How to Monitor an IP Trade Agreement with China

The following observations are drawn from a recent talk I gave at the US-China Business Council, which was called “IP in the Trade War: Strategies for a New Normal.”  A video recap of part of those discussions is available here.  In that presentation, I talked extensively about available data sources on China’s IP environment and how they can be leveraged to shape both government trade strategies and corporate strategies.

Data-driven approaches that are now available have considerable potential value to US and Chinese negotiators thinking over how to monitor and enforce an agreement to settle the US-China trade war and help avoid the problems of continuous government oversight.  One alternative to traditional government monitoring is to empower the companies and individuals that are affected by IP and tech policies to conduct their own “bottom-up” monitoring and evaluation.  This has the added benefit of reorienting trade negotiations from governmental control to a commercial, rights-owner focus that should be its principal orientation for protection of a private right such as IP.  In addition, a bottom-up approach helps create a greater global community interested in compliance, which could also include rights holders in third countries.

What are the key elements in a trade agreement to empower rights holders to monitor an agreement? Here are four critical elements to the trade commitment:

  • The first trade commitment is that the requested conduct of the foreign state must be observable. There must be a degree of transparency associated with the conduct that permits a third party to provide reasonable analyses of the conduct, including any deficiencies in the data being disclosed.  A good example of observable data would be the publication of court cases about patent protection in a given country.
  • The second trade commitment is that the observable information must be accessible, usually by online publication or database compilation with available tools to search for data relevant to the trade commitment. A comprehensive public database of patent cases would an accessible information source, with available search tools for issues of concern.
  • The third trade commitment is that there are clear standards to which the foreign country is committed. A hypothetical example of such a commitment might be that “China agrees not to favor domestic companies litigating patent disputes in technologies that are identified in Made in China 2025, including patent classifications X, Y, and Z”.  The parties might then further agree on a statistically standard to measure compliance with the standard.
  • Finally, the trade agreement itself must have an enforcement vehicle for rights holders to raise violations of the applicable standard based on the application of the standard to the observable and accessible data. Example of an enforcement vehicle would be an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism where affected companies might bring suits directly against the foreign country before a neutral body. Alternatively, a US government IPR case referral mechanism process might be re-established to bring specific cases to the attention of Chinese authorities.  Such a process existed in the years after China joined the WTO.   This would now be strengthened by the additional weapons of withdrawal of tariff concessions or other sanctions.    A less direct mechanism might occur when companies provide the information to a US government agency, such as USTR, such as through the 301 process or a WTO dispute.

In order to ensure that China’s civil enforcement is observable and accessible, China would need to publish all of its IP cases, including cases involving provisional measures, case filings and settlements as well as on enforcement of judgments.  Standards setting should not be too difficult either.  There are numerous areas where negotiators could establish standards, many of which have been identified in this blog including: granting of preliminary injunctions against US companies, patent litigation involving semiconductors and pharmaceuticals, challenges in targeted technology patent grants (pharmaceuticals, semiconductors and strategic emerging industries, difficulties in winning trade secret litigations, retaliation against foreign companies asserting their rights in China, and challenges in bad faith trademark litigation.

As an example of such an approach, China might agree to establish a patent linkage regime requiring that pharmaceutical regulatory approvals are not granted to products that would infringe an IP holders patent rights and to facilitate generic drug introduction into the market.  In order to make the data observable and accessible,  China would adopt an “orange book” to listing relevant patents for approved pharmaceuticals.  Relevant legal databases should also be made available to determine if China’s drug regulators are approving infringing generic drugs and if patent infringement cases are brought to appropriately permit or prohibit their approval.  US rights holders could bring violations to the attention of Chinese or US trade authorities, to Chinese regulatory agencies, or through the 301 process or a case referral mechanism.   Both new and prior commitments could be written to facilitate real-time monitoring.

Due to the difficulties in monitoring China’s complex IP environment, bilateral trade policy should adjust to the era of big data and provide timely and responsive avenues for companies to note compliance or violations of trade agreements.