Comments on Draft Guidelines on Disgorgement and Fines in AML Matters

Attached are comments of the ABA Sections of Antitrust and International Law  (ABA) and the George Mason University Global Antitrust Institute (GAI) on the draft guidelines of the National Development and Reform Commission on Disgorgement and Fines in Antimonopoly Law matters. The ABA comments are bilingual and have the complete text of the draft guidelines included in the package that is being made available here.  The guidelines were published for public consultation on June 17, 2016.

The two sets of comments offer two slightly nuanced approaches in their understanding of the final drafting responsibilities for these guidelines.  The ABA comments are nominally  directed to the Antimonopoly Commission of the State Council, while the GAI’s Comments are more directed to the National Development and Reform Commission which released this draft for eventual adoption by the Antimonopoly Commission.  The relationship between these drafts and an official adoption by the AMC is not clear to me, as the NDRC announcement of the draft states that the drafting of the guidelines are in the work plan of the Antimonopoly Commission, and that NDRC undertook the research and drafting (根据国务院反垄断委员会的工作计划,我们研究起草了《关于认定经营者垄断行为违法所得和确定罚款的指南》(征求意见稿),现面向社会公开征求意见.). It does not explicitly say that this research and  drafting was undertaken on behalf of the AMC.  Moreover, comments are to be delivered to the Pricing Bureau of NDRC, not the NDRC itself, which may suggest that this is indeed a research project (发送到国家发展改革委(价监局).  It is my view that considering the continuing battle of drafting responsibility by Antimonopoly enforcement agencies + SIPO,  in the IP Abuse guidelines, which the State Council has recently said is the responsibility of these four agencies and the State Council Legislative Affairs Office, final drafting  responsibility for an interagency antimonopoly law guideline may not be easily assumed at this time.  If others in the antitrust community have more specific information, I welcome them posting it here.

Regardless of which agency is the lead, the sharing of drafts with this website and others helps to increase our understanding of the overall process through sharing of different commenters’ positions, for which I am grateful.  I hope that over time Chinese agencies will also make all non-confidential comments publicly available.

GAI’s recommendations include that the Draft Guidelines be revised to limit the application of disgorgement (or the confiscating of illegal gain) and punitive fines to matters in which: (1) the antitrust violation is clear (i.e., if measured at the time the conduct is undertaken, and based on existing laws, rules, and regulations, a reasonable party should expect that the conduct at issue would likely be found to be illegal) and without any plausible efficiency justifications; (2) it is feasible to articulate and calculate the harm caused by the violation; (3) the measure of harm calculated is the basis for any fines or penalties imposed; and (4) there are no alternative remedies that would adequately deter future violations of the law.  In the alternative, and at the very least, the NDRC should expand the circumstances under which the Anti-Monopoly Enforcement Agencies (AMEAs) will not seek punitive sanctions such as disgorgement or fines to include two conduct categories that are widely recognized as having efficiency justifications: unilateral conduct such as refusals to deal and discriminatory dealing and vertical restraints such as exclusive dealing, tying and bundling, and resale price maintenance.

GAI also urges the NDRC to clarify how the total penalty, including disgorgement and fines, relate to the specific harm at issue and the theoretical optimal penalty.  According to GAI, economic analysis should determine the total optimal penalties, which includes any disgorgement and fines.  When fines are calculated consistent with the optimal penalty framework, disgorgement should be a component of the total fine as opposed to an additional penalty on top of an optimal fine.  If disgorgement is an additional penalty, then any fines should be reduced relative to the optimal penalty.

Finally, GAI recommends that the Anti-Monopoly Enforcement Agencies (AMEAs) rely on economic analysis to determine the harm caused by any violation.  When using proxies for the harm caused by the violation, such as using the illegal gains from the violations as the basis for fines or disgorgement, such calculations should be limited to those costs and revenues that are directly attributable to a clear violation.  This should be done in order to ensure that the resulting fines or disgorgement track the harms caused by the violation.  To that end, GAI recommends that the Draft Guidelines explicitly state that the AMEAs will use economic analysis to determine the but-for world, and will rely wherever possible on relevant market data.  When the calculation of illegal gain is unclear due to lack of relevant information, GAI strongly recommends that the AMEAs refrain from seeking disgorgement.

These comments are broader than IP-related antitrust.  One common theme they share with IP damage issues is the low utilization of economic calculations to determine damages, and unclear sensibility of when damages are adequate, deterrent or punitive.

The comments also do not address the relationship, if any, between low IP damages and high antitrust damages for IP abuse, except in the broadest sense that excessive damages may create over deterrence.  The Chinese government and academics are also increasingly focused on the problem of low IP damages, including possibilities of providing for punitive damages and higher compensatory damages,  the availability of discovery for damage calculations, such as in the trademark law and with experiments in increasing statutory damages or relying on alternative calculations such as actual or implied royalties such as occurred last year in Jiangsu (See 江苏固丰管桩集团有限公司诉宿迁华顺建筑预制构件有限公司侵害发明)专利权纠纷一案[(2015)苏知民终字第00038]), where an implied royalty was used for perhaps the first time in a patent case. The issue is also actively being discussed by academics. See, e.g., 刘自钦 , 著作权惩罚性赔偿制度在中国大陆的具体运用, Macau Law Review, No. 10, at p. 123 (Liu Zichen, Substantial Application of the Punitive Compensation System for Copyright in Chinese Mainland – Based on American Experience and the Chinese Reality).

­The current reality is that IP damages remain too low and non-deterrent.  To me this suggests a possible issue of disproportionality between IP protection and antitrust enforcement for IP abuse, or as I have often said one cannot have IP ‘abuse’ without having IP ‘use.’   On June 7, 2016 I had the pleasure in my official capacity of testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, where I discussed the issue of the large disparity between high antitrust damages and low patent infringement damages.   My testimony is also on the PTO website.  I recently calculated that the current ratio of average patent damages as determined on the www.ciela.cn database and the Qualcomm damage imposed by NDRC is about 50,000 to 1 (18,000 USD to 975 million USD); it is only somewhat lower if other databases are used.  As I noted in my testimony, antitrust damages and patent damages address different issues and thus may not always be directly comparable.  However, if the ratio is wildly disproportionate the ecosystem for innovation and technology transfer could erode.  Many companies already do not want to transfer technology to China, for fear that their IP will not be adequately protected.  As I have noted, the data already suggests that China is an under-licensed market.  Some companies may also now be avoiding China because damages are too low and/or antitrust risks are too high.  If antitrust damages become be too high in relationship to the actual value of a patent, incentives to disclose patentable inventions may erode – which itself may erode competition in the long run.  Moreover, China will suffer as it may not be able to obtain leading-edge technology.  I personally believe that antitrust and IP damages should not be wildly disproportionate, which should be another factor in antitrust damages, IP damages and in China’s efforts to become an IP “strong country.”

This blog remains my academic, personal and non-official observations and should not be construed as the opinion of the US government, or any former client or third party or even any academic institution with which I am affiliated.  Corrects and comments in English or Chinese are most welcome!

 

 

 

 

IPR Abuse and Refusals to License

The US Chamber and American Chamber of Commerce (the “Chambers”) have recently made available its recent comments on the NDRC and SAIC drafts of the IP abuse guidelines to be promulgated by the Antimonopoly Commission of the State Council.  Here are the links: NDRC IP Abuse Guidelines Chinese; NDRC IP Abuse Guidelines English; SAIC IP Abuse Guidelines Chinese; SAIC P Abuse Guidelines English.  As there is no public database of comments received on most Chinese legislation, I will continue to try to make available comments by private entities here on this blog.

The NDRC and SAIC comments of the Chambers continue to focus on certain key areas of concern, including China’s endorsing of an essential facility doctrine without considering the pro-competitive aspects of licensing (or standards setting).  The Chambers have expressed concerns about “an approach that imposes restrictions on licensing because it is possible to imagine a license that creates more competition”, which (in my view) is essentially a state-management approach to licensing and intellectual property.    The Chambers also focus on burdens of proof – an increasingly important issue in IP cases generally, as well as extraterritorial authority based on “effect” on the Chinese market, without regard to substantiality or immediacy.  As I have noted elsewhere, concerns over extra-territorial issues have been of increasing concern bilaterally. 

The Chambers also support provisions to enable portfolio licensing, which may include expired patents and would otherwise need to be adjusted or renegotiated every time a patent expires or is found invalid.  The Chamber also takes issue with presumptions that cross-licenses and grant backs are anti-competitive.   The Chambers also address concerns about aggressive regulation of refusals to license patents, particularly those that are not encumbered by a F/RAND obligation (eg., Article 24, SAIC draft).

An important development on refusals to license in China has been noted by Benjamin Bai in a recent blog on a non-SEP refusal to license case now pending in China.  According to Benjamin:

Hitachi Metals At the time of writing, there is an ongoing litigation on whether a refusal to license non-essential patents constitutes IP abuse. Four Ningbo companies brought this case against Hitachi Metals in the Ningbo Intermediate Court. The dispute centers on neodymium-iron-boron magnets, which are widely used in the electric engineering, wind power, automotive, and high tech industries. About half of the global consumption of rare earth metals relates to this magnetic alloy, whose intellectual property rights are mostly held by Hitachi Metals. It owns more than 600 neodymium-iron-boron magnet patents globally but has only licensed selected patents to eight Chinese companies. Hitachi has refused to license to other Chinese companies.

 Hitachi’s refusal to license its patents to the plaintiffs is the basis for the suit. The accused abusive conduct includes refusal to license, bundling, etc. This is the first case in which plaintiffs have requested a Chinese court to license non-essential patents based on the notion of “essential facilities”. The plaintiffs argue that Hitachi’s patent portfolio on neodymium-iron-boron magnets should be considered as essential facilities for the industry because its patent portfolio cannot be substituted and avoided. The plaintiffs seek damages of RMB24 million (~USD3.4 million). A nine-hour hearing was held on December 18, 2015. The court has not yet issued any decision. This case will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the Chinese jurisprudence on refusal to license and IP abuse.

Benjamin concludes his blog by noting:

When it comes to non-essential patents, however, the rationale of Huawei v. InterDigital does not apply. Instead, the analytical framework laid out in Qihoo v. Tencent should be followed. According to the Chinese Supreme Court, market dominance refers to the position of an undertaking with the ability to control the price, quality of other transactional terms of products in the relevant market, or the ability to impede or affect the entry into the relevant market by other undertakings. The determination of market dominance is a multifaceted process. No single factor is necessarily outcome-determinative. A high market share in and of itself should not lead to a presumption of market dominance, especially where the high market share is due to high efficiency or better-quality products. Therefore, a high market share conferred by technology superiority might not lead to a finding of dominance.

Extension of essential facilities outside of the F/RAND context where a company may not have willingly abandoned certain rights in exchange for incorporation in a standard is problematic, as Benjamin notes. I believe there are also implications for China’s IP system.   Neither recent draft guidelines or court decisions to date recognize patents as a unique form of property which is based on a right to exclude offered in exchange for disclosure of an invention.   Aggressive antitrust enforcement could erode that incentive.  This can be of great concern in the non-SEP space, where a patentee may have a choice whether to disclose an invention or keep a proprietary method secret.  As disincentives to patenting continue to mount due to narrowing scopes of patentability, procedural changes making litigation more difficult and patents less stable, and/or increased antitrust enforcement, the technological “commons” created by patent disclosures, as well as the incentives that patents provide for investment and product development, may narrow. The dynamic efficiencies of the patent system, which frequently creates new technologies which is not even in current manufacture and “include[es] societal gains from innovation” (GAI comments on NDRC draft) could be placed at risk.

I also remain concerned about disproportionality between antitrust damages and a continuing low level of patent damages.  CIELA currently lists average patent damages in China at 419,366 RMB, based on a cohort of 511 cases where the plaintiff won its claim of patent infringement.  This is about 70,000 dollars, or about 1/10,0000 of the fine imposed on Qualcomm in its recent NDRC investigation.  Of course,  patent damages address harm to the rights holder and antitrust damages address harm to competition, making comparisons somewhat inexact.  A legal argument however is that, whatever the calculation of antitrust damages, China has an explicit international obligation to insure that patent infringement damages “constitute a deterrent to further infringements” (TRIPS Article 41).  WTO members may even impose criminal remedies for patent infringement where willful and on a commercial scale (Article 61).   The authorization for WTO members to address IP abuse under the TRIPS agreement is only to take “appropriate” measures (Art. 40).   In my view, overly aggressive antitrust enforcement in China when the IP system is fundamentally weak, is “inappropriate” for China, and could weaken market-based incentives to license and patent, as well as incentives for disclosure at a critical time in China’s quest to become an innovative economy.