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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Humphrey and the Uncertain Status of the Private Investigator

Private investigation firms are important for many aspects of commercial life in China, particularly given the weaknesses in China’s evidence gathering system and the high thresholds that exist for criminal investigations. PI firms conduct every thing from due diligence for investment projects, background checks on business partners and investigations on trademark squatters, counterfeiters and patent infringers.

Peter Humphrey and his wife Yu Jingeng, private investigators hired by GSK, were recently sentenced by a Shanghai court during a one day trial, which followed 13 months detention. According to a Reuters report, the sentences were for two and a half and two years, respectively, plus fines. Humphrey is being deported. Prosecutors charged that the couple had illegally obtained and sold more than 250 items of private information, including household registration data, real estate documents and phone records. Yu is quoted by Reuters as noting that “In other countries, we were able to conduct similar checks, including personal information and private transactions, legally through courts.”

Private investigation firms are a critical component of an IP enforcement campaign in China. Thankfully, according to noted anti-counterfeiting lawyer Joe Simone, the conviction was not for “illegal business operations”, which can carry a harsh sentence.  Ironically, illegal business operations is routinely employed in IP cases for illegal publications in lieu of the lesser offense of copyright infringement (Criminal Code Art. 225).   Joe notes that there was a 1993 Ministry of Public Security rule on the illegality of private investigation firms.   However, as this was an administrative rule it is of limited binding effect. Nonetheless the Humphrey case has led many private investigation firms to question whether their operations are legal.

The status of PI firms has been of concern to many companies and governments for some time. As I recall, private investigators have also been used for a variety of domestic purposes, including, predictably, marital disputes. Evidentiary burdens in Chinese litigation, including difficulties of compelling the production of evidence by an adverse party, can make PI firms a key component of an IP enforcement team

Here was the question that the US government asked China about PI firms two years after it joined the WTO, back in 2003:

79. We understand that China currently restricts the operation of foreign private investigation firms in IPR matters. At the same time, police and administrative authorities are frequently limited in their ability to gather evidence in criminal and administrative prosecutions, making private investigative firms even more important. Current thresholds for criminalization of counterfeiting and piracy, if applied to case initiation, create a high barrier for police or administrative agencies to refer cases to criminal prosecution, making the necessity of private gathering of information even more critical. Please advise what rules apply to the operations of such firms, as well as any plans to permit these firms to more actively assist China’s administrative, criminal and civil enforcement authorities (IP/C/W/414, 12 November 2003).

China responded to that question a year later by noting:

60. With regard to the issue of private investigating firms, [the Chinese side] said that the Ministry of Public Security of China was taking active steps to consider it. However, there was still no new regulation being issued. (IP/C/34, 9 December 2004

Prof. Don Clarke of GW law school has collected the weibo transcripts for those who want to follow this issue further.

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