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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section 337 and the New Trade Secret Regime?

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upcoming Fordham Program on Discovery and Investigations in China

Fordham University, in conjunction with the Chinese Business Lawyers Association, the Asian American Bar Association of New York and Consilio, is hosting a program on discovery and compliance with investigations in China, Navigating the Complexities of US Litigation Abroad on Tuesday, January 24.

As I have repeatedly noted, discovery, (or lack thereof) has proven to be a crucial factor affecting IP litigation strategies.  This looks a valuable program on this important topic.  As Consilio’s website on this conference notes:

“Document collection and discovery has become an increasingly important and fraught issue in China. U.S. litigations often require the collection and review of documents in China in ways that conflict with Chinese laws, such as laws on state secrecy and financial privacy. How can discovery be conducted in China while avoiding legal financial, and ethical problems? And what about internal investigations, which often require reviews of sensitive documents and materials, which may also implicate Chinese laws and regulations? Our panels will discuss the challenges and solutions in both internal investigations in China and also document discovery in China as part of U.S. litigations.”

GPNE vs Apple: The Multi-Year Saga

Hawaii-based NPE, GPNE Corp.,  has  requested damages in a patent law suit related to GPRS standards of 900 million RMB in Shenzhen (about 129 million USD) against Apple as well as other related parties (Foxconn et al),  according to various news reports.  This is a significant increase over original damages request of 95 million and 1 million RMB, respectively.  The request was made in a hearing before the Shenzhen Intermediate Court in November 2016.

The case appears to have been filed as early as January 28, 2013.   Apple had reportedly previously filed three invalidations in China against the GPNE patents.  The high damages request has been noted by the media as the largest damage claim in Chinese IP history to date.  Apple had also successfully won a federal circuit appeal involving GPNE’s claims of infringement in August 2016.

The Apple/GPNE case is one of several global IP disputes, which include China as an important venue, and where damages, discovery, availability of injunctions, an increasingly hospitable Chinese legal environment to global patent litigation and likelihood of success all appear to be playing important roles.  The increase in damages may a reaction in part to Apple seeking to use evidence obtained in its successful defense against a GPNE law suit in California in the Shenzhen case.  In 2014, Apple argued that due to lack of discovery in China and differing methods of calculating damages, Apple requires discovery of GPNE’s licensing practices from the US court, pursuant to 28 USC Sec. 1782.  Apple noted in its motion that “the limited discovery sought by Apple is important to the China litigation, and will allow Apple to present the probative evidence regarding the value of GPNE’s patents and its history of granting licenses.” Apple substantiated its motion by pointing to the limitations on Chinese damage calculations and on limited discovery as supporting the relevance of its request:

GPNE also introduced evidence intended to support an “illegal gains” damages model. Under Chinese law, a claim for “illegal gains” may be chosen by the patentee if a claim for “lost profits” is difficult to determine. Although Chinese courts typically start the damages analysis with plaintiff’s chosen damages model, Chinese law allows for different damages models, and GPNE may be constrained in the damages it can seek by its licensing practices.

However, under Chinese law, there is no discovery process in civil litigation proceedings similar to that in the United States. Accordingly, GPNE may not be subject to any legal liability if it refuses to submit the relevant license agreements to the Shenzhen Court. Id. To the extent Apple intends to argue to the Shenzhen Court that GPNE’s licensing practices should inform any damages model, it will be necessary for Apple to produce GPNE’s licenses to the court. After the parties have provided the necessary evidence, Apple expects that the Shenzhen Court will weigh the evidentiary submissions and arguments and, should the court find Apple liable, may make a damages determination.

This case is also one of several IP law suits that have been filed in China against Apple over the years, including design patent, invention patent and trademark litigation, Apple has also been filing more patents in China, ranking number seven in utility model patents in 2014 amongst all foreign companies. Although an earlier report I posted on is no longer available on the SIPO website, earlier data showed that Apple had been increasing its invention patent applications in China,

GPNE’s website notes that it holds “more than 30 patents worldwide in the field of wireless and wired data communications”  and that it has entered into various forms of licensing agreements with Microsoft, Huawei, Sony and others.   The Company’s name is an abbreviation of  the four founders of the company, G – Gabriel Wong, P – Po-Sing Tsui, N – and E – Edwin Wong, but also possibly standing for “Garage Pioneer of New Electronics” as noted on its website.

The above are my personal opinions only.  Please post any factual corrections, or any differences of opinion that you may have. Please consult counsel for any legal guidance on matters discussed in this blog.

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.