What the EU and US WTO IP Disputes Reveal About Trade Diplomacy

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Two contrasting approaches to using the WTO for China-related IP issues involving technology licensing and forced technology transfer are now pending at the WTO.

The United States initiated a WTO dispute on China’s licensing practices by filing a  consultation request on March 23, 2018.  Shortly after the filing of that case, Japan, the European Union, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Chinese Taipei requested to join the consultations.  The European Union additionally filed its own parallel WTO consultation request on June 1, 2018, with a broader scope. It is too soon to tell which countries will join the EU request.

Both countries timed their requests in conjunction with other trade actions. The WTO case was filed by the United States one day after the Section 301 report  was released. The European Union simultaneously filed its case against China with a WTO case against the United States regarding US tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

The EU’s approach to this IP case is markedly different from the last time the US filed a WTO dispute involving China’s IP practices (DS/362).   At the time that the US filed a request for IP-related cases from China, the EU declined to make a similar transparency request.  It also did not join the US as a co-complainant in the ensuing WTO case, nor did it file a parallel complaint, but it did participate as a third-party.  By contrast, the EU approach in the current dispute is to both support the US and dig deeper.

The US consultation request was portrayed by USTR as addressing “technology licensing requirements.”  The thrust of the complaint involves China  “denying foreign patent holders, including U.S. companies, basic patent rights to stop a Chinese entity from using the technology after a licensing contract ends.”  The consultation request is therefor somewhat narrow.  The US complaint does not specifically address other technology-oriented rights, such as trade secret protection or undisclosed data, nor does it take on the topics set forth in the Section 301 report involving “IP theft.”   The consultation request is now numbered WT/DS542/1.

The EU complaint (WT/DS549/1), cites several Chinese measures in addition to those identified in the United States’ consultation request, and invokes more expansive WTO principles and procedures. The additionally cited measures include the “Working Measures [sic] for Outbound Transfer of Intellectual Property Rights (For Trial Implementation), (State Council, Guo Ban Fa [2018] No. 19)” (知识产权对外转让有关工作办法(试行)) which was previously discussed here.  The Chinese promulgation of these interim Regulations only five days after the US filed its consultation request, looks to some like another act of synchronized trade diplomacy — in this case as a possible retaliatory act for the 301 report and the WTO case.  My guess is that the EU, by referring to these new largely untested regulations is however seeking to address the legality of controls China has additionally imposed on foreigners’ transferring IP out of China.

The EU has also swept in other measures into its complaint, including China’s trade secret law (the Anti-Unfair Competition Law), the Anti-Monopoly Law, the Regulations [sic] of State Administration for Industry and Commerce Administrations on the Prohibition of Abuse of Dominant Market Position, and the Regulation [sic] on the Prohibition of Conduct Eliminating or Restricting Competition by Abusing Intellectual Property Rights.  The nomenclature the EU uses for these various legal documents appears imprecise.  The March 2018 “measures” may properly be classified as “regulations” 法规 issued by the State Council. The SAIC “regulations” should properly be classified as “rules” 部门规章 issued by an administrative agency. This is the nomenclature China set forth in the Report of the Working Party on the Accession of China (WT/ACC/CHN/49), paragraph 66 ( the “Protocols of Accession“).  The Working Party Report nomenclature establishes clear legislative hierarchies pursuant to China’s Law on Legislation.

The EU also argues that China’s appears to directly or indirectly “nullifying or impairing” the benefits accruing to the European Union and its Member States that were expected by China’s WTO accession, thereby opening the door to broader arguments regarding how China may deprive WTO members of the benefits they legitimately expected while at the same time not violating the literal language of any commitment (See, e.g., Art. 64 of the TRIPS Agreement).  These arguments have been subject to a moratorium and have historically been difficult to assert, but in my estimation have some relevance to the current situation in China.  The EU is also seeking to utilize provisions in the WTO that address the “impartial and reasonable application and administration of its laws, regulations and other measures” (Article X.3(a) of the GATT 1994 and Paragraph 2(A)2 of the Protocol on the Accession of the People’s Republic of China to the WTO).  The “impartial administration” requirement, as found in the Protocols of Accession requires China to “apply and administer in a uniform, impartial and reasonable manner all its laws, regulations and other measures … pertaining to or affecting …  trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (“TRIPS”)” (p. 74).

Contrasting the actions of the US and the EU, the EU complaint urges a legalistic and multilateral resolution of trade disputes, using doctrine that has proven difficult to assert.  The approach also appears to reflect a waning confidence by some that China today in fact has an effective and independent legal and political system which “impartially administers its laws”.   My former colleague at Fordham, Prof. Carl Minzner describes some of these political reversals in his recent book  End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise (2018).

The US approach, by contrast, uses the 301 report to point to perceived technological threats, manifested through industrial plans, vague laws, industrial espionage and unfairly adjudicated cases, to make the point that the WTO might be inappropriate to resolve its concerns. In a sense, the US assumed in the Section 301 report that in the party- and plan-controlled China of today, with a resurgent state sector, there aren’t many “laws, regulations and other measures” to administer impartially.  The United States therefor pays scant attention in the 301 to the numerous legal reforms and civil adjudication in intellectual property that have taken place in recent years.  The United States approach is also more broadly consistent with the perspectives of Prof. Mark Wu at Harvard Law School who prophetically pointed out in his article “The ‘China, Inc.’ Challenge to Global Trade Governance”  that “the WTO faces a challenge: can the institution craft a predictable and fair set of legal rules to address new trade-distortive behavior arising out of China, Inc.? If not, key countries may turn away from the WTO to address these issues.”

While the EU and the US likely have common goals with respect to China’s IP regime, I believe that they likely could also learn something from each other in their strategies and perhaps they will as these cases progress.

 

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Bottom photo by Mark Cohen of Charleston, SC United States Custom House.

 

Justice Tao Kaiyuan and the Role of the Judiciary

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Justice Tao Kaiyuan of the Supreme People’s Court, who had been to the United States in 2015 delivering important speeches on rule of law, has recently published an article on “Giving Full Play to the Leading Role of Judicial Protection of IP Rights“ 充分发挥司法保护知识产权的主导作用”(Dec. 31, 2015).  The article is receiving considerable attention in China, as it was published by Qiu Shi, 求是(“Seeking Truth”), a bimonthly political theory published by the Central Party School and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.  The publication of the article appears to be timed with the release of the recent draft of the Patent Law Amendments, comments for which were due the day after publication (January 1).  The proposed patent amendments would strengthen the role of administrative agencies in IP enforcement, to the possible detriment of the judiciary.

The author of the article is no less important than its contents.  Madame Tao knows patents.  She was the former Director General of the Guangdong Patent Office and therefor once had “vertical” reporting responsibility to SIPO (see picture above taken by me of Madame Tao [on the right] with USPTO Director Michelle Lee taken in 2015).  Although the article was authored in her name, many in China were speculating that the article was approved by higher authorities – perhaps Zhou Qiang, the President of the Supreme People’s Court, with Madame Tao serving as an appropriate messenger.

The concerns about this draft on patent law enforcement are not that different from those in the earlier (2012) draft when I blogged in “Why the Proposed Amendments to the Patent Law Really Matter … and Maybe Not Just For Patents” that “the changes strike me as a rather sudden about face in China’s march towards better civil protection of IP.” Madame Tao takes this several steps further.

Madame Tao’s article is divided into three parts: (1) The important meaning of giving full play to the leading role of the judicial protection of IP rights; (2) The key factors that constrain the leading use role of judicial protection of IP; and (3) Key measures in giving full play to the leading role of judicial protection of IP rights.   Here are some of the points she makes:

Madame Tao refers back to the National IP Strategy and related documents, such as the Third Plenum, the NPC’s decision to establish IP courts, and the Action Plan for the National IP Strategy to underscore the well-established, leading role of the courts in enforcing IP.

Her article compares certain key elements of judicial protection versus administrative protection.  In her view, judicial enforcement can curtail abuses of administrative enforcement.  It also has other advantages.  It has clear rules.  It is transparent.  It can help establish guidance for businesses by establishing clear standards for similar disputes (a possible nod to efforts at developing case law/guiding cases).  Moreover, civil enforcement comports with notions of private ownership and the development of markets and creation of a fair competitive environment in China.  Madame Tao especially underscores the role of the courts in supervising administrative agencies.  As I have noted, this is also an important part of the foreign IP docket in China.  Madame Tao states that the judiciary should also actively guide administrative law enforcement in investigation and review of evidence, and determination of infringements.

Madame Tao also calls for greater coordination in administrative and judicial roles in IP protection, noting that administrative enforcement played an important leading role in the beginning of China’s IP enforcement environment.  Administrative enforcement has “in a short time met the need for building effective IP protection.”  However, the “growing maturity” of the judicial system has caused increasing problems in the coordination process.

Madame Tao also calls for specific policy initiatives, many of which are already underway.  She calls for greater deterrent civil damages, including by revising patent, copyright and unfair competition laws based on experience of the trademark law revisions.   She also suggests that a discovery system should be considered.  Civil and criminal divisions in IP should be unified.  She suggests that a specialized national IP court should be researched and promoted, and she calls for the unification of technical appellate cases, perhaps like the CAFC.  She also notes that the division between infringement and validity determinations in the courts in patents and trademarks should be addressed, and calls for improvements in the availability of provisional measures.

She calls for greater improvements in judicial protective measures, including in obtaining evidence and the convenience and effectiveness of remedies.  Among other specific judicial reforms, she also suggests exploring intellectual property case law, improving judicial accountability and developing judicial professionalism.  Finally, Madame Tao also calls for expanding international awareness by IP judges to better protect national interests and to increase China’s IP influence.

Altogether, a tour de force.

Here’s what her speech looks like in a machine-translated wordcloud:taowordcloud

 

 

 

A Pair of Experiments in the Beijing IP Court

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Back in 2012, I noted that “[t]he Chinese civil judiciary is pursuing reform and gaining experience, as Deng Xiaoping noted, by crossing the river by feeling the stones. A disproportionate part of that judicial experience is also being gained from the relatively small numbers of IP cases in the Chinese courts.” One notable and welcome source of those reforms is the new Beijing IP court, which is also serving as a base for experimenting in the development of a system of case law with Chinese characteristics.  I believe that the most notable development in Chinese IP in 2015 has been the role the courts are playing in judicial reform generally.  I have been privileged to hear Chief Judge Su Chi and his team from this court speak several times since his court was established, and have never failed to be impressed by their depth of knowledge and passion for judging.

There have been two notable year-end developments by the Beijing IP court.  One case involved the use of en banc decisions to invalidate a trademark normative document.  In this case the IP Court made an en banc decision to implement Article 21 of the SPC’s Interpretation on Practical Questions regarding the Administrative Litigation law of the PRC中华人民共和国行政诉讼法〉若干问题的解释 (April 28, 2015) (the JI). Article 21 of the JI provides that “When normative documents are not in accordance with law, the People’s Court shall not use it as proof that the administrative action has a legal basis, and shall explain this in the reasoning of its decision.  The People’s Court’s decision shall make recommendations on disposition of the normative document to the enacting agency, which can be copied to the government organs at the same level of the enacting agency, or to one government level higher.” (规范性文件不合法的,人民法院不作为认定行政行为合法的依据,并在裁判理由中予以阐明。作出生效裁判的人民法院应当向规范性文件的制定机关提出处理建议,并可以抄送制定机关的同级人民政府或者上一级行政机关。)

The other case, no less dramatic, involves what may be the publication of a dissenting period. Both of these developments occurred this month (December 2015).

The case arising under Article 21 of the SPC Interpretation involved an interpretation of the State Administration of Industry and Commerce regarding what constitutes a “day” for purposes of implementing a change in trademark classifications.  The IP Court found that the notice’s definition of a “day from a 24 hour period to a month exceeded the scope of power to explain the law, ruling in favor of plaintiff who claimed to have filed its trademark in advance of two other parties who filed one week and three weeks after plaintiffs filing.

When this case was heard in September, Chinese media talked about this as the first effort to “break the ice” by a Chinese court to invalidate administrative “红头文件” – red letterhead documents, i.e., normative documents of the type referenced in the JI.    The court reportedly also experimented in using live testimony and cross-examination in an atypical debate-style process. The pleadings were also entered into as part of the opinion after the party’s signatures confirmation. The decision does not yet appear to be on line, but a summary is attached  here (in Chinese).

Another procedurally significant decision involved the appearance of dissenting opinions in IP cases. Here again, the Beijing IP court is a trail and trial blazer in this recent experiment. The case involved Ernest Borel (Far East) Co. Ltd. and China’s Trademark Review and Adjudication Board. There were different opinions by the court on proof of copyright in the logo of Ernest Borel, including use of the original trademark registration and a subsequent copyright registration to prove that the design belonged to Ernest Borel. The minority opinion supported using these two registrations as a proof of copyright ownership.  Ernest Borel was attempting to prove that it owned the copyright in a logo that was being used by a Shenzhen company in its trademark registration (深圳市依波路保健科技有限公司).

Two notable experiments by an experimental court!

Note that the logo at the top of this article is a logo of Ernest Borel that I found online if for illustrative purposes only.  It does not imply any endorsement of the positions here by Ernest Borel.  It may not also be the trademark that is the subject of the pending case.  Any trademarks and copyrights are the property of their respective owners.

 

Synergies and Contrasts Between The National IP Strategy Action Plan and Fourth Plenum (with contrasting wordclouds)

 

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Here is an unofficial translation of the English language translation of the Action plan of the National IP Strategy (2014 -2020) (NIPS), about which I previously blogged. A wordcloud from this English translation is above – with an obvious focus on “management,” “strengthening,” “promotion” and “enforcement” and some mentioning of the “market.”  As the NIPS was released just weeks after the Fourth Plenum, it make a useful point of contrast on where China is headed on IP, including IP-related rule of law. An annotated version of the Fourth Plenum decision is available here for comparison.   For those with short attention span, or a strong visual orientation a wordcloud of the Fourth Plenum decision is found at the end of this post.  In short, the Fourth Plenum is emphasizing the “market,” “law” and “enforcement.”  The NIPS, however, seems to be all about strengthening the IP system.

The NIPS contains some interesting general goals, particularly in terms of developing IP intensive industries, including developing Chinese patent pools and Chinese cultural industries. promoting IP services, integration of IP into state science and technology plans, and expanding cooperation.   Some sticky issues, such as involving China’s multiple track system of protecting geographical indications will be changed into a unified system of some kind.  The NIPS also calls for a Chinese-type Section 337 remedy, as was originally contemplated in China’s Foreign Trade Law, ie., to “carry out investigations on infringement of Chinese IPR by imported products and other unfair competition acts in import trade.”

Regrettably, the NIPS keeps some of the failed metrics of its first implementation in place.  Patent filings will increase from 4 per 10,000 people in 2013, to 14 per 10,000 in 2020.  This means that SIPO will be receiving in excess of 6 million patent applications per year. In an implicit recognition of the problem I have noted that patent maintenance  is at least as important as patent applications, the NIPS also wants to increase the average maintenance period for invention patents from 5.8  years to 9.0  by 2020.  However this data point doesn’t resolve the problem of low maintenance rates for utility models and designs and it is to be hoped that in all cases, maintenance rates expand due to growth in the market and not due to the kinds of artificial subsidies that already plague China’s patent applications.   Among the market oriented targets, export growth in IP rights is also slated to grow from 1.36 billion USD in 2013 to 8 billion USD in 2020.  Commercialization-related goals reflect the goals of the Third Plenum, to increase IP utilization generally.

Here’s what the NIPS says about the judiciary:

“Strengthen.. the criminal law enforcement and the judicial protection of IP. We will intensify the investigation of IP crime cases and supervise the handling of key cases; persist in the combination of fight and prevention to gradually bring special campaigns onto the track of normalized law enforcement; strengthen the linkup between the administrative law enforcement of IP and criminal justice and intensify the handover of cases of suspected crimes; strengthen the trail of IP-violating criminal cases according to law, intensify the application of pecuniary penalty to deprive infringers of the capability and conditions for committing crimes again; strengthen the civil and administrative trial of IP to create a good innovation environment; provide human, financial and material guarantee and support for the establishment and operation of IP court according to the plan for establishment thereof.”

The NIPS seems to be following the lead of other agencies in judicially-related efforts.  In administrative law, it also supports  the State Council’s effort to promote administrative transparency, including extending it to credit reporting systems:

“We will … solidly push forward the disclosure of information on cases of administrative punishment of IP infringement to deter law violators and, in the meantime, promote standardized, just and civilized law enforcement by enforcers; incorporate the disclosure of case information into the scope of statistical notification of the efforts of cracking down on infringement and counterfeits and strengthen examination; explore the establishment of the credit standard related to IP protection to include acts of mala fide infringement in the social credit evaluation system, disclose the relevant information to credit reporting agencies and raise the social credit level for IP protection.”

However, regarding IPR-related commercial rule of law, one needs to focus a bit more on the Fourth Plenum.  Here are some of the significant judicial reforms that will affect IP:

Reform systems for judicial organs’ personnel and finance management, explore the implementation of separating courts’ and procuratorates’ judicial administrative management affairs and adjudication or procuratorate powers.

The Supreme People’s Court will establish circuit courts, to hearing major administrative and civil cases that cross administrative regions. Explore the establishment of People’s Courts and people’s procuratorates that cross administrative districts and handle cross-regional cases…

Reform systems for court acceptance of cases, change the case filing review system to a case filing registration system, and in cases that should be accepted by the People’s Courts, ensure parties’ procedural rights by requiring filing when there is a case, and requiring acceptance where there is a lawsuit…

Perfect systems for witnesses and experts appearing in court, ensure that courtroom hearings play a decisive role in ascertaining the facts, identifying the evidence, protecting the right of action, and adjudicating impartially.”

More broadly, here’s what the Fourth Plenum says about IP:

“Perfect a property rights system and an intellectual property rights system that encourage innovation, and structures and mechanisms to stimulate the transformation of scientific and technological achievements. Strengthen the construction of a legal system for the market, compile a civil code, … stimulate the free circulation, fair exchange and equal use of commercial products and factors, strengthen and improve macro-level coordination and market supervision according to the law, oppose monopolies, stimulate reasonable competition, safeguard a market order of fair competition. ”

Conclusion: It should come as no surprise that the Fourth Plenum, although more general, may more greatly impact IP-related judicial / legislative issues.  Based on a recent trip to Beijing, I understand that work is already underway to draft IP provisions of a civil code.  The new chief judge of the Supreme People’s Court IP tribunal (Song), the new Chief Judge of the Beijing IP Court (Su), the new Vice President of the SPC with authority over the IP tribunal  (Tao) all have civil law backgrounds.  In addition, consideration is being given to the specialized IP courts having a circuit court type role.  New technology assessors in the IP courts will affect the way that evidence is considered and will likely enhance the independence and professionalism of the courts. 

Will the Fourth Plenum further push China towards a more market-oriented approach to IP?  I personally believe that for the NIPS to work effectively, the decisive factors has to be the market.  Metrics for IP creation are meaningless unless there is utilization of IP.  Hopefully the Fourth Plenum will push the NIPS implementation even further in a market orientation, which is a key factor of the Fourth Plenum, as this wordcloud shows…

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