Towards a Better Understanding of “Forced Technology Transfer” Policies in China and Their Strategic Implications

In August 2017, President Trump issued an executive order setting in motion an investigation of China’s trade policies including IP, technology transfer, and investment policies. The “Section 301” report on this investigation came out earlier this year. The Report itself uses the word “force” or “forced” 47 times and identifies a range of practices that result in “forced technology transfer.” However, there is a significant amount we still do not know regarding how these controversial Chinese policies actually work and the degree to which a technology owner’s behavior has in fact been compelled by state actors. A new paper by Dan Prud’homme, Max von Zedtwitz, Joachim Jan Thraen, and Martin Bader published in Technological Forecasting & Social Change explores this important issue.

The authors evaluate the ability of “forced technology transfer” (FTT) policies – which they define as policies meant to increase foreign-domestic technology transfer that simultaneously weaken appropriability of foreign innovations – to contribute to technology transfer. They draw on a survey of foreign firms, interviews with foreign firms, and case studies of Chinese firms.

The authors identify three categories of FTT policies that have significantly impacted foreign-Sino technology transfer in recent years:

(1) Policies which risk market loss (including market access preconditioned on meeting technology transfer requirements),

(2)  Policies that offer no choice regarding compliance (including unfair court rulings in IP civil litigation), and

(3) Policies that are based on legal obligations (including provisions in the technology import-export regulations; and certain policies related to the intersection of anti-trust and IP, and IP and technical standards).

Several other controversial policies were also identified, including disclosure of confidential business information through regulatory approvals, pharma patent issues, and certain tax schemes and subsidies.

The authors find that, with the exception of no-choice policies, foreign firms are allowed some flexibility to decide whether or not they want to comply with China’s FTT policies. Therefore, even though non-compliance with the policies is always met with consequences, the technology is not actually “forced” against a party’s will. After noting this limitation of the term, the authors explain that they retain the term “FTT policies” in their research for readability and because it is part of well-established lingo, but only use it to the extent that it meets their aforementioned definition.

Much of the research focuses on foreign-Sino transfer of frontier technology, i.e. the most advanced technology emerging from research and development which is generally not at the point of mass commercial adoption. According to the authors, not only the design of FTT policies per se helps determine if they exert substantial leverage over (i.e., force) frontier technology transfer, but the environment in which they are deployed is equally important. The authors find that FTT policies appear to exert the most leverage over frontier technology transfer when accompanied by seven conditions: (1) strong state support for industrial growth; (2) oligopoly competition; (3) other policies closely complementing FTT policies; (4) high technological uncertainty; (5) policy mode of operation offering basic appropriability and tailored to industrial  structure; (6) reform avoidance by the state, and (7) stringent policy compliance mechanisms.

Based on each of these conditions, the authors developed an FTT Strategy & Risk Forecasting Matrix with corresponding strategies the state may adopt to fully exploit, i.e. maximize the leverage of, FTT policies.

The authors’ analysis has several possible implications for technology transfer policymaking. In the authors’ view, Chinese FTT policies may enable domestic acquisition of frontier foreign technology if all seven conditions determining policy leverage are fully exploited by the state. However, if the state does not fully exploit all seven conditions, the FTT policies have less leverage. Moreover, if the state exploits none or only a few of the conditions, the FTT policies may result in a lose-lose game where foreign firms are discouraged from transferring valuable technology and domestic firms’ acquisition of new technology is made more difficult.

With this analysis, the authors provide evidence that can be used to appeal to the Chinese authorities to change some of their FTT policies: some of the policies are actually counterproductive in meeting their aims. The risks of loss of technology acquisition posed by Chinese policies is an important phenomenon which this blog has also identified, particularly as an unintended consequence of China’s Technology Import/Export Regulations (especially for start-ups and litigation-prone technologies, but also for technological collaboration) and which has been mentioned by the US Chamber of Commerce in its IP Index and its report on licensing.

The authors argue that in order to increase the chance that FTT policies will spur sustained transfer of frontier technology, Chinese regulators should not deprive foreign firms of  minimum level of appropriability. The policies should also allow foreign firms to benefit in at least minor ways from technology transfer arrangements.

The research also has important implications for technology strategy formulation and risk management. The authors’ FTT Strategy & Risk Forecasting Matrix can guide foreign firms to anticipate risks associated with FTT policies and serve as a starting point for understanding how to further quantify or mitigate these risks. The risks are of course compounded by potential trade secret theft, cyber intrusions, and less formal pressure points on foreign licensors to assign or transfer their technology in China. And these risks must be considered alongside major rising challenges to doing business in China, which Prud’homme and Zedtwitz have also discussed (in MIT Sloan Management Review), including: problematic areas of regulation in China and rising competition from Chinese rivals in terms of their recruiting and retaining top talent, more large-scale and strategic use of intellectual property, and ever faster time-to-market of products and services. Mitigating these many risks requires carefully integrated intellectual property, innovation, non-market, and human capital strategies, alongside yet other responses.

Edited of June 23, 2018:  An interview with Prof. Liu Chuntian of Renmin U. Law School on this same topic of forced technology transfer is found on page 2 of the People’s Daily (June 22, 2018, 2nd edition) (reporter Wang Yu)   A machine translation by Google is found here.  Liu focuses primarily on market access as a separate discpline from intellectual property under the WTO and as being essentially voluntary; he does not support formal and informal incentives in place (including the Technology Import/Export Regulations as noted in the article by Dan Prud’homme.

Edit of July 15, 2018: Here’s a link to Prof Prud’homme’s article outside of a paywall.  It may only be available for a short period of time.

Two Upcoming Events: Innovation and Technology Licensing

ITIF, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation,  is holding a seminar in How the Trump Administration Can Stop China’s Innovation Mercantilism on March 16, 2017.   Here’s the link to the program.  Speakers include: Robert D. Atkinson (ITIF) , Stephen Ezell (ITIF), Scott Kennedy (CSIS), Claire Reade (Arnold & Porter), and John Veroneau (Covington) for what I am sure will be a lively 90 minute event in Washington, DC.

In an unrelated event, USPTO and the Ministry of Commerce are  jointly sponsoring a program on cross border technology licensing on March 28 in Beijing at Renmin University’s law school (specific room still TBD).  Here is a draft agenda.

 The USPTO/MofCOM program is intended to provide an opportunity to discuss cross-border IP licensing.  In particular, including China’s Technology Import Export Regulation (“TIER”) 技术进出口管理条例and its impact on US technology collaboration and licensing.  The program builds upon prior programs with SIPO that explored similar topics.  RSVP’s for this program are requested by Wednesday, March 22.   Please email Ms. Liu Jia – jia.liu@trade.gov – to RSVP. 

Book Review on Report on Development of Intellectual Property Development in China (2015)

The Report on Development of Intellectual Property Development in China 2015 中国知识产权发展报告 (IP Teaching and Research Center of Renmin University of China / IP Academy of Renmin University) (Tsinghua University Press, 2016) (320 pp., 98 RMB) (http://tup.com.cn/booksCenter/book_06886601.html) (the “Report”), is a bilingual Chinese-English report prepared by Renmin University and commissioned by the Ministry of Education.   The book presents a comprehensive summary of developments and challenges in IP protection and enforcement in China, with a particularly strong focus on legislative developments, the role of national plans, the history of IP in China, government funded R&D, education and training-related issues, and the pressing needs of market and legal reforms.

After a general overview (Part I), where the authors discuss various national plans, and general legislation, such as the Civil Law and the Law to Counter Unfair Competition, the authors discuss patents and innovation (Part II).  The Report notes that quality needs to be improved in life science patents, most of which come from small inventors (such as in TCM).  The report also candidly references critiques of SIPO’s performance (p. 150), as well as the low quality of university patent applications and suggests that there should be additional attention paid to university IP commercialization, including the many restrictions that apply to state-owned assets, a matter that was litigated in the Infineon case here in the United States many years ago.  The report also criticizes unrestricted subsidies and other incentives for patent applications, which has led to “the amount of patent applications to be falsely huge” and has given rise the problem of “rubbish patents.” (p. 163).  Regarding China’s extraordinary growth in patent filings, the authors conclude, as I have often in this blog, that “the motivational role of the market should be strengthened” in lieu of such incentives.

Regarding the proposed Patent Law amendments, the authors also argue that judicial decisions on patent validity should be final and not be subject to a final decision by an administrative agency, and that there should be appropriate limitations on administrative enforcement involving patent infringements (pp. 166-167).  The authors also seek to limit the abusive assertion of unexamined utility models and designs, including by authorizing the courts to consider the abusive assertion of patent rights a matter of unfair competition (p. 173).

In discussing trademarks, the authors similarly note that despite the huge numbers of trademark filings, Chinese companies play an undersized role in lists of global brands.  The authors identify problems in “rush registration of trademarks” involving grabbing a trademark previously used by others, particularly where a mark has international popularity, where there are fictional figures and titles of movies and television hits, and in the case of celebrity names (p. 183).   The authors suggest that where a trademark is not being used, there should be no compensation given to the infringer, as one step to address rush registrations – a practice that apparently is already being used in Shanghai and perhaps other courts.  The authors also suggest that in the case of foreign rights owners, the courts should take into account the popularity of the brand enjoyed outside of China and the subjective malice on the person conducting the registration.   As with low quality patents, the author see a useful role for courts in adjudicating these rush registrations as acts of unfair competition (pp. 186-187).

These themes of addressing proposed legislation, adopting new legislation to new circumstances, more effectively insuring that markets rather than government fiat direct IP commercialization and protection,  and using unfair competition law to address abuse of IP rights play an important role in other chapters of the book, including the chapters on Copyright Law (Part IV), Competition law (Part V), IP protection by the Judiciary (Part VI), IP Education (Part VII), developments in Shenzhen City and Jiangsu Province (Part VIII), and other issues, such as free trade agreements (Part IX).

Overall the authors support the role of the courts as the principle vehicle for adjudicating IP disputes in a market-oriented economy, and that the IP laws should be revised to “attach importance to enhancing the leading and final role of the judicial protection of the intellectual property rights, limit and regulate intellectual property-related administrative enforcement …” (p. 240).  The authors also support the tendency to increase damages on IP disputes (P. 282), the role of specialized IP courts and the case law system, and deficiencies in administrative enforcement reform including problems of coordination among agencies.

In their summary, the authors note that “the sound operation of the IP system is not merely an issue of the IP law; it relies on an improved legal system and environment of the rule of law.  Only with innovation based on the market economy and driven by market interest is it possible to be the lasting, stable fore to drive the socio-economic development.” (pp. 315-316).  The book is a very useful summary of some of the hot issues now facing the Chinese IP system, with a focus on rule of law and market orientation.

I look forward to the 2016 edition.

USPTO and Renmin University Copyright Protection Program Highlights Importance of Copyright Reform for China

revenuestreams

Last July 20, 2016,USPTO and Renimin University jointly hosted a program at Renmin University on Copyright Developments in China and the United States.  The program was covered by some of the specialty media.  Here’s a brief summary regarding some of the four key developments in China that I abstracted from the speakers at the conference:

  1. Building upon some of the path breaking work of Eric Priest and others, there appeared to be near unanimity amongst the speakers and audience of the importance of revenue diversity for China’s creative industries to thrive.  Amongst the areas highlighted, were the importance of public performance rights, of licensing for digitalization of content, of small claims procedures for copyright owners, the utility of collective management in certain contexts, and the importance of providing copyright protection for sports broadcasting (as opposed to using neighboring rights or antiunfair competition law).  The current copyright licensing environment in China uniquely supports one exclusive license, but even that revenue source is vulnerable to non-renewal if piracy erodes the value of buying legitimate content and may therefor not be sustainable in the face of “piratical” or free competition.  Musicians, as an example, are heavily dependent on public performances and secondary sources of revenue, such as DVD/CD/ streaming sales are thin.  Revenue diversity can also included non-copyright revenue streams, such as trademark rights, and perhaps merchandising rights.  Efforts have also been underway to increase pledging of copyrighted content, which can help with financing of copyrighted content.
  2. Many of the Chinese speakers spoke about increasingly creative enforcement approaches, such as the Sword Network Campaign,  enhanced administrative supervision over platforms (16 video sites/20 music sites/20 literary sites) and punitive damages.  Although they are still a minority of criminal IP cases, there is an increasing number of  criminal referrals from administrative cases (from 2005 to 2015, more than 450 cases were referred to criminal prosecution).  Article 287 of the newly amended Criminal Law, which provides for criminal liability by reason of providing computer services was noted as a potential area for expanded criminal copyright liability.
  3. Technology and globalization were making enforcement increasingly more difficult, while at the same opening up possibilities for more efficient enforcement techniques.  Audiovisual use of the internet was one of the most popular reasons in China to be online (73.2% of netizens view AV products in China). Music is a close second (72.8%), while literature was only 43.1%.     Copyright protections which did not extend to interactive (online) environments, were increasingly undercutting revenue streams.  China’s reservation under article 15(1) of the WIPO Performance and Phonograms Treaty was noted (“(1) Performers and producers of phonograms shall enjoy the right to a single equitable remuneration for the direct or indirect use of phonograms published for commercial purposes for broadcasting or for any communication to the public.”).  The increasing complexity of the copyright environment, including the environment for licensing was highlighted as a theme in both the United States and China.   Media box piracy was identified as a problem (see 湖南快乐阳光vs 清华同方).  A case involving use of parasitic software to modify the original code was noted, under the Antiunfair competition law ( 鹏讯 [深圳] v 上海虹连网络)
  4. Regarding enforcement, the efforts of the courts to develop precedential or guiding cases to resolve complicated emerging issues was also underscored, particularly due to the extensive delays in passing copyright law reform, which has now been ongoing for several years.  There were over 70 research topics underway as part of the copyright law reform.  There needs to be increased scope of protection of copyright and improved mechanisms for enforcement.  Some of the difficulties in providing copyright protection to certain areas were traced back to the original training program in 1985 in Nanjing on copyright law, which was provided by European experts, and introduced European concepts and models, such as neighboring rights.    Changes in substantive law and judicial practice, such as providing for treble damages,  sampling of allegedly infringing content, establishing a requisite standard for “originality” vs a non-original product (see 北京乐东 vs 北京昆仑 concerning copyright in entertainment software characters) idea vs. expression in variety shows (See Beijing High Court’s: 关于审理涉及综艺节目著作权纠纷案件若干问题的解答), harmonization with other laws (such as the Antiunfair Compeittion Law),  how much copying constituted infringement, discovery of source code to verify infringement of software products, and specialized IP courts/three-in-one (administrative/civil/criminal) tribunals were all noted.  In addition, an expanded scope for audiovisual works, or lowering of the creativity required for cinematographic works were noted as possible approaches to providing protection for sports broadcasts.   Rights holders were also selecting overseas venues for litigation where rights were sometimes better protected.

In general, the speakers agreed that China needs copyright reform for its own needs, and that this reform was not due to outside pressure. In addition, there are increasing opportunities for collaboration between the United States and China on the creation and distribution of copyrighted content, which appear to be mirroring increased collaboration in science and technology.  Ultimately, China needs improved copyright protection and enforcement in light of its own desires to increase its soft power, and support its creative industries.