Unpacking the Role of IP Legislation in the Trade War

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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 However, the public dockets do not indicate that the cases have been withdrawn.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,何患无罪 – “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.

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).

New State Council Decision on Intellectual Property Strategy For China as a Strong IP Country

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On July 18, 2016, the State Council issued a new policy document,国务院关于新形势下加快知识产权强国建设的 若干意见-重点任务分工方案  — the “Opinion of the State Council on Accelerating the Construction of Intellectual Property Powers for China as an Intellectual Property Strong Country under the New Situation –Division of Tasks.”  Here’s a link to this action plan (docketed as State Council  Working Office No. 66)  , and a link to the machine translation, from which the world cloud above is drawn.   The action plan itself is drawn from a State Council document issued in 2015 on accelerating the establishment of a strong IP country in the context of a new situation.  This 2015 document identified such problems as China being a big country for IP, but not a strong country, protection was not adequately strict, infringement was easy and pervasive, and that these factors were affecting industry’s efforts to innovate.

As I discussed previously, the idea of China needing to become a strong IP country appears in the 2014-2020, National IPR Strategy Action Plan, which has the goal of “Striving to Build A Strong IPR Country”  (努力建设知识产权强国). While China indeed has become “big” on most scales: invention patent filings, trademark, utility models and design patents, intellectual property litigation, criminal IP litigation and administrative litigation, to name a few, “strong” suggests quality, which is much harder to judge.

Here are a few specific observations about this action plan:

  1. Much of the action plan repeats existing efforts, through the MofCOM IPR Leading Group and SIPO’s National IP Strategy Office, and their current efforts at analyzing and coordinating IP effort, as well as cooperative activities (Arts. 1, 3, 13, 15, 18, 21, 22, 25, 30, 44, 88, etc.).
  2. There are greater efforts to incorporate IP into macroeconomic strategies, such as in calculations regarding the national economy and national social welfare (Art. 9), as well as credit reporting (Art. 23).
  3. Increasing compensatory  and punitive damages are a focus (Arts. 14), which have also been an effort of China’s IP courts.  This is one of the key civil-law reform proposals in this plan.   There continues to be an undue emphasis on speed, which I assume is focused on patent administrative enforcement as a more rapid remedy (Art. 16).  China is already a fast moving IP environment.
  4. International cooperation in criminal enforcement is underscored (Arts. 19, 21, 22).
  5. Regarding trade secret protection, the focus is on revising trade secret laws, and protecting IP when employees change jobs (Art. 24).  Changes to China’s discovery regime and other appropriate measures which would greatly assist trade secret claimants, are not discussed.
  6. Geographical indications are a focus, including drafting a stand-alone GI law at “the appropriate time” (Art. 32), increasing the role of trademarks in promoting farmer prosperity (Art. 58), and promoting GI products (Art. 90).
  7. Regarding the long-delayed IP Abuse Guidelines, NDRC, MofCOM, SAIC and the State Council Legislative Affairs Office are all listed as being responsible for drafting “according to their responsibilities” (Art. 36).  Rules on standard essential patents that are based on FRAND licensing and “stopping infringement” are also noted (Art. 38), with the involvement of AQSIQ, SIPO, MIIT, and the Supreme People’s Court).  Encouraging standardization of Chinese patents also remains a priority (Arts. 61, 71).
  8. Service Invention Regulations, an area of some controversy are not specifically noted as a priority.  Encouragement is to be given to enterprises to set up appropriate invention recognition and reward programs in accordance with law (Art. 45), and research is to be undertaken in giving compensation for new scientific achievements (Art. 46).  The language may suggest that more flexibility will be given contractual arrangements and the market, as was agreed to bilaterally between China and the United States.   Relevant agencies involved in these efforts include SIPO, MoST, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Agriculture, SASAC, Chinese Academy of Sciences, MIIT, Ministry of Defense, etc.
  9. Chinese universities are also encouraged to become more actively engaged in commercialization of technology, through establishment of technology transfer offices (Art. 53) and other efforts.
  10. The impact of US efforts to study IP-intensive industries in the US economy is also apparent in this plan in terms of the government’s efforts to investigate promoting IP intensive industries in the Chinese economy, government procurement of products from IP intensive industries, and developing model districts for IP intensive industries (Arts. 55-56).  Interestingly, there is no specific reference to engaging economists on any of these efforts, despite the role of foreign economists in similar efforts, some of who have also directly engaged China on how to determine IP-intensity in an economy.
  11. There is discussion of using tax and financial policies to promote IP creation in China (Arts. 98, 99).  There is no explicit discussion of harmonization with OECD guidelines regarding patent boxes and other forms of international tax avoidance.
  12. The report discusses a number of strategies and plans to reduce overseas IP risks facing Chinese companies, including assisting Chinese companies in strategic planning, patenting and licensing (Arts. 72-76), developing information resources on risks and cases (Arts. 78-79), and – rather ominously – developing policies for countering large intellectual property cases overseas (with the support of MofCOM, Customs, SAIC, AQSIQ, NCA, and the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade – “CCPIT”).   There is no discussion on any changes to current technology import regulations which impose onerous indemnity and non-grant back requirements on foreign licensors.
  13. The report directs research to be conducted of placing IP officials overseas in important countries, region and IP organizations.  Although China’s current IP attaché in the United States is a MofCOM employee, the responsible agencies for this effort include SIPO, NCA, SAIC, and CCPIT (Art. 85).  The first Chinese IP attaché was dispatched to the United States pursuant to a bilateral commitment of the  2005 Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade.
  14. The report notes that China will become more involved in promoting a more “fair and reasonable” international IP regime, through support of the Doha amendments to the TRIPS Agreement, the Convention on Biodiversity and various IP conventions.  The Hague Convention on Industrial Designs is noted, but not UPOV 1991.  Promotion of intangible heritage and folklore are also noted (Arts. 59. 87).
  15. IP talent creation and training are also key elements of the plan (103-105).

 

Often in looking at plans like these, it is also equally important to ask what is not being covered.   The plan does not focus enough on a China where there is greater scientific collaboration with foreign scientists and engineers, which are also result in an increasingly large number of co-invented patents.  Similarly, increasing Chinese investment in IP-intensive industries in the United States means that many Chinese companies will own substantial IP interests and may be less inclined to view IP issues as “us” vs “them.”  The relative under-emphasis on civil remedies for IP issues in this plan is also troubling, as the availability of adequate civil remedies is what drives IP commercialization.

The report also does not suggest increasing the role of economists in IP and antitrust agencies, despite a clear focus on increasing the IP-intensity of the Chinese economy. Gaps in Chinese law, such as denial of copyright protection for sports broadcasting, weak protection for trade dress, and “circular” litigation between the patent and trademark offices and the courts which may delay final adjudication on matters, controlling trademark squatting and subsidies for unexamined patents are not discussed.

Although there are many positive aspects of this plan, I believe that focusing on issues like compulsory licensing, the Doha Declaration and folklore, or what appears to be political solutions to overseas infringement may also not deliver as much value to the Chinese economy and China’s scientists, engineers, artists and entrepreneurs, as returning to core IP concepts which let the market govern IP creation and enforcement through such measures as improving the scope of rights that are protected under Chinese law, limiting government intervention, increasing the role of the civil judicial system, and promoting increased collaboration.