Draft Civil Code Technology Contract Law Available for Comment

The NPC has released a draft of the contract chapter of the draft civil code for public comment. According to the NPC Observer, this is the first draft of the entire Civil Code with the final round scheduled for consideration as early as March 2020.  Comments are being accepted by the NPC through January 26, 2020.  According to the NPC Observer the contracts section of the draft had previously been separately published in December 2018.  This blog considers the differences between the contract law provisions and the current draft, as well as the relationship of the draft entire civil code with other legislative changes involving technology contracts.

Chapter 20 of the contract chapter deals with technology contracts. Based on a quick read, several provisions are directed to long-standing concerns, such as ownership of service invention compensation, ownership of improvements (grant backs), indemnities from infringement, and the relationship of contract regulation to China’s Antimonopoly Law and the recently amended Technology Import Export Regulations (TIER).

Some Key Substantive Provisions

Articles 847 and 848 deleted from the prior draft the part  (Arts. 622, 633) that addressed mandatory service invention (employee inventor) compensation, which proposed that “[a] legal person or an unincorporated organization shall extract a certain percentage [emphasis supplied] from the proceeds obtained from the use and transfer of the service technical achievements and award or reward individuals who have completed the service technical achievements.” The draft law thereby appears to carry forward the ambiguity and debate regarding what amount of compensation is required, if any, in addition to salary and other benefits.  This had also been a focus of previous bilateral discussions.

第八百四十七条 职务技术成果的使用权、转让权属于法人或者非法人组织的,法人或者非法人组织可以就该项职务技术成果订立技术合同。法人或者非法人组织订立技术合同转让职务技术成果时,职务技术成果的完成人享有以同等条件优先受让的权利。职务技术成果是执行法人或者非法人组织的工作任务,或者主要是利用法人或者非法人组织的物质技术条件所完成的技术成果。

第八百四十八条 非职务技术成果的使用权、转让权属于完成技术成果的个人,完成技术成果的个人可以就该项非职务技术成果订立技术合同。

Article 847 Where the right to use or transfer a service technical achievement belongs to a legal person or an unincorporated organization, the legal person or unincorporated organization may conclude a technical contract for the service technical achievement. When a legal person or an unincorporated organization concludes a technology contract to transfer service technology achievements, the person who completed the service technology achievements has the right to receive priority transfer on equal terms. The service technical results are the technical results of performing the work tasks of a legal person or an unincorporated organization or mainly using the material and technical conditions of a legal person or an unincorporated organization.

Article 848 The right to use or transfer a non-service technical achievement belongs to the individual who completed the technology achievement, and the individual who completed the technology achievement may conclude a technology contract for the non-service technological achievement.

Articles 849 and 875 addresses ownership of improvements, providing further detail on the implications of the removal of Article 27 in the recently revised Administration of Technology Import Export Regulations (TIER). This provision also supports freedom of contract, by providing that the improving party owns the improvements unless the parties stipulate otherwise.  Article

第八百七十五条 当事人可以按照互利的原则,在合同中约定实施专利、使用技术秘密后续改进的技术成果的分享办法;没有约定或者约定不明确,依照本法第五百一十条的规定仍不能确定的,一方后续改进的技术成果,其他各方无权分享。

Article 875 The parties may agree in the contract in accordance with the principle of mutual benefit and determine how to share the technical results of implementing patents and using technological secrets for subsequent improvements; if there is no agreement or the agreement is not clear, and it is still uncertain according to the provisions of Article 510 of this Law 【regarding  supplemental contractual language】 then the technical results of subsequent improvement by one party shall not be shared by the other parties.

Article 874 also supports freedom of contract by providing for a default but negotiable indemnity against third party infringements or torts.   This language is consistent with the revised Art. 24 of the TIER

第八百七十四条 受让人或者被许可人按照约定实施专利、使用技术秘密侵害他人合法权益的,由让与人或者许可人承担责任,但是当事人另有约定的除外。

Article 874 Where the assignee or the licensee implements a patent or uses proprietary technology to infringe upon the legal rights and interests of others, the assignor or the licensor shall be held liable unless the parties agree otherwise.

Relationship with Other Laws

As indicated, the draft law must also be read in conjunction with the revised TIER and other laws and regulations.  As a higher level, more recent legislation, the Civil Code language would generally be more authoritative than the TIER in the event of any conflict.  Among the provisions that reference other laws and regulations is Article 877 which provides that these other laws and regulations shall normally govern.  Moreover, Article 877 does not expressly restrict the Civil Code from “gap-filling” these other laws and regulations.  It may thereby perpetuate the possibility of government intervention through its vague language such as “mutual benefit”, “monopolize technology”,  “hindering technological development”, ‘infringing technological achievements”, etc.

第八百七十七条 法律、行政法规对技术进出口合同或者专利、专利申请合同另有规定的,依照其规定。

Article 877 If there are laws and administrative regulations on technology import and export contracts or contracts for patents or patent applications, such provisions shall be followed.

The draft law also contains vague references to competition and antimonopoly law.  Article 850 contains identical language to Article 329 of the Contract Law, and Article 864 is nearly identical to Article 343 of the Contract Law:

第八百五十条 非法垄断技术、妨碍技术进步或者侵害他人技术成果的技术合同无效。

Article 850 A technology contract that illegally monopolizes technology, hinders technological progress, or infringes on the technological achievements of others is invalid.

第八百六十四条 技术转让合同和技术许可合同可以约定实施专利或者使用技术秘密的范围,但是不得限制技术竞争和技术发展。

Article 864 A technology transfer contract and a technology license contract may stipulate the scope of patent implementation or use of technology secrets, but they shall not restrict technology competition and technology development.

As with the prior Contract Law and TIER, the law does not clarify the difference between a covenant not to sue or a settlement of an infringement lawsuit on the one hand, and a patent license agreement.  Lawyers drafting such settlement agreements may wish to ensure that default provisions of the Civil Law, such as those regarding indemnities and ownership of improvements do not come into play.

These provisions also further underscore the importance of thorough monitoring of changes on technology transfer, including the TIER, particularly as operational implementation by the courts and administrative agencies, through cases, judicial interpretations, and rule making,  may now be more significant than legislative changes.

In addition to these revisions to China’s contract law in the proposed Civil Code, an Export Control Law has also been released for public comment by the NPC.  The draft law sets up a general export control system and specifically regulates both technologies and services (Art. 2).  Comments are also due January 26, 2020.

Happy New Year to all!

Note: all translations are based on machine translations with minor editing and are not intended to be authoritative.  Please provide any corrections or suggestions on these translations or any additional commentary to the author.  This blog was revised on March 23, 2020 with the assistance of Dr. Xu Xiaofan.

The Trump Administration and China IP Diplomacy: Old Wine In a New Bottle?

Two major China IP events occurred in late November and December. One of them was the long-awaited first phase of a settlement of the US-China trade war.  The second was the nomination of Wang Binying to replace Francis Gurry as Director-General of the World Intellectual Property Organization, a United Nations body and US reaction.  A common thread of concern over “IP Theft” unites the US perspective on these issues.  This is the first of a two-part blog, focusing first on the Phase One effort.

The First Phase Agreement

Although a final text of the 86 page agreement is reportedly being “scrubbed” by both sides to the negotiations, and will not be available until January, the Office of the US Trade Representative has called Phase One

an historic and enforceable agreement on a Phase One trade deal that requires structural reforms and other changes to China’s economic and trade regime in the areas of intellectual property, technology transfer, … The Phase One agreement also…establishes a strong dispute resolution system that ensures prompt and effective implementation and enforcement.

USTR’s fact sheet outlines these accomplishments in IP:

Intellectual Property: The Intellectual Property (IP) chapter addresses numerous longstanding concerns in the areas of trade secrets, pharmaceutical-related intellectual property, geographical indications, trademarks, and enforcement against pirated and counterfeit goods.

Technology Transfer: The Technology Transfer chapter sets out binding and enforceable obligations to address several of the unfair technology transfer practices of China that were identified in USTR’s Section 301 investigation. For the first time in any trade agreement, China has agreed to end its long-standing practice of forcing or pressuring foreign companies to transfer their technology to Chinese companies as a condition for obtaining market access, administrative approvals, or receiving advantages from the government. China also commits to provide transparency, fairness, and due process in administrative proceedings and to have technology transfer and licensing take place on market terms. Separately, China further commits to refrain from directing or supporting outbound investments aimed at acquiring foreign technology pursuant to industrial plans that create distortion.

In light of prior bilateral commitments and accomplishments by the Trump Administration to date, the fact sheet adds little that is new.

Let’s pull the IP paragraph apart:

China has already amended its laws regarding trade secrets and trademarks.  The reference to pharmaceutical-related intellectual property is, however, one welcome encouragement of efforts that were recently proposed in the CCP/State Council Opinionsgulation of November 2019.  These changes were in play before the trade war was launched, but had since been delayed.  This welcome recommitment is well supported by a new national appellate IP court, as well as by a recent decision by the new appellate IP Court combining civil and administrative adjudication in a patent dispute, which may also be a harbinger of a possible combined civil/administrative adjudication with third parties in other areas, such as for patent linkage such as with the China’s food and drug authorities or patent authorities.

USTR refers to the Phase One agreement as addressing “long-standing concerns” about trade secrets and “enforcement against pirated and counterfeit goods.”  One of the “long-standing concerns” in trade secrets involved enhancing administrative enforcement of trade secrets.  This commitment was expressed in the 2012 US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue and incorporated into plans of the National Leading Group.  Efforts to enhance “enforcement” against pirated and counterfeit goods appear is also redolent of increased administrative enforcement more generally – which downplays the significant changes underway in China’s judicial system, and have been the subject of numerous bilateral commitments under the former Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade.  For unknown reasons, many of the earlier JCCT commitments are no longer easily retrievable online, however, a list of commitments was prepared by GAO for the years 2004-2012, which demonstrates their long history.

Several factors combine to suggest that the US and China may be committing to a renewed focus on administrative enforcement: the role that administrative enforcement has played in the recent CPC-State Council Opinions on IP and other regulations, proposed legislation, and recent campaigns, and the problem of a long trade war without any acknowledged results which is affecting the markets and may drag into a presidential election cycle.  Late-term administrations may also be tempted to condone campaign-style IP enforcement, which can generate impressive enforcement statistics but have limited deterrence or long-term sustainability.    As Prof. Dimitrov has noted, IP campaigns are typically a “rapid resolution of a major problem,” done in response to a crisis or political pressure.  Prof. Mertha, another political scientist, described prior commitments to enforcement campaigns as part of the  “red face test: could the USTR state at a press conference, with a straight face, that the [trade] agreement was a good one.”  After much pain and drama, the Administration may yet be placing old wine in a new bottle, “rounding up the usual” enforcement outcomes —  as it ignores the scholarly literature surrounding campaign-driven outcomes of twenty to thirty years ago.  If these observations on Phase One are correct, then the goal of “structural change” in IP enforcement is illusive.

An administrative campaign focus would also ignore the low hanging fruit of China’s recent improvements and experiments in civil enforcement as well as pushing for further reform in administrative enforcement.  The Phase One Fact Sheet omits such pressing matters as continuing improvements in civil enforcement, long-standing problems with administrative enforcement transparency, promising developments in development of judicial precedent, the experiment of a new national appellate IP court similar to the CAFC,  the recent decline in foreign-related civil enforcement transparency, the dramatic decline in criminal IP enforcement including trade secret enforcement in the last several years, the need for rightsholders to have observable means of monitoring a trade agreement outcome in such areas as forced technology transfer or IP enforcement, or the impact of China’s aggressive antitrust regime on IP protection and commercialization, among other issues.   Enhanced punitive enforcement in enforcement, which both the US and China have also been calling for, may similarly be inconsistent with the primary goal of adequate compensation to victims of infringement. Furthermore, absent adequate procedural and substantive safeguards, this could also result in punishments being handed out to foreigners, as they have in the past.

The focus of an IP regime should instead be on transparency, fairness and adequate compensatory civil damages. Due to the many perceived weaknesses of China’s IP enforcement regime, the 2019 US-China Business Council, for example,  has noted in its 2019 survey that IPR enforcement was rated number 6 among the top 10 business challenges faced by the survey respondents.

The technology transfer language also contains much of the same old wine.  China committed to not conditioning foreign investment on technology transfer long before this trade war when it joined the WTO (2001).  It agreed at that time to provide for the “elimination and cessation of … technology transfer requirements” and that “the terms and conditions of technology transfer, production processes or other proprietary knowledge, particularly in the context of an investment, would only require agreement between the parties to the investment.“  Based on the Phase One fact sheet, it is also hard to see how Phase One agreement will add to the important additional legislative changes on this issue that China enacted earlier this year.

Rather than focus on legislative changes, the nature of the continued subsistence of forced technology transfer (FTT) is probably the more important trade issue at this time.  The 2019 Business Climate Survey of the American Chamber of Commerce in China characterized FTT as an “operational”, rather than a “legal” challenge, and placed technology transfer issues fifth in priority among IP-related concerns, well behind IP enforcement, with only 8 percent of respondents reporting it as the most significant IP issue their company faces.  This also appears to be the perspective of Prof. Prud’homme in his December 2019 presentation to the OECD, which outlines how FTT manifests itself.  Depending on the industrial sector, the Business Climate Survey notes that 41-58% of companies reported no difference in the amount of technology they shared with Chinese companies compared to other markets.  The US-China Business Council survey reached similar conclusions: technology transfer concerns ranked 24 out of 27 top concerns in the market. The Business Council further noted that only 5 percent of survey respondents report being asked to transfer technology in the past three years, yet the issue is an acute concern of affected companies in key sectors.

Has FTT declined as an issue of concern?  Earlier surveys by business chambers, before the trade war, suggested a higher incidence of FTT than is currently being reported.   Scholars and practitioners have also estimated that this issue has been exaggerated by the administration.  US data on sales of technology to China show a continued increase in technology licenses, as well as increases in licenses to unrelated parties, which may suggest greater confidence in the market and legal system.  One may argue about the sufficiency of the data, although the legal reforms and recent changes confirm to me that the principle strategic issue is how to ensure that technology is not lost through extra-legal /“operational” measures.

Another concern is that remedies for FTT  may end up again being another opaque process that may not bring the necessary relief.  As with the continuing emphasis on administrative enforcement of IP, China’s legislative efforts to date suggest that a principal remedy would be administrative remedies, as proposed implementing regulations to China’s Foreign Investment Law already suggest.

Conclusion: Is IP Any Different?

One of the better general overviews of the Phase One agreement had been written by Scott Kennedy for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  Scott’s article “A Fragile and Costly US-China Trade Peace” notes that  “ [I]n the short-term China and Xi Jinping are the clear winners. With only limited concessions, China has been able to preserve its mercantilist economic system and continue its discriminatory industrial policies at the expense of China’s trading partners and the global economy. “

The fact sheet for Phase One suggests that further dramatic improvements since the notable accomplishments of earlier this year may not be in the offing.  Perhaps these will be negotiated as part of any “Phase Two” deal.  For the moment, there is certainly nothing in these outcomes which sets forth a “structural change” such as might include a shift to a private property oriented approach to IP, including support of a civil system, a more limited role for the administrative system and less state intervention into IP protection, enforcement, and commercialization.  There is also no reference to the greater transparency necessary to enable rightsholders and governments to understand how China’s enforcement mechanisms operate to protect private rights in China’s socialist market economy.

Now, let’s see what the scrubbed text brings…

Upcoming blog: on the nomination of Wang Binying to WIPO Director-General.