Unpacking the Role of IP Legislation in the Trade War

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Here is my attempt to unpack recent legislation and their relevance to the on-going trade dispute.

In recent months, China has amended its Foreign Investment Law, the Technology Import/Export Regulations (“TIER”), the Anti-Unfair Competition Law regarding trade secrets, and the Trademark Law, with new provisions on bad faith filings and damages. A summary of the Trademark Law revisions provided by SIPS is found here. China also amended the Joint Venture Regulations provisions removing provisions that which limited a foreign licensor’s freedom to license technology beyond years or to restrict use of licensed technology after the 10 year period had elapsed.

With the revisions to the TIER and the JV regulations, much of the basis for the US and EU complaints against China at the WTO regarding de jure forced technology transfer may have evaporated (WTO Disputes DS542, and DS549). However, the public dockets do not indicate that the cases have been withdrawn.

China seems to have determined that it has crossed a line in how much it can accommodate US demands. Bloomberg reported on a commentary published after the imposition of escalated sanctions in the influential “China Voice” column of the People’s Daily which accused the US of fabricating forced technology transfer claims. The commentary is entitled “If you want to condemn somebody, don’t worry about the pretext”, with the sub-title, written in classical Chinese: “‘Forced Technology Transfer’ Should Stop!”. (欲加之罪,何患无辞 – “中国强制转让技术论”可以休矣). The title is a quotation from the Zuo Zhuan, a classic of Chinese history written around 400 B.C. that realistically describes the palace intrigues, military tactics, assassinations, etc. from the chaotic “Spring and Autumn” period from 771-476 B.C. The People’s Daily view is also shared by a number of scholars and observers who view the problem as exaggerated or mischaracterized (apart from the TIER and JV regulations). However, this view has been rejected by USTR Lighthizer, as was reported in a recent NPR interview (March 25, 2019):

“CHANG: Though a number of scholars believe the Trump administration is overstating how often forced technology transfers are happening.

LIGHTHIZER: Well, I guess I don’t know who those scholars are. We did an eight-month study on it, and I think it’s the very strong view of the people that we talked to that it’s a very serious problem and has been for a number of years.”

(Update of May 21, 2019: A recent EU Chamber survey in fact showed an increase in businesses reporting that FTT is a concern, from 10% two years ago to 20%.)

There have also been several IP legislative developments that may not be as directly linked to US government trade pressure. Perhaps the most important is the launch of China’s new national appellate IP Court effective January 1, 2019. The NPC has released a draft of the civil code provisions on personality rights (See this translation). Personality rights can be important tools in addressing trademark squatting, such as in the Michael Jordan case with Qiaodan. CNIPA also released Draft Provisions for Regulating Applications for Trademark Registration (关于规范商标申请注册行为的若干规定(征求意见稿) which addresses bad faith registrations. CNIPA released a draft rule for public comment on Protection of Foreign GI’s (国外地理标志产品保护办法 (修订征求意见稿)on February 28, 2019. The comments focus on generic terms and a GI expert committee for examination of foreign GI’s. Here are INTA’s comments on the trademark registration and GI proposed rules. CNIPA also proposed changes to patent examination guidelines on such issues as proof of inventive step and what constitutes “common knowledge.” Here are AIPLA’s comments from April 4, 2019.

Still pending are proposed amendments to the Drug Administration Law, with comments due by May 25, 2019. This is a second public comment draft released by the NPC. Ropes & Gray has provided a useful analysis. The proposed changes to the DAL also include increased punitive damages for counterfeit medicines, in line with increased penalties in the IP laws (Trademark, AUCL, etc.). There are also proposed changes to the patent law which was released for comment earlier this year. Of particular interest to the pharma sector in the proposed changes were provisions calling for patent term restoration. However, a hoped for inclusion of patent linkage through an “artificial infringement” provision to trigger an infringement challenge by reason of a pharmaceutical regulatory approval has not yet materialized. There were also rumors that China and USTR has scaled back regulatory data protection for biologics from the 12 years that had originally been proposed by China in 2018 to the 10 year period provided by the US Mexico Canada Free Trade Agreement.

What is the relationship between all these legislative changes and the trade war? Larry Kudlow, the Director of the National Economic Council, described the legislative snafu that caused the administration to reinstitute tariffs as follows:

“For many years, China trade, it was unfair, nonreciprocal, unbalanced, in many cases, unlawful. And so, we have to correct those and one of the sticking points right now as we would like to see these corrections in an agreement which is codified by law in China, not just the state council announcement. We need to see something much clearer. And until we do, we have to keep our tariffs on, that’s part of the enforcement process as far as we are concerned.”

So what are the unenacted “laws” and what is the State Council “announcement” that Mr. Kudlow is referring to and which in his view launched this new trade war escalation? I doubt that Mr. Kudlow has read China’s Law on Legislation and understands the difference between a Law passed by the NPC and a State Council Regulation, particularly as US and European practice in recent months appears to be oblivious of legislative nomenclature and its role in determining what constitutes a legally binding document.

Perhaps Mr. Kudlow is talking about the NDRC 38 agency MOU published in late 2018 regarding punishments for serious patent infringement, including use of social credit system. The NDRC document is clearly inferior to a Law or State Council Regulation, but it was a directly promulgated document of a State Council agency. As the patent law amendments have not been enacted yet, he may be referring to this delay in enactment and the failure to increase damages for infringement as has been provided by other statutes. In my own view, the focus on punitive or even statutory damages is misguided as is increased administrative enforcement, as the primary reason that damages are low is the failure of most Chinese courts to impose fully compensatory damages and abide by priorities in law for establishing damages. But I hope to have more on that in another blog…

One thing is certain: China has been timing legislative developments with trade diplomacy. This may lead one to believe that China’s approach to the new laws was purely transactional, and/or there were other laws that the US was also expecting but that China has since declined to deliver. The previously mentioned NDRC 38 Agency MOU was enacted before the G-20 meeting but made publicly available shortly thereafter. The “Working Measures [sic] for Outbound Transfer of Intellectual Property Rights (For Trial Implementation), (State Council, Guo Ban Fa [2018] No. 19)” (知识产权对外转让有关工作办法(试行)) which was previously discussed here, appear to have been timed with the 301 announcement in March 2018. In addition, the revocation of TIER provisions, JV implementing regulations, and amendments to the Trademark Law and AUCL revisions all were enacted with incredible efficiency, often denying any opportunity for meaningful public comment in violation of prior procedural practices. A reasonable guess may be that there were some additional laws or regulations that the US was expecting but that China had determined it could not deliver, or deliver in the time frame provided. Nonetheless, the legislative track record thus far is quite impressive.

China’s improved environment for technology transfer and technology collaboration is coming at a time when the United States has tightened up its controls with China. The most notable legislation in this area is the John S. McCain Defense Authorization Act for 2018 (the “Act”), including the enactment of the Foreign Investment Risk Reduction Modernization Act and the Export Controls Act of 2018. These laws extended export control and foreign investment control authorities to foundational and emerging technologies, as well as to non-passive, non-controlling investments. Much of the technologies of concern overlap with Made in China 2025 and other Chinese industrial policy documents. Although the Act did not specifically create “black” and “white” countries as subjects of controls, the Congressional history did point to special concerns about China:

“Congress declares that long-term strategic competition with China is a principal priority for the United States that requires the integration of multiple elements of national power, including diplomatic, economic, intelligence, law enforcement, and military elements, to protect and strengthen national [t]security, [including] … the use of economic tools, including market access and investment to gain access to sensitive United States industries.”

The most recent report which analyzes the impact of US and Chinese regulations on Chinese investment in the United States by Rhodium Group is found here (May 8, 2019). The report notes an “over 80% decline in Chinese FDI in the US to just $5 billion from $29 billion in 2017 and $46 billion in 2016. Accounting for asset divestitures, net 2018 Chinese FDI in the US was -$8 billion. Meanwhile, American FDI in China dropped only slightly to $13 billion in 2018 from $14 billion in 2017.” The Rhodium report also notes that “the chilling impact of politics on US FDI in China was mostly visible in the ICT space where new investment declined significantly last year.” Other countries have also been enacting similar restrictions on FDI in sensitive areas, as pointed out in a recent article by my Berkeley colleague Vinod K. Aggarawal. Note: I will be speaking at a forthcoming AIPLA webinar on export controls and IP strategies on May 23, 2019 as well as at forthcoming events in China (to be announced).

In addition to these legislative efforts, the US has undertaken steps to restrict H1B visas for talented scientists and engineers and the FBI has created a new working group to address economic espionage from China. The Committee of 100 released an important paper in 2017 showing that Asian Americans were more likely to be prosecuted for economic espionage than any other ethnic group, are also subject to higher sentences and were twice as likely as other groups to have cases against them dismissed. Some observers fear that overly broad regulation and enforcement by the United States may now be encouraging exactly what China has sought to do for decades: repatriate to China the vast talent pool of Chinese scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to contribute to the technological development of the motherland.

Although there have been few legislative efforts directed to making US science and technology more competitive in response to these perceived threats from China, there have been several general reports and proposals. The National Institute of Science and Technology recently released a green paper, “Return on Investment Initiative for Unleashing American Innovation” (April 2019) to improve federal technology transfer and entrepreneurship. There are increasing calls for Congress to fund the long defunct Office of Technology Assessment, which once played an active role in analyzing US-China technology trade.

Several trade organizations and think tanks have called for increased US funding in science and technology, among them is the recent report of the Task Force of American Innovation, “Second Place America – Increasing Challenges to America’s Scientific Leadership” (May 7, 2019). The R&D graph at the head of this blog showing China’s rapid growth in R&D is from that report. The report notes:

“America’s competitive edge is now at stake, as China and other countries are rapidly increasing investments in research and workforce development in order to assume positions of global leadership. Our nation risks falling perilously behind in the basic scientific research that drives innovation, as our global competitors increase support for cutting-edge research and push to the forefront in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, aerospace, advanced manufacturing, and the next generation of telecommunications networks.”

To round out this summary of legislative developments, there have been developments at the USPTO that impact US relations with China on IP. The USPTO published a proposed regulation which will regulate legal services for the rapidly increasing number of Chinese pro se trademark filers in the US (2/15/2019). This proposed regulation would require these applications to use a US licensed attorney. The purported purpose of this change in current practice is “instill greater confidence in the public that U.S. registrations that issue to foreign applicants are not subject to invalidation for reasons such as improper signatures and use claims and enable the USPTO to more effectively use available mechanisms to enforce foreign applicant compliance with statutory and regulatory requirements in trademark matters.” The rule also seems generally consistent with TRIPS Art. 3, which permits WTO members to require “the appointment of an agent within the jurisdiction of a Member … to secure compliance with laws and regulations which are not inconsistent with the provisions of [the TRIPS] Agreement”.

Another important development involves USPTO efforts to clarify subject matter eligibility under Sec. 101 of the patent act, and functional claim limitations for computer-enabled inventions under Section 112. The United States had been weakening and destabilizing protections in these important areas affecting artificial intelligence, fintech and biotech inventions at the precise time when China had been strengthening its protections. These are important steps towards strengthening predictability in our domestic IP system, which may be further strengthened by proposed legislative changes.

Ironically, China’s improvements in its investment and tech transfer environment are coming at a time of heightened concern over a Chinese technological threat and increased US and international regulatory scrutiny. It may be difficult, therefore, to perceive any immediate positive impact from changes in China’s investment environment. Indeed, the media has recently been reporting on decisions of different companies or entrepreneurs to close down R&D operations in each other’s markets. Hopefully, both countries may ultimately create the right mix of IP enforcement and protection, regulatory controls over collaboration and industrial policy to enable bilateral scientific collaboration to once again flourish and contribute to the global economy.

A Potpourri of AIPLA Legislative Comments — And Other Developments

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The American Intellectual Property Law Association has once again made its comments on proposed changes to Chinese IP legislation (laws, regulations, rules, examination guidelines,  judicial interpretations, etc. ) available to this blog.

Attached are the AIPLA’s response to the request for comments to revision of the trademark law in China (商标法修改公开征集意见) first published by SAIC.  SAIC is now a part of SAMR – the State Administration for Market Regulation. It had published a public solicitation of ideas for revising the trademark law on April 2, 2018, with a due date for comments of July 31, 2018.  AIPLA’s comments primarily focus on providing clarifying and strengthening legislation regarding bad faith trademark applications and registrations.

AIPLA has also commented on the proposed patent validity rules  of the SPC on administrative patent litigation (最高人民法院关于审理专利授权 确权行政案件若干问题的规定(公开征求意见稿)).  This judicial interpretation was previously discussed in this blog, with a translation by the Anjie law firm.  Additionally, here  is the Chinese version of these comments.

Finally, AIPLA has commented on the special approval procedure for innovative medica devices (创新医疗设备特别批准程序(修订稿)) which was first published for public comment on May 7, with a closing date of June 15.   Here is a text of the draft approval procedures in Chinese.

In a related legislative development, the recent dismissal of party secretary Bi Jinquan of the SAMR due the tainted vaccine scandal may also impact reforms that BI had spearheaded, which included pharma-related IP reforms (patent linkage, regulatory data protection, etc).   Commissioner Bi formerly served as the leader of China’s Food and Drug Administration.  An August 20, 2018 notice of the State Council  (no. 83) on deepening reform in China’s medical sector ominously omits any mention of patents or IP reform.  国务院办公厅关于印发深化医药卫生体制改革2018年下半年重点工作任务的通知, (国办发〔2018〕83号.  The next place where we might see the continued life in these reforms is in the proposed revisions to China’s patent law, which the National People’s Congress had tabled for completion by the end of 2018 as noted in its 2018 workplan  (全国人大常委会2018年工作要点).  A first draft of the revised patent law is needed as early as late August/early September 2018 in order to meet the NPC’s deadline.  One much anticipated pharma-related concern in the new draft, which would also support China’s efforts to develop both an innovative and high quality pharma sector, is incorporation of “artificial infringement” by which a request for regulatory approval would be deemed an infringing act in order to support a patent linkage regime.

 

Note: The above photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

SIPO Publishes Proposed Revisions to Patent Examination Guidelines

On October 27, 2016, the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO)  published the  Draft (For Public Comment) of Revisions to the Patent Examination Guidelines.  The Chinese text is available here. Comments on the draft should be submitted before November 27.

 In the important area of post filing data supplementation for pharmaceutical inventions, the proposed revisions clarify that such supplementation is permissible where “the technical effect to be proved by the supplemental experimental data shall be that which can be obtained in the contents of the [original] application disclosure by one who is ordinarily skilled in the art.” 对于申请日之后补交的实验数据,审查员应当予以审查。补交实验数据所证明的技术效果应当是所属技术领域的技术人员能够从专利申请公开的内容中得到的。

 The examination guidelines also loosen the standards for obtaining business method patents if there is a technical element to the novel business method.  Presumably these inventions were previously denied patentability on the basis that they were intellectual rules or methods under Article 25 of the Patent Law.  The proposed guidelines state:

 Claims related to business methods that contain both business rules and methods and technical characteristics, shall not be excluded from the possibilities of obtaining patent rights be Article 25 of the Patent Law. 涉及商业模式的权利要求,如果既包含商业规则和方法的内容,又包含技术特征,则不应当依据专利法第二十五条排除其获得专利权的可能性。

The examination guidelines also appear to loosen the standards for obtaining software enabled inventions:

In the second line of Part II, chapter IX, section 5.2, paragraph 1, the third sentence of the Patent Examination Guidelines are amended from, “and describe in detail which parts of the computer program are to be performed and how to perform them” to provide that “The components may not only include hardware, but may also include programs. 将《专利审查指南》第二部分第九章第5.2节第1段第3句中的并详细描述该计算机程序的各项功能是由哪些组成部分完成以及如何完成这些功能修改为所述组成部分不仅可以包括硬件,还可以包括程序”.

Postscripts (Nov 18 and 28, 2016):

1.  Here’s Jacob Schindler’s October 31, 2016 commentary in IAM on this blog, and  here’s another blog comparing US and Chinese software patent developments. 

2.  Here are AIPLA’s comments on the proposed revisions to the patent examination guidelines (Nov. 25, 2016 – bilingual).

 

GAI and ABA Publish Their AUCL Comments

Attached are the comments of the American Bar Association Sections on International Law and Antitrust Law  on the proposed draft revisions of the Anti-Unfair Competition Law (AUCL)  as well as comments of the Global Antitrust Institute of George Mason University.

The ABA’s comments are comprehensive – addressing IP issues (including trade secret and trade dress), advertising law, competition law issues and commercial bribery.  GAI’s  comments are focused on the interface between the AUCL and the Antimonopoly Law.

Regarding the overlap with the AML, the GAI advocates that “any provisions in the AUCL that relate to conduct covered by traditional antitrust laws, or conduct covered by China’s Anti-Monopoly Law, be either omitted entirely or revised to limit liability to situations when there is substantial evidence of harm to competition.  … The AUCL should be implemented in a manner consistent with these objectives of competition policy.”  The same argument might be applied to other laws in China, such as Section 329 of the contract law, which deals with monopolization of technology.   In fact, China has a long history of industrial policy regulation of competition, much of which was enacted prior to China’s antimonopoly law.

Neither set of comments fully addresses a core concern of the proponents of this draft,  “that the administrative law enforcement is dispersed, that law enforcement standard is not unified, that the legal responsibility system is not perfect, and that the punishment is too lenient.”  Prior experience of administrative trade secret enforcement of the AUCL has shown that foreigners have not been a significant beneficiary, despite high level political attention paid to increased trade secret protection.   In the trademark context, SAIC’s foreign-related docket is several multiples of all foreign-related civil IP cases.  Increased administrative enforcement authorities raise several complicated concerns:  will these authorities be used fairly on behalf of Chinese and foreigners alike,  will trade secrets be protected by administrative agencies, are the courts better situated to adjudicate the various divergent issues,  what priority will AUCL enforcement assume in SAIC’s vast bureaucracy,  how will these expanded authorities be coordinated with criminal law enforcement and the courts, etc.

Update of March 16, 2017:  Attached are the  Comments of the American Intellectual Property Law Association.