How to Measure the Steps to a Binding Truce…

“The real question is so we do a memorandum of understanding, …. How long will that take to put into a final binding contract” (President Trump)

“From now on … we are going to use the term ‘trade agreement’” (Amb. Robert Lighthizer)

 

This week President Trump and Amb. Lighthizer debated whether the administration will be concluding an “Memorandum of Understanding” or a “Trade Agreement” with China to resolve the current trade dispute, as detailed in Bloomberg.   However, both countries cannot enter into treaties or agreements ratified by their legislatures in the short time available to them.  The more meaningful question is not whether an “agreement” is binding, but whether the underlying commitments require actions that are binding.

US-China trade agreements have often had the staying power of the dew on a summer’s rose.  One reason was that the underlying commitments did not require clear, binding legal action.  A good example of such a non-binding commitment was the 2010 JCCT agreement on government procurement of indigenously innovated products:

China and the United States will not adopt or maintain measures that make the location of the development or ownership of intellectual property a direct or indirect condition for eligibility for government procurement preferences for products and services. China and the United States will continue to discuss whether this principle applies to other government measures.

What was the “measure” that China was not supposed to adopt or maintain?  To someone unaware of its background,  it appears that the United States had a similar problem as China.  Furthermore, a US reader may think that we asked China to enact a “law” to address discriminatory government procurement.   Oxford defines “measure” as a “legislative bill.”  By contrast, Chinese legal scholars know the term “measure” as vague and not binding.  As an example: the word “measure” appears 32 times in China’s accession documents to the WTO in a descending hierarchical order as “law regulations and/or [other] measures. ” As an ambiguous term, it could mean either a  type of law or regulation (both of which or binding) or a non-binding administrative rule.

The 2010 commitment predictably  led to problems in implementation by localities who did not believe they were bound by this negative commitment.  As my colleague Stanley Lubman noted in a Wall Street Journal blog in July 2011:

[W]hile government policy on procurement has receded from the original position and “indigenous innovation” has been “delinked” from government procurement requirements, implementation of this shift is problematic because acceptance and commitment by sub-central (provincial and municipal) governments are needed to make it meaningful.

The 2016 JCCT Commitment on innovation of indigenous innovated products attempted to clean up the vague language from the 2010 JCCT by acknowledging issuance of a State Council document was required:

The General Affairs Office of the State Council issued a document recently, requiring all local regions and all agencies to further clean up related measures involving linking the indigenous innovation policy to the provision of government procurement preferences, so as to practically implement the commitment made by the Chinese side.  The U.S. side welcomes this development.

This commitment, in its legal terms, is a vast improvement over the 2010 JCCT commitment. It clarified that the obligation was not a bilateral one.  It also required the State Council, an authoritative agency with the power to bind inferior agencies, to issue a “document” (presumably a regulation in the heirarchy noted above).  Finally, it required local governments to “clean up” conflicting “measures” with an identified offending policy.  Using a high level document to address inferior legislative acts also made the commitment more easily verifiable.

This problem of binding commitmetns and conflicts with local policy is nearly identical to current issues of “forced technology transfer” where local governments may sense that there is currently no national law that doesn’t prohibit them from demanding that foreign technology owners relinquish their rights.  China’s proposed adoption of a Foreign Investment Law that prohibits forced technology transfer would be one positive step in the direction of addressing that issue.  However that law and its enforcers should specifically address contrary policies and incentives that exist throughout the country.  To further ensure enforcement, at a minimum the new national appellate IP court should have original jurisdiction over challenges brought by foreign businesses against these local practices.   The court could provide  transparent, verifiable, professional and fast resolution by accountable authorities independent of direct local influence.

A 2016 GAO report on clean energy cooperation with China provides another example of a meaningless trade commitment.  That reported stated:

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has identified a potential discrepancy between Chinese law and the bilateral U.S.-China Science and Technology Agreement upon which the IP Annex to the CERC [Clean Energy Research Center] Protocol is based, according to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office officials. These officials stated that the potential discrepancy is related to ownership of any improvements made to IP licensed between U.S. and Chinese entities.

This language underscores the problem that a bilateral MOU or “agreement” may have no legal significance when there is a contrary State Council regulation, namely China’s Administration of Technology Import-Export Regulations (TIER).  The TIER mandates that the Chinese side own any improvements to technology licensed in bilateral science cooperation projects, and is therefore at odds with the inferior negotiated agreement.  This text leaves the dispute open to future diplomacy, which is not a realistic approach for private business disputes.

There are numerous other examples of poor drafting or drafting of IPR commitments that at best would accomplish only short term goals.  USG and Chinese negotiators in their haste to resolve a difficult set of issues should not lose sight that the underlying commitments of any agreement that meaningfully address US concerns must be phrased in terms of legally binding actions.  These legally binding actions must also be durable, and should not be be countermanded by local measures. They should also be easily susceptible to USG verification.

A Taste of China IP In The New Year

There continue to be various thrusts and feints in these early days of the Trump administration on Chinese IP related matters.  Here’s  a quick rundown.

Tim Trainer, a friend and former colleague, who is also the President of Global IP Strategy Ctr, P.C. & Galaxy Systems, Inc. has  drawn attention to several China IP-related developments including a Trump executive order that involved IP theft, a bill introduced by Congressman Steve King of Iowa that targets China’s theft of intellectual property (February 14, 2017), and the effect of TPP withdrawal on China’s free trade agenda.

The Executive Order notes the following:

It shall be the policy of the executive branch to:

(a) strengthen enforcement of Federal law in order to thwart transnational criminal organizations and subsidiary organizations, including criminal gangs, cartels, racketeering organizations, and other groups engaged in illicit activities that present a threat to public safety and national security and that are related to, for example:

(ii)  corruption, cybercrime, fraud, financial crimes, and intellectual-property theft . . . .

This order from February 9 clearly puts IP theft on the radar.  While China is not singled out by name, it is worth reflecting that the term “theft” appears 7 times in the text of Dr. Peter Navarro’s book Death By China.  Of these seven times, “intellectual property theft”  appears  twice, and technology theft appears three times.  The term “intellectual property theft” is specifically indexed. Navarro, of course, is a leading advisor to the President on trade policy.

Continuing the theme of IP theft, Congressman King’s bill would, according to Trainer “require the imposition of duties on Chinese origin goods in an amount equal to the estimated losses from IPR violations suffered by US companies if enacted into law.”  This early stage bill is found here

Regarding TPP withdrawal and its effect on IP and China China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreements,   a recent Congressional Research Service report has noted that the RCEP agreements are “unlikely to include commitments as strong on issues from intellectual property rights to labor and environmental protections”.  As I have previously noted, “China’s  FTA  experience has thus far focused on a limited range of issues, most of which are not ‘core’ IP.”

Apart from Tim Trainer’s blog, the media has also reported extensively recently on several trademark decisions in China in President Trump’s favor.   However, China’s trademark examination standards contain provisions that prohibit use of the names of political leaders.   Moreover, unlike most other presidents, Trump was not a political leader until he was elected president.  The Chinese trademark examination standards prohibit trademarks that hurt social morality or have other ill political effects.  Amongst the enumerated bad political effects are trademarks that are identical or similar to a country, region or international organization’s leader’s name.

九、有害于社会主义道德风尚的或者有其他不良影响

二)具有政治上不良影响的

1.与国家、地区或者政治性国际组织领导人姓名相同或近似的

Postscript February 20, 2017:

While  I have no opinion on the merits of any case, I hasten to note that the great grandson of Teddy Roosevelt, Tweed Roosevelt, might have an opinion on whether rooseveltpolitical officials should be granted trademarks.  His company, Roosevelt, Tse and Company, owns several trademarks, many of which involve his eponymous restaurant in Shanghai, and some of which include the family crest (see below).   He also seems to have been the victim of some individuals filing using the family name.

Living political leaders have also had their names misused.  Three trademarks applications with the name of Barack Obama in 2008 by a company in Wuhan, China were refused registration by 2010.  There are several trademarks and trademark applications of varying status with the name Merkel.   A quick database search also showed up 7 applications with the Reagan name in English, one granted as recently as 2015 (Registration Number: 13981276) (for electrical goods).  There is one registration for Fidel Castro for use on travel bags, filed  by a natural person in Hebei 于锁群 (6792546).   Did Fidel authorize this?

Of course, trademarks are not only the names of people.  Several marks “In God We Trust” have been refused by the Chinese Trademark Office.  One is still pending (21508789).  It was filed by a company from Zhejiang.

A recent Washington Post article,  noted that China is a country where “faking foreign brands has long been a profitable business practice.”  The article refers back to the Qiaodan case as one important milestone in changing practices.  As any reader of this blog knows, there have been several important steps in recent years to address  abusive trademark practices. 

tweedroose

More on Donald Trump on IP and China…

trumptoilet

Our “sister” blogger, Susan Finder, has dug up one of Donald Trump’s trademark litigation under his eponymous mark, and reported it on her Supreme People’s Court Monitor website, suggested that “he is the first person to be elected president of the United States who has sued in the Chinese courts.”  He lost the case.

It is probably true that Mr. Trump will be the first US President to have brought a law suit in his own name in a Chinese court, as Susan Finder points out.  A search for Trump in the court’s database might or in the trademark database might however, overlook that Trump (or any other President) had interests in other marks in the United States other than those with his name (such as Miss Universe, in the case of Trump), and he may also have secured marks in China that were different from those he owned in the United States.  I listed some of the marks he owns and that may be the subject of squattings in an earlier posting, but that list was also partial.

In other blogs, Politico reported Trump’s goals during the first 100 days of his administration include a China-IP related outcome: “TRUMP TRANSITION LAYS OUT INTERNAL TRADE GOALS — By Day 100 of the Trump administration, his team aims to finalize withdrawal from the TPP, renegotiate bilateral trade agreements, and direct the Commerce Department and U.S. Trade Representative to come up with a comprehensive intellectual property theft strategy, with particular regard to China, according to a new policy document described to Pro Transition 2017 by a source downtown.”

Separately, IP Watchdog reported that Vice President elect Pence’s generally more explicit, pro patent views are likely to be influential in a Trump administration.  The blog notes “Pence seems to appreciate the realities and benefits of commercializing patented technology, and the benefit that brings in terms of economic development and better, higher paying jobs.”

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has also published a useful summary of Trump’s innovation policies, which focuses on domestic policy and trade policies, but also yet again underscores concerns about Chinese intellectual property theft.

Postscript (Nov. 16, 2016):  The New York Times ran an article November 15, 2016 on the Trump brand of high tech toilets in China.  The Chinalawblog also did an analysis of the trademark squatting case involving Trump, including a recent decision and a discussion of how China has traditionally rejected applications for trademarks that used the names of US presidents.  Photo by alert reader Boris Brawer, thank you!