US Suspends IP Case Against China at the WTO. Quo Vadis Europa?

DS/542, the WTO case that the US filed against China regarding China’s legal regime for foreign technology transfers, has now been suspended by order of the Panel.  The parallel case that was filed later by the European Union has not yet been similarly suspended.

When I was in Beijing earlier this June 2019, I gave several talks regarding US-China trade, and I questioned why the US case was not suspended or dismissed. The US case set forth a very limited “de jure” or “as such” case of violation of certain TRIPS obligations, including national treatment with respect to licensing of patents, as well as TRIPS-inconsistent measures regarding the contribution of patents to joint ventures.  By filing the case immediately after the 301 Report regarding technology transfer and innovation, the US case seemed to be making the point that the WTO was still a viable mechanism for certain of the US complaints regarding China’s technology transfer regime.  It was welcomed by those who believe that the WTO continues to play an important role in trade disputes. Suspending the case now in a sense confirms that Donald Trump accomplished legislative reform more quickly with jaw-boning and tariffs than the WTO could have with dispute settlement proceedings.

However, the White House should also not rush to praise itself on the utility of its approach to using the WTO dispute mechanisms.  As I previously noted, the US complaint was narrow.  It only focused on a few laws and regulations regarding patents.  With the passage earlier this year of numerous legislative reforms, including removal of the most offensive provisions of the Administration of Technology Import/Export Regulations, as well as amendments to the Joint Venture Implementing Regulations what the US sought to challenge as de jure WTO violations have been resolved.  Numerous other issues that were identified in the Section 301 report, whether credible or not, were not raised in the WTO complaint.  In some aspects, this case was long overdue and relatively straight-forward.

Why has the EU case not been dismissed?  One explanation may be that the EU may yet follow the lead of the US in seeking a suspension based on how the current legislative packages are implemented. If the EU does not move to suspend the case,  an alternative explanation is that the EU case was more comprehensive than the US case and therefore harder to suspend or dismiss.  The EU case may yet stand as a raison d’etre for the WTO dispute mechanism.  The EU raised concerns over a wider range of laws, regulations, and policies, including Made in China 2025, antitrust laws and new electric vehicle regulations. It also included catch-all claims that extended to how laws and other normative documents are implemented, including their  “nullify[ing] or impair[ing]” the benefits accruing to the European Union.

In its summary of the EU complaint, the WTO docket sheet narrowed the EU’s complaints down to more closely mirror the US complaints.  If these are indeed the only claims that the EU is now pursuing than a similar suspension would make sense.  However, if the complaint remains unamended, it is the kind of complaint the US might have filed as an outcome of the Section 301 investigation.  This now leaves the EU with the option of continuing to push for additional improvements in tech transfer to China through the WTO system or, instead, pursuing other solutions such as trade diplomacy.

 

Unpacking the Role of IP Legislation in the Trade War

worldrd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US Files Consultation Request at WTO on Chinese Technology Licensing Practices

Fresh on the heels of the Section 301 announcement, USTR on March 23, 2018 made a  consultation request  of China regarding China’s discriminatory licensing practices.  This is the first step in initiation of  a WTO dispute.  Here is a link to the press announcement.

The consultation request broadly speaking alleges discriminatory treatment in licensing pursuant to China’s joint venture regime as well as the  Administration of Technology Import/Export Regulations (“TIER”), as compared to provisions under China’s contract law that may govern purely domestic technology transfers or Chinese exports of technology.  The complaint is based on the National Treatment provisions of the TRIPS agreement as well as Article 28.2, which provides that “Patent owners shall also have the right to assign, or transfer by succession, the patent and to conclude licensing contracts.”  The Section 301 Report of USTR also discusses these issues.

Update of June 2, 2018:  On June 1, the EU filed its own complaint against China at the WTO involving China’s technology licensing practices, including the TIER.  A copy of the request for consultations, which appears somewhat more extensive is available here.

 

 

 

Geographical Indications: Guides and Commitments

The EU China IPR SME Help Desk recently published a Guide to Geographic Indications in China that may be useful for European companies seeking to protect geographical indications in China, and for US companies seeking to understand Europe’s approach to this issue.

This Guide notes that there are two aspects to GI protection in China:

“GIs in China can be protected as an intellectual property right (IPR) under Chinese Trade Mark Law as a collective or certificate mark which provides the same level of legal and economic protection as for any other logo, name or mark registered as a trade mark. Alternatively and in addition, the GI can be registered at the AQSIQ [Administration for Quality Supervision Inspection and Quarantine] which monitors and manages the quality and standard of products offered in the Chinese market. Duel [sic] registration can ensure the GI is protected both as an IPR and as a indicating a certain level of quality assurance to the public.”

This Guide notes that AQSIQ can “help” in protecting GI’s, but does not identify the same administrative mechanisms for AQSIQ to protect GI’s as exists for trademarks. In addition the Guide states that it is “only possible to litigate under the China Trademark Law” (pages 4 – 5).

The December 2014 US-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade included the following bilateral outcome which includes geographical indications and generic terms, as well as legal procedures for cancellation and recognition of a GI:

  • China and the United States …understand the following:
    • That a term, or its translation or transliteration, is not eligible for protection as a GI in its territory where the term is generic in its territory;
    • That the relationship between trademarks and GIs is to be handled in accordance with relevant articles in the TRIPS Agreement;
    • That the legal means are available for interested third parties on the above grounds to object to and to cancel any registration or recognition granted to a GI;
    • Where a component of a compound GI is generic in its territory, the GI protection is not to extend to that generic component.  In the event a relevant agency does not have a disclaimer practice, the agency may adopt such practice noting that the compound GI registered or recognized is to be protected only in compound form….

The general differences between the two system (trademark and AQSIQ) in my personal opinion, are largely attributable to the differences between a trademark system which is primarily based on private property rights and a product quality/protection system which looks more to public management.  These two systems may consequentially present different approaches towards the primacy of private enforcement and towards the role of the state. As they co-exist, they may also present challenges in coordination. Nonetheless, as the “sanctity of private property”, in the words of Dean Liu Chuntian of Renmin University, is a key principle in any intellectual property system, the trademark system more clearly reflects traditional notions of the balance between state and individual in how IP is to be created and protected, in my humble and non-official opinion.