The Good Faith Elephant in the IP Trade War

elephant-in-the-room

It is impossible to talk about structural issues in China’s IP regime and its impact upon foreigners without addressing the lack of a comprehensive approach to “bad faith” activities in all its forms in China.  This issue has likely undermined more of  the credibility of the Chinese government than any other in IP, and it has affected the greatest number of US companies.  Chinese officials may not realize it, but every medium to large sized company I have met in the US has been affected by it.

Any lawyer who has counseled a US company on doing business in China knows the drill: before you enter the market there are likely to be trademark squatters, bad faith patent registrants, difficulties in protecting trade secrets used by trusted employees, amongst others.  Even the President has been a victim with squatting on the Trump mark.

China has generated its own vocabulary around bad faith activity.   “IP theft”, a term that has been promoted by the Trump administration, reflects an overarching concern about Chinese tolerance of state-sponsored or willful infringement.  Another similar concept is “forced technology transfer.”  The history of these terms goes back decades.   “Patent hijacking” refers to behavior before 2008 of misappropriating designs and other inventions based on China not requiring absolutely novelty as a condition for patent grants.   A “Naked Bolar” regime refers to a regime which grants an exemption from certain forms of patent infringement without providing a counterpart benefit to an innovator for the erosion of its patent rights (this may be corrected in the proposed patent law revisions).  “Ambush marketing” and “trademark squatting” may  not be new to China, but China remains a focus of these concerns.  China also has some vocabulary of its own which often do not make it into English, such as  “旁名牌” (saddling along famous brands) and patent “cockroaches” (instead of patent trolls).

China has also created global precedent over willful (bad faith) behavior in DS/362, the WTO case involving China’s criminal IP enforcement regime.  As the WTO panel indicated in that case:

“[T]he word “wilful” … precedes the words “trademark counterfeiting or copyright piracy”. This word functions as a qualifier indicating that trademark counterfeiting or copyright piracy is not subject to the obligation in the first sentence of Article 61 unless it is “wilful”. This word, focussing on the infringer’s intent, reflects the criminal nature of the enforcement procedures at issue.”

Good faith may be an underperforming concept in China, but it is also a low-hanging fruit for trade negotiators. It is in Article 4 of the General Principles of the Civil Code as well as Article 6 of the Contract Law.  It was incorporated into Article 7 of the revised Chinese Trademark law.  The Supreme People’s Court recently found that warehousing trademarks without intent to use is a basis for invalidating marks, albeit not under Article 7.  It is part of the Guangdong High Court Rules on SEP disputes in telecommunications (good faith in negotiations).  It is also part of the guidance from the Beijing High Court for handling of patent validity matters.

The problem isn’t that good faith doesn’t exist in China’s IP regime, but that it is selectively applied.  In addition to the examples already cited, it is under consideration in the proposed Patent Law revisions in terms but only for good faith litigation, and it is an underlying concept in punitive damage provisions in the Trademark Law and the proposed Patent Law Revision. The concept has not yet appeared in substantive copyright or trade secret law.  Companies like Taobao are using a determination of “good faith” in facilitating take-downs

Selective application of “good faith” concepts is evident from its inconsistent application across various IP laws.  Why must trademarks be prosecuted in good faith, but not patents? Why is bad faith patent litigation a concern in the proposed patent law revisions, but why not trademark, trade secret, copyright or other IP-related litigation? The concept needs to be utilized to address such difficult issues as the epidemic of low quality patents and bad faith trademarks.  It should not be used to resolve other, easier challenges such as extracting more rents from foreigners in patent litigation as in the Guangdong rules on SEP disputes.  In fact China back-slid in applying good faith concepts while this trade war was brewing.  The removal of “employee” as a covered party (经营者) in China’s revised trade secret law (Anti Unfair Competition Law) facilitates bad-faith employee behavior.

Adjudicating what constitutes good faith need not involve inquiries into subjective attitudes.  Courts and agencies can rely on objective indicia from China’s data-rich environment: companies that file multiple trademarks that they don’t use  them; trademark registrations than use others’ prior rights; on-line merchants  that routinely infringe IP rights; serial violators of injunctions; patents that are routinely invalidated and/or filed based on others’ designs; comprehensive data that shows foreigners that are being treated fairly drawn from China’s new judicial databases;  willful violators of non-compete agreements, and others.

Bringing good faith into full play would be a triple win: good for China’s IP system, good for US rights holders, and good to help re-establish trust between China and other countries.  Trade negotiators may wish to consider it being a part of any “structural” commitment from China in the current trade dispute  It can be implemented by China’s National People’s Congress as a legislative interpretation or as an amendment to China’s civil law, and in specific laws now under consideration (patent law, copyright law).  The SPC at an appropriate time might prepare a judicial interpretation articulating its application in specific circumstances.  It also has the added advantage of being easily monitored, as data analytics can be harnessed to determined if real progress is being made in a wide range of areas.

It is time to bring good faith more directly into China’s IP system.

 

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