SAMR Releases Draft Trade Secret Rules for Public Comment

On September 4, 2020, the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) released Draft Trade Secret Protection Rules for public comment  [商业秘密保护规定(征求意见稿)] including an accompanying explanation. Comments are due by October 18, 2020. 

SAMR announced its intention to draft these rules in its 2020 legislative work plan.   As with the earlier rules that these supersede, they are directed towards handling of trade secret administrative enforcement by SAMR.  The earlier rules had been criticized for only providing protections for Chinese citizens and not foreign nationals in Article 2, which provided that  “the term ‘rights holder’ in these regulations refers to citizens, legal persons or other organizations that have ownership or use rights over trade secrets according to law. ” 本规定所称权利人,是指依法对商业秘密享有所有权或者使用权的公 民、法人或者其他组织.  This apparent discrimination against foreigners was identified to the Chinese delegation at the WTO in 2002. See WTO, IP/C/W/374, Sept. 10, 2002, “Review of Legislation” at p. 44.   These new rules appear to be far more comprehensive, and do not carry the same regrettable language about citizens. 

Statistics generally show a low level of utilization of the trade secret administrative enforcement mechanism.  In 2011, for example, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce yearbook (predecessor agency to SAMR), revealed that SAIC had only brought 57 administrative trade secret cases, with 2, 579 RMB in average fines (about $390.00) (SAIC Yearbook, at p. 855).  Notwithstanding this low level of utilization of the administrative enforcement system and discriminatory language in the earlier rules,  improving administrative enforcement of trade secrets was agreed to bilaterally in the 2012 Strategic and Economic Dialogue, by which China committed to place trade secret protection in the “2012 Annual Work Plan of the State Council Leading Group on Intellectual Property Enforcement.”  About that time, the State Council Leading Group had been especially active in coordinating and improving administrative enforcement.  One problem posed by this commitment is that trade secret enforcement is especially not susceptible to the kind of investigations of virtual or physical markets that SAMR (or SAIC) have historically excelled in.  It is therefore not surprising that despite the commitments by China in the Phase 1 Agreement on several IP-related special administrative campaigns involving various markets, the trade secret provisions focus on civil and criminal enforcement.  Perhaps the caseload will increase with the additional powers granted to SAMR and the increased focus on trade secret enforcement by China.  However, many people, including myself, believe that trade secret protection may be best handled by the courts.  Moreover, if the subject of the trade secret infringement involves technology, the IP courts may be best equipped to handle those matters.

Aaron Wininger has written a useful general overview of the draft which is available here.

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 committing 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 observations.  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 thresholds 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.