More Encouraging News of Trade Secret Reform… But Is It Always Good for the Foreign Community?

James Pooley posted a great blog on IPwatchdog on the recently released draft judicial interpretation on trade secrets (the “Trade Secrets JI”).  In his blog, “Has China Finally Embraced Trade Secret Protection ”,  Mr. Pooley discusses aspects of the draft JI that embrace or expand upon US practices including: “combination secrets”, “reasonable efforts”, “indirect misappropriation”, “head start injunction” and apportionment of damages based on fault.   Mr. Pooley also notes that “this most recent pronouncement seems in some respects to go beyond what was required [from the Phase 1 Trade Agreement], and in those respects also seems to reflect an imprint of U.S. practices.“  I agree.

Individuals who expect all of China’s recent IP reforms to be in response to US pressure are, for the most part, likely to be pleasantly disappointed — for the most part.   As an example, the Trade Secrets JI also reflect China’s own evolving practices in trade secrets and other areas, including the availability of punitive damages, the emergence of a limited discovery regime, and implied obligations of confidentiality notwithstanding the non-existence of an NDA (see Contract law, Art. 43, now amended by the Civil Code).  Moreover, the evolving system in China for trade secrets will likely also benefit by the increasing competence of the IP tribunals and courts, including the “three in one” courts which combine civil, criminal and administrative IP jurisdiction.  As noted in another recent blog, China is also seeking to improve its criminal IP enforcement regime through more further development of the three-in-one system, and further development of evidentiary standards in criminal cases, as well as more active roles for prosecutors and police, among other measures.

While the ink is hardly dry on this Trade Secrets JI, China has since announced two other draft JI’s for public comment:  “Some Provisions on Evidence in Intellectual Property Litigation (Consultation Draft)” (the “Evidence JI”)  and the “Opinions on Increasing the Level of Sanctions for Intellectual Property Infringement (Consultation Draft)”(the “Sanctions JI”)《关于知识产权民事诉讼证据的若干规定(征求意见稿)》《关于加大知识产权侵权行为制裁力度的意见(征求意见稿)》(June 15, 2020)。 Comments are due by July 31, 2020.

Here is a quick summary of the trade-secret related provisions in the Evidence  JI:

Article 19 addresses granting protective order for evidence preservation purposes and provides that if a party is a subject of an evidence protection order and claims that a trade secret is involved, the party that requests the evidence protection order cannot participate in on-site evidence preservation procedures,but can engage an attorney, patent agent or another person with specialized IP knowledge (collectively “authorized representatives”) to sign the protective order.

Article 23 authorizes the appointment of expert appraisers to determine if a claimed trade secret consists of information in the public domain, or to determine the differences between the claimed trade secret and the alleged infringing technological information.

The third chapter of this JI regulates the exchange of evidence and includes several provisions regarding protective orders.  Article 31 grants the court authority to structure a protective order to limit access to authorized representatives.  Disclosure of information subject to protective orders shall be limited to the proceeding where the protective order was issued.  Sanctions may be imposed for unauthorized disclosure (Art. 32).  Consent to a protective order once given cannot be withdrawn.  The parties are also free not to engage in an exchange of information  (Art. 34).  Procedures are also established for challenging the secrecy of evidence, including providing rebuttal evidence and cross-examination of witnesses.  If a party succeeds in having the information considered as non-secret, it shall be considered as such during the proceeding (Art. 35).

Here are some provisions in the Sanctions JI:

Expedited proceedings are provided for serial infringers.  In addition, punitive damages should be imposed on serial infringers (Arts. 9, 20, 21). If actual damages are proven, they should be provided to the rights-holder (Art. 10).  Punitive damages should be imposed for their deterrent effect (Art. 13). Reasonable attorneys’ fees may be provided if there is a willful infringement and in a complex case (Art. 17). Attorneys’ fees and other expenses shall be compensated for in the case of malicious litigation where the right is unjustly obtained or there is not a substantial basis for its exercise (Art. 19).

Of particular note is Article 20: Serial infringers of IP rights, as well as those  who steal commercial secrets for foreign agencies, organizations or individuals, shall be subject to severe penalties according to law and generally no probation shall be applied 境外的机构、组织、人员侵犯商业秘密的情形,依法从重处罚,一般不得适用缓刑.

One may ask: why is theft of trade secrets for foreigners being singled out? Article 20 may be China’s response to cases brought against foreigners under the US Economic Espionage Act or similar foreign laws.   However, the EEA requires action “benefit[ing] a foreign government, instrumentality or agent” in 18 USC Sec. 1831.  Article 20 does not, however, single out these security concerns arising from state-drive trade secret misappropriation.

Fairness suggests that those engaged in IP theft on behalf of foreigners should also be afforded the opportunity to avail themselves of defenses otherwise available if a Chinese party were the beneficiary of the trade secret misappropriation. This is also consistent with the requirement under the TRIPS Agreement that punishment is proportionate to crimes “of a corresponding gravity” (Art. 61), and that judicial procedures are “fair and equitable” (Arts. 41 and 42).  The TRIPS obligations to afford national treatment (Art. 1) should also equally apply to a defendant in a proceeding – that he or she should not be singled out because of having worked for a foreigner.  A similar logic applies to the cases brought against the United States involving national treatment under our Section 337 remedy; a heavier defense burden had been placed on foreign entities compared to domestic entities. The provision could also lead to a de facto denial of national treatment for a foreign investor in China who finds that police or prosecutors may be less likely to initiate a case unless there is a trade secret theft that benefits an overseas entity where a heavier sentence could be imposed.  Moreover, this provisions flips US concerns on their head: it does nothing to address the concerns that the United States has expressed regarding trade secret theft in China of US-origin trade secrets, since this law addresses  thefts that were undertaken on behalf of a US entity, not from the overseas entity.

Once any country advocates for more deterrent penalties, it should consider that such penalties may also be applied to non-Chinese defendants, including one’s own nationals, which this provision could easily encompass through its focus on actions on behalf of foreign entities.  To the extent this provision is used to target foreign actors as well as actors for foreign entities, the TRIPS Agreement provides little in the way of guard rails to ensure equality of treatment in IP enforcement proceedings.  Many foreigners are already concerned, as they fear being denied authorization to leave China arising from allegations of civil violations.  In addition, there have also been several precedential IP cases over the years where foreign parties may have served as “guinea pigs” for more deterrent sanctions,  including such cases as Chint v. Schneider Electric [utility model patent damages award]; Qualcomm AML investigation [high antitrust penalty]  Veeco and Micron [preliminary injunctions involving semiconductor patents and unpublished judicial opinions as well as unpublished Customs seizure decision], and PRC v. Guthrie [criminal copyright cases brought against foreigners].

I believe that this draft of Article 20 may be sending the wrong signal.  Actions undertaken for foreigners and Chinese should be treated equally, with equivalent penalties and opportunities for probation.  Moreover, the concept of equality generally applies equally to any right.  If there are concerns regarding national security or difficulties in apprehending a party engaged in trade secret theft on behalf of a foreigners, those can be addressed through other measures such as through bilateral criminal justice cooperation, including mutual extradition arrangements and cooperation in gathering evidence. Such measures would also help restore trust between participating countries.  By providing harsher penalties for trade secret infringement benefiting foreigners, a potential precedent might also be established for any other case benefiting an overseas actor, notwithstanding that the principal concerns appear to be infringement occuring within China.

Note: this post was revised June 30, 2020 to address a reader’s concerns that Article 20 is directed to actions on behalf of foreigners and not simply by foreigners.

MofCOM Releases Draft Foreign Investment Complaint Rules: How Good Will It Be For Forced Tech Transfer?

On March 23, 2019 the Ministry of Commerce released its  Rules for Foreign Investment Complaints (Draft for Public Comment (外商投资企业投诉工作办法[征求意见稿]) (the “Rules”).  Comments are due by April 22.  This is one of several recent Phase 1 / trade responsive initiatives that have been announced or are expected in the near term from China.  This blog will focus on the IP aspects of the Rules, notably those provisions that can be used to address forced technology transfer and protecting trade secrets.

The Rules seek to implement Article 26 of the Foreign Investment Law, which provides as follows:

The State establishes working mechanisms for complaints by foreign-invested enterprises, promptly handles the issues raised by foreign-invested enterprises or their investors, and coordinates and improves the relevant policy measures.

Where foreign-invested enterprises and their investors consider the administrative acts of administrative organs and their employees to have infringed upon their lawful rights and interests, they may petition for a resolution through the working mechanisms for complaints by foreign-invested enterprises.

Where foreign-invested enterprises and their investors consider the administrative acts of administrative organs and their employees to have infringed upon their lawful rights and interests, in addition to petitioning for a resolution through the working mechanisms for complaints by foreign-invested enterprises in accordance with the provisions of the previous paragraph, they may also petition for administrative reconsideration or initiate administrative litigation in accordance with law.

A major concern by the Trump Administration had been to prohibit forced technology transfer by China, through making tech transfer a condition of foreign investment approval or other means.   Article 2.1 of the Phase 1 Agreement addresses this concern:

  1. Natural or legal persons (“persons”) of a Party shall have effective access to and be able to operate openly and freely in the jurisdiction of the other Party without any force or pressure from the other Party to transfer their technology to persons of the other Party.
  2. Any transfer or licensing of technology between persons of a Party and those of the other Party must be based on market terms that are voluntary and reflect mutual agreement.

Article 23 of  The Foreign Investment Law, which predates the Phase 1 Agreement addressed this concern as well:

Administrative organs and their employees shall, in accordance with law, maintain the confidentiality of the trade secrets of foreign investors or foreign-invested enterprises that they learn in the course of performing their duties, and must not disclose or unlawfully provide them to others.

The proposed Rules set up a working group (工作机构), coordinated by MofCOM with counterpart agencies down to county levels (Art. 2) to handle foreign investment complaints.  This complaint process is not exclusive of other legal remedies, such as administrative reconsideration or litigation, “letters and visits” (petitioning), etc. (Art. 8).  The Rules afford the possibility of initiating parallel track procedures, provided applicable legal limitations periods are adhered to for legal actions.  However, if these alternative legal procedures are accepted, the MofCOM process will be terminated:

Art. 19.3 During the handling of a complaint, if the complainant initiates administrative reconsideration, administrative litigation and other procedures on the same complaint, or an application is filed with a higher level complaint agency or disciplinary inspection, supervision, letters and visits and has been accepted, the complainant shall be deemed to apply for withdrawal of the complaint.

投诉处理期间,投诉人就同一投诉事项提起行政复议、行政诉讼等程序的,或者向上级投诉工作机构或者纪检、监察、信访等部门提出申请并已被受理的,视同投诉人申请撤回投诉。

The Rules also set up the basic procedural requirements for making a complaint, including types of documentation, representation, response time, and potential remedies (Chapter 2).   Once a completed complaint is filed, the Working Group will have seven days to advise the complainant that the complaint has been accepted. Trade secrets and private information are to be protected in the process (Art. 21).  Final decisions are required within sixty days of acceptance (Art. 18).  The complaint acceptance process does afford MofCOM the possibility of delaying due to incomplete complaints (Art. 14).

The principal remedy of this process appears to be a mediated response with the offending agency (依法公正进行协调处理,推动投诉事项的妥善解决) (Arts. 15, also Arts. 17, 19). Other possible outcomes procedures include recommending that local governments change their procedures or rules (Art. 17).

How effective are such procedures likely to be?

Although this process may afford some individuals a useful alternative channel to resolve forced technology transfer and effect policy changes, I am doubtful it will afford much relief in most licensing/trade secret cases.  An earlier administrative effort to protect trade secrets through the National IPR Leading Group also didn’t deliver much relief as far as I know.   Trade secret matters are very difficult to handle in China’s administrative processes due to concerns about local economic influences, uncertain procedures to maintain confidential information, fears of retaliation, etc.  In general, foreign companies have been reluctant to sue national and local Chinese government agencies, with the significant exception of patent and trademark validity challenges.  Of particular concern is that possibility of retaliation against those who file complaints.  As USTR noted in the Section 301 Report:

As U.S. companies have stated for more than a decade, they fear that they will face retaliation or the loss of business opportunities if they come forward to complain about China’s unfair trade practices. Concerns about Chinese retaliation arose in this investigation as well. Multiple submissions noted the great reluctance of U.S. companies to share information on China’s technology transfer regime, given the importance of the China market to their businesses and the fact that Chinese government officials are “not shy about retaliating against critics.”

Moreover, there are competing channels to trade secrets that are improving. China has made significant advances in civil judicial protection of trade secrets, which should be utilized where appropriate.  Technical trade secrets appeals are now being heard by a new national appellate IP court.   SAMR also has plans to draft an administrative rule on stopping trade secret infringement(禁止侵犯商业秘密若干规定).

Finally, it is difficult for me to conceive of a complaint mechanism that essentially is being made to the same agency or group of agencies that approve the actual investment, rather than the agenc(ies) in charge of protecting trade secrets.  Should complaints fail to materialize, it  may also be interpreted by China as a lack of concern about the issue, rather than concerns about the effectiveness and risks of the process.

My perspectives on this process have been clear.  As I stated in an earlier blog:

[N]ewly amended provisions in the new Foreign Investment Law prohibiting forced technology transfer are likely to have little impact absent effective complaint and legal challenge procedures, such as the creation of a foreign investment ombudsman and/or appeals to the newly established IP court.  The inclusion of a non-discrimination position in administrative licensing procedures is also welcome news, although it may be similarly difficult to monitor and enforce.

While there is nothing harmful in the Rules, I continue to believe that appeals to a competent, specialized court or creation of an independent ombudsman would likely best serve foreign interests.

New CPC and State Council Opinions on Improving IP Protection

wordcloud

On November 24,  2019, the General Office of Communist Party of China and the State Council jointly released the Opinions Concerning Enhancing Intellectual Property Rights Protection (关于强化知识产权保护的意见).

It is often too easy to dismiss documents like these, that have typically delivered an ephemeral higher state of vigilance by the Chinese government.  Nonetheless, there are some useful statements in this document that may be an indicator of future durable improvements, including:

  1. It is jointly published by the CPC and the State Council and thus has high level political and executive branch support.
  2. It does address some long-standing concerns raised by industry, such as development of a patent linkage system, patent term extension and copyright protection for sports broadcasts.
  3. There continues to be a focus on punitive damages in litigation. However, this document does appropriately point out the need to increase actual damages.
  4. Improving criminal enforcement, including revising criminal judicial interpretations – is also addressed.  Along with revising the criminal code, revising criminal JI’s and their high criminal thresholds was a goal of the WTO case that the US filed against China over 10 years ago (DS362).  This task is long overdue.
  5. Improving coordination between administrative and criminal enforcement is once again highlighted. This is also a long-standing issue.  In light of numerous prior efforts and experiments, a more concrete explanation of how this might be accomplished to better enable prosecution of major criminal actors would be helpful in the future.
  6. Case guidance and public trial systems are highlighted. Hopefully, the case guidance system will add further momentum to successful case law experiments in IP at the Beijing IP Court.
  7. The introduction of technical assessors into administrative enforcement could suggest a continued enhanced role for patent administrative enforcement, which has been increasing even as trademark administrative enforcement has been declining. If so, it may not augur well for foreigners who have traditionally been heavy “consumers” of the administrative trademark system, but not the administrative patent system.
  8. Improvements in the “examination” of utility models and designs are noted as a goal. However, these rights are generally not examined for substance except in the case of “abnormal” applications.
  9. Continuing attention is paid to challenging markets, such as e-commerce platforms and trade fairs, as well as establishing faster protection mechanisms.
  10. There is a continuing focus on supporting Chinese rightsholders overseas.

This document arguably goes part-way in establishing an outline for addressing US concerns about IP theft.  However, it offers little to address such concerns as ensuring greater transparency in the courts, publishing foreign-related cases, or addressing certain trade-sensitive topics outlined in USTR’s Section 301 report, such as cyber intrusions or criminal trade secret misappropriation.

The word cloud, above, is drawn from a machine translation of this document.  The original Chinese language and my redlining of a machine translation are found here.

Addendum of November 26, 2019:

Susan Finder in her Supreme People’s Court Monitor blog, reported on Judicial Interpretation drafting by the SPC for next year, some of which are referenced in the recently released Opinions.  According to that blog, on 29 April 2019, the SPC’s General Office issued a document setting out a list of 47 judicial interpretation projects, 36  with an end of 2019 deadline.  Several of these involve IP-related issues, including issues addressed in the joint CPC and State Council Opinions, including:

  1. Interpretation Concerning the Application of Law in Cases of Disputes over the Infringement of Trade Secrets (关于审理侵犯商业秘密纠纷案件应用法律若干问题的解释). Responsibility of the #3 Civil (IP) Division.
  2. Interpretation on Several Issues Concerning Punitive Damages for Intellectual Property Infringement (关于知识产权侵权惩罚性赔偿适用法律若干问题的解释). Responsibility of the #3 Civil (IP) Division.
  3. Provisions on Issues Concerning the Application of the Foreign Investment Law of the People’s Republic of China (I) (关于适用《中华人民共和国外商投资法》若干问题的规定(一)). Responsibility of the #4 Civil Division. The Foreign Investment Law and the recently released draft implementing regulations contain provisions protecting the intellectual property of foreign investors, including prohibiting forced technology transfers and enhancing the availability of punitive damages.

These draft JI’s have a due date of the first half of 2020.  Susan Finder notes in her blog that given the worldwide attention on the issues set forth in these three judicial interpretations, she expects that they will be released for public comment.  I hasten to add that the IP Division of the Court has generally taken a positive attitude towards soliciting public comment on its draft judicial interpretations, and I hope that they maintain this tradition.

It was also noted by Susan Finder that certain JI’s were due by year-end 2019, including:

  1. Intellectual Property Rights Evidence Rules (关于知识产权民事诉讼证据的若干规定).  Responsibility of the #3 Civil (IPR) Division. This draft was discussed at a conference hosted by the SPC in Hangzhou in 2018.  As Chinese courts experiment with more expanded discovery, evidence preservation and burden of proof reversals, clearer rules regarding the obligations of parties to produce evidence are becoming more critical.  A particular notable example of such a reversal is found in the recent amendments to the trade secret law (Article 32), whereby  a rights holder that has preliminarily proven that it  has taken reasonable confidentiality measures on the claimed trade secrets and has preliminary evidence reasonably demonstrating that its trade secrets have been infringed upon, can shift the burden of proof (BOP) to the infringer to prove that the trade secrets claimed by the right holder do not belong to those as prescribed in this law.
  2. Judicial interpretation on administrative cases involving patent authorization and confirmation (关于审理专利授权确权行政案件若干问题的解释). Responsibility of the #3 Civil IPR) Division. Another interpretation that previously had a 2018 year-end deadline.  A draft was issued for public comment in the summer of 2018; see my earlier blog.

Addendum of November 27, 2019:

Another China law blog, the NPC Observer also expects that some of the IP legislation flagged in the Opinions for revision may be considered as early as late December of 2019t.  According to the NPC Observer:

We expect the session to review a … draft amendment to the Patent Law [专利法] …The session may additionally consider the following bills: …

I have previously blogged about proposed revisions to the Patent and Copyright Law.

Addendum of January 9, 2020: Here is a translation of the Opinions from China Law translate.

Second Annual Berkeley-Tsinghua Transnational IP Litigation Conference Is Fast Approaching

Transnational-Conference-new-ver-823x1024

Berkeley Law and Tsinghua law will be co-hosting their Second Annual Conference on Transnational IP Litigation, at the campus of UC Berkeley on October 22, 2019.  Details, including registration information, are available here.

The program will look at strategic concerns in many of the hot issues in cross-border US-China IP litigation, including trade secret cases, standards-essential patents, whether foreigners “win” in each other’s jurisdictions, Section 337, criminal cases, on-line enforcement, civil litigation and the role of China’s new IP courts, administrative challenges to validity, forum non conveniens claims, enforcement at trade fairs, and other issues.  Please register soon if you are interested in attending.

We have great speakers and we look forward to having a great audience!

A Statistical Snapshot of IP Prosecution, Admin. Enforcement and Monetization for 2018

As reported by zhichanli, CNIPA (the new agency formed from SIPO, SAIC and AQSIQ’s – IP authorities within the State Administration for Market Regulation) held a news conference on January 10 to report on statistical developments for 2018.  Here are some of the highlights:

Explosive Patent Growth Continues: 1,542,5000 invention patent applications were received by CNIPA, an increase from 2017 when it was 1,381,594.  432,000 patents were granted.  Of these 346,000 were domestic patent applications (2017: 326,970).  This leaves 86,000 foreign applications for 2018 (2017: 93,174).  There was therefore an increase of  5.8% to 19,030 in Chinese domestic patent grants in 2018, while foreign grants appear to have dropped by 7.7% to 7,174.  Any drop in a growing economy and IP system can be indicative of a problem of some type.

In total 93.3% of the domestic invention patents were service inventions, which is one indicator of possibly increasing quality.    Huawei remained the lead domestic filer with 3,369 invention patent applications.

CNIPA had a busy year examining 808,000 invention patents, 1,874,000 utility model patents (an increase from 1,687,593), and 667,000 design patents (an increase from 420,144).  The PRB heard 38,000 cases, resolved 28,000 and invalidated 5,000 patents.

Comparative data on 2017 is drawn from this report.

Trademarks Too, on Overdrive: CNIPA received 7,337,1000 trademark applications (2017: 5,748,00) and registered 5,000,7000.  Of these, 4,797,000 were domestic applicants.  In aggregate, there were 18,049,000 trademarks registered in China (2017: 14,920,000).  The good news is that the rapid growth in TM applications is slowing.  In 2017, there had been a year-on-year increase of 55.7% in trademark applications. In 2018, the increase was “only” 31.8%.

Patent Administrative Enforcement Continues to Be the Focus:  CNIPA reported 77,000 administrative patent cases, with an increase of 15.9% over the previous year.  35,000 cases involved patents disputes, of which 34,000 involved infringement (an increase of 22.8%).  43,000 cases involved counterfeit patents, with an increase of 10.9%.  There were also 31,000 cases involving illegal trademark activities.  This was an increase from approximately 30,000 the year before, which was itself a decrease of 5.1% from the prior year.  The apparent administrative enforcement realignment to patents thus continues, despite recent moves to improve the civil patent system, including the establishment of a specialized IP court at the SPC level, and the relatively high historic utilization of the administrative trademark system by foreigners.

Another odd development: 2018 marked the launch of the first administrative case involving infringement of a registered semiconductor layout design.

TM’s Remain Number 1 in Geographical Indications: There were 67 sui generis GI registrations approved, presumably under the former AQSIQ system, and 961 GI trademarks registered.   The trademark-based GI system thus appears to be occupying a dominant role.

Cross-border Trade In IP – is it Growing:  CNIPA also reported that “usage fees” for IP rights in cross border trade increased to 35 billion USD.  Comparative data to prior years and breakout data with individual countries would be especially useful, in order to do year-on-year comparisons and to also compare with US data on licensing revenue.  As reported in an earlier blog, according to official Chinese statistics for 2013, technology import contracts into China were reported at 41 billion dollars, with patent licensing contracts constituting 15.4% of that total.  I don’t have comprehensive data to make even preliminary comparisons at this time – and such data would be highly useful.

Summary: Altogether, the report shows a rapidly growing huge IP system, with active government involvement, encouragement and planning.  The report also suggests that there may be a diminishing foreign role, relative and/or absolute, in certain areas.  Finally, this report is the first hint of how the combined CNIPA may report on its joint activities in patents, trademarks, semiconductor layout designs, GI’s and administrative enforcement.  Additional data is usually released around IP Week of each year (April 26).