The Changing Legislative Landscape of Trade Secret Protection in China

This blog is a supplement to my prior blog on the recent TM law and AUCL revisions.  Attached is a bilingual translation provided by the Quality Brands Protection Committee (QBPC) of the recent revisions to the Trademark Law and Anti-Unfair Competition Law (AUCL).   This blog focuses on the trade secret amendments.  And thank you, QBPC!

The trade secret amendments by themselves are promising.  The NPC, recognizing their importance, took the unusual step of making the amendments immediately effective, unlike the Trademark Law amendments which have a delayed effective date.

Perhaps the most critical change addressed the problem created by prior amendments to the AUCL which removed natural persons from the scope of covered entities.  The logic at that time appeared to be that natural persons were covered under the definition of trade secrets provided in the General Outline of the Civil Code (GOCC),  中华人民共和国民法总则 (Art. 123).  However, the inconsistency between the AUCL and the GOCC created unnecessity ambiguities that these amendments help address.

The AUCL revisions also expand the remedies for trade secret protection by imposing liability on “inciting” or “abetting” (教唆)trade secret theft.  Inciting or abetting is an inchoate offense under the Chinese Criminal Law (Art. 29), and it also appears in China’s Tort Law (Art. 9), as well as in actual or proposed IP legislation, such as a 2012 Judicial Interpretation regarding online copyright liability.   This would appear to expand the scope of liability for those who facilitate or organize a trade secret infringement.

The AUCL also “borrows” the concept of quintupled damages if bad faith infringement is found.  This is similar to the new TM law revisions that provide for quintuple damages if there is malicious 恶意infringement.  I am not certain, however, if this provision will have its desired effect of deterring infringement, at least in the short term for two reasons: statutory damages still remain the principal remedy in most IP cases, and cases where actual damages are imposed and could be multiplied are also rare. Nonetheless, this provision could become of increasing importance as Chinese courts experiment with calculating actual damages.  Moreover, quintuple damages may not only be in place to deter infringement and better compensate rightsholders but also to assist in improving the leading role of the civil IP system compared to the criminal and administrative systems in China.

The revised law also clarifies that “electronic intrusion” to obtain trade secrets is an enumerated infringing act (Art. 9), which is in line with other computer crime laws in China such as the Criminal Law  (Art. 285).  This language may be helpful in prosecuting those civil cases where a computer intrusion was involved.  Although my data on trade secret cases involving electronic intrusions in China was very limited (from 2012) it had suggested that cyber intrusions were a  small percentage of China’s civil trade secret docket, perhaps because these matters were pursued through other legal channels.   If readers have more recent data or analysis on this issue, please provide them to me in comments to this blog.

The revised AUCL also provides for a burden of proof reversal (Art. 32).  Jim Pooley described  this provision as the “most promising” among trade secret legislative developments, as it “involves shifting the burden of proof in cases where the circumstantial evidence seems strong—such as the development of a similar product in an unusually short time after access to the plaintiff’s secrets—and requiring the defendant to prove independent development.”  According to Article 32 a rights holder that has preliminarily proven that it  has taken reasonable confidentiality measures on the claimed trade secrets and has preliminary evidence reasonably demonstrating 初步证据合理表明 that its trade secrets have been infringed upon, can shift the burden of proof (BOP) to the infringer to prove that the trade secrets claimed by the right holder do not belong to those as prescribed in this law. The preliminary evidence that may be provided by the rights holder includes: “evidence proving that the alleged infringer has channels or opportunities of obtaining the trade secrets and that the information it uses is substantially the same as the trade secrets“ or “evidence proving that the trade secrets have been disclosed or used by the alleged infringer or have risks of being disclosed or used” or “there is other evidence proving that the trade secrets have been infringed upon by the alleged infringer.”

This is a notable development.   However, the history of BOP reversals in China suggests that such provisions have not always had their expected impact.  Importantly, BOP reversals in process patent cases are required to be available under Article 34 of the TRIPS Agreement and under China’s Patent Law (Art. 61). Stringent requirements, such as requiring that the infringing product is identical with the one accused of violating the manufacturing process, have made it difficult to successfully bring these cases in China.  Most importantly, the low level of publication of trade secret cases, as well as the non-publication of interim orders, may mean that the public will have little insight into how courts handle actual cases, including this BOP reversal.   Trade secrets are perhaps the most opaque area of China’s IP enforcement regime, making it also very difficult to judge when significant improvements are being made.

Another difficulty may occur in ascertaining what constitutes a willful infringement and compensating for it.  Trade secret cases necessarily involve an act that circumvents or ignores precautions taken by the rightsholder.  The fact that such an inappropriate act may have been wrong, willful or even premeditated, also does not necessarily mean that the rightsholder suffered serious losses.  A good example of this is the recent case brought by the US Department of Justice against Huawei, involving the theft of T-Mobile technology and related behavior.   A  prior civil jury verdict related to one aspect of that case found that Huawei’s acts constituted trade secret misappropriation, but declined to award damages or to find that the actions were willful and malicious.

Another challenge, also identified by Jill Ge at Clifford Chance, is that Chinese courts may yet remain intent on using patent doctrines such as ‘novelty’ to determine that a given technology is not a protectable trade secret because it is otherwise in the public domain according to patent law doctrines.  Additionally, as I have noted this approach inappropriately “provid[es] a non-infringement defense based on modifying misappropriated technology,” that is a court may determine that the accused infringer did not use the precise technology and therefore there is no trade secret theft, borrowing perhaps from patent law doctrines regarding conduct that constitutes infringement (make, use or sell).  This problem of borrowing patent law doctrines into technical trade secret cases may be magnified by the experience and background of the technologically oriented IP judges in the IP courts or their IP assessors whose experienced has principally been informed by patent litigation.

In an unrelated development which also highlights the importance of making appropriate linkages between the civil and criminal trade secret regimes, US Deputy Assistant Attorney General Adam Hickey  recently gave a speech on national security and trade secret theft (April 24, 2019).  Reflecting on recent criminal prosecutions against Chinse nationals he noted:

“[T]here are trade secret cases where we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Chinese government itself directed the theft.  …  But although we could not prove in court that these thefts were directed by the Chinese government, they are in perfect consonance with the Chinese government’s economic policy. “

China’s problem seems to be the reverse of the United States, by its historical underemphasizing of criminal remedies.  Although the AUCL amendments incorporate many notable improvements, they also do not address weaknesses in the criminal IP regime for trade secrets, the low level of criminal trade secret cases, and the widening differences that now exist between civil and criminal cases in such areas as proof of infringement.    All countries seeking to protect trade secrets need to strike the correct social balance between civil and criminal enforcement of trade secret theft.  DOJ’s inabilities to secure convictions also demonstrate the necessity in the US of having effective civil remedies, including 337 actions.    An integrated, stand-alone trade secret law in China that incorporates civil, criminal and administrative remedies, as well as doctrines from labor law, contract law, corporate law, and other areas, could help secure a more advanced, holistic perspective on how China should address trade secret infringements.  To address cross-border trade secret infringements, foreign government judicial cooperation in facilitating discovery, taking depositions, and enforcing judgments would also help improve the bilateral environment in this area.  In addition, China might consider additional policies that make it harder to engage in “efficient” trade secret theft, where costs of being caught are less than the cost of innovating on one’s own.  Such policies might include government procurement debarment for products using stolen technologies, invalidation of patents granted on the basis of misappropriated technologies and debarment from the Chinese patent office, return of any subsidies or grants for developing the technology, and denial or revocation of recognition capital contributions of technology for tax or other purposes, amongst other possibilities.


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