More Encouraging News of Trade Secret Reform… But Is It Always Good for the Foreign Community?

James Pooley posted a great blog on IPwatchdog on the recently released draft judicial interpretation on trade secrets (the “Trade Secrets JI”).  In his blog, “Has China Finally Embraced Trade Secret Protection ”,  Mr. Pooley discusses aspects of the draft JI that embrace or expand upon US practices including: “combination secrets”, “reasonable efforts”, “indirect misappropriation”, “head start injunction” and apportionment of damages based on fault.   Mr. Pooley also notes that “this most recent pronouncement seems in some respects to go beyond what was required [from the Phase 1 Trade Agreement], and in those respects also seems to reflect an imprint of U.S. practices.“  I agree.

Individuals who expect all of China’s recent IP reforms to be in response to US pressure are, for the most part, likely to be pleasantly disappointed — for the most part.   As an example, the Trade Secrets JI also reflect China’s own evolving practices in trade secrets and other areas, including the availability of punitive damages, the emergence of a limited discovery regime, and implied obligations of confidentiality notwithstanding the non-existence of an NDA (see Contract law, Art. 43, now amended by the Civil Code).  Moreover, the evolving system in China for trade secrets will likely also benefit by the increasing competence of the IP tribunals and courts, including the “three in one” courts which combine civil, criminal and administrative IP jurisdiction.  As noted in another recent blog, China is also seeking to improve its criminal IP enforcement regime through more further development of the three-in-one system, and further development of evidentiary standards in criminal cases, as well as more active roles for prosecutors and police, among other measures.

While the ink is hardly dry on this Trade Secrets JI, China has since announced two other draft JI’s for public comment:  “Some Provisions on Evidence in Intellectual Property Litigation (Consultation Draft)” (the “Evidence JI”)  and the “Opinions on Increasing the Level of Sanctions for Intellectual Property Infringement (Consultation Draft)”(the “Sanctions JI”)《关于知识产权民事诉讼证据的若干规定(征求意见稿)》《关于加大知识产权侵权行为制裁力度的意见(征求意见稿)》(June 15, 2020)。 Comments are due by July 31, 2020.

Here is a quick summary of the trade-secret related provisions in the Evidence  JI:

Article 19 addresses granting protective order for evidence preservation purposes and provides that if a party is a subject of an evidence protection order and claims that a trade secret is involved, the party that requests the evidence protection order cannot participate in on-site evidence preservation procedures,but can engage an attorney, patent agent or another person with specialized IP knowledge (collectively “authorized representatives”) to sign the protective order.

Article 23 authorizes the appointment of expert appraisers to determine if a claimed trade secret consists of information in the public domain, or to determine the differences between the claimed trade secret and the alleged infringing technological information.

The third chapter of this JI regulates the exchange of evidence and includes several provisions regarding protective orders.  Article 31 grants the court authority to structure a protective order to limit access to authorized representatives.  Disclosure of information subject to protective orders shall be limited to the proceeding where the protective order was issued.  Sanctions may be imposed for unauthorized disclosure (Art. 32).  Consent to a protective order once given cannot be withdrawn.  The parties are also free not to engage in an exchange of information  (Art. 34).  Procedures are also established for challenging the secrecy of evidence, including providing rebuttal evidence and cross-examination of witnesses.  If a party succeeds in having the information considered as non-secret, it shall be considered as such during the proceeding (Art. 35).

Here are some provisions in the Sanctions JI:

Expedited proceedings are provided for serial infringers.  In addition, punitive damages should be imposed on serial infringers (Arts. 9, 20, 21). If actual damages are proven, they should be provided to the rights-holder (Art. 10).  Punitive damages should be imposed for their deterrent effect (Art. 13). Reasonable attorneys’ fees may be provided if there is a willful infringement and in a complex case (Art. 17). Attorneys’ fees and other expenses shall be compensated for in the case of malicious litigation where the right is unjustly obtained or there is not a substantial basis for its exercise (Art. 19).

Of particular note is Article 20: Serial infringers of IP rights, as well as those  who steal commercial secrets for foreign agencies, organizations or individuals, shall be subject to severe penalties according to law and generally no probation shall be applied 境外的机构、组织、人员侵犯商业秘密的情形,依法从重处罚,一般不得适用缓刑.

One may ask: why is theft of trade secrets for foreigners being singled out? Article 20 may be China’s response to cases brought against foreigners under the US Economic Espionage Act or similar foreign laws.   However, the EEA requires action “benefit[ing] a foreign government, instrumentality or agent” in 18 USC Sec. 1831.  Article 20 does not, however, single out these security concerns arising from state-drive trade secret misappropriation.

Fairness suggests that those engaged in IP theft on behalf of foreigners should also be afforded the opportunity to avail themselves of defenses otherwise available if a Chinese party were the beneficiary of the trade secret misappropriation. This is also consistent with the requirement under the TRIPS Agreement that punishment is proportionate to crimes “of a corresponding gravity” (Art. 61), and that judicial procedures are “fair and equitable” (Arts. 41 and 42).  The TRIPS obligations to afford national treatment (Art. 1) should also equally apply to a defendant in a proceeding – that he or she should not be singled out because of having worked for a foreigner.  A similar logic applies to the cases brought against the United States involving national treatment under our Section 337 remedy; a heavier defense burden had been placed on foreign entities compared to domestic entities. The provision could also lead to a de facto denial of national treatment for a foreign investor in China who finds that police or prosecutors may be less likely to initiate a case unless there is a trade secret theft that benefits an overseas entity where a heavier sentence could be imposed.  Moreover, this provisions flips US concerns on their head: it does nothing to address the concerns that the United States has expressed regarding trade secret theft in China of US-origin trade secrets, since this law addresses  thefts that were undertaken on behalf of a US entity, not from the overseas entity.

Once any country advocates for more deterrent penalties, it should consider that such penalties may also be applied to non-Chinese defendants, including one’s own nationals, which this provision could easily encompass through its focus on actions on behalf of foreign entities.  To the extent this provision is used to target foreign actors as well as actors for foreign entities, the TRIPS Agreement provides little in the way of guard rails to ensure equality of treatment in IP enforcement proceedings.  Many foreigners are already concerned, as they fear being denied authorization to leave China arising from allegations of civil violations.  In addition, there have also been several precedential IP cases over the years where foreign parties may have served as “guinea pigs” for more deterrent sanctions,  including such cases as Chint v. Schneider Electric [utility model patent damages award]; Qualcomm AML investigation [high antitrust penalty]  Veeco and Micron [preliminary injunctions involving semiconductor patents and unpublished judicial opinions as well as unpublished Customs seizure decision], and PRC v. Guthrie [criminal copyright cases brought against foreigners].

I believe that this draft of Article 20 may be sending the wrong signal.  Actions undertaken for foreigners and Chinese should be treated equally, with equivalent penalties and opportunities for probation.  Moreover, the concept of equality generally applies equally to any right.  If there are concerns regarding national security or difficulties in apprehending a party engaged in trade secret theft on behalf of a foreigners, those can be addressed through other measures such as through bilateral criminal justice cooperation, including mutual extradition arrangements and cooperation in gathering evidence. Such measures would also help restore trust between participating countries.  By providing harsher penalties for trade secret infringement benefiting foreigners, a potential precedent might also be established for any other case benefiting an overseas actor, notwithstanding that the principal concerns appear to be infringement occuring within China.

Note: this post was revised June 30, 2020 to address a reader’s concerns that Article 20 is directed to actions on behalf of foreigners and not simply by foreigners.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s