100 Priority IP Projects for 2020

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What does the recently released CNIPA document listing “100  Projects in 2020  to Deeply implement the National Intellectual Property Strategy to Accelerate the Construction of the Intellectual Property Powerful Country Promotion Plan” (2020年加快建设知识产权强国推进计划提出 100项具体措施) (the “100 Project List”) (May 28, 2020) add to the discussion around where China is headed on IP?

The projects reveal much more than its lengthy, bureaucratic-sounding title might indicate. There are several  themes worth noting:

  1. It is ambitious. It includes doing many things over a short period of time, including reducing patent examination time for “high value” patents to 16 months and trademark examinations to 4 months (Projects 55-56).
  2. China is paying attention to its IP quality vs quantity dilemma. This document calls for ending local subsidies for utility model and design patents, as well as trademark (task 59).  It also discusses problems with incentives that are intended to encourage high quality patenting in universities and research institutions, SOE’s, and major government projects (Projects 3, 4, 5, 12, 55, 60 -61, 66, 77-79, 93, 96-97).
  3. There is increased attention to defense patenting. The word “defense” appears 17 times.  Defense patenting also occupies a greater role than in prior plans of type (Projects 6-10, 25, 80).
  4. Trade secrets as well as improving the criminal IP process play important roles (Projects 24, 44, 49, 51-54).
  5. We can expect some important developments in plant variety protection (Projects 26, 47, 57, 92).
  6. There is no attention to innovative pharma IP challenges. There are tasks related to generic medicines and traditional Chinese medicine (Projects 38, 73).  Patent linkage does not appear in this list of tasks.  These omissions could suggest a lack of CNIPA commitment to Phase 1 pharmaceutical IP reforms.
  7. There is a big focus on improving IP-related services (Projects 1, 2, 62, 72, 74, 77, 86).
  8. China reiterates its commitment to plurilateral IP policy (Projects 82, 87).
  9. The drafters are committed to the  Phase 1 Agreement.  China is also doing a lot more on IP than what the Phase 1 Agreement requires (Projects 24, 49, 51, 83, 87, and others).

The word cloud above is drawn from a machine translation of the 100 Project List.

Further background: I have been blogging about China’s national IP plans for years now, including in  2014,  2015 , 2016 as well as in my discussions on the National IP Strategy.  Readers may wish to compare this document with some of the prior strategy documents.

 

The Good Faith Elephant in the IP Trade War

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It is impossible to talk about structural issues in China’s IP regime and its impact upon foreigners without addressing the lack of a comprehensive approach to “bad faith” activities in all its forms in China.  This issue has likely undermined more of  the credibility of the Chinese government than any other in IP, and it has affected the greatest number of US companies.  Chinese officials may not realize it, but every medium to large sized company I have met in the US has been affected by it.

Any lawyer who has counseled a US company on doing business in China knows the drill: before you enter the market there are likely to be trademark squatters, bad faith patent registrants, difficulties in protecting trade secrets used by trusted employees, amongst others.  Even the President has been a victim with squatting on the Trump mark.

China has generated its own vocabulary around bad faith activity.   “IP theft”, a term that has been promoted by the Trump administration, reflects an overarching concern about Chinese tolerance of state-sponsored or willful infringement.  Another similar concept is “forced technology transfer.”  The history of these terms goes back decades.   “Patent hijacking” refers to behavior before 2008 of misappropriating designs and other inventions based on China not requiring absolute novelty as a condition for patent grants.   A “Naked Bolar” regime refers to a regime which grants an exemption from certain forms of patent infringement without providing a counterpart benefit to an innovator for the erosion of its patent rights (this may be corrected in the proposed patent law revisions).  “Ambush marketing” and “trademark squatting” may  not be new to China, but China remains a focus of these concerns.  China also has some vocabulary of its own which often do not make it into English, such as  “旁名牌” (saddling along famous brands) and patent “cockroaches” (instead of patent trolls).

China has also created global precedent over willful (bad faith) behavior in DS/362, the WTO case involving China’s criminal IP enforcement regime.  As the WTO panel indicated in that case:

“[T]he word “wilful” … precedes the words “trademark counterfeiting or copyright piracy”. This word functions as a qualifier indicating that trademark counterfeiting or copyright piracy is not subject to the obligation in the first sentence of Article 61 unless it is “wilful”. This word, focussing on the infringer’s intent, reflects the criminal nature of the enforcement procedures at issue.”

Good faith may be an underperforming concept in China, but it is also a low-hanging fruit for trade negotiators. It is in Article 4 of the General Principles of the Civil Code as well as Article 6 of the Contract Law.  It was incorporated into Article 7 of the revised Chinese Trademark law.  The Supreme People’s Court recently found that warehousing trademarks without intent to use is a basis for invalidating marks, albeit not under Article 7.  It is part of the Guangdong High Court Rules on SEP disputes in telecommunications (good faith in negotiations).  It is also part of the guidance from the Beijing High Court for handling of patent validity matters.

The problem isn’t that good faith doesn’t exist in China’s IP regime, but that it is selectively applied.  In addition to the examples already cited, it is under consideration in the proposed Patent Law revisions in terms but only for good faith litigation, and it is an underlying concept in punitive damage provisions in the Trademark Law and the proposed Patent Law Revision. The concept has not yet appeared in substantive copyright or trade secret law.  Companies like Taobao are using a determination of “good faith” in facilitating take-downs

Selective application of “good faith” concepts is evident from its inconsistent application across various IP laws.  Why must trademarks be prosecuted in good faith, but not patents? Why is bad faith patent litigation a concern in the proposed patent law revisions, but why not trademark, trade secret, copyright or other IP-related litigation? The concept needs to be utilized to address such difficult issues as the epidemic of low quality patents and bad faith trademarks.  It should not be used to resolve other, easier challenges such as extracting more rents from foreigners in patent litigation as in the Guangdong rules on SEP disputes.  In fact China back-slid in applying good faith concepts while this trade war was brewing.  The removal of “employee” as a covered party (经营者) in China’s revised trade secret law (Anti Unfair Competition Law) facilitates bad-faith employee behavior.

Adjudicating what constitutes good faith need not involve inquiries into subjective attitudes.  Courts and agencies can rely on objective indicia from China’s data-rich environment: companies that file multiple trademarks that they don’t use  them; trademark registrations than use others’ prior rights; on-line merchants  that routinely infringe IP rights; serial violators of injunctions; patents that are routinely invalidated and/or filed based on others’ designs; comprehensive data that shows foreigners that are being treated fairly drawn from China’s new judicial databases;  willful violators of non-compete agreements, and others.

Bringing good faith into full play would be a triple win: good for China’s IP system, good for US rights holders, and good to help re-establish trust between China and other countries.  Trade negotiators may wish to consider it being a part of any “structural” commitment from China in the current trade dispute  It can be implemented by China’s National People’s Congress as a legislative interpretation or as an amendment to China’s civil law, and in specific laws now under consideration (patent law, copyright law).  The SPC at an appropriate time might prepare a judicial interpretation articulating its application in specific circumstances.  It also has the added advantage of being easily monitored, as data analytics can be harnessed to determined if real progress is being made in a wide range of areas.

It is time to bring good faith more directly into China’s IP system.

 

Trade and Peace on Earth: Part 2

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In the first part of this blog, I talked about unilateral steps that the United States and China have been taking during the ‘trade war’ to address concerns regarding forced tech transfer.  In this section I look at bilateral steps that can be taken.   I begin by looking at what the US and China should not do (“Do No Harm”), and then I focus on 5 areas for legislative reform:  trade secrets, licensing, good faith, patents and litigation. I conclude with confidence building steps.

Do No Harm:

There are some bilateral steps taken from playbooks of the past that China and the US should not do:

  1. Political campaigns, particularly to address patent or trade secret infringement. These actions are great for politicians, but they offer no prospect of durable relief.
  2. Accepting Chinese political statements or enactment of normative documents (inferior to State Council “regulations” 法规) that have no binding effect.
  3. Permitting two different fact sheets in Chinese and English to emerge from discussions – Diplomatic discussions should not be a “Rashomon” (羅生門) (see picture below) –  subjective explanations of a common experience.  We have already  differing interpretations of recent negotiations.  For a formal document, that generally means that an agreement needs to be reached several days before a due date in order to ensure there is a harmonized text.
  4. Entering into an agreement that is not verifiable or that the US government doesn’t have the resources to verify.

In his June 9, 2010 testimony  before the Congressional Security Commission, USTR’s Lighthizer, then a private attorney, noted that “China’s commitment to the rule of law is very much in doubt, and the U.S. government continues to express major concerns about China’s failure to respect  U.S. IPR.”  Given the investments to date in effecting change in China, I hope that USTR seeks durable legal changes that have too often been atypical.

The prognosis, however, is not positive.  Willingness to “horse trade” ZTE sanctions and Huawei extradition for trade concessions is one indication of US willingness to bend its rules.  Similarly, Xi Jinping apparently suggested at Buenos Aires that he would approve the NXP merger with Qualcomm at this time.  Many countries, including the US have extended  bilateral science and technology cooperation agreements with China without necessary legal changes to China’s licensing regime in place that would definitively facilitate sharing of improvements between the countries.  The administration’s reluctance to bring trade cases involving IP against China is another sign that negotiation, rather than durable legal changes, may become the dominant means of resolving the current impasse.  However, if we accept extra-legal commitments from China, how can we expect China to make structural changes in accordance with rule of law?

Nonetheless, it isn’t too hard to develop a range of possible legal outcomes that would help address US concerns over the IP issues identified in the Section 301 Report, provided they are carefully monitored.  Here is my initial positive list:

Trade Secrets:

China adopts a unified, stand-alone trade secret law.  This law would address the problem of scattered trade secret laws, insure that criminal trade secret cases are prosecuted, and that employees are treated as subject of trade secret protection and as actors in trade secret infringement, provide appropriate burden of proof reversals (e.g., for “inevitable disclosure” or in proving aspects of misappropriation), establish punitive damages, provide for referral mechanisms from administrative or civil proceedings to the courts, etc.  China previously rejected the idea of a stand-alone law in revising its current Anti-Unfair Competition Law, yet many leading Chinese IP authorities still consider it to be a useful concept.

China might also follow recent Korean legislative practice criminalizing overseas trade secret misappropriation with the intention to benefit a  domestic entity, and imposing aggravated penalties in such circumstances.  Such a provision, if enforced and monitored, could help address US concerns about Chinese indifference to overseas trade secret thefts, as well as set the stage for greater cooperation in transborder trade secret theft.

Technology import/Export Regulations and Licensing:

The Chinese government is already seeking to revise the Catalogue of Foreign Investment in China,  and is considering a Foreign Investment Law to provide greater protections against forced technology transfer, including, hopefully, provisions regarding Joint Venture ownership of foreign licensed technologies.  These positive steps are still not enough, due to pervasive national and local incentives in China at this time to acquire new technologies and the difficulties in tracking forced technology transfer.  As one additional step, China should vest jurisdiction in disputes over such forced technology transfer in the newly established circuit IP tribunal of the Supreme Peoples Court, in order to insure a consistent, high-level focus and opportunity for redress, including expanding its jurisdiction over decisions to approve or deny joint venture registrations.

China has also shown no interest to date in revising the Administration of Technology Import/Export Regulations (TIER).  Chinese intransigence in this area is harmful to China.  Until China amends its law, I suggest that the US consider enacting legislation imposing reciprocal treatment on Chinese licensors of technology to the United States, as ITIF has also suggested.

I also encourage formation of a bilateral non-governmental commission (“Bilateral Commission”) to review progress in forced technology transfers.  If necessary, the US could reimpose sanctions if sufficient progress is not made.  This Commission should also require that China regularly publish reliable licensing data on the quantity of legitimate technology transfer occurring between China and other countries, including technology transferred as part of a joint venture formation.  This information could support better data-driven discussions on technology flows between China and other countries.

Patents:

China’s patent law reform offers the possibility for concrete changes that should not be missed.  Of particular concern, is the absence of a patent linkage regime in the current draft.  USTR might consider requiring China to make necessary changes in its patent and food and drug laws to fully implement a modern pharmaceutical patent linkage regime, including data exclusivity and patent term restoration.

The Section 301 report also hardly addressed potential issues involving discriminatory treatment in patent prosecution, such as has been alleged from time to time in China.  As examples, low rate of patent grants in pharmaceuticals, and disparate treatment in granting of SEPS have been the subject of academic and industry concern.  Consideration of discriminatory treatment, or lack thereof, should be the focus of any future collaboration between the US and China (such as my proposed Bilateral Commission).

This issue of bias need not be “tip-toed” around.  China fired what was likely the first salvo when it alleged unfair treatment by USPTO regarding an IWNCOMM patent application at the USPTO during a JCCT meeting (a “Rashomon” meeting, where there was a  different U.S. outcome sheet).  USPTO data, however, generally shows that Chinese patent applications in the US are treated as well if not better than US applications, according to my former colleague Larry Lian (see, e.g.,  slide 14 above and the accompanying deck).  China has not produced similar data on American applications in China or refuted the research to date in this area.

The United States and other countries might also look at temporal studies to see if there is any link between changing industrial policies and behavior of China’s patent office towards foreigners.  One promising area of research that one of my students undertook in my Chinese IP class this year suggests that there could be temporal differences in patenting behavior over a multi-year period: as China increasingly focuses on national policies to stimulate indigenous innovation, bias rates may be affected.

The US should also push China to reform its metrics driven approach to patent filings, which wastes resources and distorts markets.

Good Faith/Bad Faith:

One of the discrete trends in China’s domestic IP environment is an increasing focus on the role of good faith / bad faith in a range of IP-related activities.  Elevating the legal consequences of bad faith actions could lead to structural changes in China’s IP regime.  Good faith has been an increasing factor in dealing with bad faith trademark registrations, in Guangdong IP court guidance on SEP negotiations, as well as in trust-losing patent behavior in the recent NDRC MOU providing for coordinated interagency action involving patenting behaviors, and will likely play a part in consideration of punitive damages for patent infringement in the proposed patent law reforms.  It could be extended further to impose a duty of candor on patent and trademark applications, provide for deterrent penalties against frivolous IP litigation, address contempt of court, etc.  Despite my concerns regarding the social credit system, it can also be tasked to monitor bad faith behavior in IP and non-IP related areas, to support claims for enhanced damages or referrals to criminal prosecution.  The courts can take an initial look at this area across a range of judicial sectors.

Litigation:

China’s efforts to publish cases and increase transparency over the past several years are laudable, but the work is not complete and confidence in the judicial system thereby suffers.  The courts should insure that, wherever possible, all cases are published.  Cases involving national or trade secrets could be expunged of confidential information but otherwise be made public.  The current data on trade secret theft is especially incomplete.  Complaints and other motion papers, including dismissals due to settlements, should be made available to the public, along with preliminary and interim injunctions.   Generally speaking,  China’s transparency efforts are vulnerable to claims of selection bias, which undercut the utility of these efforts for comprehensive trade negotiation purposes.  Transparency has the potential to create and support structural change, and it should be exploited for that purpose.

Confidence Rebuilding:

Assuming that the US and China can get past this 90 day milestone, efforts to improve the environment for high tech also need to be established  There were some efforts underway in the Obama administration that can create incentives for improvement in China’s IP regime (e.g., accession to the TPP), and positive environments for technology collaboration (e.g., the US-Clean Energy Research Center).  There is a tremendous upward potential for collaboration between the US and China if the right frameworks can be developed.

One thing is clear: real accomplishments, not conferences and dialogues, are needed.  As I often reminded my Chinese colleagues over the years, reform in China should not be an entirely self-serving process. The world needs better scientific collaboration to address many of the looming global challenges we face.  If China plays its cards correctly it can emerge as a balanced global stakeholder and welcome partner in innovation.  Otherwise, I fear that the trend could be ever downward.

January 2, 2019 Update:  A translation of the draft Foreign Investment Law, which is now open for public comment is available at the NPCObserver website.

(Note: Please feel free to add your suggestions!  Also, I am indebted in this blog to the work of my students in my Chinese IP class at Berkeley this year, many of whom prepared papers on some of the suggestions in this blog).

Movie poster for Rashomon, below:

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