An Unwelcome Addition and A Welcome Subtraction in the Technology Transfer Provisions of the New Civil Code

The Civil Code of China has now been enacted by the National People’s Congress (eff. January 1, 2021).  As previously discussed in this blog, the Civil Code now incorporates the technology contract provisions of the former Contract Law, with certain revisions.   

There are two significant changes in the enacted technology contract provisions from the prior public draft.  One constitutes an unwelcome addition, while the other is a welcome removal.

The Unwelcome Addition

The unwelcome addition is the underlined text below:

第八百四十七条   职务技术成果的使用权、转让权属于法人或者非法人组织的,法人或者非法人组织可以就该项职务技术成果订立技术合同。法人或者非法人组织订立技术合同转让职务技术成果时,职务技术成果的完成人享有以同等条件优先受让的权利。 职务技术成果是执行法人或者非法人组织的工作任务,或者主要是利用法人或者非法人组织的物质技术条件所完成的技术成果。

Article 847 Where the right to use or transfer a service technical achievement belongs to a legal person or an unincorporated organization, the legal person or unincorporated organization may conclude a technical contract for the service technical achievement. When a legal person or an unincorporated organization concludes a technology contract to transfer service technology achievements, the person who completed the service technology achievements has the right to receive priority transfer on equal terms. The service technical results are the technical results of performing the work tasks of a legal person or an unincorporated organization or mainly using the material and technical conditions of a legal person or an unincorporated organization.

This provision is like Article 29 of SIPO’s draft service invention remuneration regulations which provided:

第二十九条 单位拟转让职务发明的知识产权的,发明人享有在同等条件下优先受让 的权利。

29. Where an entity intends to assign intellectual property rights of a service invention, the inventor is entitled to priority transfer on equal terms.

This provision is similar to Articles 339 and 340 of the Contract Law (1999), which had however established that this right was subject to other terms separately negotiated (除当事人另有约定的以外), however it is now non-negotiable.  The IP and International Law Sections of the American Bar Association had commented on the non-negotiable draft regulation (April 20, 2015).  It noted that such language was “contrary to international norms”, but also was contrary to the ownership rights of the acquiring company.  Moreover, such a right may be in conflict with the employee’s labor contract with her company.  As drafted this language may also entail an additional layer of approvals from the inventor and could impede subsequent commercialization through sublicensing or assignment to third parties by the owner by establishing a non-waivable first right of first refusal which is also not limited by time.  It may thereby weaken China’s ability to commercialize higher value service invention patents at precisely the time when its technology markets appear poised to take-off.  I hope that subsequent laws, regulations and court practice will limit its potentially expansive scope.

The Welcome Removal:

Article 850 addresses appears to address a long-standing contract in the technology contract law, namely its overlapping jurisdiction with China’s Antimonopoly Law.   As I noted in my prior blog, an added level of ambiguity is interposed because the Civil Law is more recent that the revisions to China’s Technology Import/Export Regulations, and is at higher level of legislation than these regulations.  Moreover, it is considered major legislation,  as it is enacted by the NPC as a whole and therefor might be considered as having significant persuasive weight.  Vague language in the technology transfer contract provisions of the Civil Code such as “mutual benefit”, “monopolize technology”,  “hindering technology progress”, ‘infringing technological achievements”, create unpredictability in China’s burgeoning technology markets.  The the removal of “hindering technology progress” as a basis for invalidating technology contracts (Art. 850) is therefor welcome:

第八百五十条 非法垄断技术、妨碍技术进步或者侵害他人技术成果的技术合同无效。

Article 850 A technology contract that illegally monopolizes technology, hinders technological progress, or infringes on the technological achievements of others is invalid.

The removal of this phrase  may serve to limit discretion of courts or administrative agencies in invalidating contracts to circumstances more clearly defined by third parties.  Contractual provisions that are determined to be anti-competitive under China’s Antimonopoly law or are determined in a court or administrative proceeding to infringe on the rights of third parties are now more clearly within the scope of Article 850.   Moreover, the Antimonopoly Law already contains eight separate references to technology development and thus may be said to adequately reflect concerns over contracts that seek to monopolize technology.  Contrariwise, there is no separate agency specifically tasked to determine what constitutes “technological progress” in a contract, so its removal makes clear that invalidity determinations may depend on separate antimonopoly or infringement proceedings.  

Article 850 was originally promulgated in Article 329 of the Contract Law  (1999).  Its adoption occurred eight years before China enacted its Antimonopoly Law.  With the passage of the Antimonopoly Law, it created an unnecessary ambiguity over its scope and role. this Civil Code revision is a welcome rejoinder to the concerns I had previously raised in a book I coauthored on the AML (2011), and in testimony before the US-China Economic and  Security Review Commission (2015). At that time I expressed concern about China’s desire to pursue antimonopoly regulation in licensing contracts in the absence of an antimonopoly law. Those concerns now appear to have been addressed.

Conclusion:

I hope you will considering joining me and several other great speakers when we discuss these and other issues in a timely webinar on Licensing and Antitrust in China, Wednesday June 3, 2020 at 4:30 PM PST.

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.

 

 

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

 

The Phase 1 IP Agreement: Its Fans and Discontents

How much will the IP Sections of the Phase 1 Agreement (the “Agreement”) with China change  IP strategies in China?   For the most part, the Agreement adds much less than its appearance might suggest.  Many of the important changes that the Agreement memorializes have recently been codified into law or set into motion for forthcoming codification.  There are some important prospective changes in the text, particularly regarding pharmaceutical patent protections and in civil and criminal enforcement.  If these changes are well-implemented, that could augur significant changes in the future.  Nonetheless, a cautious approach should be taken to these changes as well, as many of them have a long history of disappointing US rightsholders.  An additional problem with the Agreement is its reliance on administrative mechanisms that have a track record of not providing sustained protection for IP rights.

The IP-related sections are found in Chapter 1 of the Agreement (“Intellectual Property”) and Chapter 2 (“Technology Transfer”).  Chapter 1 is divided into the following sections: General Obligations, Trade Secrets and Confidential Information, Pharmaceutical-Related Intellectual Property, Patents, Piracy and Counterfeiting on E-Commerce Platforms, Geographical Indications, Manufacture and Export of Pirated and Counterfeit Goods, Bad-Faith Trademarks, Judicial Enforcement and Procedure in Intellectual Property Cases, and Bilateral Cooperation on Intellectual Property Protection. Chapter 2 concerns Technology Transfer and is not divided into separate sections.

There are many concerning textual aspects of the Agreement.  For example, it is unclear why “Technology Transfer” was not considered an IP issue in the Agreement.  Additional ambiguities are supplied by inconsistent use of legal language as well as differences in the English and Chinese texts, both of which are understood to be equally valid (Art. 8.6).  A careful reading shows that in many cases the Agreement does not afford any new progress on particular issues, but merely serves as a placeholder on issues that have long been under active discussion (e.g., on post-filing supplementation of pharmaceutical data in patent applications).  There are also several provisions that appear to break new ground, such as in consularization of court documents by foreigners and enforcement of civil judgments.

Reactions from the dozens of people I spoke with about the Agreement in the US and China have been mixed.   One prominent Chinese attorney thought that Chinese IP enforcement officials were now much more likely to be responsive to US requests in forthcoming enforcement proceedings.  Several individuals thought that the Agreement would be a great stimulus to IP agencies and the courts in their enforcement efforts as well as in drafting new laws, regulations and judicial interpretations.  Many academics were perplexed by the unclear language in the Agreement.  Some experts shared my view that the Agreement places an undue emphasis on the wrong issues, such as punitive damages, administrative campaigns, and criminal punishment at the expense of compensatory civil compensation.  Due to the numerous errors and inconsistencies in the Agreement, many people speculated that the negotiators on the US side and/or the Chinese side may not have been adequately consulting with experts, bringing to mind the Chinese expression of “building a chariot while the door is closed (without consulting others)” (闭门造车).  The administrative and Customs enforcement provisions were dismissed by many as out of date or just for show.  On the other hand, it did appear that the Chinese negotiators did rely upon their interagency experts.  Susan Finder, the author of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) Monitor, told me that the SPC (and likely the Supreme People’s Procuratorate [SPP]) provided input to the Chinese negotiating team.

Review of the Individual Sections and Articles

The trade secret provisions generally memorialize amendments already made to China’s Anti-Unfair Competition Law, including an expanded scope of definition of “operator” (Art. 1.3), acts that constitute trade secret infringement (Art. 1.4), as well as a shifting of burden of proof in civil proceedings where there is a reasonable basis to conclude that a trade secret infringement has occurred (Art. 1.5).  Interestingly, the United States asserts in this section that it provides treatment equivalent to such shifting of a burden of proof.  I am unaware of any nationwide burden-shifting in US civil trade secret proceedings, except – as a stretch – insofar as US discovery proceedings provide an opportunity to compel production of evidence from an adverse party.  This view was also shared by others I had spoken to.

The trade secret provisions also require China to provide for preliminary injunctions in trade secret cases where there is an “urgent situation”.   The use of preliminary injunctions to address early-stage trade secret theft has long been under discussion between the US and China.  This is an awkward hybrid of Chinese and English legal standards.   Generally the test in Chinese law for “action preservation”  as in US law for “preliminary injunctions” is whether there is irreparable injury arising from such urgent situation which necessitates provisional relief (See Sec. 101 of Civil Procedure Law)  An “urgent” situation which is not likely to cause irreparable injury does not require granting of a preliminary injunction.   China’s judicial practice currently permits the use of preliminary injunctions where there is a risk of disclosure of confidential information (关于审查知识产权纠纷行为保全案件适用法律若干问题的规定, Art. 6.1).  It appears likely that the current test for preliminary injunctions are unaffected by this provision, and the provision just memorializes current Chinese law –  notwithstanding that is unclear about the standards and scope of action preservation procedures in China

The Agreement also uses inconsistent nomenclature to describe preliminary injunctions.  As noted, the Chinese text does not refer to preliminary injunctions but refers to an overlapping concept of “action preservation.” Other provisions of the English language text of the Agreement discuss “preliminary injunctions or equivalent effective provisional measures” (Art. 1-11).

Historically, Chinese judges have been highly reluctant to issue preliminary injunctions.  As Susan Finder has noted in an email to me, the language in the Agreement also does not address the underlying structural problem that judges may be reluctant to give injunctions because they are concerned they will be found to have incorrectly issued them, and hence held accountable under the judicial responsibility system.  The Agreement also does not account for the fact that provisional measures serve a different function in the Chinese system compared to the United States.  China concludes its court cases far more quickly than the United States, thereby providing more immediate relief, often without needing recourse to provisional measures if there is not an urgent need.

The Agreement also requires China to change its trade secret thresholds for “initiating criminal enforcement.” (Art. 1.7).   The Agreement does not specify what measures are to be reformed, such as the Criminal Law or Judicial Interpretations,  or standards for initiating criminal investigations by public security organs and/or the procuracy and State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) administrative enforcement agencies (See, e.g., 关于公安机关管辖的刑事案件立案追诉标准的规定(二)).  The issue of what constitutes “great loss” for calculating criminal thresholds has itself been the subject of discussion and changing standards over the years.

As mentioned in Susan Finder’s November 26, 2019, blogpost, a judicial interpretation on trade secrets is on the SPC’s judicial interpretation agenda for 2020, scheduled for issuance in the first half of the year.  Additional guidance may be expected from the procuratorate, SAMR, and Ministry of Public Security to address criminal enforcement issues.

Consistent with the Foreign Investment Law, the Agreement also prohibits government authorities from disclosing confidential business information (Art. 1.9).

The Pharmaceutical-Related Intellectual Property section of the Agreement requires China to adopt a patent linkage system, much as was originally contemplated in the CFDA Bulletin 55, but subsequently did not appear in the proposed patent law revisions of late 2018. Linkage will be granted to an innovator on the basis that a  (a) company has a confidential regulatory data package on file with China’s regulatory authorities,  and (b) where a third party, such as a generic pharmaceutical company, seeks to rely upon safety and efficacy information of the innovator.  The drafters seem to be describing a situation similar to an Abbreviated New Drug Application (ANDA) in the United States under the US Hatch-Waxman regime.  According to US procedures, a generic company needs to demonstrate, inter alia, bioequivalent safety and efficacy to an innovator’s pharmaceutical product in order to obtain regulatory approval.  Notice is thereafter provided to the patent holder or its licensee of the application for regulatory approval to address the possibility that the generic company may be infringing the innovator’s patent(s).

This linkage regime, if properly implemented, with be an important step for Chian’s struggling innovative pharmaceutical sector.  China’s proposed linkage regime also extends to biologics (Art 1.11).  Taiwan has also recently introduced a linkage regime.

In order to implement the linkage regime, the Agreement requires an administrative or judicial process for an innovator to challenge a generic company’s market entry based on the generic company’s infringement of a patent held by the innovator  As drafted, the Agreement omits a requirement to amend China’s patent law or civil procedure law to permit a court to act when there is an “artificial infringement” by reason of approval of an infringing product for regulatory approval, notwithstanding the lack of any infringing manufacturing, use or sale of the product prior to its introduction into commerce in China. The lack of a concept of “artificial infringement” could make it especially difficult to implement a civil linkage regime in China.  The US Chamber of Commerce and the Beijing Intellectual Property Institute (BIPI) had previously recommended revising Article 11 of China’s patent law to address this issue.  BIPI had noted in its report that “Lacking of artificial infringement provisions results in lacking [sic] of legal grounds for the brand drug company to safeguard their legal rights.” This provision likely reflects continuing turf battles between the courts and China’s administrative IP agencies in enforcing IP rights.  Implementation of a linkage regime by China’s National Medical Products Administration (NMPA) may be possible in the alternative, as a matter of its regulation of pharmaceutical products, however, there may be concerns that NMPA lacks the necessary expertise and independence to properly adjudicate pharmaceutical patent disputes.

The Agreement also does not reference regulatory data protection, which was one of China’s WTO obligations, nor does it reference China’s efforts to adopt an ‘orange book’ similar to the US FDA’s to govern patent disclosures and regulatory data protection as recommended by CFDA Bulletin 55.  This section also reiterates in general terms a commitment by China to provide for post-filing supplementation of data in pharmaceutical patent matters, which has been a long-standing request of the US reflected in several JCCT commitments.  Permitting post-filing supplementation is necessary to support a linkage regime.  In the absence of any meaningful patent grants, China’s patent linkage commitments would be a hollow outcome.

The  Patent section continues the focus on pharmaceutical IP by providing for patent term extension due to regulatory delays for pharmaceutical patents, including patented methods of making and using pharmaceutical products (Art. 1.12).  The draft patent law already provides for patent term extension.  The additional encouragement is welcome.

There are no provisions in this Agreement addressing non-pharmaceutical patent concerns.   Companies that may have concerns about such issues as:  standards-essential patent prosecution or litigation, low-quality patents, patent trolls, procedures involving civil or administrative litigation involving patents or Customs enforcement of patents, China’s increasing interest in litigating global patent disputes for standards-essential patents, the relationship between industrial policy and patent grants, expanding the scope of design patent protection, China’s amending its plant variety protection regime and acceding to the most recent treaty obligations, etc.,  will find that their issues are not addressed.

Section E on “Piracy and Counterfeiting on E-Commerce Platforms” addresses “enforcement against e-commerce platforms”.  By its terms, it does not specifically discuss e-tailers, online service providers or other third parties.

The text (Art. 1.13) seeks to clarify and update the E-Commerce Law by “eliminat[ing] liability for erroneous takedown notices submitted [presumably by rightsholders] in good faith,”  extending mandating a time period of 20 days for rightsholders to file an administrative or judicial response to a counter-notification, and penalizing counter-notifications taken in bad faith.  Joe Simone (SIPS) has told me this Article’s 20 day period may require an amendment to the E-Commerce law, which currently requires a 10 day period.

Article 1.14 specifically addresses infringement on “major” e-commerce platforms. As part of this commitment, China also agreed to revoke the operating licenses of e-commerce platforms that repeatedly fail to curb the sale of counterfeit and pirated goods.  It is unclear from this text if this provision is limited to “major” platforms as the title suggests (in both English and Chinese), or to platforms of any size as the Article itself states.  In addition, it is unclear what kind of “operating license” is involved auch as a general business license or a license to operate an internet business.  Whatever license is involved, this remedy has theoretically been available for some time for companies that sell infringing goods.  As I recall, past efforts to use license revocations to address IP infringement had little success.  Smaller enterprises might be able to circumvent the license revocation, perhaps by transferring businesses to another platform  In the past, companies also evaded enforcement obligations by establishing a new business incorporated or operated under their name or that of a relative or friend.  This provision, similar to other IP provisions of the Agreement, rehashes earlier JCCT commitments with apparent disregard to lessons previously learned or developments in Chinese law and its economy.

Article 1.14  notes, unlike other Articles which note that the United States has equivalent procedures, tellingly states that the United States “is studying additional means to combat the sale of counterfeit or pirated goods.”  According to news reports, the USTR has threatened to place Amazon on the  list of “notorious markets.” Since the publication of the Agreement, Peter Navarro at the White House has also threatened to crack down on US platforms due to the increased pressure of the trade deal to “combat the prevalence of counterfeit or pirated goods on e-commerce platforms.”

The Geographical Indications (GI) Section (F) continues long-standing US engagement with China with respect to its GI system.   The Agreement requires that multi-component terms that contain a generic term will not be protected as a GI, consistent with prior bilateral commitments.  China will also share proposed lists of GI’s it exchanges with other trading partners with the US to help ensure that generic terms are not protected as GI’s.  The competing GI systems of the United States and China have been the subject of decades of diplomacy.  This Section arguably is intended primarily to show political support for American companies that manufacture or distribute generic food and other products that compete with GI-intensive products such as wine and cheese.  It is also likely intended to support US advocacy around these issues at the WTO, WIPO and bilaterally.

Section G requires China to act against counterfeit pharmaceuticals and related products, including active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) and bulk chemicals (Art. 1.18).  It is unclear if these APIs need to be counterfeited to be seized, or if they should be liable for seizure because they are low quality or contribute to the manufacturing of counterfeit goods.  The issue of API’s and bulk chemicals contributing to the production of counterfeit medicine has long been a discussion point between the US and China and had been the subject of JCCT outcomes.  Providing API’s to counterfeiters is already a crime and civil violation.  It can also give rise to administrative liability, although administrative agencies have often not prioritized contributory liability.  Thanks to Joe Simone again, for providing me with the benefit of his experiences in this area.

China is also required to act against “Counterfeit Goods with Health and Safety Risks” (Art. 1.19).  The text does not explicitly address unsafe products that do not bear a counterfeit trademark or the enforcement agencies that will implement this commitment.  Generally, the burden of enforcing against counterfeit products belongs to trademark enforcers, rather than enforcement officials involved in product quality or consumer protection violations.  However, the NMPA and/or the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology are specifically named as enforcement agencies in a related provision to this one (Art. 1.18).

This section also seeks to address “Manufacture and Export” of these goods, including “block[ing]” their distribution (chapeau language).  It does not elaborate on how such cross-border steps will be undertaken – such as by Customs agents, law enforcement authorities, cooperation between food and drug regulatory agencies, or through bilateral or multilateral law enforcement cooperation.

The failure to clearly designate a responsible agency in these administrative and law enforcement commitments can lead to problems with enforcing IP rights.  The academic literature, including that of Prof. Martin Dimitrov,  has suggested that when multiple agencies have unclear and overlapping IP enforcement authority, they may be more inclined to shirk responsibility.  I hope that coordination mechanisms for these and other outcomes have been well-negotiated to address this issue.

Article 1.20 addresses the destruction of counterfeit goods by Customs, in civil judicial proceedings and in criminal proceedings.  Article 1-20(1) requires Customs to not permit the exportation of counterfeit or pirated goods  Due to the growth of e-commerce and B2C exports from China via online platforms, container-sized seizures have become rarer, and the practical consequences of this provision may be limited.  Moreover, rightsholders have not often complained of Customs’ destruction procedures.  A WTO case brought by the United States involving Chinese customs destruction procedures also failed to identify losses to the United States by reason of China’s not disposing of seized goods outside of the channels of commerce consistent with its WTO obligations to seize goods on import  (DS362) (see 0% auctioned on imports, below).  At that time, when containerized shipment seizure was more common, only 3.7% of imported and exported goods were auctioned by value and 1.9% by shipments.   7.351ds362

My former colleague, Tim Trainer,  has identified what is new in the Agreement in Customs as seizures in transit.

The Article does not define what is a “counterfeit” good, or whether manufacturing a product for export may constitute an infringement of the rights of a third party that holds the right in China, which is the so-called OEM problem.  In a typical OEM scenario, the importer in a foreign country owns the relevant rights in the importing country, but not in China.

Article 1.20(2)(d) requires the courts to order that a rightsholder be compensated for injury from infringement in civil judicial procedures, presumably when goods are seized.  It is unclear to me why the Agreement does not address the critical issue of affording adequate civil damages generally, why it is limited to the Customs context, and why the Agreement does not generally address the overuse of low statutory damages in IP-related civil disputes generally.

The Agreement requires that materials and implements which are “predominantly” used in the creation of counterfeit and pirated goods shall be forfeited and destroyed.  This “predominant use” test is derived from the TRIPS agreement. It regrettably provides a basis for goods that are demonstrated to have a less than dominant use (e.g.,  49.9 percent) to avoid forfeiture and destruction.   A better test might have been to encourage China to use a “substantial use” test, or a test based simply on use in commercial-scale counterfeiting and piracy.  IP owners may wish to consider using judicial asset preservation measures by the courts in order to address issues involving the seizure of goods that are also used for legitimate manufacturing purposes.

Destruction of counterfeit goods by Market Supervision Bureaus in administrative trademark enforcement proceedings is not discussed in this Agreement and has been an area of concern by rightsholders in the past.  This omission is concerning as China’s administrative enforcement of trademarks has historically been a highly active area of IP enforcement on behalf of foreign rightsholders.

Section H addresses the bad-faith registration of trademarks.  No specific action is required by China in the text.  I have previously discussed the importance of expanding concepts of “good faith” in IP protection in China with hopes that it would be addressed in resolving the trade war and had specifically noted two issues addressed in the Agreement: bad-faith registration of trademarks, and ensuring that employees were covered objects of China’s trade secret law.  Certain steps have already been undertaken by relevant agencies to address the important issue of bad faith trademark registrations, including:  supporting oppositions/invalidation against marks filed in bad faith and with no intention to use (Article 4 of the Trademark Law);  addressing the problem of trademark agencies that knowingly facilitate those bad faith trademark filings under Article 4, and imposing administrative fines against bad faith trademark applicants for a purpose other than use or judicial punishments against pirates that bring trademark infringement lawsuits against brand owners victimized by bad-faith registrations.

Given the lack of identified concrete next steps in this important area, China may not be planning to do little more legislation in this area in the near future, and/or waiting to better evaluate the impact of recently implemented measures and policies, including provisions allowing fines to be imposed against trademark pirates. Joe Simone has suggested that one helpful measure to consider in the future might be for courts to award compensation for legal and investigation fees in bad faith cases, ideally by the same courts handling invalidation and opposition appeals.

Section I requires the transfer of cases from administrative authorities to “criminal authorities” when there is a “reasonable suspicion based on articulable facts” that a criminal violation has occurred.  “Criminal authorities” are not defined.  This could include the Ministry of Public Security and/or the Procuracy. The intent behind this provision is likely to ensure more deterrent penalties for IP violations and avoid the use of administrative penalties as a safe harbor to insulate against criminal enforcement.  This problem of low administrative referrals is an old and thorny one.  In bilateral discussions of the last decade, we would often inquire about the “administrative referral rate” of China, which is the percentage of administrative IP cases that were referred to criminal prosecution, which has historically been quite low. See National Trade Estimates Report (2009) at pp. 101-102.  However, if administrative agencies are required to transfer cases to the Public Security Bureau or Procuratorate, it will have little impact unless these agencies accept the case and initiate prosecutions.  A loophole in this text may be that it does not mandate that a case is accepted after it has been referred by administrative agencies, thereby risking non-action by prosecutors.  As administrative agencies have more limited investigative powers, the evidence provided by administrative authorities may also often be insufficient to initiate a criminal investigation.

Article 1.27 requires China to establish civil remedies and criminal penalties to “deter” future intellectual property theft or infringements.  These requirements are also found in the TRIPS Agreement.  The English language text of the Agreement conflates the role of civil remedies and criminal penalties and their deterrent impact.   Civil remedies should, at a minimum, deter or stop (制止,阻止) the defendant from repeating the infringing act, whereas criminal remedies might also provide broader social deterrence (威慑 as in nuclear “deterrence”, which is found in the Chinese version of the Agreement).  This paragraph and the Agreement more generally do not underscore the important role of compensatory civil damages in providing deterrence.

The Agreement also requires China to impose penalties at or near the maximum when a range of penalties is provided and to increase penalties over time.

These provisions regarding criminal enforcement generally reflect concerns articulated in the unsuccessful WTO IP case the US brought against China to lower its trademark and copyright criminal thresholds  (DS362).  However, the lost lesson from that case is that criminal thresholds are not as important as other factors in creating deterrence. Prosecutors may still decline in fact to prosecute cases, even if they are required by law to accept cases.  Law enforcement may also lack adequate resources. Judges may also have discretion in imposing sentences.  The calculation of the thresholds themselves, whether based on illegal income or harm caused, may be difficult to assess.  The civil system also needs to play a robust role in creating respect for IP.  The proof of the limited impact of lowering criminal thresholds is that criminal IP cases significantly increased in China after it lost the WTO case.  After the United States “lost” that WTO case, the number of criminal IPR cases rapidly increased to a high of approximately 13,000 in 2013.  Whether the Chinese data  of 2013 was calculated to include only IPR-specific crimes or crimes that may encompass IPR-infringing products (such as involving substandard products), this was a dramatic increase from approximately 2,684 criminal IP cases or 907 IPR infringement crimes from 2007.  The bottom line is that simply increasing criminal cases through lower thresholds may not be enough to create a healthy IP environment.

Another issue of concern is that foreigners have often been named as defendants in serious civil or criminal cases. The first significant criminal copyright case in China involved American defendants distributing counterfeit DVD’s.  More recently, patent preliminary injunction cases were granted in favor of two different Chinese entities in two cases against American defendants (Micron and Veeco). The largest patent damages case involved the first instance decision in Chint v. Schneider Electric (330 million RMB).  The NDRC investigation of Qualcomm similarly pioneered high antitrust damages in an IP licensing matter.  In many instances,  the final decisions in pioneering cases where foreigners lost were also never published.  Given this track record, we might not want to be advocating for harsher enforcement in the absence of greater commitments to due process and transparency.

The Agreement also pioneers by providing for expeditious enforcement of judgments (Article 1.28).  According to Susan Finder, the SPC already lists judgment debtors in its database.  This is a welcome area of engagement and should also be supported by continuing transparency in this area.

Over the past several years, there has been an increasing incidence of multijurisdictional IP disputes, particularly in technology sectors.  The Agreement does not address the problems arising from these cases.  It does not mention that China does not enforce US judgments, although the US has begun enforcing some Chinese money judgments, nor does it address the practice of many Chinese courts to fast track their decision making to undercut US cases.  Generally, US lawyers cannot conduct discovery in China and formal international procedures to collect evidence are slow.  Both Chinese and US courts often rarely apply foreign law, even when such law may be more appropriate to resolution of a dispute.  Based on a recent program I attended at Renmin University, it also appears likely that Chinese courts will issue their own anti-suit injunctions soon.  The Agreement also does not require anything further in terms of judicial assistance in gathering evidence.  These are areas for potential cooperation as well as confrontation.  Indeed Berkeley and Tsinghua have held a continuing series of conferences on this topic.  At the recent Renmin University conference, British, German, US and Chinese judges exchanged their views on these topics in a cordial and productive manner.  It is my hope that this topic is an area of collaboration, not confrontation.

Regarding copyright, Article 1.29 provides for a presumption of ownership in copyright cases and requires the accused infringer to demonstrate that its use of a work protected by copyright is authorized.  It would also have been helpful if the US and China had discussed the problem of title by title lawsuits in China, which has also increased costs of litigation through requiring multiple non-consolidated lawsuits for one collection of songs, photos or other works.  One Chinese academic confided in me that the current practice of requiring that each individual title be the subject of an individual lawsuit was not the original practice in China’s courts and that the old practice was more efficient for both the courts and rightsholders.

The Chinese and English texts of the Agreement also differ to the extent that the English text refers to the US system of related rights, while the Chinese next refers to the Chinese (and European system) of neighboring rights.

In terms of civil procedure, Article 1.30 permits the parties to introduce evidence through stipulation or witness testimony under penalty of perjury, as well as requiring streamlined notarization procedures for other evidence.  China’s ability to implement “penalty of perjury” submissions is limited by China generally lacking a concept of authenticating a document under penalty of perjury, which also hampers lawyer’s ability to represent clients by powers of attorney.  The implementation and impact of this provision is unclear.

Article 1.31 permits expert witness testimony.  Expert witnesses are already permitted under existing Chinese law, although the trend appears to favor greater use of them.  Moreover, Chinese courts have been expanding the role of expert technology assessors to provide support for technologically complex cases.  Once again the implementation and impact of this provision is uncertain, although we can expect further developments from the courts in this area, particularly in anticipated guidance concerning evidence in IP cases.

Article 1.35 requires that China adopt an action plan to implement the IP chapter of the Agreement.  In an additional welcome development, the Agreement also supports reinstatement of cooperative relationships with the USPTO, the USDOJ and US Customs.

Chapter 2 addresses US allegations regarding forced technology transfer.  It prohibits China from seeking technology transfer overseas consistent with its industrial plans subject to the qualifier that such plans  “create distortion.”  Distortion is not defined.

Other provisions prohibit require technology transfer as a condition of market access, using administration or licensing requirements to compel technology transfer and maintaining the confidentiality of sensitive technical information.   These are consistent with the recently enacted Foreign Investment Law and other legislation.

The Technology Transfer provisions do not address whether the provisions that were removed from the TIER  are now governed by China’s Contract Law and proposed Civil Code provisions on technology transfer contracts.  Clarity on this important issue could help support the autonomy of parties to freely negotiate ownership of improvements and indemnities.  The Agreement also does not address the regulation of licensing agreements by antitrust authorities or under China’s contract law or proposed civil code for the “monopolization” of technology.  The Civil Code provisions are now pending before the NPC and could have appropriately been raised as “low hanging fruit” in this Agreement.  Antitrust concerns in IP had also been raised by several parties in the 301 report concerning IP concerns (at pp. 180-181).  Hopefully, these issues will be decided in the Phase 2 Agreement.

Some additional hope for IP commercialization is afforded by the commitments by China in the Agreement to increase its purchases of services by $37.9 billion from the United States during the next two years, which include purchases of IP rights as well as business travel and tourism, financial services and insurance, other services and cloud and related services.  Considering the central role played by forced technology transfer in this trade war, it was to be hoped that a specific commitment on purchases of IP rights might have been secured.

Concluding Observations

It is often difficult to discern the problems that the Agreement purports to address and/or the appropriateness of the proposed solution(s).    In some instances, it also appears that USTR dusted off old requests to address long-standing concerns that may also not have high value due to technological and economic changes.   For example, it is unclear to me if commitments in the Agreement regarding end-user piracy (Art. 1.23) by the government are as necessary today when software is often delivered as an online cloud-based service and not as a commodity.  The leading software trade association’s position in the 301 investigation did not mention end-user piracy as a top-four priority (p. 4). Moreover, China had already been conducting software audits for several years and piracy rates had been declining.  The commercial value of these commitments is also uncertain under China’s recent “3-5-2 Directive”, where the Chinese government is obligated to replaced foreign software and IT products completely with domestic products within the next three years.  The Agreement already contains commitments for China to increase its share of cloud-based services.  The issue does have a long and sad history. The U.S. Government Accountability Office had calculated 22 different commitments on software piracy in bilateral JCCT and economic dialogues between 2004 and February 2014.

Among the more anachronous provisions of the Agreement are the five separate special administrative IP campaigns that the Agreement mandates.  The general consensus from a range of disciplines and enforcement areas (e.g., IP, counterfeit tobacco products, pollution, and taxation) that campaigns result in “short term improvements, but no lasting change.”  Moreover, the focus of these campaigns, including Customs enforcement and physical markets appears outdated due to the growth of e-commerce platforms.

The situation was predictable: “late-term administrations may … be tempted to condone campaign-style IP enforcement, which can generate impressive enforcement statistics but have limited deterrence or long-term sustainability.” The Administration took this one step further, with enforcement campaign reports timed to be released during the various stages of the Presidential campaign.   Here are some of the administrative campaign reports we can expect, with some corresponding milestones in the Presidential campaign season:

March 15: China is required to publish an Action Plan to strengthen IP protection and to report on measures taken to implement the Agreement and dates that new measures will go into effect. (Art. 1.35)

May 15: China is required to substantially increase its border and physical market enforcement actions and report on activities by Customs authorities within three months (or by April 15, 2020) (Art. 1.21).

May 15: China is required to report on enforcement activities against counterfeit goods that pose health or safety risks within four months and quarterly thereafter (Art. 1.19).

June 15: China is required to report on enforcement at physical markets within four months and quarterly thereafter (Art. 1.22).  This report will coincidentally be released at the same time as the Democratic Party Convention.

August 15: China is required to report on counterfeit medicine enforcement activity in six months and annually thereafter (Art.. 1.18).  This report will coincidentally be released approximately one week before the Republican Convention.

September 15: China is required to report on third party independent audits on the use of licensed software within seven months, and annually thereafter (Art. 1.23).

Also, a quarterly report is required regarding the enforcement of IP judgments (Art. 1.28).

There is no explanation provided in the Agreement for the timing of each of these reports, their sequential staging or why the usual date for release of government IP reports (April 26) is not being used.

There are many other important IP areas not addressed in the Agreement.  The Agreement offered a missed opportunity to support judicial reform, including China’s new national appellate IP court, the new internet courts as well as local specialized IP courts at the intermediate level.  The Agreement also entails no obligations to publish more trade secret cases, to make court dockets more available to the public, and to generally improve transparency in administrative or court cases, which might have made the Agreement more self-enforcing.  Due to the relatively small number of civil and criminal trade secret cases and recent legislative reforms, the greater publication of cases would be very helpful in assessing the challenges in litigating this area and China’s compliance with the Agreement. The new appellate IP Court will be especially critical to the effective implementation of the important changes in China’s trade secret law as well as the implementation of the patent linkage regime.  The patent linkage provision also similarly neglects to describe the critical role of the courts in an effective linkage regime.  The Agreement to a certain extent memorializes the ongoing tensions between administrative and civil enforcement in China and regrettably reemphasizes the role of the administrative agencies in managing IP through campaigns and punishment.

The trade war afforded a once in a lifetime opportunity to push for market mechanisms in managing IP assets through a reduced role for administrative agencies and improved civil remedies in China’s IP enforcement regime.   A high cost was paid in tariffs to help resolve a problem that the Administration estimated, or exaggerated, to be as high as 600 billion dollars.   The reforms in the Agreement hardly total up to addressing a problem of that magnitude, and in many cases appear more focused on yesterday’s problems.  While the continued emphasis on administrative agencies and limited focus on civil remedies is disappointing, there are nonetheless many notable IP  reforms in the Agreement in addition to legislative reforms already delivered.  I hope that a Phase 2 agreement will deliver additional positive changes that also address the challenges of the future

Please send me your insights, comments, criticisms or corrections!  Happy Spring Festival!

Please send in any comments or corrections!

Revised 1/23/2020, 1/27/2020

Draft Civil Code Technology Contract Law Available for Comment

The NPC has released a draft of the contract chapter of the draft civil code for public comment. According to the NPC Observer, this is the first draft of the entire Civil Code with the final round scheduled for consideration as early as March 2020.  Comments are being accepted by the NPC through January 26, 2020.  According to the NPC Observer the contracts section of the draft had previously been separately published in December 2018.  This blog considers the differences between the contract law provisions and the current draft, as well as the relationship of the draft entire civil code with other legislative changes involving technology contracts.

Chapter 20 of the contract chapter deals with technology contracts. Based on a quick read, several provisions are directed to long-standing concerns, such as ownership of service invention compensation, ownership of improvements (grant backs), indemnities from infringement, and the relationship of contract regulation to China’s Antimonopoly Law and the recently amended Technology Import Export Regulations (TIER).

Some Key Substantive Provisions

Articles 847 and 848 deleted from the prior draft the part  (Arts. 622, 633) that addressed mandatory service invention (employee inventor) compensation, which proposed that “[a] legal person or an unincorporated organization shall extract a certain percentage [emphasis supplied] from the proceeds obtained from the use and transfer of the service technical achievements and award or reward individuals who have completed the service technical achievements.” The draft law thereby appears to carry forward the ambiguity and debate regarding what amount of compensation is required, if any, in addition to salary and other benefits.  This had also been a focus of previous bilateral discussions.

第八百四十七条 职务技术成果的使用权、转让权属于法人或者非法人组织的,法人或者非法人组织可以就该项职务技术成果订立技术合同。法人或者非法人组织订立技术合同转让职务技术成果时,职务技术成果的完成人享有以同等条件优先受让的权利。职务技术成果是执行法人或者非法人组织的工作任务,或者主要是利用法人或者非法人组织的物质技术条件所完成的技术成果。

第八百四十八条 非职务技术成果的使用权、转让权属于完成技术成果的个人,完成技术成果的个人可以就该项非职务技术成果订立技术合同。

Article 847 Where the right to use or transfer a service technical achievement belongs to a legal person or an unincorporated organization, the legal person or unincorporated organization may conclude a technical contract for the service technical achievement. When a legal person or an unincorporated organization concludes a technology contract to transfer service technology achievements, the person who completed the service technology achievements has the right to receive priority transfer on equal terms. The service technical results are the technical results of performing the work tasks of a legal person or an unincorporated organization or mainly using the material and technical conditions of a legal person or an unincorporated organization.

Article 848 The right to use or transfer a non-service technical achievement belongs to the individual who completed the technology achievement, and the individual who completed the technology achievement may conclude a technology contract for the non-service technological achievement.

Articles 849 and 875 addresses ownership of improvements, providing further detail on the implications of the removal of Article 27 in the recently revised Administration of Technology Import Export Regulations (TIER). This provision also supports freedom of contract, by providing that the improving party owns the improvements unless the parties stipulate otherwise.  Article

第八百七十五条 当事人可以按照互利的原则,在合同中约定实施专利、使用技术秘密后续改进的技术成果的分享办法;没有约定或者约定不明确,依照本法第五百一十条的规定仍不能确定的,一方后续改进的技术成果,其他各方无权分享。

Article 875 The parties may agree in the contract in accordance with the principle of mutual benefit and determine how to share the technical results of implementing patents and using technological secrets for subsequent improvements; if there is no agreement or the agreement is not clear, and it is still uncertain according to the provisions of Article 510 of this Law 【regarding  supplemental contractual language】 then the technical results of subsequent improvement by one party shall not be shared by the other parties.

Article 874 also supports freedom of contract by providing for a default but negotiable indemnity against third party infringements or torts.   This language is consistent with the revised Art. 24 of the TIER

第八百七十四条 受让人或者被许可人按照约定实施专利、使用技术秘密侵害他人合法权益的,由让与人或者许可人承担责任,但是当事人另有约定的除外。

Article 874 Where the assignee or the licensee implements a patent or uses proprietary technology to infringe upon the legal rights and interests of others, the assignor or the licensor shall be held liable unless the parties agree otherwise.

Relationship with Other Laws

As indicated, the draft law must also be read in conjunction with the revised TIER and other laws and regulations.  As a higher level, more recent legislation, the Civil Code language would generally be more authoritative than the TIER in the event of any conflict.  Among the provisions that reference other laws and regulations is Article 877 which provides that these other laws and regulations shall normally govern.  Moreover, Article 877 does not expressly restrict the Civil Code from “gap-filling” these other laws and regulations.  It may thereby perpetuate the possibility of government intervention through its vague language such as “mutual benefit”, “monopolize technology”,  “hindering technological development”, ‘infringing technological achievements”, etc.

第八百七十七条 法律、行政法规对技术进出口合同或者专利、专利申请合同另有规定的,依照其规定。

Article 877 If there are laws and administrative regulations on technology import and export contracts or contracts for patents or patent applications, such provisions shall be followed.

The draft law also contains vague references to competition and antimonopoly law.  Article 850 contains identical language to Article 329 of the Contract Law, and Article 864 is nearly identical to Article 343 of the Contract Law:

第八百五十条 非法垄断技术、妨碍技术进步或者侵害他人技术成果的技术合同无效。

Article 850 A technology contract that illegally monopolizes technology, hinders technological progress, or infringes on the technological achievements of others is invalid.

第八百六十四条 技术转让合同和技术许可合同可以约定实施专利或者使用技术秘密的范围,但是不得限制技术竞争和技术发展。

Article 864 A technology transfer contract and a technology license contract may stipulate the scope of patent implementation or use of technology secrets, but they shall not restrict technology competition and technology development.

As with the prior Contract Law and TIER, the law does not clarify the difference between a covenant not to sue or a settlement of an infringement lawsuit on the one hand, and a patent license agreement.  Lawyers drafting such settlement agreements may wish to ensure that default provisions of the Civil Law, such as those regarding indemnities and ownership of improvements do not come into play.

These provisions also further underscore the importance of thorough monitoring of changes on technology transfer, including the TIER, particularly as operational implementation by the courts and administrative agencies, through cases, judicial interpretations, and rule making,  may now be more significant than legislative changes.

In addition to these revisions to China’s contract law in the proposed Civil Code, an Export Control Law has also been released for public comment by the NPC.  The draft law sets up a general export control system and specifically regulates both technologies and services (Art. 2).  Comments are also due January 26, 2020.

Happy New Year to all!

Note: all translations are based on machine translations with minor editing and are not intended to be authoritative.  Please provide any corrections or suggestions on these translations or any additional commentary to the author.  This blog was revised on March 23, 2020 with the assistance of Dr. Xu Xiaofan.