Is It In There – CNIPA’s “Phase 1” IP Action Plan?

CNIPA released on April 20, 2020, its  2020-2021 Implementation of the “Opinions on Strengthening the Protection of Intellectual Property” Promotion Plan” (2020—2021年贯彻落实《关于强化知识产权保护的意见》推进计划) (the “Promotion Plan”).  Attached are a copy of the Promotion Plan from the CNIPA website and a machine translation, as well as a bilingual translation provided by the USPTO. All translations are provided for readers’ convenience only, are unofficial and do not carry any representations as to accuracy.  Please review them carefully before commiting to any course of action based on the translation, and please bring any errors to our attention.  We greatly appreciate USPTO,  China Law Translate, and the numerous trade associations and law firms that have made translations publicly available over the years.

The Promotion Plan specifically references and appears to be a further implementation of the CPC/State Council  Opinion on Strengthening the Protection of Intellectual Property, released in November 2019 (关于强化知识产权保护的意见) (CPC/State Council Opinion), which I blogged about here. In November I described this CPC/State Council Opinion as going “part way” in addressing US concerns about IP theft that were being raised by the Trump Administration. This Promotion Plan issued by CNIPA is more comprehensive and more directly reflects the Phase 1 Trade Agreement between the US and China that the CPC/State Council Opinion, including setting specific timetables and interagency responsibilities. However, it is being promulgated at a considerably lower level of governmental authority than the CPC/SC Opinion. CNIPA is a division within a ministry-level agency (SAMR) and is arguably weaker and less independent today than when SIPO was a separate agency. In this respect, the Promotion Plan is also weaker than previous action plans promulgated under MofCOM’s leadership. MofCOM and its predecessor agencies were ministries. In a sense, it harkens back to action plans from the 1990s.  The IPR Leading Group was chaired in the 1990s often by a Vice Minister, including Wu Yi, who later became Vice Premier. One may wonder: is this “déjà vu all over again”?.

Some caution also needs to be maintained in approaching this document. First and foremost, are all the Phase 1 commitments, in the words of a once famous  commercial for spaghetti sauce – “in there”? Please write to me with your observatinons.  A second issue involves CNIPA’s authority. Although this document sets out plans for the courts, procuracy, and legislative branches, Chinese state council government agencies do not have the authority to bind these other branches of government.  Nonetheless, these agencies often coordinate their activities together, including through national and local leading groups and coordinating bodies. The puzzle deepens further, however, as the Promotion Plan itself does not indicate the authority by which it has been enacted. Rumor had been that the Promotion Plan was delayed because NPC approval was needed.

To an experienced reader, this Promotion Plan also has the “look” and “feel” of the National IP Strategy Implementation Plan (NIPS Implementation Plan) with its extensive, specific commitments. I  blogged about the NIPS Implementation Plan here.  The NIPS Implementation Plan has a statutory basis in the China Science and Technology Promotion Law (2007). Moreover, the NIPS Implementation Plan similarly has a focus on China becoming a “strong” IP country.

One difference between a NIPS Implementation Plan and an implementation plan from MofCOM in the past is that a NIPS Implementation Plan would have likely needed more local coordinating entities to be implemented nationwide. MofCOM had such authority through its coordination of the former State Council leading groups on IP.  While serving in the Embassy (2004-2008), I visited many of the local IP coordination offices to discuss local IP coordination and enforcement issues. This plan, if it is to be rolled out locally through new mechanisms, will need the support of the CPC and State Council, or local CNIPA offices, or through other local structures.

Several friends have been asking me this morning if this is the Chinese IPR “Action Plan” as required by the Phase 1 Agreement.  The Phase 1 Agreement provided that “Within 30 working days after the date of entry into force of this Agreement, China will promulgate an Action Plan to strengthen intellectual property protection aimed at promoting its high-quality growth. This Action Plan shall include, but not be limited to, measures that China will take to implement its obligations under this Chapter and the date by which each measure will go into effect.”

On the first review,  this Promotion Plan appears to directly reflect the commitments made by China in the Phase 1 Agreement. What the US has called “high-quality growth” might be its misapprehension of China’s recent mantra of building a “strong IP economy.” There are many action items in the Promotion Plan that are focused on strengthening China’s IP resources. Considering the current pandemic, the timing for the release of the Promotion Plan is also about right. Moreover, it makes sense for China to release this document as part of the flurry of announcements surrounding April 26 (World IP Day). CNIPA releasing this document also does not contradict any explicit commitment in the Phase 1 Agreement. The negotiators of the Phase 1 Agreement did not apparently agree to nominate which Chinese agency would issue the Action Plan.

Based on a quick read, this Promotion Plan also appears to share the same weaknesses of the Phase 1 Agreement, with its selective focus, under-emphasis on the courts, lack of clarity around “patent linkage” (including “artificial infringement” determinations by the courts), continuing emphasis on ministry action plans and administrative enforcement, lack of historical context or data to ensure that the Promotion Plan actually delivers results, “old wine in a new bottle” commitments in Customs, criminal thresholdsd and other areas, and lack of any commitment to increasing administrative and judicial transparency.  The lack of strong commitments to increasing judicial and administrative transparency remains the most troubling of all and makes the agreement difficult for governments and rightsholders to adequately apprehend, including making sure that concrete improvements are not only “in there” but being fully implemented.  If the Phase 1 commitments implemented in the 133 action items of the Promotion Plan are the “Action Plan” it is a further indication that any forthcoming changes in China’s IP regime that arose from the trade war are likely to be significant, but not necessarily the kind of  “structural change” that would dramatically mandate more market reform through less government intervention in China’s IP regime.

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.

Anticounterfeiting Roundup

This is the fourth in a series on IP enforcement developments.  I previously blogged on judicial developments, online copyright, Customs enforcement, and now I am writing on anticounterfeiting, particularly trademark counterfeiting.

There has been much happening on anticounterfeiting in China the past several weeks, including the much-reported dramas of the annual meeting of the International Anticounterfeiting Coalition, with  Alibaba being denied membership­­­, US Ambassador Baucus speaking at the IACC annual meeting,  and Jack Ma meeting President Obama.  On top of this drama, there had also been data out of China from IP Week (April 26), as well as the availability of other reports, such as USTR’s Special 301 report, which also singled out China’s online environment.

There have also been several high profile cases, typically involving allegations of bad faith trademark acquisition.  One such case is the IPhone trademark dispute.  Another case that may be in the making between Under Armour and Uncle Martian.   These two disputes came on the backs of a hearing on the Michael Jorrdan / Qiaodan trademark dispute which was heard by the Supreme People’s Court on World IP Day, (April 26, 2016).

Despite the adverse publicity for China’s IP system, there is plenty of enforcement taking place.  Alibaba reported through news outlets that the company has identified 3,518 groups selling fake goods on its platforms in 2015. It helped the police seize counterfeit goods worth $125 million and nail 300 suspects.  In addition, surveys conducted by 91% of AmCham China respondents in a recent survey believed that that IPR enforcement had improved over the past five years, a view that was generally shared by USCBC [US-China Business Council] respondents (38% reported some improvement over the past year).

The sense of improvement may be due in part to the high level attention being given to long standing enforcement issues, particularly in the online environment.  Towards the end of April 2016, the State Council released the outline of the Outline for the Work Plan for 2016 for the National Anti-IP Infringement and Anti-Manufacturing and Sales of Substandard and Counterfeit Goods (April 19, 2006).  This Work Plan contains numerous provisions that address on-line and transborder enforcement.  The first action item in this plan is to “strengthen control of infringement in the online environment. (Sec. 1.1)”  Product sectors targeted include:  food and pharmaceuticals; agricultural chemicals, household electronics, building materials, car parts, and childrens’ toys.  Exports by post and express services are to be targeted.   The Work Plan notes that there will be a 12thSword Network” campaign against online copyright enforcement.  Cooperation with large online platforms is to be intensified, and supervision over them is to be strengthened.  An e-commerce law is to be drafted (Sec. 3.10).  International cooperation between law enforcement is also underscored (Sec. 7.26).

On May 4, SAIC announced its own on line enforcement campaign for 2016 (2016网络市场监管专项行动方)(May 4, 2016, for action until November).   The campaign calls for SAIC to take a leading role in “combatting online trademark infringement and other illegal activities. Each region’s AICs/ market supervision departments should intensify the legitimate rights and interests of the network of sale of counterfeit famous trademarks, should increase their efforts to deal with foreign trademarked goods, and safeguard the rights of consumers. They should investigate and punish the network abuse, fraudulent, counterfeit agricultural products of geographical indications.   As for large-scale, cross-border complaints by trademark rights holders and consumer complaints involving centralized network typical cases of trademark infringement and counterfeiting, SAIC shall strengthen its attack on the production, sales of registered trademarks and other aspects of the work of the whole manufacturing chain.”

The courts have also not been shy at tackling difficult issues.  One of the most important decisions affecting exports of counterfeit goods in 2015 was the PRETUL decision at the SPC (Nov. 16, 2015).  This case held that unauthorized use of a mark in China constitutes infringement only if it can serve as an indicator of source of a product or service in the Chinese market. In appropriate circumstances, export sales by an OEM may not constitute infringement of the Chinese rights owner rights.

I welcome your comments and corrections!