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 their 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 domestic 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. This case 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 Chinese respondents sought to overturn the legal doctrines in 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 courts is not as rosy as the cooperation that the Tianrui decision might suggest.
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 right. The 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 comments of the National Peoples Congress 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 recent report on civil enforcement of trade secrets. 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 the 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 co-author 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 civil 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. Revised March 14, 2019 by Mark A. Cohen to improve style and clarity.