Collaboration or Confrontation: Beyond the False Dichotomy in US-China IP Relations

Recently several writers have criticized the Trump administration’s strategic choice of confrontation over collaboration with China.  Among them was an open letter published in the July 2, 2019, Washington Post, “China is Not an Enemy,” or “Making China A US Enemy is Counterproductive” (based on its hyperlink) that was signed by several former officials and scholars. Prof. Alastair Iain Johnston of Harvard University also wrote an excellent article, “The Failures of the ‘Failure of Engagement’ with China.”  Chinese commentators have also chimed in.  One of the signatories of the July 2, 2019 letter, Jim McGregor spoke on a podcast about the limitations of collaboration.  A counter-letter, “Stay The Course On China: An Open Letter To President Trump” .  The debate is also an extension of the Stanford University report “China’s Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance” from 2018, which also generated its share of controversy.

The authors of these studies discuss all aspects of the US-China relationship – trade, security, scientific, intellectual property, etc., and fold these issues into the collaboration vs. confrontation dichotomy. I lack the breadth to discuss all aspects of a complex relationship.  My focus is solely on IP and innovation and the role of collaboration or confrontation. 

An assumption of many of these authors is that we should avoid making China an enemy unnecessarily.  I agree. At the same time, many of the commentators seem to suggest that either IP engagement or confrontation may be counterproductive because of systemic failures of the WTO, or past disappointments.  As Prof. Johnston notes: “[T]here is no doubt that there are persistent WTO incompatible non-tariff trade barriers, including weak intellectual property protection, technology theft, and non-transparent regulatory practices, among others.” 

Overall, the IP-related arguments present a false dichotomy between engagement or confrontation.  Bilateral engagement is only one tool, and it need not be sacrificed to more assertive strategies.  The toolbox includes varied approaches. Softer advocacy might include training programs in China on novel issues, supporting more focused strategies by businesses, joint collaboration on shared challenges and trade agreements that include China (such as a bilateral investment treaty), to name a few.  More assertive postures might involve critical white papers or non-papers, multilateral engagement, WTO or other international law diplomacy or cases, trade agreements that exclude China (TPP), and, in appropriate circumstances, quid pro quo retaliation such as tariffs and sanctions.  Simply put, carrots and sticks are not exclusive of each other.  Moreover, there are a variety of carrots and sticks.  Sticks, however, carry a cost and need to be carefully considered before deploying.

One of the legacies of the Obama administration on IP was that it was over-committed to dialogues.  As Chinese trade diplomacy has been highly transactional, this had permitted China to “buy time” without committing to any trade concession.  For those who lived through Obama’s excesses and opposed them, President Trump has demonstrated himself to be Obama’s Hegelian opposite.

The explosion in IP dialogues during the Obama period is well documented. For example, the 2015 Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT), which was co-chaired by the Department of Commerce and USTR and was the highest-ranking trade-specific bilateral dialogue.  It established IP-specific sub-dialogues, exchanges and programs on such topics as: standards, trade secrets, geographical indications, sports broadcasting, media boxes and copyright, on-line enforcement (including referrals to another IP-related working group involving criminal law), case law and databases with the judiciary, bad faith trademarks, copyright legislation, IP legislation and protection of plant varieties.  Additionally IP was discussed outside of the JCCT in dialogues with a range of US agencies, including antitrust (DOJ/FTC), criminal law (DOJ/DHS), innovation (OSTP) and strategic and economic dialogues (State, USTR, Treasury), as well as at the WTO (USTR), WIPO (PTO), and in plurilateral discussions, such as the IP-5 (the five largest patent offices), TM-5 (the five largest trademark offices) and ID-5 (the five largest industrial design offices).  There were also other dialogues, including judicial exchanges (2016) and commercial rule of law (2016), which also focused on IP.

Properly and economically utilized, dialogues can advance understanding where ignorance is a major impediment to resolving differences. They can build trust and long-lasting government to government relationships.  Dialogues may also spread the burden of advocacy among the US government, industry and trade associations and even foreign governments.  Educational training and assistance can also be leveraged for seeking additional concessions.  They also help establish a baseline for a measured approach to escalating issues to increasingly higher political levels.  However, dialogues should never become ends in themselves and need to be periodically evaluated for their effectiveness and efficiency.  

In a typical, hypothetical IP matter, a strategic approach to dialogues and engagement might involve a white-boarded multiple-year plan for the US that reflects the varying interests of the US government, foreign governments, industry, and academia.  The plan might progressively escalate concerns from a discussion around, say, bad faith trademarks, to a seminar on this topic, a meeting between the heads of the US and Chinese trademark offices, a JCCT meeting at a political level, a TM-5 meeting, a program with the International Trademark Association or the EU’s technical “IP Key” assistance effort, comments on proposed legislation, a meeting among cabinet-level officials and/or a WTO case.  These approaches may be consecutive or simultaneous. This type of strategy is also well known in Chinese military history, as “coordinating one’s strategies” 连环计 i.e., never relying on a single strategy but having many to fall back on, which is the 35th of the 36th classical military stratagems 三十六计. 

There have been several successful examples of coordinated engagement in IP that have delivered real changes over the years.  Examples include China’s providing design patent protection for graphical user interfaces, which involved multi-year engagement by industry, academia, the Chinese and US patent offices, and ultimately the offices of the JCCT, to deliver a tangible commitment in Chinese patent office practices.  Another example during the Obama period is the reform of China’s pharmaceutical patent examination process, which involved a similar process.   A longer-term engagement focused on the creation of China’s specialized appellate IP court.  It also involved several judges of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) (including former Chief Judge Rader), the Federal Circuit Bar Association, academia, and others over a nearly 20-year period.  

To be effective, however, dialogues must be strategic.  The 2015 JCCT, by contrast, seemed to have an approach of letting “a 100 dialogues bloom”  (百对话齐放).   

An example of the failure of dialogue and coordinated strategies is found in the US handling of a request of China to revise China’s discriminatory Administration of Technology Import/Export Regulations (TIER).  The 2015 JCCT included a commitment to “support a technology licensing joint seminar to be convened by MOFCOM in the first quarter of 2016.”  This was a strikingly modest ask of the very senior US and Chinese officials that chaired the JCCT: a Chinese Vice Premier and three US Cabinet-level officials.  However, JCCT support was necessary to overcome entrenched Chinese resistance. Moreover, despite the JCCT commitment, China did not follow through on this modest ask.  Despite such high level support, China did not host the seminar.   

During this same time period, the US Chamber of Commerce, Global IP Center,  published a report through its “Track II”, IP Cooperation Dialogue calling for reform in the TIER. The Track II Dialogue seeks to encourage expert non-government IP-engagement and not rely solely on over-politicized official bilateral dialogues.  It includes former judges and patent office officials, as well as academics (including this author). The 2016 Report also did little to convince official China to reform the TIER.

USG persisted.  The 2017 JCCT reiterated the commitment to “hold a joint seminar”. This program was ultimately convened on March 18, 2017,  However, the program concluded with no change in China’s position regarding the reform of the TIER.     

With no demonstrable momentum by China, USTR identified the TIER in its 301 investigation of China’s technology transfer practices.  It also filed a WTO case in March 2018. China finally took notice and amended these discriminatory provisions in 2019. Now that the offending provisions of the TIER have been amended, the WTO case has been suspended.  Today, with the suspension legal case, its full implementation should be monitored.  It appears that “collaboration” did not work, but a more confrontational approach resulted in a positive outcome.

However, while it is likely that China would not have amended the TIER absent the WTO case, dialogue on the TIER also played the important roles of coordinating USG positions, elevating an issue politically, involving other foreign governments, testing the waters with senior leadership in China, and making sure that the US proceeded in a measured and thoughtful manner.   Many foreign governments, including the European Union and Japan were involved in these dialogue efforts and many also supported the WTO case.  Even more striking, the WTO “win” on the TIER is ironic as it came from an administration (Trump) has generally shown opposition to multilateral institutions as well as dialogues.   In fact, the President has demonstrated that a thoughtful combination of collaboration and confrontation with a diversity of approaches may be the most effective for advancing IP and innovation issues.

Nor is it wrong to cast the United States as the sole cause of the demise of softer approaches.  China contributed to the demise of dialogues and similar mechanisms in its use of bilateral meetings as instruments of delay and retaliation.  It responded to the first WTO IP case that the US brought in 2007 as an “act of aggression” that it would “fight to the bitter end” in 2007 (DS/362).  China thereafter suspended many forms of IP-related cooperation with the US.   In the build-up to DS/362, the United States also sought to compel China to publish all its IP cases, which the WTO declined to support (a TRIPS “Article 63” request).  China also did not oblige in that request. 

DS/362  was the only WTO case brought against China on IP prior to the Trump administration. That case dealt with infringement of consumer goods – notably, copyright piracy and trademark counterfeiting, particularly criminal and customs remedies. DS/362 did not involve technology. Anybody claiming that the WTO has been a failure with respect to China’s enforcement of patents and trade secrets should look elsewhere.  That case has not yet been brought.

USTR likely viewed DS/362  was a failure. The US did not succeed in compelling China to amend its criminal IP laws in DS/362, nor in requiring China to make its cases publicly available.  As a consequence of losing the case, the US government lost faith in the WTO as a mechanism for resolving IP-related disputes. USTR instead launched a series of bilateral and multilateral negotiations, including a proposed Anticounterfeiting Trade Agreement and revised model IP texts in bilateral and plurilateral trade agreements.  

The ensuing devaluation of WTO mechanisms was, in my view, premature.  While lawsuits in the US often appear binary in their outcomes, pressuring foreign countries to adopt legal regimes that they are otherwise opposed to at the WTO is much more complex.  Additionally, US impatience is not well-justified as the US itself has also been slow in responding to many WTO rulings.  USTR’s assessment regarding DS/362 may also have reflected its own institutional limitations. USTR is thinly staffed and lacks resources to engage in softer programs such as technical training or monitoring.  USTR relies heavily on industry suggestions, which may also be short-term in nature.  Unlike other US government agencies involved in IP, USTR is not the lead USG agency in a number of important IP exchanges, such as at the World Intellectual Property Organization, Interpol or the World Customs Organization. It does not participate in or promote IP office related exchanges,  does not have IP officers or law enforcement officers posted to China, and does not have a China Resource Center like the USPTO, which provides statistical analyses of IP-trends in China.  Despite this lack of depth, it has two important primary functions: negotiates deals with trade officials and bring disputes. This binary choice is limited when compared to the much broader toolbox that can be used to address an IP issue. 

The arguments that the WTO does not work in addressing IP-related disputes also ignore the success achieved by the Trump administration in seeing the TIER revised, as well as the demonstrable impact that DS/362 had in elevating the importance of criminal trademark and copyright enforcement to China, despite the setback of a loss in dispute proceedings.  The victory the US achieved in the criminal enforcement case materialized in the form of an uptake in criminal IP prosecutions. China increased its criminal IP cases from 904 in 2007 (the date DS/362 was filed) to 15,121 cases, involving 17,869 people in 2012This is a  16 fold increase.  By 2012, the Chinese criminal IP docket also grew to over 200 times the  US criminal IP docket of 2018. which consisted of 117 defendants in 67 cases.  One Chinese Supreme People’s Court judge confided in me that he attributed that increase to the spotlight that the US gave to the importance of criminal IP in China’s evolving IP ecosystem. For some recent analysis on these trends, please see Dan Prud’homme and Zhang Taolue’s excellent book “China’s Intellectual Property Regime for Innovation” (Springer 2019) which summarizes recent research on this increase, and provides data on criminal IP cases, defendants, prosecutions and convictions.  

A similar argument regarding the ultimate success of the US claims might be made about the request of the US that China should make all its IP cases publicly available in 2005/2006 (the so-called “Article 63 Request”). By 2014, China had decided to publish the  majority of its cases of all types.  This publication of cases has been welcomed by the legal and judicial community alike and has helped to provide greater predictability in adjudication, minimize corruption and provide a basis for strategic IP enforcement.  

By contrast to these successes, there was one claim in DS/362 that had no significant positive impact.  This failure was not due to China’s intransigence. In DS/362 USTR also alleged that China’s disposal of seized infringing goods by auction offended WTO requirements to dispose of such goods outside of the channels of commerce.  However, WTO rules only require Chinese Customs to seize goods upon importation (TRIPS Agreement Art. 51). China was and remains primarily an exporter of counterfeit and pirated goods.  The WTO was unable to identify a single instance where China had auctioned off counterfeit goods imported into China.   “No infringing goods destined for importation”, the panel stated “have ever been auctioned…during the period for which statistics are available.” (Para. 7.351).  The Customs claim, criminal IP claim and the case publication achievement all underscore the continual need for good data to support IP engagement of either the “carrot” or “stick” variety.

Arguing over whether China is becoming our enemy and the need for confrontation is redolent of the post-Korean War China rhetoric in the US.  A better approach might be to remake the US government into an institution that better understands, persuades and strategizes on complex technological and IP issues in China.  During the past 30 – 40 years, the US government has defunded or terminated every technology–oriented agency that cared to engage in a significant way with China, including the Office of Technology Assessment in Congress, the Technology Administration in Commerce, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House.  USTR’s mandate is  too limited to effectively engage in collaboration. USPTO has the deepest technical resources on IP and innovation issues, but lacks political clout. We need to coordinate more closely, and provide incentives for deeper engagement among all US agencies as well as with industry in order to be effective.   These issues have been apparent since at least the time of China’s WTO accession.  As I noted at a conference at the 24th Annual Fordham University IP Conference in 2016 (Session 4B-b “Asia and the Political Landscape”):

MR COHEN:… One of the lessons from WTO accession was — and I don’t know how to say this gently — how … under-informed US industry was about the legal system.  I say that because if you look at the number of civil cases involving intellectual property, in the year that China joined the WTO — and the negotiations occurred in the years before — there were about thirty.  So one could, theoretically, have contacted every company that had filed a lawsuit involving IP and you still wouldn’t have a very large cohort.

So a lot of trade negotiations, unfortunately but necessarily, are based on hypothetical constructs.  What makes a good legal system, with big words like “impartial,” “fair”?…

METALITZ:  So who was under-informed in that situation?  Was it the US negotiators or was it the US industry?  US industry — you’re right — was not bringing these cases.  But that may not have been out of ignorance. That may have been out of a supposition that they would not be useful.

BAI:  May I chime in?… I have seen US government officials talking about China when they don’t get their briefing right…. 

One way to improve policy is to hire the right people.  We need to promote and reward individuals who have the three “magic” skills: knowledge of Chinese law, knowledge of Chinese IP  or technology, and Chinese language skills. These individuals should also be given roles commensurate with their knowledge and skills.  The 2013 Report of the Commission to Stop American IP Theft, also identified this as an issue in the staffing of our embassies overseas: 

Strengthen American diplomatic priorities in the protection of American IP. American ambassadors ought to be assessed on protecting intellectual property, as they are now assessed on promoting trade and exports. Raising the rank of IP attachés in countries in which theft is the most serious enhances their ability to protect American IP. 

The need to restructure US government on tech and IP issues has long affected the quality of our “engagement.”   

Whether confrontation or engagement are pursued, the choice is complex, should be well-coordinated, and will need to evolve based on circumstances.  It should be based on the right information made by well-informed people.  It is not, ultimately, an ideological issue as many of the recent articles might otherwise suggest.  

Revised: July 21, 2019, October 8, 2019.

 

New State Council Decision on Intellectual Property Strategy For China as a Strong IP Country

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On July 18, 2016, the State Council issued a new policy document,国务院关于新形势下加快知识产权强国建设的 若干意见-重点任务分工方案  — the “Opinion of the State Council on Accelerating the Construction of Intellectual Property Powers for China as an Intellectual Property Strong Country under the New Situation –Division of Tasks.”  Here’s a link to this action plan (docketed as State Council  Working Office No. 66)  , and a link to the machine translation, from which the world cloud above is drawn.   The action plan itself is drawn from a State Council document issued in 2015 on accelerating the establishment of a strong IP country in the context of a new situation.  This 2015 document identified such problems as China being a big country for IP, but not a strong country, protection was not adequately strict, infringement was easy and pervasive, and that these factors were affecting industry’s efforts to innovate.

As I discussed previously, the idea of China needing to become a strong IP country appears in the 2014-2020, National IPR Strategy Action Plan, which has the goal of “Striving to Build A Strong IPR Country”  (努力建设知识产权强国). While China indeed has become “big” on most scales: invention patent filings, trademark, utility models and design patents, intellectual property litigation, criminal IP litigation and administrative litigation, to name a few, “strong” suggests quality, which is much harder to judge.

Here are a few specific observations about this action plan:

  1. Much of the action plan repeats existing efforts, through the MofCOM IPR Leading Group and SIPO’s National IP Strategy Office, and their current efforts at analyzing and coordinating IP effort, as well as cooperative activities (Arts. 1, 3, 13, 15, 18, 21, 22, 25, 30, 44, 88, etc.).
  2. There are greater efforts to incorporate IP into macroeconomic strategies, such as in calculations regarding the national economy and national social welfare (Art. 9), as well as credit reporting (Art. 23).
  3. Increasing compensatory  and punitive damages are a focus (Arts. 14), which have also been an effort of China’s IP courts.  This is one of the key civil-law reform proposals in this plan.   There continues to be an undue emphasis on speed, which I assume is focused on patent administrative enforcement as a more rapid remedy (Art. 16).  China is already a fast moving IP environment.
  4. International cooperation in criminal enforcement is underscored (Arts. 19, 21, 22).
  5. Regarding trade secret protection, the focus is on revising trade secret laws, and protecting IP when employees change jobs (Art. 24).  Changes to China’s discovery regime and other appropriate measures which would greatly assist trade secret claimants, are not discussed.
  6. Geographical indications are a focus, including drafting a stand-alone GI law at “the appropriate time” (Art. 32), increasing the role of trademarks in promoting farmer prosperity (Art. 58), and promoting GI products (Art. 90).
  7. Regarding the long-delayed IP Abuse Guidelines, NDRC, MofCOM, SAIC and the State Council Legislative Affairs Office are all listed as being responsible for drafting “according to their responsibilities” (Art. 36).  Rules on standard essential patents that are based on FRAND licensing and “stopping infringement” are also noted (Art. 38), with the involvement of AQSIQ, SIPO, MIIT, and the Supreme People’s Court).  Encouraging standardization of Chinese patents also remains a priority (Arts. 61, 71).
  8. Service Invention Regulations, an area of some controversy are not specifically noted as a priority.  Encouragement is to be given to enterprises to set up appropriate invention recognition and reward programs in accordance with law (Art. 45), and research is to be undertaken in giving compensation for new scientific achievements (Art. 46).  The language may suggest that more flexibility will be given contractual arrangements and the market, as was agreed to bilaterally between China and the United States.   Relevant agencies involved in these efforts include SIPO, MoST, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Agriculture, SASAC, Chinese Academy of Sciences, MIIT, Ministry of Defense, etc.
  9. Chinese universities are also encouraged to become more actively engaged in commercialization of technology, through establishment of technology transfer offices (Art. 53) and other efforts.
  10. The impact of US efforts to study IP-intensive industries in the US economy is also apparent in this plan in terms of the government’s efforts to investigate promoting IP intensive industries in the Chinese economy, government procurement of products from IP intensive industries, and developing model districts for IP intensive industries (Arts. 55-56).  Interestingly, there is no specific reference to engaging economists on any of these efforts, despite the role of foreign economists in similar efforts, some of who have also directly engaged China on how to determine IP-intensity in an economy.
  11. There is discussion of using tax and financial policies to promote IP creation in China (Arts. 98, 99).  There is no explicit discussion of harmonization with OECD guidelines regarding patent boxes and other forms of international tax avoidance.
  12. The report discusses a number of strategies and plans to reduce overseas IP risks facing Chinese companies, including assisting Chinese companies in strategic planning, patenting and licensing (Arts. 72-76), developing information resources on risks and cases (Arts. 78-79), and – rather ominously – developing policies for countering large intellectual property cases overseas (with the support of MofCOM, Customs, SAIC, AQSIQ, NCA, and the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade – “CCPIT”).   There is no discussion on any changes to current technology import regulations which impose onerous indemnity and non-grant back requirements on foreign licensors.
  13. The report directs research to be conducted of placing IP officials overseas in important countries, region and IP organizations.  Although China’s current IP attaché in the United States is a MofCOM employee, the responsible agencies for this effort include SIPO, NCA, SAIC, and CCPIT (Art. 85).  The first Chinese IP attaché was dispatched to the United States pursuant to a bilateral commitment of the  2005 Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade.
  14. The report notes that China will become more involved in promoting a more “fair and reasonable” international IP regime, through support of the Doha amendments to the TRIPS Agreement, the Convention on Biodiversity and various IP conventions.  The Hague Convention on Industrial Designs is noted, but not UPOV 1991.  Promotion of intangible heritage and folklore are also noted (Arts. 59. 87).
  15. IP talent creation and training are also key elements of the plan (103-105).

 

Often in looking at plans like these, it is also equally important to ask what is not being covered.   The plan does not focus enough on a China where there is greater scientific collaboration with foreign scientists and engineers, which are also result in an increasingly large number of co-invented patents.  Similarly, increasing Chinese investment in IP-intensive industries in the United States means that many Chinese companies will own substantial IP interests and may be less inclined to view IP issues as “us” vs “them.”  The relative under-emphasis on civil remedies for IP issues in this plan is also troubling, as the availability of adequate civil remedies is what drives IP commercialization.

The report also does not suggest increasing the role of economists in IP and antitrust agencies, despite a clear focus on increasing the IP-intensity of the Chinese economy. Gaps in Chinese law, such as denial of copyright protection for sports broadcasting, weak protection for trade dress, and “circular” litigation between the patent and trademark offices and the courts which may delay final adjudication on matters, controlling trademark squatting and subsidies for unexamined patents are not discussed.

Although there are many positive aspects of this plan, I believe that focusing on issues like compulsory licensing, the Doha Declaration and folklore, or what appears to be political solutions to overseas infringement may also not deliver as much value to the Chinese economy and China’s scientists, engineers, artists and entrepreneurs, as returning to core IP concepts which let the market govern IP creation and enforcement through such measures as improving the scope of rights that are protected under Chinese law, limiting government intervention, increasing the role of the civil judicial system, and promoting increased collaboration.