that has jurisdiction than getting your case tossed out of a court in Shanghai for lack of jurisdiction. 

I would add one additional takeaway, which is implicit in the commentary on the Uncle Martian ruling and hopefully second nature to anyone reading this blog. The only reason Under Armour was even in a position to file this lawsuit was because Under Armour had already registered its trademarks in China. This was not a case of an American company trying to prove that its trademarks were famous in China; this was simply a company enforcing its trademark rights that already existed.

China attorneys One of our China lawyers got a weird call a few weeks from a somewhat distraught clothing manufacturer who had just learned that products his company was having made in China may in fact have been made in North Korea. This person wanted to know whether if that were the case whether he might go to jail. When we told him we didn’t know whether it would be illegal or not and that much would likely depend on how much his company knew about the North Korea connection and when, he very quickly lost his ardor for hiring us.

I thought of that call today while reading an article entitled, North Korea factories humming with ‘Made in China’ clothes, traders say. The article essentially says that some clothes that bear a “Made in China” label are actually being made in North Korea. And some are being made in China by North Korean “guest” workers. The degree of culpability for this sort of thing usually ranges roughly along the following spectrum:

  • Those who know and approve of their products being made in North Korea yet labelled “Made in China.” These companies no doubt like the cost savings.
  • Those who don’t want to know where their products are made and make zero effort to prohibit their products being made in North Korea and make zero effort to monitor where their products are being made.. These companies no doubt also like the cost savings and courts tend to categorize them as “having known or should have known.”
  • Those who are actually making a reasonable effort to make sure the products they are sourcing from China are not being made in North Korea.

Now without even discussing whether having your products made in North Korea, funding (albeit indirectly North Korea), and receiving products made in North Korea is legal or not — and this will vary by country — how do you want to be viewed if you are ever before a judge or a jury in your home country? Do you want to be seen as the person/company that tried to stop your products from being made in North Korea, the company that affirmatively didn’t care or the company that encouraged? Now before you answer that, ask any lawyer (no matter what the law is) which category of client he or she would rather defend. The answer to that is obvious. When facing a judge or a jury, the company/person that looks the best is the one most likely to prevail.

Just imagine if opposing counsel gets into evidence some of the things from this article, including how “In North Korea, factory workers can’t just go to the toilet whenever they feel like, otherwise they think it slows down the whole assembly line.” Or that the workers get to keep only ⅓ of their wages, which are only half those in China to begin with, and yet work from 7:30 a.m. until 10 p.m., or 14.5 hours. If facing a jury with those facts doesn’t scare you, I do not know what will.

So when it comes to North Korea how can you be good to look good? It’s like just about everything else with China and with manufacturing: you put how you want your Chinese counter-party to act in your contract (and if you want that contract to actually work, you do these things as well) and you monitor as best you can whether your Chinese counter-party is actually abiding by the terms in your contract.

Simple yet not so simple. But really important.

Your thoughts?

 

China counterfeit lawyers
X out China counterfeits

Full disclosure. This post is on more than what to do when your product is being counterfeited in China. It also is on what to do to position yourself so that if your product is being counterfeited in China, you will have real options on what to do.

Barely a day goes by without one of our China lawyers getting contacted by an American or European company telling us that its products are being counterfeited and would we please get so and so — either the alleged counterfeiter or the online site on which the counterfeit products are posted — to remove the offending items. Were it only that simple. We have for years been writing about how our lawyers have a near 100% success rate at getting counterfeit products removed from Chinese e-commerce websites like Tmall and Taobao and the same holds true for American websites like Amazon and Ebay. But our success rate depends largely on the advertised product is truly a counterfeit, as that term is commonly defined by lawyers not businesspeople.

All of the big American and Chinese e-commerce sites, including the Alibaba family of sites (Taobao, Tmall, Alibaba, AliExpress, 1688.com, etc.), have formal internal procedures for removing product listings that infringe a third party’s IP rights. To secure the removal of infringing listings, you must follow their procedures to the letter. Among other things, you must provide documentation proving (1) the IP owner’s existence and (2) the IP owner’s rights to the IP in question. Only after you have submitted these documents and had them verified by the e-commerce site can you even submit a takedown request. When you do submit your takedown request (assuming everything goes smoothly), most e-commerce sites will remove the counterfeit products within a week or so. When things don’t go smoothly with a Chinese e-commerce site (which judging from our volume of phone calls is rather frequently) it is vital to have a person on your side who speaks Chinese, understands Chinese intellectual property law, and is experienced in dealing with the particular Chinese website that is posting your products. This person is necessary to get to higher-level employees at the e-commerce site and explain to them why the listing does in fact violate your IP.

To date, we have succeeded with every takedown request seeking the removal of products that infringe our client’s trademarks or copyrights. But probably half the time, we have to tell the potential client there is no point in hiring us for the product removal. Why is that? The below email from one of our China lawyers who regularly works on takedown matters across multiple websites (both in China and elsewhere) explains.

Every Chinese website has its own takedown protocols, and the key to getting products removed is to follow that site’s protocols. You express an interest in suing these websites and we do not advise that unless and until we have sought to get your products taken down and failed. Lawsuits are expensive and based on our track record in securing takedowns, the odds are overwhelming that we will never need to file one on your behalf. To put things in perspective, we have never filed one. The lawsuit you mention against Alibaba deals a lot more with why so many counterfeit products show up on Alibaba websites in the first place than on Alibaba’s failure to take down counterfeit products once on one of their sites.

You are correct that only the copyright or trademark owner or its authorized representative can make takedown requests. However, sites vary as to the sort of authentication they require for a Power of Attorney and most of the sites know our law firm well enough that they almost never require we provide them with a formal Power of Attorney to achieve a takedown.

The most important thing is that we show proof that you have registered your IP (your trademark or your copyright) somewhere. Some Chinese sites sometimes will take down products with foreign IP registrations, but China registrations are always much better. Technically, China is obligated to recognize copyrights registered in any Berne Convention signatory nation, but explaining China’s WTO obligations to a 21-year-old customer service representative seldom works. And as you can probably imagine, securing the removal of copyrighted IP for which a copyright has never been registered anywhere is even more difficult. This is why gaming/video/music companies so often complain about how difficult it is to secure counterfeit takedowns from Chinese websites. By the time they get their China copyright registration and can submit a takedown request, the damage has been done. How many people will still be downloading today’s big game six months from now? US websites are not all that different.

Another thing to consider is that the more sophisticated/well-heeled the website, the more likely it is that they have a formal takedown procedure. For the smaller websites, we generally have to contact someone directly because there are no instructions on the website or they are hopeless. But unless the website is a pirate site (which is rarely the case), it does not want to be sued for hosting counterfeit or pirated items and so long as we do all the work for them, they’ll be happy to take down rogue products and content.

Finally, you should be aware that once this whole takedown process begins, it’s pretty much ongoing. The pirates and counterfeiters don’t just give up because their first upload got taken down. And even if we stop one or two of the counterfeiters, we should expect more to pop up. This is why companies hire us to monitor and report and after we remove the existing counterfeits, we should discuss what sort of future programs make sense for your company and your situation.. One of the things we can and should do though is try to figure out who is doing the counterfeiting, how they are doing it, and what we can do — if anything — to try to stop it or slow it down.

My law firm has an Alibaba account that makes us eligible to seek removal of links that infringe our clients’ IP. We do this by submitting proof of identification and authorization, as well as information regarding the IP which is being infringed upon. This is accomplished by our providing the following to Alibaba: (i) our client’s “business license,” (ii) any formal IP registration documents and (iii) (sometimes) a power of attorney signed by the client, authorizing us to file the complaint on its behalf. We also submit the following information: the IP registration number(s), the title of the IP, the name of the IP owner, the type of IP, the country of registration, the time period during which the IP registration is effective, and the period during which the IP owner wishes to protect its IP rights. We translate these documents into Chinese to make things easier on the Chinese website company and because doing so greatly speeds things up. After submission, it typically takes Alibaba a few days to verify our information.

Once Alibaba verifies the information we provide, we provide the infringing links and removal virtually always quickly occurs. For complaints concerning patent rights, we also need to provide proof of the connection between the infringing material and the IP being infringed. Alibaba normally takes a few more days to process the complaint, which typically consists of passing along the complaint to the infringing party.

If the infringing party does not respond to the complaint within three working days of receipt, either by deleting the infringing link or by filing a cross-complaint, Alibaba will delete the infringing link. Absent prior written permission from Alibaba, the infringing party would then be prohibited from posting the same information on Alibaba again. If the infringing party files a cross-complaint, we would then need to deny the cross-complaint, and then Alibaba would handle the “dispute.” Alibaba normally resolves such disputes within a few days. As you would probably imagine, counterfeiters almost never file a cross-complaint; they typically just slink away.

We have achieved similar results with China’s other leading and legitimate online marketplaces. But as you would expect, China’s smaller and sketchier marketplaces are more problematic when it comes to IP protection.

If your IP (especially your trademark or your copyright) is registered in China, securing the removal from Chinese websites of products that infringe on your IP can be relatively fast and easy. If your IP is registered in a country other than China, securing the removal from Chinese websites of products that infringe on your IP can be accomplished, but not always. If your IP (your unregistered U.S. trademark, for instance, or your unregistered copyright) is not registered anywhere, your best strategy for securing removal of infringing products is to register it first and then seek removal, rather than to seek removal first. The same generally holds true for US websites, but US websites are a lot less likely to remove products that infringe on your patent rights than are Chinese websites. US websites typically take the position that you need a US court order stating that the product or products infringe on your patent for a removal.

In other words, plan now with your IP filings for takedowns later.