Visit to the Intermediate People's Court

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As visitors to China, Professor Gibbons and I were given a rare opportunity this week to observe a copyright case in the Wuhan Intermediate People's Court. While the courts are generally open to Chinese citizens, foreigners are not allowed to observe without permission of the court. Professor Gibbons' research assistant at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law was able to obtain this permission for us. In order to improve the handling of IP disputes, China has created a special system for trying cases involving intellectual property. Cases are heard in The Intellectual Property Trial Chamber of Intermediate People's Courts, not a lower trial court. The Intermediate People's Court is an intermediate court of appeal, although it is the court of first instance for IP cases. I found the following site on the web that seems to do a nice job of explaining the court system.

We observed a copyright case involving the allegedly infringing broadcast of a Chinese movie. The local Wuhan TV station had broadcast a 2003 film made in Hong Kong (it was described to me as a Chinese James Bond type movie). They edited the movie extensively by adding in advertisements, and had a commentator talk about the movie during the breaks. The plaintiff was the Hong Kong distributor, and allegedly its producer. The Wuhan company had licensed the film from a Beijing company, which had apparently obtained rights to the movie in mainland China. The two main disputed issues were whether the Hong Kong company could prove it was the owner of the copyright, and whether adding the advertising and commentary created a derivative work that infringed the copyright.

The case was heard by a panel of 3 judges. The panel was lead by a presiding judge, although one of the other judges had direct responsibility for the case. As I understood the procedure, the case consisted of two basic phases, the cross examination of evidence, and the debate. The cross examination phase had 3 parts. First, the lawyers gave their opening statements; second, they presented their arguments about the disputed evidence; and third, the judges examined the lawyers about the facts. Interestingly, there were no witnesses, not even a witness box. Apparently IP cases are handled almost entirely by documentary evidence. While it is possible to have witnesses testify, it is rare, because the Chinese civil courts do not have the power to compel testimony, according to the presiding judge. He was quite surprised, and impressed, with the subpoena and contempt powers an American judge has to force people to come to court. Discovery is now possible in China, and so the only evidence that is examined is the disputed evidence.

The second phase was the debate, or what I would call closing arguments. The debate period is literally a debate, because both sides have an opportunity to rebut the other side's arguments. The trial lasted about 2 hours. I would compare the trial to a summary judgment hearing in our system. The judges took the case under advisement, and told us they expected to issue a decision within a month or so.

Here are a couple of pictures from the court: 

Picture of Bench

Picture with Judge responsible for case.