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.

 

A Taste of China IP In The New Year

There continue to be various thrusts and feints in these early days of the Trump administration on Chinese IP related matters.  Here’s  a quick rundown.

Tim Trainer, a friend and former colleague, who is also the President of Global IP Strategy Ctr, P.C. & Galaxy Systems, Inc. has  drawn attention to several China IP-related developments including a Trump executive order that involved IP theft, a bill introduced by Congressman Steve King of Iowa that targets China’s theft of intellectual property (February 14, 2017), and the effect of TPP withdrawal on China’s free trade agenda.

The Executive Order notes the following:

It shall be the policy of the executive branch to:

(a) strengthen enforcement of Federal law in order to thwart transnational criminal organizations and subsidiary organizations, including criminal gangs, cartels, racketeering organizations, and other groups engaged in illicit activities that present a threat to public safety and national security and that are related to, for example:

(ii)  corruption, cybercrime, fraud, financial crimes, and intellectual-property theft . . . .

This order from February 9 clearly puts IP theft on the radar.  While China is not singled out by name, it is worth reflecting that the term “theft” appears 7 times in the text of Dr. Peter Navarro’s book Death By China.  Of these seven times, “intellectual property theft”  appears  twice, and technology theft appears three times.  The term “intellectual property theft” is specifically indexed. Navarro, of course, is a leading advisor to the President on trade policy.

Continuing the theme of IP theft, Congressman King’s bill would, according to Trainer “require the imposition of duties on Chinese origin goods in an amount equal to the estimated losses from IPR violations suffered by US companies if enacted into law.”  This early stage bill is found here

Regarding TPP withdrawal and its effect on IP and China China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreements,   a recent Congressional Research Service report has noted that the RCEP agreements are “unlikely to include commitments as strong on issues from intellectual property rights to labor and environmental protections”.  As I have previously noted, “China’s  FTA  experience has thus far focused on a limited range of issues, most of which are not ‘core’ IP.”

Apart from Tim Trainer’s blog, the media has also reported extensively recently on several trademark decisions in China in President Trump’s favor.   However, China’s trademark examination standards contain provisions that prohibit use of the names of political leaders.   Moreover, unlike most other presidents, Trump was not a political leader until he was elected president.  The Chinese trademark examination standards prohibit trademarks that hurt social morality or have other ill political effects.  Amongst the enumerated bad political effects are trademarks that are identical or similar to a country, region or international organization’s leader’s name.

九、有害于社会主义道德风尚的或者有其他不良影响

二)具有政治上不良影响的

1.与国家、地区或者政治性国际组织领导人姓名相同或近似的

Postscript February 20, 2017:

While  I have no opinion on the merits of any case, I hasten to note that the great grandson of Teddy Roosevelt, Tweed Roosevelt, might have an opinion on whether rooseveltpolitical officials should be granted trademarks.  His company, Roosevelt, Tse and Company, owns several trademarks, many of which involve his eponymous restaurant in Shanghai, and some of which include the family crest (see below).   He also seems to have been the victim of some individuals filing using the family name.

Living political leaders have also had their names misused.  Three trademarks applications with the name of Barack Obama in 2008 by a company in Wuhan, China were refused registration by 2010.  There are several trademarks and trademark applications of varying status with the name Merkel.   A quick database search also showed up 7 applications with the Reagan name in English, one granted as recently as 2015 (Registration Number: 13981276) (for electrical goods).  There is one registration for Fidel Castro for use on travel bags, filed  by a natural person in Hebei 于锁群 (6792546).   Did Fidel authorize this?

Of course, trademarks are not only the names of people.  Several marks “In God We Trust” have been refused by the Chinese Trademark Office.  One is still pending (21508789).  It was filed by a company from Zhejiang.

A recent Washington Post article,  noted that China is a country where “faking foreign brands has long been a profitable business practice.”  The article refers back to the Qiaodan case as one important milestone in changing practices.  As any reader of this blog knows, there have been several important steps in recent years to address  abusive trademark practices. 

tweedroose

2017 Opens with More Positive Trademark Developments

The SAIC has announced that it has  amended its TM review and examination standards (“Trademark Review and Examination Standards”).  The revised standards, with a date of December 2016, are available here. The revisions incorporate revisions to Articles 19, 50, 15.2, 1and 10 of the Trademark Law.

In addition, the Supreme People’s Court published a judicial interpretation on Certain Issues Related to Trials of Administrative Cases Involving the Grant and Confirmation of Trademark Rights 最高人民法院关于审理商标授权确权行政案件若干问题的规定.  A public comment draft of the JI was circulated as early as 2014; the final version was released at a press conference on January 11, 2017.   The JI clarifies the application of “adverse influence” in Article 10(1)8 and “other improper means” in Article 44(1) of trademark law and provides details on prior rights of Article 32  including copyright, naming right, trade name,  amongst other provisions.   The Financial Times has suggested that the JI is linked to the Qiaodan case , although as the Chinese media as noted, Qiaodan may also be seen as one of a series of cases providing more expansive relief against abusive registrations and recognizing more extensive related rights, such as naming rights and even merchandising rights.  In an unrelated development, the SPC on January 7, 2017 listed the Qiaodan case  as one of the top 10 civil and administrative cases for 2016.

 The 2016 JCCT obligated China to “take further efforts to address bad faith trademark filings”, according to the recently released Joint Fact Sheet. The amended examination guidleines, JI, and related case developments, including the development of case law in IP,  should help implement this commitment. 

SIPO Publishes Proposed Revisions to Patent Examination Guidelines

On October 27, 2016, the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO)  published the  Draft (For Public Comment) of Revisions to the Patent Examination Guidelines.  The Chinese text is available here. Comments on the draft should be submitted before November 27.

 In the important area of post filing data supplementation for pharmaceutical inventions, the proposed revisions clarify that such supplementation is permissible where “the technical effect to be proved by the supplemental experimental data shall be that which can be obtained in the contents of the [original] application disclosure by one who is ordinarily skilled in the art.” 对于申请日之后补交的实验数据,审查员应当予以审查。补交实验数据所证明的技术效果应当是所属技术领域的技术人员能够从专利申请公开的内容中得到的。

 The examination guidelines also loosen the standards for obtaining business method patents if there is a technical element to the novel business method.  Presumably these inventions were previously denied patentability on the basis that they were intellectual rules or methods under Article 25 of the Patent Law.  The proposed guidelines state:

 Claims related to business methods that contain both business rules and methods and technical characteristics, shall not be excluded from the possibilities of obtaining patent rights be Article 25 of the Patent Law. 涉及商业模式的权利要求,如果既包含商业规则和方法的内容,又包含技术特征,则不应当依据专利法第二十五条排除其获得专利权的可能性。

The examination guidelines also appear to loosen the standards for obtaining software enabled inventions:

In the second line of Part II, chapter IX, section 5.2, paragraph 1, the third sentence of the Patent Examination Guidelines are amended from, “and describe in detail which parts of the computer program are to be performed and how to perform them” to provide that “The components may not only include hardware, but may also include programs. 将《专利审查指南》第二部分第九章第5.2节第1段第3句中的并详细描述该计算机程序的各项功能是由哪些组成部分完成以及如何完成这些功能修改为所述组成部分不仅可以包括硬件,还可以包括程序”.

Postscripts (Nov 18 and 28, 2016):

1.  Here’s Jacob Schindler’s October 31, 2016 commentary in IAM on this blog, and  here’s another blog comparing US and Chinese software patent developments. 

2.  Here are AIPLA’s comments on the proposed revisions to the patent examination guidelines (Nov. 25, 2016 – bilingual).