Sino Legend Saga Ends at US Supreme Court

The future ain’t what it used to be. (Yogi Berra)

Earlier this January, 2017, Sino Legend lost its long battle to have an ITC decision excluding its products form the US market reversed by a Supreme Court denial of its cert petition.

As I noted previously, the case presented an unusual set of circumstances, where Chinese courts had found that there had been no trade secret theft occurring in China, the USITC had found that there was trade secret infringement in an exhaustive opinion, China’s Ministry of Commerce sought a rehearing en banc after Sino Legend lost on appeal at the Federal Circuit, and a petition for certiorari was lodged by Sino Legend to the Supreme Court.  Attached are some of the US Supreme Court legal documents, including:  the petition for certiorari  (September 30, 2016); the amicus brief   of the Ministry of Commerce (Nov. 2016); the brief of   USITC in opposition (Dec 6, 2016);  brief of party respondent SI Group in opposition (Dec 6, 2016); reply of petitioners (December 20, 2016); and the Supreme Court’s denial of cert (Jan 9, 2017).

In its cert petition, MofCOM sought a reversal not only of the Sino Legend case but ultimately of the legal principle underlying the Tianrui decision.    The Chinese parties noted that in Sino Legend there a determination that there was no infringement in the case as litigated in China for facts arising in China.  As MofCOM’s brief notes:

[MofCOM] is disappointed by recent actions of the ITC. In wrongly interpreting Section 337 of the Tariff Act to allow the ITC to bar imports into the United States based on alleged actions conducted, and adjudicated, wholly within the borders of China, the ITC has impugned the sovereignty of China and refused to accord the comity expected of a trade partner.

MofCOM’s amicus brief further states:

The displeasure of [MofCOM] with what has unfolded in this, and other, recent ITC cases involving alleged trade secret violations should not go unnoticed. In this matter, there is no dispute that the alleged actions occurred entirely within China, by Chinese citizens, while working at Chinese companies. The alleged acts of misappropriation  were first raised by Complainant’s Chinese subsidiary in China. Both criminal and civil proceedings were instituted in China for these alleged misdeeds. The alleged conduct and actors in question were ultimately vindicated. However, Complainant, unhappy with the failure of proof in China, sought institution of a Section 337 proceeding in the United States based on the same conduct already adjudicated in China. The ITC conducted an investigation, ignored the rulings in China to the contrary, and determined that not only could the ITC bar products based on this conduct, but also that some of Complainant’s justify a limited exclusion order of Petitioner’s product.

The Chinese media had regrettably inaccurately described this case when it was decided at the ITC as a big victory for China involving a finding of no infringement in the US and China; rather a limited exclusion order was granted by the ITC in lieu of a general exclusion order.  China’s Supreme Court had also picked up on this inaccurate description when it regrettably determined that was one of the top 10 IP cases for 2014.  This recognition was troubling also as the complainant in the Sino Legend 337 case had sought a retrial of its case in China, which was denied by China’s Supreme People’s Court two  years later, in 2016.

The differences in final results in the US and Chinese decisions may also be due in part to disparate emphases in trade secret adjudication, with Chinese courts emphasizing similarities of technology between the parties, and the US courts relying more on unfair access to the technology by the alleged misappropriator.  One lesson of this saga is that comity may be more challenging to apply in trade secret litigation, which remains a relatively unharmonized area of IP law among various countries, and which is further weakened by differences in civil procedure including the limited availability of pre-trial discovery in China and many other countries.

Of Trade Secrets, Section 337, AUCL Reform and Evidence Production

When faced with trade secret misappropriation, the United States International Trade Commission can provide a forum for U.S. companies faced with unfair competition resulting from the misappropriation, even if the “theft” occurs entirely in China and/or a misappropriated process is used in China to manufacture a product imported into the United States.  In Certain Cast Steel Railway Wheels, Certain Processes for Manufacturing Or Relating To Same and Certain Products Containing Same, 337-TA-655, Amsted Industries Inc. which licensed certain confidential manufacturing technology to two Chinese companies, Datong ABC Castings Co. (DACC), and Xinyang Amsted Tonghe Wheels Company Limited (Tonghe), claimed the respondent, TianRui Group Co. Ltd, had poached employees from DACC and Tonghe and stolen from them materials and other proprietary information sufficient to establish an identical, competing manufacturing line.  The ITC found a violation of Section 337 and issued a ten-year exclusion order.  On appeal of this landmark case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that the ITC has jurisdiction to reach trade secret misappropriation that occurs entirely abroad, so long as there is a nexus between the misappropriated trade secrets and the imported product.  Tianrui Group Co. v. ITC, 661 F.3d 1322, 1337 (Fed. Cir. 2011).  Interestingly, in that instance, the Chinese dometic authorities aligned with the United States.  Because railway wheels must be certified for use in China (as is the case in the U.S.), the Chinese Ministry of Railways declined to certify the Tianrui wheels until the U.S. matter was concluded.  The willingness of the Ministry of Railways to decertify Tianrui’s wheels while an ITC action was pending stands as an important contra-factual that suggests the relationship between trade secret theft in China and Chinese domestic industrial policy may be overstated.

More recently, in Certain Rubber Resins and Processes for Manufacturing Same, 337-TA-849, the ITC found a violation of Section 337 based on trade secret misappropriation that occurred entirely in China.  In that case, the Chinese authorities had ruled that there was no trade secret misappropriation in both civil and criminal proceedings.  In Sino Legend Chemical Co. v. International Trade Commission, 623 F. App’x 1016 (Fed. Cir. 2015), the respondents sought to overturn Tianrui, arguing that the ITC does not have jurisdiction to reach misappropriation taking place entirely abroad and that the ITC should have deferred to the Chinese authorities as a matter of comity.  In a nonprecedential judgment, the Federal Circuit affirmed the Commission’s finding.  On September 30, 2016, the respondent in the ITC case, Sino Legend, filed a petition for certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule TianRui, arguing that Section 337(a)(1)(A) contains no clear indication that it should apply extraterritorially and barring the importation of goods made using trade secrets misappropriated in China constitutes the impermissible regulation of conduct occurring overseas.  As an indication of how important this matter is to the Chinese government, in a rare filing, the Ministry of Commerce submitted an amicus brief supporting certiorari.  On January 9, 2017, the Supreme Court denied the certiorari petition.  Thus, U.S.-based companies can continue to turn to the ITC as a viable alternative for relief from trade secret misappropriation taking place in China.  Equally problematic, however, was the willingness of China’s judiciary to misconstrue the 337 decision as a victory for the Chinese defendants and to deem a lower court case as a model case while a related case was still pending on appeal to the court.  This case has also been an important counter-contra-factual indication regarding the relationship between trade secret theft in China and independence of the cour

How does this relate to legislative reform of the Anti-Unfair Competition Law in China?

China is currently revising its AntiUnfair Competition Law, which is the foundational law for trade secrets.  An important first step in addressing trade secret theft in China was the recognition that trade secret protection is a proper subject of the civil code in recent amendments to the civil code; i.e., that is not simply a matter of market regulation but of theft of a private property rightThe inclusion of trade secrets in the revisions to China’s general principles of the civil code was advocated in this blog, and also noted as appearing in an earlier draft.  The SPC, including Madame Tao Kaiyuan, were also involved in providing expert opinions on the draft.  The NPC comments on  the recent proposed revisions of the AUCL specifically calls out the important role of the SPC in revising the most recent draft of the AUCL, and note that civil compensation should assume a primary role in enforcing the anti-unfair competition law generally (善民事赔偿责任优先、与行政处罚并行的法律责任体系。不正当竞争违法行为首先损害了其他经营者的合法权益,需要民事赔偿优先,调动其他经营者制止不正当竞争行为的积极性。)  The primacy of civil enforcement is also found in Article 20 of the draft law itself with a clarification that a business operator who violates the law shall “bear civil liability” and that civil liability shall take priority over fines (Article 30).  I believe these efforts reflect some of the momentum generated by the SPC’s highly useful report, focusing on civil enforcement of trade secret.  Also of note is that at about the same time as that report, the US China Business Council outlined a number of the evidentiary problems in trade secret cases in its proposals for Chinese trade secret reform (2013), including burdensome notarization procedures, procedures which risk further disclosure of confidential information, difficulties in cooperation with the police, etc

The inclusion of trade secrets as a civil right was accomplished with civil code revisions adopted on March 15, 2017, with an implementation date of October 1, 2017.  (中华人民共和国民法总则)。  Article 63(5) includes trade secrets as a subject of intellectual property rights protection:

第一百二十三条 民事主体依法享有知识产权。知识产权是权利人依法就下列客体享有的专有的权利:    (一)作品;    (二)发明、实用新型、外观设计;    (三)商标;    (四)地理标志;    (五)商业秘密;    (六)集成电路布图设计;    (七)植物新品种;    (八)法律规定的其他客体。

Section 337 and the New Trade Secret Regime?

How do these reforms in trade secret litigation interact with US Section 337 procedures? Issues involving production of evidence between the US and China can be at the heart of many IP cases, but are especially critical in trade secret cases.   While some reforms have already been made in China, such as availability of preliminary evidence preservation measures in trade secret cases, the removal in the recent draft of the AUCL of a provision in an earlier draft that would have provided for a modest burden of proof reversal in trade secret matters is also troubling:

“Where the rights holders of trade secrets can prove that information used by others is substantially the same as their trade secrets and that those others had the capacity to obtain their trade secrets, those others shall bear the burden of proof to show that the information they used came from lawful sources.” (proposed Art. 22)

As the coauthor of this blog, Jay Reiziss, points out in his attached presentation to my recent class at Fordham, difficulties in gathering evidence have often been critical to use of Section 337 proceedings.  US Administrative Law Judges have granted motions to use the Hague Convention, such as where a foreign government formally weighs in (Switzerland indicated that it would cooperate with such a request (Certain Sintered Rare Earth Magnets, Inv. No. 337-TA855, Order No. 8). However other cases have determined that Hague Convention procedures would not be timely due to compressed ITC schedules (Certain Hardware Logic Emulation Systems, Inv. No. 337TA-383, Order No. 65).  Because of the threat of adverse inferences, there have also been several instances where Chinese respondents have reluctantly permitted plant tours to accommodate discovery requests (Certain R-134a Coolant, Inv. No. 337-TA-623.  FlexsysAmerica v. KumhoTire U.S.A., 5:05-cv-156 (N.D. Ohio)  Issues involving obtaining timely production of evidence have also appeared in other cases, notably the Gucci/Tiffany cases in the Second Circuit.

Even if the AUCL may not provide enough support for evidence production in China, the SPC has identified several bottlenecks in cross-border adjudication of disputes, including “hearing cross-border cases–service of process to overseas parties; obtaining evidence crossborder; determining facts that have occurred abroad; determining and applying foreign law”, which suggest that future cooperation with US courts may also improve.   Hopefully, as China improves its mechanisms to obtain foreign evidence and if it takes more proactive stances towards cross border cases, towards allowing production of evidence China, and as it improves its civil system, foreigners will be less reluctant to bring IP cases, especially trade secret cases, in China. In the meantime, it appears that the ITC and U.S. civil actions will continue to play a very important role in driving evidence based decisions on trade secret infringement involving China

 

Coauthored by Mark A. Cohen and Jay Reiziss.  This blog represents the authors’ personal views only and should not be attributable to any client, employer or any third party.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MofCOM Files Amicus Petition for Rehearing

The Trade Remedy Investigation Bureau (TRB) of China’s Ministry of Commerce has filed an amicus petition for a rehearing en banc in Sino Legend v ITC.  The petition notes that the Chinese government rarely appears in U.S. courts as an amicus.  The brief argues that “ITC does not have jurisdiction over conduct that occurs entirely in China, especially in the circumstances presented in this case, where the very same issues have been  resolved by China’s competent courts.  The TRB expresses its disappointment and displeasure with this aspect of the adjudication to date.  It is also the TRB’s view that the astonishing ruling in this case – that the decisions of Chinese courts on the identical issue between the same parties are totally irrelevant and, therefore, can simply be ignored by the ITC – frustrates the respect properly due to the judicial sovereignty of any nation and treaty partner.  Accordingly, the TRB urges this Court to grant the en banc rehearing petition that requests the full Court to respect comity and reject reliance on the incorrect decision in TianRui Group v. International Trade Commission, 661 F.3d 1322 (Fed. Cir. 2011). ”

The Tian Rui case has previously been discussed on this blog, in the context of the difficulties in proving trade secret infringement in China.  Issues involving comity and the deference to be accorded to Chinese judicial decisions have also been discussed here, including in such cases as Gucci in the SDNY, and the Huawei v Interdigital case in China. At a recent conference at Stanford University, I also noted that there were concerns that Chinese entities were timing or taking actions to undercut Section 337 actions.

In the United States, there have also been some modest efforts in the United States in enforcing Chinese judgments under the Uniform Foreign Money Judgments Recognition Act, including in an IP-related case in the Northern District of Illinois Global Material Technologies vs. Dazheng Metal Fibre. In addition, one US court applied principles of Chinese copyright law in adjudicating a China-related copyright matter.

I use these examples only to illustrate how U.S. and Chinese judicial systems are increasingly interacting and that litigants exploit opportunities in each other countries’ systems.

It would also be useful, in this context, if non-parties also had the opportunity to file amicus briefs on the record in proceedings China, as has been urged by the US Chamber.

The SPC’s “Top Two” Dueling IPR Cases

The Supreme People’s Court recently released its ten top cases for IP week at the end of April.  Perhaps the most striking was that the high profile trade secret case in Shanghai that was lost by the SI Group of Schenectady, NY.  Here is a rough translation of the summary of that case by the Supreme People’s Court:

“Fifth, the dispute involving resin patent infringement trade secrets. SI Group, SI Chemical (Shanghai) Co., Ltd. and Hua Qi (Zhangjiagang) Chemical Co., Ltd., Xu Jie appeal against a trade secret dispute [Summary] SI Group and SI Chemical (Shanghai) Co., Ltd. jointly claimed that technical information regarding SP-1068 were trade secrets of the SI Group that had been taken over by the defendant Xu Jie, who was formerly an employee of the SI Shanghai company. When Xu Jie resigned from that company to work at the defendant SI Shanghai Hua Qi (Zhangjiagang) Chemical Co., Ltd.. Xu Jie allegedly disclosed the two plaintiffs’ trade secrets to Huaqi which used them. The two plaintiffs requested the court to order the defendants to stop the infringement, eliminate the effects, and compensate for the economic loss of 2 million RMB.

The Shanghai Second Intermediate People’s Court entrusted a technical appraisal expert which concluded that that technical information of Huaqi on production of SL-1801 product, as well as patents involved, are not the same substantive technical information and dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim. The two plaintiffs refused to accept the appeal. The second instance court dismissed the appeal and upheld the original verdict.

[The meaning of this typical case] In the trial of a trade secrets infringement case, the court must not only safeguard the rights of people who are claiming trade secret protection, they should also pay attention to the balance between the interests of the parties, regulate fair competition between the parties, and maintain the market’s legitimate order.  In the course of comparing the technologies in the current case, the court of first instance conducted a rigorous, regularized technology appraisal process, and the appraisal body issued a highly professional appraisal report.

To me, this was one of several “dueling” trade secret cases in the past several years – some of which involved civil, criminal or administrative litigation.  Some also involved high profile political attention, and some also involved conflicting decisions between China and foreign countries.  In this case, there are several dueling elements.

The SPC’s assessment of the technical appraisal is itself subject to some dispute in this matter.  According to press reports as well as company announcements, a prior technology verification effort of the trade secrets in China, which was conducted at the behest of the police, had confirmed that the technical information was confidential in nature and that there was a similarity between the plaintiff and defendants’ manufacturing processes. 

Another, more important, “dueling” element is that te  US International Trade Commission reached a contrary decision to the Chinese courts.  As stated at page 46 of the eighty-eight page Commission decision: “This is classic misappropriation of trade secrets, with copying down to the thousandth decimal place.“ (page 46),  The USITC  also determined that the public interest was not adversely affected by this remedy, and that principles of comity did not preclude it from issuing a decision that is contrary to the holding of a Chinese court (http://www.usitc.gov/press_room/documents/337_849_ID.pdf).

A third dueling element was in the media.  The Chinese press reported that the USITC had found no infringement, when in fact the USITC determined  that it would issue a limited exclusion order of the infringers’ products, rather than a general exclusion order.  Specifically the Commission determined that the following respondents were in violation:

Precision Measurement International LLC of Westland, Michigan; Sino Legend (Zhangjiagang) Chemical Co., Ltd. Of Zhangjiagang City, China; Sino Legend Holding Group, Inc. of Kowloon, Hong Kong; Sino Legend Holding Group Ltd. of Hong Kong; Red Avenue Chemical Co. Ltd. of Shanghai, China; Shanghai Lunsai International Trading Company of Shanghai City, China; Red Avenue Group Limited of Kowloon, Hong Kong; and Sino Legend Holding Group Inc. of Majuro, Marshall Islands.

The Commission issued a “limited exclusion order for a period of ten (10) years prohibiting the unlicensed importation of rubber resins made using any of the SP-1068 Rubber Resin Trade Secrets that are manufactured by, for, or on behalf of violating respondents or any of their affiliated companies, parents, subsidiaries, licensees, contractors, or other related business entities…” 

This was hardly the finding of “no infringement” that the Chinese press claimed. 

Some explanation of the importance of this case may also be found in the next “top” case (no. 6) listed by the SPC, the Shenzhen intermediate court decision in Huawei vs InterDigital, involving a FRAND license.  Unlike the SI Group case, the SPC did reference the initiation of the ITC action by InterDigital as part of its description of the background of this case.  In the Huawei case, as I previously noted, the Shenzhen Intermediate Court viewed the filing of a USITC action where there was a corresponding FRAND commitment as an actionable violation of China’s antimonopoly law.    Both the SI Group and Huawei cases involved concerns about the market: the court viewed the SI case as regulating fair competition, while one of the Huawei cases involved a claim under China’s antimonopoly law.

Both Susan Finder in her Supreme People’s Court Monitor blog hand I have previously written about the development of guiding and model cases in China.  Publishing of these cases may be intended more for pedagogical purposes than to bind the courts.  In 2013, these two cases where Chinese courts took decisions adverse to ITC decisions constituted twenty percent of the top 10 cases published by the court.  This can be compared to the less than two percent of Chinese IP cases that had a foreign element in 2013 – in essence, these SPC is calling attention to high profile statistical outliers.  The cases could suggest a disproportionate interest in matters where foreign companies are defendants, where IP “abuse” is alleged, where market factors need to be balanced, or where there are concurrent USITC actions.   Or are these two “dueling cases” just coincidences?

 

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