Antitrust Aspects of “Unfairly High Patent Pricing” for Licensing Transactions in China

This guest blog has been written by Prof. HAO Yuan of  Tsinghua University School of Law.

 China is facing a pressing need to build its innovation-driven economy. To facilitate key features of an innovative economy Chinese anti-monopoly authorities, along with their worldwide peers, face a daunting challenge of transition from a static regime to a more dynamic one.  Several recent judicial and administrative disputes, including Huawei v. IDC, Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court, Shen Zhong Fa Zhi Min Chu Zi No. 857 (2011); Huawei v. IDC, Guangdong High People’s Court, Yue Gao Fa Min San Zhong Zi No. 306 (2013); and the NDRC’s administrative investigation against Qualcomm, Administrative Penalty Decision [2015] No. 1, point out the need to better understand the IP and antitrust intersection, particularly with regard to controversial issues such as  “unfairly high patent pricing (不合理专利高价)”.   This blog summarizes my recent paper (available on SSRN) which addresses this important issue (upcoming 2020 in GRUR International (Journal of European and International IP Law)).

Chinese Anti-Monopoly Law (“AML”), in contrast to US law but not facially dissimilar to EU competition law, pays substantial attention to a dominant market player’s unilateral “exploitative” conduct. Specifically, section 17(1) of the AML (2008) forbids a dominant undertaking from “abusing its market position” by selling at “unfairly high prices”. However, neither the Law nor later enacted Judicial Interpretations clearly define “unfairly high price” in the anti-monopoly sense. Correspondingly, courts and enforcement agencies have significant discretion in characterizing a market price as “unfairly high”, thereby potentially exposing an undertaking to harsh penalties.

Despite perhaps a legitimate institutional intention, this ex post legal risk of being found “unfairly high” could seriously curtail business entities’ ex ante incentive to innovate in China. Meanwhile, lacking adequate legal and economic guidance, this institutional discretion would likely result in significant error costs. Such costs are likely to be even more severe in the context of patent-intensive industries, particularly those in China’s burgeoning high-tech sector.

Section 55 of the AML arguably provides an IP “safety harbor”, providing that a proper exercise of IPR shall be immune from the AML scrutiny, while “an abuse of IPR, excluding or restricting on competition” shall not. As pointed out elsewhere on this website, this provision remains essentially unchanged in a recently proposed revisions to the AML.

Despite this statutory framework, recent cases indicate that the IPR immunity approach has been largely ignored in practice. In the 2011 Huawei v. IDC action, both courts found IDC’s patent pricing to be “unfairly high” primarily on three grounds: one, the licensing royalties IDC offered to Huawei were “apparently higher” than “comparable licenses”, i.e. those royalties IDC charged other companies previously (though whether these licenses were truly comparable with licenses made to Apple, Samsung and others was worthy of serious discussion); two, “IDC’s act of charging unfairly high licensing fee to Huawei, will force Huawei to either quit the competition in the relevant end product market, or accept the unfair pricing conditions, which will render Huawei to increased costs and decreased profits in the relevant end product market, directly restricting its capability to compete”; and three, IDC required Huawei to give global patent grant-backs on a royalty-free basis, an arguable violation of both the Antimonopoly Law and the then-existing Administration of Technology Import/Export Regulations,. Similarly in the Decision against Qualcomm, the NDRC also disregarded Section 55 immunity, finding that Qualcomm’s licensing conditions were “unfairly high” due to these three factors: charging a flat fee for an ever-changing patent portfolio without proving the replenished patents are of equal value to expired ones; coercion for free grant-backs; and using the entire end product as royalty base. So far, Huawei v. IDC and Qualcomm have been the only two completed Chinese cases that entailed an extensive “unfairly high patent pricing” analysis.  Other currently ongoing cases include Iwncomm v. Apple (Beijing IP Court), Huawei v. Panoptics (Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court), Xiaomi v. Sisvel (Beijing IP Court), and the anti-monopoly investigation by SAMR (China’s AML administrative enforcement authority) against Ericsson’s 3G/4G SEP licensing practices, etc..

It is true that both IDC and Qualcomm involved SEPs and  arguably an extra layer of FRAND commitment needs consideration, which may require additional law and policy analysis. For example, the courts might have looked to how to interpret FRAND in Chinese legal framework – is it a specific commitment to a SSO, or a general “principle (原则)” imposable by loosely grounded policy arguments? Will this FRAND interpretation affect an SEP holder’s anti-monopoly obligations in China?  And if so, how? Nevertheless, to a large extent these cases still reflected a practical departure from the statutory IPR immunity framework approach under Chinese law. Such an aggressive approach has also been reflected in Section 14 of the Anti-Monopoly Guidelines for IP Abuse (Draft for Comment 2017) as published by the Anti-Monopoly Commission of State Council. (Editors note: see the comments of the American Bar Association, as well as earlier drafts by enforcement agencies here). According to this rule-of-reason framework, “Business entities that enjoy dominant market positions may abuse their dominance by licensing intellectual property at unfairly high prices, excluding or restricting competition; while assessing whether such high pricing constitutes abuse of dominant market position, the following factors may be considered: (i) calculation method of license royalty, as well as the IP’s contribution to the value of goods; (ii) the business entity’s undertaking with regard to the IP licensing; (iii) the license history or comparable license standards; (iv) license conditions that may have led to unfairly high pricing, including territorial or product scope restrictions; and (v) whether a portfolio licensing includes expired or invalid IP”.

This laundry-list framework is not administrable. How these factors play out in a specific case, whether and how they would interact with each other, how much weight should be attached to each and every one of them, how to incorporate the pro-efficiency features into consideration … all these important practical questions remain unanswered. Facing such vague rules, patentees and other relevant market players would find it very hard to ascertain legal compliance. Vague rules combined with the high stakes often entailed in antitrust cases may lead to rent seeking and bad precedents, further upsetting a prior well-functioning market system, and harming market players’ confidence to  continuously invest in innovation.

One critical reason for this stark departure between the Law and enforcement may be the lack of an administrable test to differentiate “proper exercise” of patent right from “abuse”. Ambiguity lies in at least two aspects. First, due to the very mechanisms of patent regime in fostering innovation, even a proper exercise of right would necessarily restrict certain market competitions. Thus, it seems that an over-general standard of whether “to eliminate or restrict competition” cannot work as the ultimate test to differentiate abuse from legitimate exercise. Second, despite extensive use of “patent abuse” in the past decades worldwide, the exact contour of this concept remains elusive. Resorting solely to the various definitions and constructions in comparative law of sister jurisdictions, helpful as it is, would not solve these ambiguities adequately.

Mark Cohen, the editor of this blog, has also noted that one little-referenced basis for resolving the distinction between “proper exercise” and “abuse” is in fact found in Article 40 of the TRIPS Agreement, which creates a similarly vague dichotomy in permitting WTO members to provide remedies for abusive licensing practices.  Article 40 authorizes member states to address “licensing practices or conditions that may in particular cases constitute an abuse of intellectual property rights having an adverse effect on competition in the relevant market.”   Article 40 also permits member states to control mandatory grant backs of the type address in Huawei v. IDC.  The ambiguities in China’s AML and TIER may in no small part be due to the ambiguities within Article 40 itself, which may have been an important resource for the drafting of Article 55 of the AML.  Furthermore, as Prof. Cohen has separately noted, the legislative history of  Article 55 suggests that it was intended to provide greater assurance that enforcement of IP rights would not by themselves violate the AML, see Harris et al, Antimonopoly Law and Practice in China (2011), at 55. Prof. Cohen’s latter point was well proved in the little referenced, but authoritative, Statute Interpretation and Legislative Reasoning of the Anti-Monopoly Law (hereinafter “Statute Interpretation”) (published by the Legislative Work Commission of the NPC), which noted that, “To restrict competition by the exercise of IP right, is permitted by law after its balance of distinctive interests; in other words, certain restrictions must be imposed on competition to further technological innovation and improve competitive capability. Thus, monopoly status resulting from IP right as well as the restriction on competition because of the exercise of IP right, are legal acts based upon the legal authorization. Other jurisdictions generally treat the legal exercise of IP right as an exception to the application of antitrust laws” ; but on the other hand,  “[I]f an IP right holder abuses its right by exceeding the scope of exclusive right, in acquiring or strengthening a monopoly position, such act will not be protected, and if it excludes or restricts competition, the AML shall govern here.”

Though not a binding document in itself,  the Statute Interpretation can work as a useful guidance, since it embodied important legislative intents and reasoning at the time, particularly when no other legislative reports are accessible to the public. Therefore, to assess “unfairly high patent pricing”, a crucial question is whether the alleged excessive pricing act falls within the scope authorized by patent law. If the answer is positive, then even if this “excessive” pricing would restrict certain competition in the relevant market, such static efficiency loss is a necessary cost we deliberately pay for sustainable innovation, i.e. section 55 immunity applies. If and only if on the other hand, the alleged pricing has been proved to exceed the legally authorized scope of such patent, section 55 immunity will then be stripped and the high pricing act will be examined under section 17(1) of the AML. In other words, to be stripped of the IP clause immunity and subject to “unfairly high patent pricing” scrutiny under the AML lens, the alleged pricing must be not only excessive enough to exclude competition, but also in a way that departed from what patent law has originally contemplated.

Economic insights into the patent law jurisprudence of various jurisdictions, including China, US and EU, reveal that despite some rather subtle differences, all patent regimes promote innovation essentially through the instigation of dynamic competition. Specifically, the patent regime (1) bridges an innovator’s technological R&D to market demand: the better aligned a new technology is to consumer needs, the more valuable this “shell” of exclusive right would be in the marketplace, resulting in higher profit an innovator can harvest by excluding her imitating competitors (“competition by imitation” or “CBI”).  In addition, the patent regime enables innovators to signal potential “innocent” imitators utilizing mechanisms such as disclosure requirements, thereby reducing the amount of duplicative investment in innovation. See Edmund W. Kitch, The Nature and Function of the Patent System, Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 20, No. 2 at 278; (2) with some caveats addressed in my full paper, by restricting CBI with reasonably tailored claims of the patent right coupled with disclosure requirements, the patent regime simultaneously induces social resources into “inventing around” activities, i.e. to provide better/cheaper substituting technologies, thereby encouraging competition by substitution (“CBS”).    In certain circumstances, the fruits of such CBS  may also be protectable with a new property (patent) right. For example, if a competitor’s “inventing around” technology is found sufficiently “inventive” or “non-obvious”, it would likely be entitled to a patent in itself.  See Robert P. Merges, Intellectual Property Rights and Bargaining Breakdown: The Case of Blocking Patents, 62 Tenn. L. Rev. 75 (1994); and (3) feeling the pressure of CBS, the earlier patentee/innovator would likely be incentivized to keep on her next run of “inventing around”, striving to stay a winner in the marketplace. In this way, a virtuous circle of dynamic competition could come into force.

On the other hand, a brief comb-through of the economic foundations and jurisprudential development of antitrust law suggests that this regime promotes innovation essentially through efforts to maintain an (optimally) heterogeneous competition ecosystem. Based on an understanding of both innovation-facilitating mechanisms, two insights are worthy of note here. First, a mutual ground shared by both patent and antitrust regimes in their disparate routes to innovation is the common facilitation of dynamic competition. And correspondingly, Chinese anti-monopoly law should respect the very patent mechanism, i.e. the instigation of dynamic competition, which pivots on the CBS precisely through efforts including a restriction upon CBI. Therefore, to put it in practical terms, if an alleged act at the intersection with anti-monopoly law, such as an accusation of “excessive” pricing, merely caused a restriction on CBI   as indicated in supra-competitive profits, AML must refrain from intervening. In other words, AML should not lightly disturb a well-functioning circle of dynamic competition, simply because under its lens CBI  or static efficiency seems restricted in a link, and local optimum seems not achieved – as a result, a supra-competitive profit enjoyed by a patentee should be found legal per se if static efficiency loss is the only proven harm. More importantly, the focus should be instead on whether the questioned act would not only restrict competition, but also in a way that departed from what the patent regime has contemplated, i.e. the restriction is to dynamic competition or CBS itself. As an example of the latter scenario, consider a joint agreement between two patentees owning substituting technologies or a patent pool consisting of competing technologies, with the patentees or pool members consenting to suppression of one technology in promotion of another (others).

Coming back to the context of patent pricing, is it possible for a high pricing to restrict dynamic competition, thereby constituting an abuse under the anti-monopoly lens? Maybe yes in theory. Arguably in exceptional circumstances, certain pricing may be so excessively structured to actually constitute a refusal to subsequent or follow-on innovators, or at least a significant “margin squeeze” for them, and such refusal or squeeze in theory may lead to foreclosure of the CBS itself or competition in downstream markets, thus frustrating the circle of dynamic competition.. A little more discussion on the interaction of patent and market competition may help here. In a nutshell, from the perspective of a patent law student, there often exist three tiers of market competition. Tier I is vanilla CBI, referring to those competing technologies with mere replication or insubstantial changes, the only advantage of which are their lower prices (mostly by saving duplicating R&D costs). Of course, CBI can be efficient and legal in those circumstances where patentee grants a license, but in most other cases, CBI is legitimately excludable under patent law and antitrust shall never interfere. Tier II, competition by improvement, is really a higher level of CBI, in that competing technologies here involve substantial improvements on the patented technology, though still falling into the scope of earlier claims. Note a caveat here – patent law is clever enough to give certain leeway to those competitors with own substantial improvement, for example by granting a new patent right if the improvement has been found to be “inventive” or “non-obvious”, so that these competitors would have stronger bargaining power to negotiate with the original patentee and harvest higher profits from the pair of sequential innovation. This power and resulting profit would further incentivize competitors to do follow-on improvements. This is actually the scenario of blocking patents. Generally speaking, the second tier only applies to those industries that are characterized with cumulative innovation. Despite the substantial improvements, Tier II is still legitimately excludable under patent law and antitrust shall not interfere. Tier III is CBS, referring to those technologies that are capable of truly substituting the earlier patented technology to fulfill consumer needs in the market. By their very name, in most circumstances Tier III is comprised of “inventing around” technologies that do not fall into the protected scope of earlier patent, thus there exists no serious risk of being excluded by the earlier patentee unilaterally. The theoretical worry can happen however, at the rare circumstance of tier II and III intersection: occasionally an infringing improvement could be so radical that it would truly substitute the commercialized earlier patent as a break-through technology.   A real-world example here is the long deadlock between the famous Marconi diode patent and the Lee De Forest triode patent during the early development years of radio technology. This kind of radical improvement, even though literally infringing on the pioneer patent, is precisely the type of “creative destruction” Schumpeter emphasized many years ago that fuels innovation in a most powerful way – an innovator’s descendants can actually become the instruments of his destruction, yet the society benefits in the long run.

Following this train of thought, if we temporarily leave the “unfairly high patent pricing” context and turn  to some of the classical NIE (New Institutional Economics) scholarly works in a more general sense, including the conventional hypothesis of patent “anti-commons” (Heller and Eisenberg 1998), worry of over-broad pioneer patents’ suppressing effect on follow-on innovation (Merges and Nelson 1990), and recent conjecture of patent hold-up and royalty stacking in the SEP context (Shapiro and Lemley 2007), arguably they all may be considered as embodying (more or less) such theoretical worries of patent foreclosure on dynamic competition.

Inspiring as these theories were, they, need to be tested in practice.  Curiously, decades of empirical research in various industries have showed little success in proving these theoretical worries happening in the real marketplace, at least on a macroscopic level. A specific concurrent example for this striking disintegration between theory and empirical results is the robust innovation and significant consumer benefits (as indicated in quality-adjusted prices) in the SEP intensive wireless communication industry, in the shadow of persistent “patent hold up and royalty stacking” predictions. See Alexander Galetovic, Stephen Haber & Ross Levine, An Empirical Examination of Patent Holdup, Journal of Competition Law & Economics 11(3) (Aug. 2015); Jonathan Barnett, Antitrust Overreach: Undoing Cooperative Standardization in the Digital Economy, 25 Mich. Telecomm. & Tech. L. Rev. 163 (2019). There might be different explanations to this empirical difference. I give a rough quantitative analysis in my paper why the seemingly plausible theoretical worry of dynamic competition foreclosure is unlikely to happen in practice.  In addition, I argue that perhaps precisely because CBS  has always been a critical link pivoted by patent regime in its instigation of dynamic competition, throughout ages patent law has developed an implicit yet critical awareness to safeguard CBS from being foreclosed per se. This implicit awareness has been built into a wide variety of rules and principles of patent jurisprudence prevalent in many jurisdictions, such as the eligibility doctrine, inventiveness/non-obviousness and disclosure/enablement requirements in the granting phase, all-element rule and reverse doctrine of equivalents in infringement assessment phase, as well as in deeper principles underlying and threading these specific rules together. A good example for the latter is the proportionality principle well illustrated by Prof. Merges in his Justifying Intellectual Property (Chap. 6, 2011).  Surely these built-in mechanisms are not ironclad, but they may have worked in a more successful way than we give faith to, and the AML  should not overlook it.

Based on the above, I further propose that a patentee’s unilateral pricing act should be generally found legal per se in China; or at the very least, presumed legal under section 55 of the AML unless an agency/plaintiff can prove otherwise – that the alleged pricing constitutes an “abuse” in that it would disrupt dynamic competition. Specifically, a patentee’s unilateral pricing act should be immune from the “unfairly high pricing” scrutiny under Section 17(a) of the AML, unless an anti-monopoly plaintiff or enforcement agency can overcome all three following hurdles with concrete evidence, in addition to a persuading economic analysis: (i) the patentee enjoys a real dominant market position; (ii) such pricing constitutes a de facto refusal to deal, and (iii) the refusal would likely foreclose the very type of competition patent law has aimed to promote, i.e. dynamic competition. More specifically, the harm to dynamic competition can be proven in either one of the following two dimensions: i. In the same market of patented technology, a monopolist patentee’s constructive refusal to license would render radical all follow-on substitutes impossible to be developed (restriction on competition by substitution); or ii. In the circumstances of a vertically integrated monopolist patentee, the constructive refusal to license would foreclose the competition or subsequent innovation in downstream markets in which the patentee also competes.

True this burden seems high, but it is justified by three cumulative resources, (i) the above economic insights into the intersection of patent and antitrust; (ii) the prevalent non-interventionist attitude toward “excessive patent pricing” in sister jurisdictions; and (iii) the inevitable limitations of antitrust law, manifested in the error costs due to lack of proper information and economic analysis methodologies on dynamic efficiency. See Frank H. Easterbrook, The Limits of Antitrust, 63 Tex. L. Rev. 1 (1984).

Despite existence of formal empowerments in some countries/regions, almost all jurisdictions with well-developed antitrust jurisprudence have exercised a very cautious attitude in condemning a market price as “unfairly high” in practice. Section 17(1) of the AML does not have a counterpart in conventional US antitrust jurisprudence, and despite the existence of a theoretical counterpart in EU (Art. 102(a) TFEU), it has been rarely invoked. When it comes to patent pricing, the EC has been taking a virtually non-interventionist approach. This non-interventionist approach may have originated from the Commission’s awareness that many general objections against exploitative excessive pricing actions, such as the danger of undermining investment incentives of new entrants as well as dominant firms, difficulty in assessing “excessiveness”, risk of improper price regulation, and undue space for political rent seeking etc., are particularly true in the context of patent-intensive innovative industries.

Antitrust is costly. As Judge Easterbrook pointed out many years ago, in reality judges and enforcement officials are always equipped with imperfect information about actual effects of the accused practice, and such costs of information and their corresponding actions are the limits of antitrust. Part of these costs comes from the judicial ignorance and inhospitality against business practices. Very often, if a poor defendant in an antitrust case cannot convince the judge that his practices promote competition, he is doomed. Unfortunately, “the gale of creative destruction produces victims before it produces economic theories and proof of what is beneficial.” Consequently, this unfortunate judicial inhospitality and ignorance would inevitably generate substantial positive costs in practice.

During the transition from  a planned regime to market economy, China needs to overcome all kinds of obstacles, ranging from formal restraints in laws and institutional infrastructure, to lingering outdated theories and prejudice that die hard and can still be quite powerful impeding the progress. On an institutional level for example, varied degrees of inertia may unavoidably exist on anti-monopoly agencies’ enforcement philosophy, especially when it comes to high pricing acts that seem to harm consumer interest (albeit short-term) on its face, and which had long been the subject of pervasive regulation through local pricing bureaus, even prior to the existence of the antimonopoly law.  In view of this potential institutional inertia, the likelihood of inhospitality a monopolist patentee, domestic or international, encounters in “unfairly high pricing” cases could be substantial.

Antitrust has two major analysis modes: per se rule and the rule of reason. If equipped with thorough information of market practices and perfect analysis methodologies, rule of reason is the route to precision and ultimate truth. Unfortunately, as discussed above, that is not the case in reality. One may contend that during the several decades after Judge Easterbrook’s seminal writing, rapid development of economic theories have provided more substantial guidance in many areas, but I am still reluctant to say that the improvement has been so significant to render his insight obsolete, particularly in context of dynamic efficiency and IP related issues. As such, an ambitious rule-of-reason framework as embodied in Section 14 of the Anti-monopoly Guidelines for IP Abuse, would inevitably generate significant error costs despite its good-willed intention.

Admittedly, our presumed legal per se framework is not cost-free. It may be conceivable that in exceptional circumstances, a monopolist patentee’s excessive pricing would disturb dynamic efficiency yet escape the law because the plaintiff simply cannot meet the high burden. On a systematic level however, I believe this possible negative error would be at least offset by the significant positive error costs avoided. A per se rule has always been used to condemn (or excuse) whole categories of practices, even though some of them are actually beneficial (or evil), and one cannot have the savings of decision by a particular rule without accepting its cost of errors.  When we choose which analysis mode to go, what really matters is the overall probability. In summary, we presume patent pricing to be legal per se, because both economic insights and comparative law already showed us that the happening chance of a real exclusionary excessive patent pricing would be extremely low (roughly estimated to be 1/100,000 – 1/100M in the paper), and partially confirmed by empirical studies so far. The exact reasons can be further explored, but the bottom line is clear – it seems that in a vast majority of circumstances, again the market mechanism coupled with strong patent protection has been functioning adequately well to facilitate innovation. Facing this extremely low probability of real foreclosure on dynamic competition, it would be unwise in every individual case to incur enormous administrative and error costs only to search a mere possibility. In a brief conclusion, if either way we are destined to make mistakes, we naturally choose the side with less cost.

In contrast to private law, anti-monopoly law is a much stronger form of interference with the market by government. Perhaps too many people today have omitted this (not only in China) – a blunt instrument as it is, antitrust law acquires legitimacy only in a minority of cases where market failure really happens, rather than a mere theoretical possibility. “The history of Chinese economic reform has clearly told us, whenever a market-oriented policy became dominant and market mechanisms were more frequently used to allocate resources, the quality and speed of Chinese economic development was better.”  Wu Jinglian, The Economic Development of China (The Great Encyclopedia Press 2018), at p. 3 (translation is my own). On the contrary, every time Chinese economic policy was influenced by the theories of planned economy, “both macroeconomic risks and microeconomic interests were affected deleteriously… … Therefore, to resolve the many problems we are confronted with during the economic reform process of China, the only answer is to insist and deepen our reform centering upon the confidence on market economy and rule of law, and further use the market mechanism to allocate resources; it should never be the pursuit of more state interferences.” Id. When stepping into the deep water of reform today, China should learn its historical lesson and be especially cautious with those legal instruments that potentially interfere with price mechanisms, the core feature of a market economy.

The author wishes to thank Hon. David Kappos, Prof. Robert Merges, Chief Judge Randall R. Rader (retired), and Prof. Mark Cohen for their editorial suggestions.  The opinions expressed herein are the author’s own.

 

 

Supreme People’s Court Calls for Public Comments on Enforcement of Intellectual Property Judgments

On March 15, 2020, the Supreme People’s Court of China issued a notice soliciting public comments on the Implementation Plan for the Enforcement of Intellectual Property Judgments (Draft for Public Comment) 知识产权判决执行工作实施计划(征求意见稿)and the Guidelines for the Enforcement of Intellectual Property Judgments (Draft for Public Comment) 知识产权判决执行工作指南(征求意见稿 ). Comments are due on May 15, 2020. 

According to one on-line commentator, one reason for these documents is that in recent years, after the establishment of the punitive compensation mechanism for intellectual property rights in China, a large number of court-enforced cases have emerged. In fact, difficulties in enforcing judgments have been of concern to China’s leadership and the Supreme People’s Court for several years and appear to be independent of the possibility of increased punitive damages. President Xi Jinping identified this issue of enforcement difficulty 执行难 in the Fourth Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee (2014). The SPC further proposed to solve this problem in two to three years at the Fourth Session of the 12th National People’s Congress. SPC President Zhou Qiang also raised this issue in a report in 2018. None of these high-level pronouncements particularly singled out intellectual property as an area of enforcement concern.

In general enforcement issues that have concerned China involve enforcement of judgments. SPC President Zhou Qiang identified that China has faced such enforcement issues as: (1) judicial difficulties in locating the person and their property because the judgment debtors conceal their property and whereabouts; (2) the traditional liquidation method is subject to a long cycle with a low success rate, and corruption often occurs during liquidation, so the court is unable to liquidate the property to be enforced; (3) local governments and powerful personnel commit corruption and intervene and hinder the enforcement; (4) many unenforced cases accrue year after year, which has led to serious social conflicts.

Enforcement issues that foreigners have identified have included matters arising as part of the judgment, and often before execution of the judgment including: increased infringement compensation, jurisdictional issues of court enforcement, the procedures when a party initiates an enforcement action, enforcement procedures of pre-litigation preservation, enforcement of administrative remedies and criminal remedies including civil compensation for criminal cases, etc.  

This is the first time that the Supreme People’s Court has formulated an implementation plan and work guidelines specifically for intellectual property rights enforcement. While this move is explicitly aimed at strengthening the judicial protection of IP rights and ensuring that effective judgment on IP cases are enforced in accordance with the law, another purpose of this initiative is likely to fulfil China’s commitments under Article 1.28 of The Phase 1 IP Agreement of ensuring expeditious enforcement of IP judgments. Article 1.28 “Enforcement of Judgments” 判决执行 provides:

1.The Parties shall ensure expeditious enforcement of any fine, penalty, payment of monetary damages, injunction, or other remedy for a violation of an intellectual property right ordered in a final judgment by its own court.

2. Measures China shall take include executing work guidelines and implementation plans to ensure expeditious enforcement of judgments, publishing its work guidelines and implementation plans within one month after the date of entry into force of this Agreement, as well as publishing online quarterly reports of implementation results.

As the main part of the Implementation Plan, Section 2 “Specific Implementation Plan” 具体实施计划 includes the following provisions: filing of enforcement of IP judgment (Art. 1), pre-litigation preservation (Art. 2), how to quickly identify and control the property of the executed person (Art. 3), assets evaluation (Art. 5), assets disposal (Art. 6), obligations of the executed person (Art. 7), handling enforcement cases offsite (Art. 10), judicial publicity (Art. 12), etc.  Generally speaking these provisions point to the specific measures previously promulgated by the SPC, rather than making headway in new policies or experiments, or suggesting more concrete measures or working methods. In this sense the Implementation Plan highlights out IP judicial enforcement issues are tied to general enforcement concerns.

According to Article 13 of the Implementation Plan, a special section of “Intellectual Property Judgment Enforcement Publicity” on China’s Enforcement Information Disclosure Website will be published by the end of June 2020, focusing on publicizing the implementation information of intellectual property judgments, so as to facilitate transparency, public understanding and supervision. This appears consistent with the requirement for publishing online reports of implementation results in the Phase 1 IP Agreement. In fact, as we have previously noted, the disclosure should not only be limited to the disclosure of the enforcement of IP judgments. In order to ensure that China’s civil enforcement is observable and accessible, China would need to publish all of its IP cases, including cases involving provisional measures, as well as dockets that may include motions and settlements. Many observers, including in this blog, have noticed a large drop in publication of foreign-related IP cases since approximately January 1, 2018, which should also be addressed. Finally, it is unclear from the text of the Implementation Plan or the Phase 1 Agreement, whether China intends to publish the actual enforcement decisions to the same extent that it publishes cases, notwithstanding that many enforcement cases are now available on the SPC’s official website.

In addition, over the past several years, there has been an increasing incidence of multinational IP disputes, particularly in technology sectors. As previously noted, the Phase 1 IP Agreement also does not address the problems arising from these cases. An added problem arising from SEP cases in particular has arisen over anti-suit injunctions and whether China should issue its own anti-suit injunctions, which was the subject of a recent conference (January 2019) at Renmin University.

In terms of execution of foreign judgments, Article 7(1) of the Guidelines mention that: “If a foreign party applies for execution, it shall submit a written application for execution in Chinese. If there are special provisions in the mutual legal assistance treaty concluded or co-joined by the country where the party is located and China, the treaty provisions shall apply.” This provision noticeably omits any reference to the Article 282 of  Civil Procedure Law, which permits enforcement of foreign judgments on the basis of reciprocity. United States courts have also occasionally enforced Chinese money judgments, including those which have an IP-related element, under the Uniform Foreign Money Judgments Recognition Act.   According to Susan Finder, the SPC is working on drafting a judicial interpretation on this issue at some time in the future.

Based on the Implementation Plan and Guidelines, it remains unclear how the enforcement of IP judgments differs from other judgments and, indeed, why it should be different from other civil, criminal or administrative matters. In the past many judicial reforms have been tested in the IP context.  The past experience of initially testing legal reforms in IP than reaching out to other areas is less evident in these two documents.  While few new specific measures have been proposed, the SPC’s release of these documents does reflect its increasing emphasis on IP rights, perhaps undertaken in response to US pressure. 

Written by Mark A. Cohen with the assistance of  Xu Xiaofan

MofCOM Releases Draft Foreign Investment Complaint Rules: How Good Will It Be For Forced Tech Transfer?

On March 23, 2019 the Ministry of Commerce released its  Rules for Foreign Investment Complaints (Draft for Public Comment (外商投资企业投诉工作办法[征求意见稿]) (the “Rules”).  Comments are due by April 22.  This is one of several recent Phase 1 / trade responsive initiatives that have been announced or are expected in the near term from China.  This blog will focus on the IP aspects of the Rules, notably those provisions that can be used to address forced technology transfer and protecting trade secrets.

The Rules seek to implement Article 26 of the Foreign Investment Law, which provides as follows:

The State establishes working mechanisms for complaints by foreign-invested enterprises, promptly handles the issues raised by foreign-invested enterprises or their investors, and coordinates and improves the relevant policy measures.

Where foreign-invested enterprises and their investors consider the administrative acts of administrative organs and their employees to have infringed upon their lawful rights and interests, they may petition for a resolution through the working mechanisms for complaints by foreign-invested enterprises.

Where foreign-invested enterprises and their investors consider the administrative acts of administrative organs and their employees to have infringed upon their lawful rights and interests, in addition to petitioning for a resolution through the working mechanisms for complaints by foreign-invested enterprises in accordance with the provisions of the previous paragraph, they may also petition for administrative reconsideration or initiate administrative litigation in accordance with law.

A major concern by the Trump Administration had been to prohibit forced technology transfer by China, through making tech transfer a condition of foreign investment approval or other means.   Article 2.1 of the Phase 1 Agreement addresses this concern:

  1. Natural or legal persons (“persons”) of a Party shall have effective access to and be able to operate openly and freely in the jurisdiction of the other Party without any force or pressure from the other Party to transfer their technology to persons of the other Party.
  2. Any transfer or licensing of technology between persons of a Party and those of the other Party must be based on market terms that are voluntary and reflect mutual agreement.

Article 23 of  The Foreign Investment Law, which predates the Phase 1 Agreement addressed this concern as well:

Administrative organs and their employees shall, in accordance with law, maintain the confidentiality of the trade secrets of foreign investors or foreign-invested enterprises that they learn in the course of performing their duties, and must not disclose or unlawfully provide them to others.

The proposed Rules set up a working group (工作机构), coordinated by MofCOM with counterpart agencies down to county levels (Art. 2) to handle foreign investment complaints.  This complaint process is not exclusive of other legal remedies, such as administrative reconsideration or litigation, “letters and visits” (petitioning), etc. (Art. 8).  The Rules afford the possibility of initiating parallel track procedures, provided applicable legal limitations periods are adhered to for legal actions.  However, if these alternative legal procedures are accepted, the MofCOM process will be terminated:

Art. 19.3 During the handling of a complaint, if the complainant initiates administrative reconsideration, administrative litigation and other procedures on the same complaint, or an application is filed with a higher level complaint agency or disciplinary inspection, supervision, letters and visits and has been accepted, the complainant shall be deemed to apply for withdrawal of the complaint.

投诉处理期间,投诉人就同一投诉事项提起行政复议、行政诉讼等程序的,或者向上级投诉工作机构或者纪检、监察、信访等部门提出申请并已被受理的,视同投诉人申请撤回投诉。

The Rules also set up the basic procedural requirements for making a complaint, including types of documentation, representation, response time, and potential remedies (Chapter 2).   Once a completed complaint is filed, the Working Group will have seven days to advise the complainant that the complaint has been accepted. Trade secrets and private information are to be protected in the process (Art. 21).  Final decisions are required within sixty days of acceptance (Art. 18).  The complaint acceptance process does afford MofCOM the possibility of delaying due to incomplete complaints (Art. 14).

The principal remedy of this process appears to be a mediated response with the offending agency (依法公正进行协调处理,推动投诉事项的妥善解决) (Arts. 15, also Arts. 17, 19). Other possible outcomes procedures include recommending that local governments change their procedures or rules (Art. 17).

How effective are such procedures likely to be?

Although this process may afford some individuals a useful alternative channel to resolve forced technology transfer and effect policy changes, I am doubtful it will afford much relief in most licensing/trade secret cases.  An earlier administrative effort to protect trade secrets through the National IPR Leading Group also didn’t deliver much relief as far as I know.   Trade secret matters are very difficult to handle in China’s administrative processes due to concerns about local economic influences, uncertain procedures to maintain confidential information, fears of retaliation, etc.  In general, foreign companies have been reluctant to sue national and local Chinese government agencies, with the significant exception of patent and trademark validity challenges.  Of particular concern is that possibility of retaliation against those who file complaints.  As USTR noted in the Section 301 Report:

As U.S. companies have stated for more than a decade, they fear that they will face retaliation or the loss of business opportunities if they come forward to complain about China’s unfair trade practices. Concerns about Chinese retaliation arose in this investigation as well. Multiple submissions noted the great reluctance of U.S. companies to share information on China’s technology transfer regime, given the importance of the China market to their businesses and the fact that Chinese government officials are “not shy about retaliating against critics.”

Moreover, there are competing channels to trade secrets that are improving. China has made significant advances in civil judicial protection of trade secrets, which should be utilized where appropriate.  Technical trade secrets appeals are now being heard by a new national appellate IP court.   SAMR also has plans to draft an administrative rule on stopping trade secret infringement(禁止侵犯商业秘密若干规定).

Finally, it is difficult for me to conceive of a complaint mechanism that essentially is being made to the same agency or group of agencies that approve the actual investment, rather than the agenc(ies) in charge of protecting trade secrets.  Should complaints fail to materialize, it  may also be interpreted by China as a lack of concern about the issue, rather than concerns about the effectiveness and risks of the process.

My perspectives on this process have been clear.  As I stated in an earlier blog:

[N]ewly amended provisions in the new Foreign Investment Law prohibiting forced technology transfer are likely to have little impact absent effective complaint and legal challenge procedures, such as the creation of a foreign investment ombudsman and/or appeals to the newly established IP court.  The inclusion of a non-discrimination position in administrative licensing procedures is also welcome news, although it may be similarly difficult to monitor and enforce.

While there is nothing harmful in the Rules, I continue to believe that appeals to a competent, specialized court or creation of an independent ombudsman would likely best serve foreign interests.

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

 

Daren Tang of Singapore Secures WIPO Nomination

Congratulations to Mr. Daren Tang (邓鸿森) (48), the Chief Executive of the IP Ofice of Singapore for his successful nomination by the Coordination Committee of WIPO as WIPO’s next Director General.

Hopefully, Mr. Tang will bring the much-lauded management expertise and accountability of Singaporean bureaucracy to WIPO, which has had so many years of controversy, in addition to the neutrality and balance that characterizes much of Singaporean foreign policy.  Singapore has also had active collaborative projects with China.  Mr. Tang also serves as the first Singaporean to lead a UN agency.

Mr. Tang won in the second round of voting, 55-28, over China’s nominee, Wang Binying, who also had extensive experience in IP and at WIPO and was strongly supported by China, but was opposed by the United States. Here is Mr. Tang’s note of thanks on the IPOS Linkedin page.

Mr. Tang speaks English and Chinese.

前进吧,新加坡! Majulah Singapura! Forward Singapore!

Wang Binying and the Opportunity within the WIPO Crisis

The vote for WIPO Director General will be made in early March.  The Chinese candidate, Madame Wang Binying, is known to many in the foreign IP community in China, IP diplomats, and others.  She is currently a Deputy Director General at WIPO and is consider a front-runner for the position. Ms. Wang’s candidacy has elicited considerable opposition from many in the United States,  much of it ill-informed, but some of it raising legitimate concerns.  The Chinese media has responded in kind and accused the US of “bullying.”

Over a month ago, a bipartisan group of four U.S. senators had written to President Trump to request that the United States oppose Ms. Wang’s candidacy.  Wang’s name was put forth by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in November.  These senators have noted that “ Given China’s persistent violations of intellectual property protections, including through trade secret theft, corporate espionage, and forced transfer of technology, the United States and its allies must stand firmly against such a move.”

Other commentators have joined in the criticism, including Daniel Runde at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who recently co-authored an article, “Why the United States Should Care about the WIPO Election,” and  James Pooley, a former U.S. Deputy Director General at WIPO, is quoted in Foreign Policy as asking with regard to Ms. Wang, “[w]hy would you put the fox in charge of the [IP] hen house?”   I was also misquoted in the South China Morning Post as opposing Wang Binying on similar grounds.  For me, Ms. Wang’s candidacy is clouded – but not precluded – by the long shadow cast by Francis Gurry on WIPO’s relationship with China, not by any necessary risk of “IP theft”, which is a term I abjure.  I will discuss that issue later in this blog.

 

One concern is easily dismissed: Ms. Wang is eminently technically qualified to lead WIPO, as even some of her harshest critics note.  DDG Wang has excellent credentials. She has an LLM from the institution, where I teach (UC Berkeley, (1985-86), and  also obtained a certificate in commercial law from my own alma mater, Columbia Law School.  She also worked at the former State Administration for Industry and Commerce.  She has had a long-term tenure in senior positions at WIPO.  She even spent some time training at USPTO early in her career, upon the recommendation of a U.S. Foreign Commercial Service Officer, Clark T. Randt, III, who later served as U.S. Ambassador to China and who has known her for years.  In fact, my introduction to Ms. Wang occurred through Ambassador Randt when I served as IP Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing (2004-2008).

Another matter that should be cleared up is that she was somehow appointed by the Communist Party, as suggested by one journal.  The recommendation for Ms. Wang comes, appropriately, from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  It is  true, however, as the Washington Post has reported, that Ms. Wang’s appointment is part of a larger effort by China to assume leadership roles in a number of UN organizations and that most of these officials are likely Party members.  Moreover, U.S. diplomacy in this area is also hampered, as the Post has noted, “by the administration’s public contempt for the multilateralism and its damaged relationships with allies.”

As in every critique of things Chinese, there are also some ardent U.S. defenders.  Some U.S. patent lawyers have suggested to me that the U.S. doesn’t have a basis to criticize Wang or China because China has been strengthening  China’s patent system at the same time as the U.S. has been weakening its own IP regime.  While I am supportive of this observation, I believe it is irrelevant to Ms. Wang’s candidacy.  Different countries necessarily have different strengths and weaknesses in their IP regimes.  The WIPO position does not mandate international conformity with the nationality of its DG, even if that might be welcomed in some circumstances.  More importantly,  US patent practitioners should instead be primarily concerned whether WIPO will be handling international (PCT) patent applications in an expeditious and professional manner.  A second concern may be whether WIPO will embrace intellectual property norms consistent with U.S. policy in its role as the administrator of 26 separate treaties on intellectual property and as an organizer of conferences and training programs on intellectual property issues.

In contrast to the above, the serious  opposition to Ms. Wang generally breaks down into three related areas: (a)  Ms. Wang is a China-promoted official at a time of heightened U.S. concern over China’s support for “IP Theft”; (b) a China DG may be inclined to mishandle PCT applications or mismanage WIPO utilizing the extensive discretion afforded to her; and (c) WIPO’s policies in China are in need of  a change.  I discuss these below:

IP Theft

The United States government has long conflated a range of issues into “IP theft”, including cybersecurity, trade secret infringement, forced technology transfer, and restrictive market access policies.  Many of these policy issues are not within the domain of WIPO and therefore have a limited role in the discussion around Wang Binying.  Some of them are the subject of an ongoing WTO dispute involving forced technology transfer.  WIPO is primarily concerned with the more mundane tasks of filing international applications for patents, trademarks and designs, arbitrating IP disputes, and training on IP issues, and negotiation of new IP treaties.  Although IP enforcement and trade secrets are part of WIPO’s mandate, they occupy a very small policy-oriented role.

The reason there is a WTO case dealing with IP theft is simply that there are no WIPO cases.  WIPO, unlike the WTO,  is relatively toothless.  It cannot impose compensatory sanctions.  There is also no WIPO-administered treaty devoted to trade secret matters.  The U.S., which has been aggressively advocating for better international protection of trade secrets for several years, has successfully raised standards for trade secret protections outside of the WIPO treaty process, through free trade agreements and bilateral agreements, including the recent Phase 1 Agreement with China.  The major international agreement with the most teeth is the TRIPS Agreement (Article 39), which is administered by the WTO.  It obligates “Members” to “protect undisclosed information.” This affirmative obligation might, for example, support a WTO complaint against state-sponsored economic espionage or cyber-intrusions, among other acts.  Concerns about Ms. Wang aggressively pushing back on the U.S. IP theft policy agenda therefor seem badly misplaced.

A more significant concern than WIPO’s policy function is WIPO management.  The lion’s share of WIPO’s budget is derived from international IP filings, with Patent Cooperation Treaty Fees accounting for 75% of these receipts, followed by trademark fees, contributions, and design fees.  However, WIPO does not appear to have the same level of user accountability that other IP offices have.  For this reason, patent practitioners who actively used the WIPO system should be most concerned about how that system will be managed by a new DG, then with WIPO’s approach to “IP theft.”

PCT Applications and the Extensive Discretion Afforded by the WIPO DG

The record of the incumbent Director General, Francis Gurry, may serve as a useful guide to how much risk Wang Binying might present to US interests in WIPO’s administration of international patent applications through the Patent Cooperation Treaty.   James Pooley, a former WIPO Deputy Director General in charge of the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) process,  testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee in 2016, where he outlined these risks:

The agency, in my opinion, is run by a single person who is not accountable for his behavior. He is able to rule as he does only with the tacit cooperation of member countries who are supposed to act as WIPO’s board of directors. And he is ultimately protected by an anachronistic shield of diplomatic immunity…

During my tenure I witnessed how a lack of any effective oversight frequently led to reckless decisions, often reflecting a disregard for the legitimate interests of the U.S. There are many examples I could provide, but here I will focus on three: his gift of high-end computer equipment to North Korea, his secret agreements with Russia and China to open satellite WIPO offices, and his relentless retaliation against whistleblowers who dared to come forward with the truth.”

Mr. Pooley’s concerns about the integrity of WIPO internal controls should be treated seriously, as the PCT system, which Mr. Pooley managed, contains a wealth of technical information that is confidential.  China or another malevolent actor, through a compliant DG, might access the secure WIPO computer systems for inappropriate purposes.   The  PCT, which is administered by WIPO, allows inventors to file one application and then wait 30 months before choosing the countries where they need a patent. It is particularly vulnerable during the time frame before the patent is published (18 months after the application date_  During this period before publication, the application is a secret and should not be disclosed to the public and is therefore vulnerable to misappropriation.

The risk of misappropriation of patented information by China under a Wang Binying leadership is hard to quantify; however, it remains incumbent upon WIPO to insure the integrity of its systems in order for the PCT system to remain viable.   These risks have historically been especially acute with respect to China.  China has a weak record of addressing bad faith use of its patent and trademark systems.  There is no concept of “fraud before the patent office,” or a sanctionable “duty of candor.”  China’s past record of legalizing the use of overseas patent materials to support domestic patent applications provides scant comfort.  As late as 2008, China permitted the filing of applications on patents based on disclosures by others in overseas markets, provided they had not been published anywhere in the world, or made known or marketed in China. Design patents merely required that the patented design is not marketed in China  (2000 Patent Law, Arts. 22, 23).   This loophole led to a phenomenon known as “patent hijacking” and would typically occur at an overseas trade show where a new product was displayed before its public disclosure or marketing to China.  A Chinese visitor might photograph a new product at an overseas trade show, email a photograph to his home office, and the home office would then rush to the Chinese patent office to file a design patent application, lawfully claiming it as his or her invention.  The Chinese patent system provided incentives to “steal” others’ proprietary information.  In addition to this form of legalized technology misappropriation, the U.S. government has accused Chinese agencies of covertly compelling the transfer of technology from foreign investors, an issue that has recently been addressed by the enactment of China’s Foreign Investment Law.

China also permits the anonymous filing of patent applications, which can further obscure whether an applicant obtained technical information from an illegitimate source (Examination Guidelines 4.1.2). In fact, one U.S. professor, Percival Zhang, was identified as possibly usurping such information and filing a patent application in China anonymously.  Mr. Zhang’s activities are discussed in a federal civil court case brought by the alleged actual inventor.  He was later convicted in a federal court, apparently on other charges.

The civil court case also involved a PCT application, where a Chinese entity was accused of misappropriating confidential information in advance and applying for a patent in its own name.  As the court noted:

“In September 2016, …  Bonumose filed an international patent application regarding tagatose, listing China as a covered country. The application remained confidential until April 2017. But Bonumose learned soon thereafter that the Tianjin Institute had filed its own patent application in November 2016. Tianjin’s application listed several inventors, two of whom asked to have an “unlisted name,” which is an unusual practice. Bonumose believes that the unnamed inventors are Zhang and a former Cell-Free employee. It further believes that there was no way the Tianjin application—which substantially mirrored Bonumose’s confidential application—could have been developed without knowledge and use of the tagatose trade secrets.

The theory of Bonumose’s case is therefore that Zhang,…  shared the tagatose trade secrets with the Tianjin Institute prior to the Tianjin application’s publication in November 2016. Indeed, Bonumose alleges that the Tianjin Institute paid Zhang and Cell-Free in exchange for the trade secrets. Bonumose is litigating five claims against Zhang and Cell-Free: two breach of contract claims; two trade secret claims (one federal and one state); and a declaratory judgment claim to ascertain the parties’ rights …”

These past activities do not mean that Ms. Wang would necessarily condone such activities nor that prior activities continue at the same level as they have in the past.  However, it does suggest that these concerns should be addressed by WIPO or any new DG in his or her interactions with China.

Continuation of WIPO’s policies in China and the need for change

U.S. concerns about WIPO’s potential misuse of confidential information are further magnified by accusations regarding the relationship that the current DG, Francis Gurry, has enjoyed with China. I quote Mr. Pooley again:

“Mr. Gurry had negotiated secret agreements with both China and Russia, which were first announced not by WIPO but by the China Daily News and The Voice of Russia, respectively. I remember very well going to lunch with one of my senior colleagues, when he surprised me with the news of the Moscow office, while I was the one to first inform him about the Beijing office. These secretive deals provoked a storm of controversy among the member states of WIPO, and as a result at their annual meeting in October 2013 they could not agree on a budget for the organization.”

U.S. suspicions regarding Gurry’s relationship with China are magnified by his frequent travels to China and his high-level meetings with the Chinese government. Of course, there is nothing wrong with high-level Chinese government meetings, as China is an active user of the PCT and other WIPO facilities.  Of concern to me is that Gurry underscores in almost all his China interviews the importance of strong government management of IP, via, inter alia,  “repeated messaging from the leadership of the importance of intellectual property.”  In one interview Gurry noted that China’s IP system has evolved so quickly due to the central direction given to China’s IP system, and praised China’s successful “planned, systemic and leadership-driven system.”  Similarly, in a November 2019 interview, Gurry noted that  China’s development in intellectual property has been “outstanding” and underscored the “focus and support of the leadership.”  The interviewer, Tian Wei, by contrast, noted that “the top-down approach is of course sometimes something quite unique to China.”  Gurry’s support of top-down approaches to IP also extended to his Global Innovation Index, which accords considerable weight to raw numbers invention and utility model patent filings as an indicator of innovative capacity.  This approach tends to naturally favor metric-driven IP regimes.

My interview with the South China Morning Post, noted above, was in fact directed to this embrace of state-driven innovation by Gurry.  As I noted in the interview “If Wang steps into those [Gurry’s] shoes, 10 years from now we will no longer have an IP system based on markets.”   This blog has consistently advocated that, despite the many strengths of China’s IP regime, the main defect of China’s IP regime is the inadequate focus afforded to IP as a private property right and that an overemphasis on the “socialist” aspects of China’s developing market economy could be antithetical to such a private property rights orientation.  I have not only criticized Chinese efforts which might weaken a private property rights orientation, but also the efforts of other authorities, including the US and  WIPO, which support greater Chinese intervention in its markets.  Gurry has consistently ignored that a “planned, systemic and leadership-driven system” can easily deviate from the commitment China made at WTO accession in acceding to the TRIPS Agreement that “intellectual property is a private right”  [emphasis supplied] (TRIPS Preamble).

Would a DG Wang be different from DG Gurry? I have known DDG Wang Binying since my tenure at IP Attaché at the US Embassy in Beijing (2004-2008). She also enjoys cordial relations with many prominent and active U.S. IP lawyers and officials.  Indeed, several foreigners I spoke with thought that she should be given a chance to break out from the legacy of Francis Gurry and, given her expertise, could do an excellent job.  Much as Tian Wei noted in her interview that Gurry’s perspective on China’s IP regime is not consistent with some of China’s own criticisms of its regime, it would not be unusual to expect that Wang Binying may have a better understanding of the needs of her country than Francis Gurry.  In this respect, Francis Gurry may have done a disservice to China, the US and Ms. Wang.

I note with regret that Francis Gurry’s legacy also goes deeper than perspectives on the role of the state in China’s IP regime.  During my tenure at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and later at the USPTO on its China team (from 2004-2008, and 2012-2017), I was never invited to a WIPO-sponsored symposium in China.  In fact, I  was disinvited to one symposium when a Chinese sponsor affiliated with a WIPO program noted with surprise that an American was being invited to speak at a WIPO event in China.

The data on WIPO’s website further confirms the strongly China-oriented focus of the China office’s activities in China.  The online listing of programs of WIPO’s Beijing office fails to list any multinational program or a program with a foreign government. By contrast, the Singapore office holds regional and national programs, and Brazil’s office is engaged in South-South cooperation as well as hosting international events.  WIPO’s HQ has hosted multinational events in China as well, such as a recent judicial program, often with US participation.  I polled several diplomats who have resided in China prior to writing this blog.  Although there appear to have been some positive recent developments, their past experience of being denied opportunities to participate in WIPO programs was consistent with mine.   Would a DG Wang carry forward this nationalist orientation of China’s WIPO activities?

Conclusion

I believe that active management controls, oversight and perhaps structural reform can help address the risk of trade secret leakage and other management risks from WIPO.  I also believe that, if elected, Wang Binying might be able to leave the unhealthy legacy of Francis Gurry in China behind, and indeed could help improve relations with the United States by adopting a more collaborative and balanced approach.  Although she had been closely associated with DG Gurry, I know of no direct accusation against her with regard to any of the risks noted above.  However, the lack of any such accusation is not proof that the risks aren’t real, nor does it mean that U.S. concerns need not be addressed.  For the United States, these concerns generally also do not exist with respect to candidates from outside of China.   Indeed, whatever the success of her candidacy, it would be helpful for WIPO, its member states, and Ms. Wang herself to step out of the shadows and address those legitimate concerns raised by the United States and others.

If these concerns are properly addressed, both WIPO and U.S.-China IP relations can only be strengthened, and a DG Wang, if elected, would be off to a very good start.  As any student of modern Chinese knows, the Chinese term for crisis 危机 contains the character for opportunity 机会.  Wang Binying’s candidacy can present such an opportunity.

POSTPONED: Berkeley China Law Event – A 60 Year Perspective

60YrsBanner

Please note that this event has now been postponed due to the corona virus outbreak!

[UC Berkeley will be hosting a program March 16-17 commemorating 60 years of teaching Chinese law here.  The first day of the program will focus on business-related issues, including IP/technology and dispute resolution.  Jerome A. Cohen, Stanley Lubman, Don Clarke, Jim Feinerman, Rachel Stern, Jamie Horsley, Mark Wu, and many other leading academics and practitioners will attend this event.

Here is a current  (Feb. 5, 2020) draft agenda.]