More Encouraging News of Trade Secret Reform… But Is It Always Good for the Foreign Community?

James Pooley posted a great blog on IPwatchdog on the recently released draft judicial interpretation on trade secrets (the “Trade Secrets JI”).  In his blog, “Has China Finally Embraced Trade Secret Protection ”,  Mr. Pooley discusses aspects of the draft JI that embrace or expand upon US practices including: “combination secrets”, “reasonable efforts”, “indirect misappropriation”, “head start injunction” and apportionment of damages based on fault.   Mr. Pooley also notes that “this most recent pronouncement seems in some respects to go beyond what was required [from the Phase 1 Trade Agreement], and in those respects also seems to reflect an imprint of U.S. practices.“  I agree.

Individuals who expect all of China’s recent IP reforms to be in response to US pressure are, for the most part, likely to be pleasantly disappointed — for the most part.   As an example, the Trade Secrets JI also reflect China’s own evolving practices in trade secrets and other areas, including the availability of punitive damages, the emergence of a limited discovery regime, and implied obligations of confidentiality notwithstanding the non-existence of an NDA (see Contract law, Art. 43, now amended by the Civil Code).  Moreover, the evolving system in China for trade secrets will likely also benefit by the increasing competence of the IP tribunals and courts, including the “three in one” courts which combine civil, criminal and administrative IP jurisdiction.  As noted in another recent blog, China is also seeking to improve its criminal IP enforcement regime through more further development of the three-in-one system, and further development of evidentiary standards in criminal cases, as well as more active roles for prosecutors and police, among other measures.

While the ink is hardly dry on this Trade Secrets JI, China has since announced two other draft JI’s for public comment:  “Some Provisions on Evidence in Intellectual Property Litigation (Consultation Draft)” (the “Evidence JI”)  and the “Opinions on Increasing the Level of Sanctions for Intellectual Property Infringement (Consultation Draft)”(the “Sanctions JI”)《关于知识产权民事诉讼证据的若干规定(征求意见稿)》《关于加大知识产权侵权行为制裁力度的意见(征求意见稿)》(June 15, 2020)。 Comments are due by July 31, 2020.

Here is a quick summary of the trade-secret related provisions in the Evidence  JI:

Article 19 addresses granting protective order for evidence preservation purposes and provides that if a party is a subject of an evidence protection order and claims that a trade secret is involved, the party that requests the evidence protection order cannot participate in on-site evidence preservation procedures,but can engage an attorney, patent agent or another person with specialized IP knowledge (collectively “authorized representatives”) to sign the protective order.

Article 23 authorizes the appointment of expert appraisers to determine if a claimed trade secret consists of information in the public domain, or to determine the differences between the claimed trade secret and the alleged infringing technological information.

The third chapter of this JI regulates the exchange of evidence and includes several provisions regarding protective orders.  Article 31 grants the court authority to structure a protective order to limit access to authorized representatives.  Disclosure of information subject to protective orders shall be limited to the proceeding where the protective order was issued.  Sanctions may be imposed for unauthorized disclosure (Art. 32).  Consent to a protective order once given cannot be withdrawn.  The parties are also free not to engage in an exchange of information  (Art. 34).  Procedures are also established for challenging the secrecy of evidence, including providing rebuttal evidence and cross-examination of witnesses.  If a party succeeds in having the information considered as non-secret, it shall be considered as such during the proceeding (Art. 35).

Here are some provisions in the Sanctions JI:

Expedited proceedings are provided for serial infringers.  In addition, punitive damages should be imposed on serial infringers (Arts. 9, 20, 21). If actual damages are proven, they should be provided to the rights-holder (Art. 10).  Punitive damages should be imposed for their deterrent effect (Art. 13). Reasonable attorneys’ fees may be provided if there is a willful infringement and in a complex case (Art. 17). Attorneys’ fees and other expenses shall be compensated for in the case of malicious litigation where the right is unjustly obtained or there is not a substantial basis for its exercise (Art. 19).

Of particular note is Article 20: Serial infringers of IP rights, as well as those  who steal commercial secrets for foreign agencies, organizations or individuals, shall be subject to severe penalties according to law and generally no probation shall be applied 境外的机构、组织、人员侵犯商业秘密的情形,依法从重处罚,一般不得适用缓刑.

One may ask: why is theft of trade secrets for foreigners being singled out? Article 20 may be China’s response to cases brought against foreigners under the US Economic Espionage Act or similar foreign laws.   However, the EEA requires action “benefit[ing] a foreign government, instrumentality or agent” in 18 USC Sec. 1831.  Article 20 does not, however, single out these security concerns arising from state-drive trade secret misappropriation.

Fairness suggests that those engaged in IP theft on behalf of foreigners should also be afforded the opportunity to avail themselves of defenses otherwise available if a Chinese party were the beneficiary of the trade secret misappropriation. This is also consistent with the requirement under the TRIPS Agreement that punishment is proportionate to crimes “of a corresponding gravity” (Art. 61), and that judicial procedures are “fair and equitable” (Arts. 41 and 42).  The TRIPS obligations to afford national treatment (Art. 1) should also equally apply to a defendant in a proceeding – that he or she should not be singled out because of having worked for a foreigner.  A similar logic applies to the cases brought against the United States involving national treatment under our Section 337 remedy; a heavier defense burden had been placed on foreign entities compared to domestic entities. The provision could also lead to a de facto denial of national treatment for a foreign investor in China who finds that police or prosecutors may be less likely to initiate a case unless there is a trade secret theft that benefits an overseas entity where a heavier sentence could be imposed.  Moreover, this provisions flips US concerns on their head: it does nothing to address the concerns that the United States has expressed regarding trade secret theft in China of US-origin trade secrets, since this law addresses  thefts that were undertaken on behalf of a US entity, not from the overseas entity.

Once any country advocates for more deterrent penalties, it should consider that such penalties may also be applied to non-Chinese defendants, including one’s own nationals, which this provision could easily encompass through its focus on actions on behalf of foreign entities.  To the extent this provision is used to target foreign actors as well as actors for foreign entities, the TRIPS Agreement provides little in the way of guard rails to ensure equality of treatment in IP enforcement proceedings.  Many foreigners are already concerned, as they fear being denied authorization to leave China arising from allegations of civil violations.  In addition, there have also been several precedential IP cases over the years where foreign parties may have served as “guinea pigs” for more deterrent sanctions,  including such cases as Chint v. Schneider Electric [utility model patent damages award]; Qualcomm AML investigation [high antitrust penalty]  Veeco and Micron [preliminary injunctions involving semiconductor patents and unpublished judicial opinions as well as unpublished Customs seizure decision], and PRC v. Guthrie [criminal copyright cases brought against foreigners].

I believe that this draft of Article 20 may be sending the wrong signal.  Actions undertaken for foreigners and Chinese should be treated equally, with equivalent penalties and opportunities for probation.  Moreover, the concept of equality generally applies equally to any right.  If there are concerns regarding national security or difficulties in apprehending a party engaged in trade secret theft on behalf of a foreigners, those can be addressed through other measures such as through bilateral criminal justice cooperation, including mutual extradition arrangements and cooperation in gathering evidence. Such measures would also help restore trust between participating countries.  By providing harsher penalties for trade secret infringement benefiting foreigners, a potential precedent might also be established for any other case benefiting an overseas actor, notwithstanding that the principal concerns appear to be infringement occuring within China.

Note: this post was revised June 30, 2020 to address a reader’s concerns that Article 20 is directed to actions on behalf of foreigners and not simply by foreigners.

Trade Wars: A New Beginning?

Why is this year’s  Special 301 Report (the “Report”) from USTR (April 29, 2019) different from prior reports?  In prior years, this report often repeated materials found elsewhere, such as in the  National Trade Estimate Report (March 2020).  This year’s Report reflects the Phase 1 Trade Agreement (January 15, 2020) (the “Agreement”) and the subsequent Chinese Action Plan (April 20, 2020). More importantly, it also suggests how the US might wish to see the implementation of the Agreement and negotiate a Phase 2 Agreement. There are a number of welcome surprises that suggest a new beginning.

Most importantly, the Report demonstrates a renewed commitment to the rule of law and the role of markets in protecting IP.  As noted in many of the postings of this blog, these were areas that I found seriously deficient in the Agreement.  The Agreement revitalized administrative campaigns and enforcement mechanisms and encouraged punitive mechanisms.  It generally underemphasized compensatory damages and other civil remedies, including appropriate civil procedures, and did not adequately emphasize the need to let market mechanisms govern IP creation and commercialization.

The Report addresses issues that the Phase 1 Agreement war did not, such as “poor quality patents”, “the presence of competition law concepts in the patent law” and challenges faced in trademark prosecution.  The Report also notes that  there are “obstacles in establishing actual damages in civil proceedings,” including a lack of “preliminary injunctive relief.”  These are useful statements, but even more important are the references to judicial procedures.

The Report states that “Chinese judicial authorities continue to demonstrate a lack of transparency”, including publishing only “selected decisions rather than all preliminary injunctions and final decisions.”  In addition, “administrative enforcement authorities fail to provide rights holders with information.” The issue of transparency has been repeatedly reported on in this blog as key to effective oversight of the Agreement.  The Report also notes that “[a] truly independent judiciary is critical to promote the rule of law and to protect IP rights.”  The Report mentions the need for transparency in China’s IP system five separate times.  By comparison, Chapter 1 of the Agreement mentions transparency once (with respect to Geographical Indications),  and not once with respect to judicial or administrative proceedings.

The Report comes down particularly hard in favor of legal process in its discussion on the social credit system, particularly the CNIPA/NDRC  et al, Memorandum of Cooperation on Joint Disciplinary Actions for Seriously Dishonest Subjects in the Field of Intellectual Property (Patent) 关于对知识产权(专利)领域严重失信主体开展联合惩戒的合作备忘录》(the “Dishonesty Measures”) (December 5, 2018) by noting that “these measure lack critical procedural safeguards, such as notice to the targeted entity, clear factors for determinations, or opportunities for appeal.” The Report further concludes that “The United States objects to any attempt to expand the ‘social credit system’ in the field of IP.”

This statement suggests a further distancing of the administration from rhetoric and outcomes of December 2018-May 2019 when the primary goal appeared to be strong legal commitments to punish IP infringement without explicit consideration of due process.  The Dishonesty Measures were likely enacted to appease US concerns on IP on the margins of the G-20 summit (November 30- December 1, 2018).  The concern then appeared to be that they were not sufficiently well-codified, not that they lacked due process.  Larry Kudlow said after the G-20 in 2019, that IP-related provisions (most likely the Dishonesty Measures) need to be “codified by law in China” and should not just be a “state council announcement.”

I am personally gratified to see the reintroduction of concerns over due process and rule of law into the Administration’s discourse of IP, although I believe the complexity of the relationship between IP protection and the social credit system may require further study.  I suspect that it may be difficult for rightsholders commercializing their rights or seeking to enforce judgments to completely distance themselves from the social credit system.

The Report also notes that the US had initiated dispute resolution proceedings against China at the WTO regarding China’s technology licensing regime and that China revised the measures the US had challenged in March 2019. The Report concludes that “[t]he significance of these revisions is under review.”  The Report does not note that the US had agreed to suspend the WTO case due to these legislative revisions, until May 1, 2020, at which time (the date of writing of this blog) it needs to decide whether or not to reinstate this case.  Perhaps USTR did not want to show its hand regarding what it would do effective May 1, 2020 – two days after the Report was issued.  Presumably, the United States will seek an extension of time in light of the continuing “review.”

Whatever decision is made at the WTO, the US team deserves credit for the legislative changes in licensing, forced tech transfer and trademarks that were made in the spring of 2019 and for re-emphasizing due process, the market, and rule of law, in the Report and in United States advocacy for better IP protection in China.

New CPC and State Council Opinions on Improving IP Protection

wordcloud

On November 24,  2019, the General Office of Communist Party of China and the State Council jointly released the Opinions Concerning Enhancing Intellectual Property Rights Protection (关于强化知识产权保护的意见).

It is often too easy to dismiss documents like these, that have typically delivered an ephemeral higher state of vigilance by the Chinese government.  Nonetheless, there are some useful statements in this document that may be an indicator of future durable improvements, including:

  1. It is jointly published by the CPC and the State Council and thus has high level political and executive branch support.
  2. It does address some long-standing concerns raised by industry, such as development of a patent linkage system, patent term extension and copyright protection for sports broadcasts.
  3. There continues to be a focus on punitive damages in litigation. However, this document does appropriately point out the need to increase actual damages.
  4. Improving criminal enforcement, including revising criminal judicial interpretations – is also addressed.  Along with revising the criminal code, revising criminal JI’s and their high criminal thresholds was a goal of the WTO case that the US filed against China over 10 years ago (DS362).  This task is long overdue.
  5. Improving coordination between administrative and criminal enforcement is once again highlighted. This is also a long-standing issue.  In light of numerous prior efforts and experiments, a more concrete explanation of how this might be accomplished to better enable prosecution of major criminal actors would be helpful in the future.
  6. Case guidance and public trial systems are highlighted. Hopefully, the case guidance system will add further momentum to successful case law experiments in IP at the Beijing IP Court.
  7. The introduction of technical assessors into administrative enforcement could suggest a continued enhanced role for patent administrative enforcement, which has been increasing even as trademark administrative enforcement has been declining. If so, it may not augur well for foreigners who have traditionally been heavy “consumers” of the administrative trademark system, but not the administrative patent system.
  8. Improvements in the “examination” of utility models and designs are noted as a goal. However, these rights are generally not examined for substance except in the case of “abnormal” applications.
  9. Continuing attention is paid to challenging markets, such as e-commerce platforms and trade fairs, as well as establishing faster protection mechanisms.
  10. There is a continuing focus on supporting Chinese rightsholders overseas.

This document arguably goes part-way in establishing an outline for addressing US concerns about IP theft.  However, it offers little to address such concerns as ensuring greater transparency in the courts, publishing foreign-related cases, or addressing certain trade-sensitive topics outlined in USTR’s Section 301 report, such as cyber intrusions or criminal trade secret misappropriation.

The word cloud, above, is drawn from a machine translation of this document.  The original Chinese language and my redlining of a machine translation are found here.

Addendum of November 26, 2019:

Susan Finder in her Supreme People’s Court Monitor blog, reported on Judicial Interpretation drafting by the SPC for next year, some of which are referenced in the recently released Opinions.  According to that blog, on 29 April 2019, the SPC’s General Office issued a document setting out a list of 47 judicial interpretation projects, 36  with an end of 2019 deadline.  Several of these involve IP-related issues, including issues addressed in the joint CPC and State Council Opinions, including:

  1. Interpretation Concerning the Application of Law in Cases of Disputes over the Infringement of Trade Secrets (关于审理侵犯商业秘密纠纷案件应用法律若干问题的解释). Responsibility of the #3 Civil (IP) Division.
  2. Interpretation on Several Issues Concerning Punitive Damages for Intellectual Property Infringement (关于知识产权侵权惩罚性赔偿适用法律若干问题的解释). Responsibility of the #3 Civil (IP) Division.
  3. Provisions on Issues Concerning the Application of the Foreign Investment Law of the People’s Republic of China (I) (关于适用《中华人民共和国外商投资法》若干问题的规定(一)). Responsibility of the #4 Civil Division. The Foreign Investment Law and the recently released draft implementing regulations contain provisions protecting the intellectual property of foreign investors, including prohibiting forced technology transfers and enhancing the availability of punitive damages.

These draft JI’s have a due date of the first half of 2020.  Susan Finder notes in her blog that given the worldwide attention on the issues set forth in these three judicial interpretations, she expects that they will be released for public comment.  I hasten to add that the IP Division of the Court has generally taken a positive attitude towards soliciting public comment on its draft judicial interpretations, and I hope that they maintain this tradition.

It was also noted by Susan Finder that certain JI’s were due by year-end 2019, including:

  1. Intellectual Property Rights Evidence Rules (关于知识产权民事诉讼证据的若干规定).  Responsibility of the #3 Civil (IPR) Division. This draft was discussed at a conference hosted by the SPC in Hangzhou in 2018.  As Chinese courts experiment with more expanded discovery, evidence preservation and burden of proof reversals, clearer rules regarding the obligations of parties to produce evidence are becoming more critical.  A particular notable example of such a reversal is found in the recent amendments to the trade secret law (Article 32), whereby  a rights holder that has preliminarily proven that it  has taken reasonable confidentiality measures on the claimed trade secrets and has preliminary evidence reasonably demonstrating that its trade secrets have been infringed upon, can shift the burden of proof (BOP) to the infringer to prove that the trade secrets claimed by the right holder do not belong to those as prescribed in this law.
  2. Judicial interpretation on administrative cases involving patent authorization and confirmation (关于审理专利授权确权行政案件若干问题的解释). Responsibility of the #3 Civil IPR) Division. Another interpretation that previously had a 2018 year-end deadline.  A draft was issued for public comment in the summer of 2018; see my earlier blog.

Addendum of November 27, 2019:

Another China law blog, the NPC Observer also expects that some of the IP legislation flagged in the Opinions for revision may be considered as early as late December of 2019t.  According to the NPC Observer:

We expect the session to review a … draft amendment to the Patent Law [专利法] …The session may additionally consider the following bills: …

I have previously blogged about proposed revisions to the Patent and Copyright Law.

Addendum of January 9, 2020: Here is a translation of the Opinions from China Law translate.