IMPACT OF RECENT AML LEGISLATION ON THE IPR/ANTITRUST INTERFACE

This blog provides an update on recent legislative developments involving the interface between IP and China’s Anti-Monopoly law. On November 28, 2019, SAMR published the Anti-Monopoly Compliance Guidelines for Undertakings (Draft for Public Comment) (“Draft Compliance Guidelines”) 经营者反垄断合规指南(公开征求意见稿), which according to SAMR is specifically intended to “encourage undertakings’ compliance with China’s Anti-Monopoly Law” 鼓励经营者合规经营. Comments were due on February 12, 2019.  On January 2, 2020, SAMR issued the Draft Amendments to China’s AML (Draft for Public Comment)反垄断法”修订草案 (公开征求意见稿) (“Draft AML Amendments”). Comments were due on January 31, 2020. These documents, along with the changes from the government reorganization coming China’s three antitrust agencies into one, may suggest new approaches to antitrust regulation and enforcement in the future in China. 

The ABA’s Antitrust Law and International Law Sections submitted comments to SAMR on the Draft Compliance Guidelines as well as the Draft AML Amendments. We welcome receiving comments that other organizations submitted on these proposed laws to publish or link on this blog.

According to the NPC Observer, the Draft AML Amendments are on the State Council’s calendar for the 13th NPC Standing Committee Legislative Plan. It is a priority Class II Project. According to the recent government reorganization, it would otherwise be expected that Ministry of Justice would prepare a draft of the AML revisions for consideration by the State Council which would then forward on to the NPC for three readings. This Draft AML Amendments appear to be an effort to ‘test the water’ or perhaps ‘jump start’ the revision process, as it is drafted at an earlier stage than the NPC calendar might otherwise require. China’s National Copyright Administration undertook a similar effort with the long-stalled copyright law amendments, by publishing its own draft for public comment, which eventually became a State Council draft for public comment in June of 2014.

From an IP perspective, there are several items that are worth noting: 

The first one is that Article 55 of AML (Article 62 of the Draft) stayed unchanged and there is no new IP-related content added to this draft amendment. This article provides:

“This Law does not govern the conduct of undertakings to exercise their intellectual property rights under laws and relevant administrative regulations on intellectual property rights; however, undertakings’ conduct to eliminate or restrict market competition by abusing (or misusing) their intellectual property rights are governed by this Law.”

Article 55 has been the subject of considerable discussion among academics and practitioners and is ambiguous in its scope, including the relationship between the legitimate exercise of an IP right and an anticompetitive act, the relationship with Contract Law and proposed Civil Code provisions on monopolization of technology, the difference between “IP abuse” and “misuse”, the impact of administrative rules 行政法规 and AML guidelines on Article 55, and ultimately whether the AML creates some kind of safe harbor against charges of monopolization.   

An example of the unsure relationship between the legitimate exercise of IP rights and competition law might be price-based claims for securing a license to a patent, which arguably restricts certain competition in the market but would otherwise constrain a patentee’s rights to license or charge prices as it sees fit (see, e.g., Art. 28 of the TRIPS Agreement, Arts. 65, 68 of Chinese Patent Law). Most high pricing cases to date in China have involved standards essential patents, where a FRAND commitment may be involved that arguably mitigates against letting market prices fully determine patent values. However, these cases may not take into account the lawful rights authorized by Chinese IP law including the right to charge market prices and to seek an injunction when a right is infringed, which is also arguably within the scope of AML Article 55/revision Article 62.

In a similar vein, the notion of essential facilities is not mentioned in both drafts, which means China may not be ready to fully support an essential facility doctrine in national legislation at this time. However, companies that manage IP assets, particularly in the standardization context, may still need to pay attention to this issue to minimize their IP risk related essential facilities claims/abuse of market dominance, particularly as the essential facilities doctrine continues to have an active influence in administrative enforcement and policy making, as well as in policy decisions involving SEP’s.

Article 20(6) of the Draft AML Amendments lists several types of abusive acts, including “discriminating among transacting parties on transaction conditions without justified reasons” (没有正当理由,对交易相对人在交易价格等交易条件上实行差别待遇).  The current AML additionally required that the discrimination arise from “identical circumstances” (or “an equal footing” in the MofCOM translation) as a condition to a claim of discriminatory pricing (Art. 17(6)). This may create additional uncertainty in IP licensing due to potential AML risks, because the reasons for removal of “identical circumstances” are unclear, the scope of what is a “justified reason” in a licensing transaction is also unclear, and IP licenses are typically not commodity or mass produced agreements but are custom-negotiated based on a range of factors including the role of any actual or threatened litigation, markets and market penetration, tax planning, any cross-licensing, etc. 

Article 14 of the Draft AML Amendments prohibits both horizontal and vertical agreements that “exclude or restrict competition” offers another possible distinction from the current AML.  Article 13 of the current AML requires a finding of “excluding or restricting competition” only with respect to horizontal monopoly agreements. While the courts have generally adopted a fact-based, rule of reason type approach to this issue, administrative agencies were more inclined to find such agreements vertical agreements illegal per se, subject to a few exceptions. This Draft AML Amendments clarify this issue, which could have an important impact on licensing transactions by requiring an analysis of competitive impact and would be more consistent with TRIPS Article 40, which regulates “licensing practices or conditions that … constitute an abuse of intellectual property rights having an adverse effect on competition in the relevant market.” (emphasis supplied).

Two other provisions worth noting are Articles 18 and 21 of the AML Draft Amendments. Article 18 would tighten the requirements for receiving an exemption from an otherwise offending monopolistic agreement by requiring that it gives rise to efficiencies such as improving technology or improving research and development, that are “necessary” for the claimed efficiencies to be realized. The ABA has suggested that this language would require a “hindsight” type of analysis and that Article 18 be revised to soften this condition by requiring only that the agreement be “reasonably necessary” to achieve the claimed efficiencies.  

Article 21 lists factors that may be used to determine whether an undertaking has a dominant market position, and adds new additional factors for the Internet sector including network effects, economies of scale, lock-in effects, and data control and handling capabilities. The ABA has suggested that it is inappropriate to have industry specific legislation for the Internet sector, that these factors may equally apply to other industrial sectors, and that requirements of this type are best reserved for “implementing regulations or guidelines.” 

The Draft Compliance Guidelines, like other administrative rule makings are not mandatory and have no binding legal force. The Guidelines provide general guidance on anti-monopoly compliance of business operators. Most of its contents have already been stipulated in the previous Anti-Monopoly Law and related guidelines.   

Neither the AML Draft or Draft Compliance guidelines offer any specific guidance regarding management of patent pools, obtaining clearance from SAMR for a pool, or operation of a licensing regime.

The absence of more detailed consideration of IP issues in these two documents is rather surprising considering discussion in other venues. Although the US government complained about antitrust enforcement in China in the Section 301 investigation, noting that “several submissions asserted that Chinese AML authorities use the AML as a tool to advance industrial policy rather than to protect competition”, there were also no references to the AML in the Phase 1 Trade Agreement. Chinese courts have also been addressing issues regarding abuse of dominance and standardization through documents such as the Trial Adjudication Guidance for Standard Essential Patent Dispute Cases promulgated by Guangdong High People’s Court, and the Beijing High Court’s Guidance for Patent Infringement Determination. In addition, IAM has also recently reported that there is a significant increase in SEP-related litigation in China, including foreign vs. foreign and foreign vs. Chinese cases. China has also recently become an important venue for resolution of international SEP licensing disputes. Perhaps the wiser approach is to let these contentious cases be resolved one by one, rather than risk over-legislating in an evolving area where there has been considerable political attention.

Prepared by Mark Cohen and Xu Xiaofan

 

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