Patent ownership disputes arise, when a party challenges the ownership of a patent right at the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) and files suit with the People’s Court to seek rectification of the ownership of the patent. Article 135 of the General Principles of Civil Law of the PRC (Civil Law) provides that "unless otherwise stipulated by law, the statute of limitations to file civil actions with the People’s Court shall be 2 years." The PRC Patent Law (Patent Law) provides no specific provision regarding the statute of limitations in patent ownership disputes. Hence, issue arises as to whether the court can, upon the defendant’s request, dismiss the plaintiff’s claim for patent ownership due to the statute of limitations for civil actions.
One opinion is that patent ownership claims should be subject to the 2-year statute of limitations principle provided by Article 135 of the Civil Law, as there are no other provisions under the Patent Law stipulating otherwise. The date should be calculated from the date of announcement for granting the patent right.
Others argue that patent ownership disputes should be deemed as disputes under patent infringement and be handled under Article 23 of the Several Provisions of the Supreme People’s Court on Issues Relating to Application of Law in the Trial of Patent Disputes (Judicial Interpretation  No.20) (Interpretation), which provides that, while the patent is effective and infringement continues, patent infringement actions shall not be restricted by a statute of limitations.
A third opinion holds that the patent right is an absolute right and right in rem. Therefore, it has the same judicial characteristics as jus in re in conventional civil law. Under PRC law, the provisions on statute of limitations do not apply to enforcement by action in rem. Accordingly, patent ownership disputes is not subject to the 2-year statute of limitations.
According to legislative intent, the statute of limitations only applies to the right to petition. Other rights, such as ownership, personal right, are rights of property dominion in nature, and thus are not subjected to the statute of limitations. Therefore, statute of limitations should not apply to non-credit patent ownership disputes.
China currently rejects adverse possession, because of its inherent conflict with traditional Chinese values and social principles. If the People’s Courts refuse to grant trial due to statute of limitations, the rightful patent owner may lose his patent rights, and the announced patentee will, in all practicality, obtain the patent rights. The result is nothing short of adoption of adverse possession in China and conflicts with legislative principles of the Civil Law.
A statute of limitations only deprives the plaintiff’s right to file suit, but the substantive right of ownership still exists. Dismissal due to statute of limitations does not mean that the People’s Court has recognized the patentee as the legitimate patent owner and neither affirms nor denies the patent ownership status granted by the SIPO. As a result, it causes a strange situation, where legal ownership of the patent is in limbo. The ambiguities in law disrupt the social and legal relations derived from the patent rights, and will hinder the actuation of patented technology.
A patent not only brings economic benefits to the patentee, but also good reputation or recognition. Therefore, patent ownership disputes inherently involve a matter of deprivation of right to good reputation or recognition. This is pertains to a personal right, which does not vanish with the expiry of the patent right. Statute of limitations is not applicable to personal rights.
In general, the purposes of a statute of limitations are: (a) to stabilize social legal relations; (b) to encourage the timely protection of rights; (c) to avoid evidentiary difficulties. However, there is no reasonable basis for applying the statute of limitations to patent ownership disputes.
Settlement of patent ownership disputes does not affect already established legal relations. Patents are, in essence, intangible knowledge or information. Neither the patent owner nor any others can control technology or design in the same way as a tangible object. Possession and transfer of patent rights are not legally enforceable without SIPO’s registration and announcement procedures. If a third party obtains a patent license in good faith, his reliance interest is protected by law and won’t be affected by the rightful patent owner’s claim. The rightful patent owner’s claims for compensation, license fees and assignment fees are obviously the creditor’s claims and subject to the statute of limitations. In short, established legal relations, as protected under the systems of public credibility and statute of limitations, will not be undermined by rectification of ownership.
The loss of evidence due to the extended lapse of time is only a theoretical presumption. Such presumption might be correct in certain cases, but not in all cases. If the plaintiff fails to meet his burden of proof, the court may apply the Right Presumption Principle. Any such plaintiff willingly risks defeat, if he does not exercise his rights timely. This basic principle of civil proceedings is not unique to the nature of a statute of limitations but inherent in litigation. Therefore, evidentiary difficulties cannot justify application of statute of limitations to patent ownership disputes.
The second opinion asserts a statute of limitation exemption for continuous infringement is applicable to patent ownership disputes. Article 23 of the Interpretations exempts patent infringements, namely, exploitation of the patent without the patentee’s consent and authorization. Since the patent infringements are not patent ownership disputes, such opinion that an exemption is available is unconvincing. Furthermore, although this opinion addresses the issue of statute of limitations in duration of patent, it does not indicate whether patent ownership disputes are subject to the statute of limitations after expiration of the patent.
The third opinion asserts that patent ownership disputes are peculiar and should not be subject to the statute of limitations. This opinion is feasible in practice for it reasonably settles conflicts between jurisprudence and legal provisions through the interpretation of laws, and thus incorporate jurisprudence and judicial practice.
As Chinese law has not yet explicitly stipulated the application range of the statute of limitations, judges should be allowed to exercise judicial discretion on a case-by-case basis and exclude the patent ownership disputes from the provisions of Article 135 of the General Principles.
We hope that the future PRC Civil Law may provide more reasonable and detailed stipulations on this issue.