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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 337 and the New Trade Secret Regime?

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

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

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

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

Coauthored by Mark A. Cohen and Jay Reiziss.  This blog represents the authors’ personal views only and should not be attributable to any client, employer or any third party.  Revised March 14, 2019 by Mark A. Cohen to improve style and clarity.

 

Should the NPC also consider Criminal Copyright Reform when it considers Copyright Reform?

Lamacchia.JPG

At this month’s National People’s Congress, an NPC spokesman noted that this year the NPC intends to address reform of the copyright law, which has been long delayed. However, reform of the substantive copyright law will not typically address the need to reform the criminal copyright law and to address the relationship between civil and criminal copyright law. This point was raised in the Weixin platform Zhichanli (知产力), which addressed the key issues of criminal copyright law reform in a lively “cartoon” format (see above):

The four issues from the perspectives of the author of that blog are:

1.       Article 217 of the criminal code, mandates having a “profit motivation” in order for criminality to attach.Should the “profit motivation” requirement be removed from the criminal code?

2.       Whether to criminalize the Internet related right of “communication over information networks”?

3.       How to address secondary and principal liability of internet platforms?

4.       Three separate specific issues, including:

a)       How to criminalize destruction of technological protection measures?

b)      How to criminalize commercial scale use of piratical software?

c)       What are the thresholds to deal with online criminal enforcement?

In my view, these are all important issues, which should be considered in the context of copyright reform.    Many of these  issues were raised in DS/362, the WTO enforcement case which the United States brought against China.    Of particular note was that the United States raised the history of  amending US laws to address willful copyright infringement that caused large scale harm without necessarily causing commercial gain (the LaMacchia case, in the cartoon above).  In addition, the United States also recognized that thresholds based on the numbers of copies would not capture the harm caused by technological changes which permitted large digital quantities to be distributed on line or in compressed formats.   One of the current thresholds involves 500 “flat articles”  ( 500 ) (typically used for CD’s or flat pieces of paper), which the WTO panel called “copies, for the sake of simplicity” and is an awkward determinant for infringement in rapidly moving technologies.

Also of note is that criminal IP enforcement has become more important in China. This was brought to my attention by a Chinese judge who mentioned that while China opposed the WTO case, it was now widely recognized that criminal IP is an important part of an IP enforcement system. In a sense, the US may have lost the 2007 battle over criminal IP at the WTO, but clearly won the war. The data bears this out. When the WTO was filed against China, there were only about 904 criminal IP  infringement cases in China (2007).   In 2013, by comparison there were 7,804 infringement cases – an increase of about 8 times, not including increases in other provisions of the criminal code that also can address IP infringement, such as crimes involving illegal business operations or fake and shoddy goods.

While China recognizes that criminal IP is enforcement it an important part of its enforcement system,  an equally important question concerns the role of the relatively small criminal IP enforcement system in light of China’s civil, administrative and customs enforcement (see chart below).  In addition to the increasing number of criminal IP prosecutions,  the increasing numbers of referrals from China’s administrative copyright enforcement to criminal copyright enforcement is an encouraging trend in this regard.  An even more encouraging sign would be consideration by the NPC of criminal copyright law reform at the same time as it considers substantive copyright law reform.  As criminal law reform goes through different procedures at the NPC, working on both issues simultaneously may entail some coordination, but would help ensure that any changes to China’s copyright regime is comprehensive and would set a good precedent for other IP legislative reforms coming up, such as in reform of the trade secret regime in the Antiunfair Competition Law.

 

criminalcourtdockets.JPG

Anti-Unfair Competition Law Released for Public Comment

The National People’s Congress released a draft of the Anti-unfair Competition Law for public comment on February 25, 2017.  A draft translation is already available on the China Law Translate website, which has also posted the Chinese original. I previously published a draft with comments of the ABA and George Mason’s Global Antitrust Institute here. The comment period closes March 25, 2017.  The NPC Observer blog is also following developments, including posting the official explanation, which I have also made available here . 

E-Commerce Law Up for Public Comment

The National People’s Congress announced this week that it has released a draft of the E-Commerce Law for public comment.  The public comment period began December 27, 2016 with comments due by January 26, 2016.  Although focused on the overall development and regulation of e-commerce, the draft also contains provisions regarding IP protection by platforms and their responsibilities, in order to preserve market order and fair competition 市场秩序与公平竞争.  The draft in Chinese is attached here, with relevant provisions and machine translations below.  I hope to provide more detailed comments later – I am particularly interested in how this draft relates to provisions in the tort law, IP laws and civil laws regarding online liability, as well as how enforcement authority over infringements for online operators will be amended and divided up amongst the various IP agencies if this draft is implemented into law.

Article 53 provides:

第五十三条   电子商务经营主体应当依法保护知识产权,建立知识产权保护规则。电子商务第三方平台明知平台内电子商务经营者侵犯知识产权的,应当依法采取删除、屏蔽、断开链接、终止交易和服务等必要措施。         

Article 53 The electronic commerce business principal operator shall protect intellectual property rights in accordance with the law and establish rules for the protection of intellectual property rights. If the e-commerce operator infringes the intellectual property rights within the platform, it shall take the necessary measures such as deleting, shielding, breaking the link, terminating the transaction and service according to law.

Article 54 provides:

第五十四条   电子商务第三方平台接到知识产权权利人发出的平台内经营者实施知识产权侵权行为通知的,应当及时将该通知转送平台内经营者,并依法采取必要措施。知识产权权利人因通知错误给平台内经营者造成损失的,依法承担民事责任。   

平台内经营者接到转送的通知后,向电子商务第三方平台提交声明保证不存在侵权行为的,电子商务第三方平台应当及时终止所采取的措施,将该经营者的声明转送发出通知的知识产权权利人,并告知该权利人可以向有关行政部门投诉或者向人民法院起诉。   

电子商务第三方平台应当及时公示收到的通知、声明及处理结果.

Article 54 Where a third-party platform for e-commerce receives a notice from a platform operator of intellectual property rights issued by the owner of the platform for intellectual property infringement, it shall promptly transmit the notice to the operators within the platform and take the necessary measures according to law. If the intellectual property right owner causes any loss to the operator of the platform due to the wrong notification, he shall bear civil liability according to law.
If the platform operator submits a declaration to the e-commerce third-party platform to ensure that there is no infringement, the third-party platform shall promptly terminate the measures taken and forward the statement of the operator to the notification Property rights, and inform the right person to the relevant administrative departments of complaints or to the people ‘s court.
E-commerce third-party platform shall promptly publicize the received notice, statement and processing results.

Article 88 provides:

第八十八条   电子商务第三方平台违反本法第五十三条的规定,明知平台内经营者实施侵犯知识产权行为未采取必要措施的,由各级人民政府有关部门责令限期改正;逾期不改正的,责令停业整顿,并处以三万元以上十万元以下的罚款;情节严重的,吊销营业执照,并处以十万元以上五十万元以下的罚款。         

Article 88 If a third-party platform for e-commerce violates the provisions of Article 53 of this Law and knows that the operator of the platform does not take the necessary measures for infringement of intellectual property rights, the relevant departments of the people’s governments at various levels shall order it to make corrections within a prescribed time limit; If the circumstances are serious, the business license shall be revoked and a fine of not less than 100,000 yuan but not more than 500,000 yuan shall be imposed.

 

 

Book Review on Report on Development of Intellectual Property Development in China (2015)

The Report on Development of Intellectual Property Development in China 2015 中国知识产权发展报告 (IP Teaching and Research Center of Renmin University of China / IP Academy of Renmin University) (Tsinghua University Press, 2016) (320 pp., 98 RMB) (http://tup.com.cn/booksCenter/book_06886601.html) (the “Report”), is a bilingual Chinese-English report prepared by Renmin University and commissioned by the Ministry of Education.   The book presents a comprehensive summary of developments and challenges in IP protection and enforcement in China, with a particularly strong focus on legislative developments, the role of national plans, the history of IP in China, government funded R&D, education and training-related issues, and the pressing needs of market and legal reforms.

After a general overview (Part I), where the authors discuss various national plans, and general legislation, such as the Civil Law and the Law to Counter Unfair Competition, the authors discuss patents and innovation (Part II).  The Report notes that quality needs to be improved in life science patents, most of which come from small inventors (such as in TCM).  The report also candidly references critiques of SIPO’s performance (p. 150), as well as the low quality of university patent applications and suggests that there should be additional attention paid to university IP commercialization, including the many restrictions that apply to state-owned assets, a matter that was litigated in the Infineon case here in the United States many years ago.  The report also criticizes unrestricted subsidies and other incentives for patent applications, which has led to “the amount of patent applications to be falsely huge” and has given rise the problem of “rubbish patents.” (p. 163).  Regarding China’s extraordinary growth in patent filings, the authors conclude, as I have often in this blog, that “the motivational role of the market should be strengthened” in lieu of such incentives.

Regarding the proposed Patent Law amendments, the authors also argue that judicial decisions on patent validity should be final and not be subject to a final decision by an administrative agency, and that there should be appropriate limitations on administrative enforcement involving patent infringements (pp. 166-167).  The authors also seek to limit the abusive assertion of unexamined utility models and designs, including by authorizing the courts to consider the abusive assertion of patent rights a matter of unfair competition (p. 173).

In discussing trademarks, the authors similarly note that despite the huge numbers of trademark filings, Chinese companies play an undersized role in lists of global brands.  The authors identify problems in “rush registration of trademarks” involving grabbing a trademark previously used by others, particularly where a mark has international popularity, where there are fictional figures and titles of movies and television hits, and in the case of celebrity names (p. 183).   The authors suggest that where a trademark is not being used, there should be no compensation given to the infringer, as one step to address rush registrations – a practice that apparently is already being used in Shanghai and perhaps other courts.  The authors also suggest that in the case of foreign rights owners, the courts should take into account the popularity of the brand enjoyed outside of China and the subjective malice on the person conducting the registration.   As with low quality patents, the author see a useful role for courts in adjudicating these rush registrations as acts of unfair competition (pp. 186-187).

These themes of addressing proposed legislation, adopting new legislation to new circumstances, more effectively insuring that markets rather than government fiat direct IP commercialization and protection,  and using unfair competition law to address abuse of IP rights play an important role in other chapters of the book, including the chapters on Copyright Law (Part IV), Competition law (Part V), IP protection by the Judiciary (Part VI), IP Education (Part VII), developments in Shenzhen City and Jiangsu Province (Part VIII), and other issues, such as free trade agreements (Part IX).

Overall the authors support the role of the courts as the principle vehicle for adjudicating IP disputes in a market-oriented economy, and that the IP laws should be revised to “attach importance to enhancing the leading and final role of the judicial protection of the intellectual property rights, limit and regulate intellectual property-related administrative enforcement …” (p. 240).  The authors also support the tendency to increase damages on IP disputes (P. 282), the role of specialized IP courts and the case law system, and deficiencies in administrative enforcement reform including problems of coordination among agencies.

In their summary, the authors note that “the sound operation of the IP system is not merely an issue of the IP law; it relies on an improved legal system and environment of the rule of law.  Only with innovation based on the market economy and driven by market interest is it possible to be the lasting, stable fore to drive the socio-economic development.” (pp. 315-316).  The book is a very useful summary of some of the hot issues now facing the Chinese IP system, with a focus on rule of law and market orientation.

I look forward to the 2016 edition.

GAI and ABA Publish Their AUCL Comments

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Beginning the Journey for Trade Secret Reform: the Recent AUCL Draft

A much awaited, proposed public draft revision to the Antiunfair Competition Law was released by the State Council Legislative Affairs Office on February 25, 2016. Comments are due by March 25, 2016.  An open source translation is available here.

This is not an easy law to comment on, as the law combines a range of various issues to varying degrees: competition and fair trade law, trade secrets law, trade dress law, cybersquatting and enterprise name infringements, advertising regulation, bidding law, compliance/anti-bribery, network management and other areas.  Strictly speaking it is not an IP law which focuses on giving individuals private rights.  Rather, it is geared towards ensuring that there is fair competition in the market, as its title suggests.

A key focus for me has been on the trade secret provisions of the draft.  Pertinent provisions are discussed and copied below:

“Article 9: A business operator must not carry out the following acts infringing on trade secrets:

(1) Obtaining rights holders’ trade secrets by theft, enticement, intimidation, fraud, or other improper tactics;

(2) Disclosing, using, or allowing others to use a rights holders’ trade secrets acquired by tactics provided for in the previous item;

(3) Disclosing, using, or allow others to use trade secrets in their possession, in violation of agreements or the rights holders’ demands for preserving trade secrets.

Where a third party clearly knows or should know of unlawful acts listed in the preceding paragraph, but obtains, discloses, uses or allows others to use a rights holders trade secrets, it is viewed as infringements of trade secrets.

(一)以盗窃、利诱、胁迫、欺诈或者其他不正当手段获取权利人的商业秘密;

(二)披露、使用或者允许他人使用以前项手段获取的权利人的商业秘密;

(三)违反约定或者违反权利人有关保守商业秘密的要求,披露、使用或者允许他人使用其所掌握的商业秘密。

“Trade secrets” as used in this Law refers to technological information and business information that are not publicly known, have commercial value, and are subject to corresponding secrecy measures taken by the rights holder.”

Importantly, the draft drops the earlier statutory requirement that trade secrets had to have practical applicability, a “TRIPS-minus” provision which may have had the effect of denying trade secret protection to experimental failures.  The distinction between technical information and business information in this draft may also reflect other laws and government agencies some of which, like the Ministry of Science and Technology and SIPO have expressed interest in “technical trade secrets” or “service invention” compensation for trade secrets. Chinas IP courts similarly have jurisdiction over technical trade secrets, but not business confidential information.

The law also expands the scope of a covered business operator, to include natural persons, which is a positive step:

“‘Business operators’ as used in this Law refers to natural persons, legal persons or other organizations engaged in the production or trade of goods, or the provision of services. (“goods” hereinafter includes services). “(Art. 2)

The draft offers very little in the way of improving procedures for trade secret litigation.  There are improvements to trade secret administrative enforcement.

“Chapter III: Supervision and Inspection

Article 15: When supervision and inspection departments investigate acts of unfair competition, they have the right to exercise the following powers of office:

(1) Enter business premises or other venues related to the conduct under investigation to conduct inspections;

(2) Question business operators under investigation, interested parties, or other entities or individuals, and request supporting materials, data, technical support or other materials relating to the acts of unfair competition;

(3) Make inquiries about, or reproduce, agreements, account books, invoices, documents, records, business correspondence, audio-visual materials or other materials relating to the acts of unfair competition;

(4) Order business operators under investigation to suspend suspected unlawful acts, to explain the source and quantity of property related to the conduct under investigation, and to not transfer, conceal or destroy that property;

(5) Carry out the sealing or seizing of property suspected to be involved with acts of unfair competition;

(6) Make inquiries into the bank accounts of business operators suspected of acts of unfair competition as well as accounting vouchers, books, statements and so forth relating to deposits;

(7) Where there is evidence of the transfer or concealment of unlawful funds, an application may be made to the judicial organs to have them frozen.

Article 16: When supervision and inspection departments are investigating acts of unfair competition, business operators under inspection, interested parties or other relevant units or individuals shall truthfully provide relevant materials or circumstances, shall cooperate with supervision and inspection departments performing duties according to law, and must not refuse or obstruct supervision and inspection.”

Although I believe most right holders seek improvements in trade secret enforcement, including more deterrent remedies, I am uncertain how much those desires extend to administrative enforcement.  Transferring of relevant confidential material to an SAIC official tasked with trade secret enforcement will raise concerns of further trade secret leakage, which are probably not of equal concern in the case of administrative enforcement of, for example, trade dress infringements covered under this draft law.    Moreover, the State Council has elsewhere stated that all administrative cases should be conducted ex-officio.  To me administrative ex-officio enforcement of trade secrets, with authority to enter business premises to inspect and conduct investigations, is problematic.

The draft law also seeks to increase administrative fines for trade secret theft, and improve burden of proof issues:

“Article 22: Where business operators violate the provisions of Article 9 of this law, the supervision and inspection departments shall order them to cease the unlawful acts, and shall impose a fine between 100,000 and 3,000,000 RMB depending on the circumstances; where the act constitutes a crime, criminal responsibility is pursued in accordance with law.

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

It is unclear to me from Article 22, that this “burden of proof” reversal in the second paragraph above applies to administrative enforcement or civil enforcement, or even criminal process.  Moreover, the requirement of substantial similarity of the technology for the shifting to take effect, is probably too high a threshold, having been an impediment for plaintiffs in trade secret litigation in China to date.

Does this law go far enough in addressing trade secret issues in China?

Although SAIC has historically conducted many administrative trademark cases on behalf of foreigners, historically trade secret administrative enforcement has not significantly benefitted foreign companies or small enterprises.  As I previously blogged:

That there were 174 trade secret cases [for 2008-2010] out of 110,896 cases involving the Law to Counter Unfair Competition, or about 0.2% of the total. In addition, the data shows that average fines were 11,624 Yuan, and only 7 cases or about 4 % of the trade secret case were referred to criminal enforcement.  Like the civil system, the administrative system also appears to be frequently used to address employee theft of confidential information.  Precisely one third, or 58 of these 174 cases involved individual respondents; 24 involved private companies  (14%) and 23 cases involved individual businesses (13%).   There were no cases where a state owned enterprise or publicly held company was named as a defendant in an administrative action.  

One may question, therefore, whether this draft revision of the AUCL addresses the full range of substantive and procedural improvements that need to be made to improve trade secret enforcement in China, much of which may be more uniquely linked to trade secret protection compared to other IP rights.  Moreover, many of the problems are amplified by comparison with trade dress or other provisions of this draft law.

Much of the problem with trade secret protection has been in the lack of discovery in the civil system.  One significant advantage of improved trade secret administrative enforcement however could be in facilitating the transfer of information obtained in administrative investigations to civil courts or law enforcement authorities, consistent with State Council guidance on facilitating case transfers.  Improving civil procedures for trade secret cases could also greatly help in civil prosecution of trade secret cases, including by making necessary changes in evidence collection, burden of proof reversals, and other areas.

The current draft appears unduly oriented to instances where trade secret theft has actually occurred.  One critical area concerns the availability of relief for threatened misappropriation of trade secrets including preliminary injunctions, adoption of “inevitable disclosure” type doctrines, and evidence or asset preservation measures.  Such measures can be especially important as the harm that may be caused by a misappropriation may be incapable of being compensated for by the misappropriator or beneficiary of the theft. Although revisions to China’s Civil Procedure Law now permit preliminary injunctions for trade secret theft (Eli Lilly vs. Huang Mengwei),  China may wish to consider specific provisions in this law to facilitate more liberal dispensation of provisional remedies.  China had specifically provided for preliminary injunctive relief in other IP laws, before the most recent Civil Procedure law amendments, and may want to consider appropriate provisions for trade secrets.

Regarding threat of trade secret law, the current law also only addresses “disclosing, using, or allowing others” to use the secret information.   This deficiency could easily be remedies by including language on threat or imminent trade secret theft.    The Uniform Trade Secrets Act in the United States, by comparison, specifically addresses “actual or threatened misappropriation” which may be enjoined, and also provides a remedy for trade secret inducement.  The TRIPS Agreement itself clarifies that a key focus of WTO member trade secret obligations is “preventing information lawfully within their control from being disclosed to, acquired by, or used by others without their consent in a manner contrary to honest commercial practices.” (emphasis added).  The need for preventative measures is also reflected in TRIPS Article 41, which requires WTO members to have “expeditious remedies to prevent infringements.”  In addition, inducement liability is being considered in other China IP laws (patent/copyright) and does not appear to be part of this draft.  A clear definition of inducement liability may be helpful in limiting losses due to third party misappropriation of trade secrets.

China’s trade secret regime also has several other challenges, including difficult criminal thresholds; unclear relationships with labor law, labor mobility regulations, and employee non-competes; difficulties in gathering evidence; unclear divisions among the appropriate role of civil, criminal and administrative remedies;  and even an emphasis on trade secret protection as an aspect of market regulation, rather than as a civil IP right, as is under consideration.    Some of these deficiencies may be cured by judicial interpretation and guidance, as was previously addressed by the Supreme Peoples Court in an earlier Judicial Interpretation.

The focus on market regulation denies trade secret holders in China the ability to address infringement based on where a product that benefits from a trade secret misappropriation is sold, but instead may require litigation where the misappropriation occurred.  See Siwei v. Avery Dennison (Min San Zhong Zi No. 10/2007) (Sup. People’s Ct. 2009) (China).   This may also encourage foreign litigants, concerned about  local protectionism or undue influence of local companies on local courts, to seek remedies elsewhere (such as through Section 337 remedies in the United States).  In addition, the lack of discovery can also lead to the “exporting” of such litigation.  Making these necessary procedural improvements, including improving “success rates” for domestic trade secret cases and improving procedures for gathering evidence, may also enhance China’s position that Chinese judgements in trade secret cases are entitled to res judicata effect in other jurisdictions.

Former SPC Vice President, now Chief Procurator  Cao Jianming 曹建明, noted in 2005,  trade secret enforcement was the area with the “greatest difficulties” for the courts Industry has also raised concerns about many of these deficiencies.  While many of the changes in the AUCL on trade secret protection are positive, a more comprehensive approach could require reforms in other areas, including the practices of law enforcement and the courts, administrative law reform, civil law reform, and/or a stand-alone trade secret law.

My personal estimation: the AUCL draft is a beginning and not an end in the trade secret reform process.