Further Trade-Responsive IP Legislative Developments May Be In the Works…

“When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt.” (Leviticus, Vayikra וַיִּקְרָא) .

He Jing of the Anjie law firm brought to my attention today an article in the April 21 Legal Daily which identifies proposed amendments to the Trademark Law, Anti-Unfair Competition Law and Administrative Licensing law that appear to be responsive to United States concerns over unfair treatment of Americans, “forced technology transfer” and IP protection in the current trade war.   Here is a copy of the Legal Daily article.

While we wait for the actual draft, I will place these proposed changes in context.

In my posting on good faith in IP-related trade issues,  I identified several issues which this legislation attempts to address, including warehousing of bad faith trademark registrations without intent to use; and  the removal of “employee” as a covered party (经营者) in China’s revised trade secret law (Anti Unfair Competition Law) which facilitates bad-faith employee behavior.   Actually, I am relieved that China may now be understanding how tolerance of bad faith behavior has had a wide spread impact on foreign perceptions of China’s willingness to protect IP.  These are important new steps.

Other provisions this legislation attempts to address also appear to address long-standing US concerns, such as requiring the destruction of counterfeit goods or materials and tools used for their manufacture.  The destruction of semi-finished counterfeit goods and materials and tools was a subject of DS-362, the China IP enforcement case, particularly regarding Customs’ disposal of goods outside the channels of commerce and the role of semi-finished goods in calculating criminal thresholds.

Other concerns raised in the legislation have been raised bilaterally.  Bad faith trademark registrations had long been discussed bilaterallyProtecting confidential information submitted by foreigners in administrative licensing has also been a long-standing concern of the United States and has been the subject of several JCCT discussions.

Although these changes are positive, I am reluctant to enthusiastically endorse them in the absence of corresponding measures ensuring their implementation.  As previously noted, newly amended provisions in the new Foreign Investment Law prohibiting forced technology transfer are likely to have little impact absent effective complaint and legal challenge procedures, such as the creation of a foreign investment ombudsman and/or appeals to the newly established IP court.  The inclusion of a non-discrimination position in administrative licensing procedures is also welcome news, although it may be similarly difficult to monitor and enforce.

China’s existing trademark law shows the limitations of forcing changes in behavior through legislation.  The trademark law and civil law have had provisions requiring “good faith” behavior, yet there has been little demonstrable impact on the flood of bad faith applications, which had increased to 7.3 million applications in 2018.  Chinese-origin bad faith and fraudulent applications are also causing USPTO to revise its own rules regarding pro se trademark applications from overseas.

As other examples, providing for treble or quintuple damages in patent or trademark proceedings is only useful in those still rare proceedings where statutory damages are not being used to calculate damages.  Similarly, the burden of proof reversals in IP cases, such as trade secrets can be useful but only if they are appropriately and effectively utilized and if motion practice in the courts is observable through online publication. Increasing penalties in administrative trade secret cases sound good on paper, but foreigners little use administrative trade secret enforcement proceedings.  Such proceedings have traditionally been an IP enforcement backwater.  According to the 2011 SAIC Yearbook (p. 855), there were only 57 reported administrative trade secret cases in that year, with an average 77,543 RMB average value and only 1,430,000 RMB (less than five thousand dollars) in fines.  The greatest focus of these cases were individuals, as 26 cases involved natural persons.  The data suggests to me that these cases largely involve employer/employee disputes over trade secret misappropriation, which should be resolvable in the courts.  Perhaps even more striking was the 35% decline in criminal trade secret prosecutions in 2017 to only 26 cases, which was also accompanied by a significant decline in criminal IP cases generally since 2012.   To address tolerance of trade secret theft (and IP infringement) by Chinese society, the most effective approach will be a commitment to criminal trade secret enforcement and an even greater commitment to civil remedies.  The proposed legislation only addresses part of this need.

Substantive changes can only be as effective as they can be monitored.  With respect to changes in substantive trademark and trade secret law, it would be especially useful if the full court dockets and more final cases were published.  If the data cannot be observed, it cannot be monitored for compliance.

While these legislative developments are underway, there is also word that the State Council continues to solicit opinions from the foreign business community on how IP issues are handled on their behalf.  This may also lead to welcome news.

There have also been two separate, non-IPR developments, which may have some bearing on the negotiations over the resolution of the trade war.  According to Bloomberg, the European Union is said to have won a dispute brought by China at the WTO seeking recognition of China’s market economy status (“MES”).    A similar case is pending involving the United States.  The lessons from these cases for IP should be that both the US and the EU should encourage more comprehensive and systemic treatment by China of IP as a private right if China is ever to achieve full MES.

In another development, a WTO panel ruled in favor of Russia in a dispute brought by Ukraine that the “national security” exception afforded by the WTO was not completely self-judging. The case could be read as a warning that the United States does not have unbridled discretion in deciding what constitutes a threat to its national security.  Taken together both cases affirm the WTO’s desire to remain relevant to changing circumstances in China and a changed perspective on international trade of the United States.

I wish everyone a happy Passover, Easter or spring holiday.

Buddha

 

SIPO/IP Agencies to Be Reorganized and Consolidated

Several Chinese news agencies have reported on by the State Council, the proposed reorganization now being presented to the National People’s Congress, which will significantly rearrange all Chinese agencies, including IP agencies.

According to the plan, after the reform, the number of state-level ministries and commissions will be reduced by 8 and vice-ministerial agencies were reduced by 7.  State Councilor Wang Yong(王勇), who was formerly a Minister at AQSIQ (Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, 2008-2010) where he addressed tainted milk amongst other issues,  noted in introducing the changes to SIPO that “SIPO would be newly organized.  The creation, protection, utilization of IP will be strengthened as an important measure to speed up the establishment of an innovative economy.” The proposal includes combining trademarks and patents which are separately managed and have “redundant” enforcement authority.   These authorities will be combined with ASQISQ’s authority over Geographical Indications to establish a national State Market Supervision Adminsitration (国家市场监督管理总局) (“SMSA” for purposes of this blog).

Wang Yong’s statement in Chinese:

(九)重新组建国家知识产权局。强化知识产权创造、保护、运用,是加快建设创新型国家的重要举措。为解决商标、专利分头管理和重复执法问题,完善知识产权管理体制,方案提出,将国家知识产权局的职责、国家工商行政管理总局的商标管理职责、国家质量监督检验检疫总局的原产地地理标志管理职责整合,重新组建国家知识产权局,由国家市场监督管理总局管理。其主要职责是,负责保护知识产权工作,推动知识产权保护体系建设,负责商标、专利、原产地地理标志的注册登记和行政裁决,指导商标、专利执法工作等。商标、专利执法职责交由市场监管综合执法队伍承担。 

The creation of SMSA suggests that SIPO’s once lofty goal/dream of serving as an integrated IP agency, which was initiated by Dr. Gao Lulin when he was Commissioner, may have come to a temporary end.  At one time a stumbling block to this proposal may have been integrating the vast trademark enforcement resources of SAIC.  It appears that such an integration would likely be accomplished under the new SMSA.  Another legacy issue that may need to be addressed involves SIPO’s legacy authority over international IP which often overlapped with MofCOM’s authority over trade-related IP, which became especially important after WTO accession by China and may be even more challenging by the integration of SIPO into a bigger agency.  Noticeably absent from this proposal, however, are the copyright authority (under the National Copyright Administration), as well as trade secret protection (under SAIC).  Plant variety protection, already divided between two agencies (Agriculture, Forestries) with SIPO helping to support international engagement, is is also absent.  One view of these changes is that voices within China that look at IP (including patents) as an instrument of market regulation, including consumer protection, may have won out.  This approach was evident in the work of the National Leading Group Fighting IP Infringement and Substandard Products (全国打击侵权假冒办公室), as well as the increased activity of SIPO over the years in conducting market supervision actions involving false marking and patent infringements.  Indeed the wisdom of keeping this Leading Group within MofCOM in light of a new SMSA may be questioned; however, the Leading Group consists of many more agencies than SIPO, SAIC and AQSIQ.   Nonetheless the State Council had previously called for reducing redundancies in enforcing the market order, and it was also part of the yet to be adopted patent law revisions.  In that State Council opinion, which may be a guiding part of this reorganization, there is a call for  “the elimination of duplicative multilayered enforcement”, including territorial and subject matter overlaps. See: https://chinaipr.com/2014/07/16/state-councils-new-opinion-on-market-order/. 

The approach of creating a SMSA to address enforcement challenges is also distinct from the technology-oriented reforms of China’s judicial system in recent years, which have led to the creation of technology oriented IP courts as well as the creation of more autonomous IP  tribunals.  The incorporation of sui generis GI protection into SMSA agency also pits two sometimes rivalrous agencies with different perspectives on utilization of the trademark (private rights) system with a sui generis (more public rights oriented) system to protect GI’s.  Finally, it would also likely have the effect of elevating SIPO to a General Administration in the State Council structure, which is just below a Ministry-level agency.   This is somewhat more similar to the structure of the USPTO which is within the Department of Commerce in the United States.

How do the other IP agencies shake out?  It is too soon to know.  The Ministry of Culture is merging with the Tourism Administration.  Will the National Copyright Administration remain within the General Administration of Press and Publications/State Administration for Radio Film and Television structure? Also, there are some reports that the Ministry of Science and Technology is also being reorganized to absorb the State Foreign Experts Bureau and the China National Science Foundation.  Finally, the Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council is reportedly moving to the Ministry of Justice.    The SCLAO has exercised a tremendously important role over the years in crafting IP legislation.  The impact of some of these changes will also likely depend on personnel shifts within the agencies.  In addition, it could impact or accelerate efforts already in place by these agencies.  For example, will the change in the SCLAO structure affect long-overdue proposed revisions to China’s copyright law, which reportedly are once again the subject of active discussion? Similarly, it is unclear to me at this stage what impact there will be on the China Food and Drug Administration (reorganized in 2013), in light of other changes to health-oriented agencies and SIPO, and if this will affect, or perhaps accelerate, efforts to reform IP administration by SFDA, such as through a patent linkage regime.  

These proposed changes elicit more questions than answers; we will need to see how they are enacted and implemented in the coming months.  We welcome corrections and additional information from readers!

Update of March 14: Fu Yiqin at Yale has put together a useful summary of proposed State Council reorganizations.  Here is the link: https://yiqinfu.github.io/posts/state-council-reform/.  Fu Yiqin notes that the State Food and Drug Administration and antitrust enforcement agencies will be combined in the State Market Supervision Administration (where SIPO, et al will also be located).  SARFT is maintained as a separate agency in this chart.  Other news has SARFT being restructured: http://deadline.com/2018/03/china-abolish-sapprft-media-authority-consequences-xi-jinping-1202336724/.  Clearly we need some more dust to settle on some of these issues. Hypothetically if antitrust and IP are combined into one agency (perhaps including copyright), and if IP enforcement also is combined into that agency, the problem of the inherent conflict of interests between IP grants, IP enforcement and controlling for IP abuse would be heightened.  However, if SFDA is also combined with SIPO/other IP agencies, there is also the possibility for greater coordination on pharma-related IP issues, such as linkage. I will be updating this as more information becomes available.  Note that in a prior blog, I abbreviated SMSA as GAMA – I am following the nomenclature of Fu Yiqin.

Update of May 7, 2018:  Here is a thoughtful article by the Anjie law firm on the government restructuring which points to the increased supervisory role of the new agency over SIPO’s formulation of IP strategy, as well as the new role of the Ministry of Justice in reviewing legislation.

 

 

 

Beginning the Journey for Trade Secret Reform: the Recent AUCL Draft

A much awaited, proposed public draft revision to the Antiunfair Competition Law was released by the State Council Legislative Affairs Office on February 25, 2016. Comments are due by March 25, 2016.  An open source translation is available here.

This is not an easy law to comment on, as the law combines a range of various issues to varying degrees: competition and fair trade law, trade secrets law, trade dress law, cybersquatting and enterprise name infringements, advertising regulation, bidding law, compliance/anti-bribery, network management and other areas.  Strictly speaking it is not an IP law which focuses on giving individuals private rights.  Rather, it is geared towards ensuring that there is fair competition in the market, as its title suggests.

A key focus for me has been on the trade secret provisions of the draft.  Pertinent provisions are discussed and copied below:

“Article 9: A business operator must not carry out the following acts infringing on trade secrets:

(1) Obtaining rights holders’ trade secrets by theft, enticement, intimidation, fraud, or other improper tactics;

(2) Disclosing, using, or allowing others to use a rights holders’ trade secrets acquired by tactics provided for in the previous item;

(3) Disclosing, using, or allow others to use trade secrets in their possession, in violation of agreements or the rights holders’ demands for preserving trade secrets.

Where a third party clearly knows or should know of unlawful acts listed in the preceding paragraph, but obtains, discloses, uses or allows others to use a rights holders trade secrets, it is viewed as infringements of trade secrets.

(一)以盗窃、利诱、胁迫、欺诈或者其他不正当手段获取权利人的商业秘密;

(二)披露、使用或者允许他人使用以前项手段获取的权利人的商业秘密;

(三)违反约定或者违反权利人有关保守商业秘密的要求,披露、使用或者允许他人使用其所掌握的商业秘密。

“Trade secrets” as used in this Law refers to technological information and business information that are not publicly known, have commercial value, and are subject to corresponding secrecy measures taken by the rights holder.”

Importantly, the draft drops the earlier statutory requirement that trade secrets had to have practical applicability, a “TRIPS-minus” provision which may have had the effect of denying trade secret protection to experimental failures.  The distinction between technical information and business information in this draft may also reflect other laws and government agencies some of which, like the Ministry of Science and Technology and SIPO have expressed interest in “technical trade secrets” or “service invention” compensation for trade secrets. Chinas IP courts similarly have jurisdiction over technical trade secrets, but not business confidential information.

The law also expands the scope of a covered business operator, to include natural persons, which is a positive step:

“‘Business operators’ as used in this Law refers to natural persons, legal persons or other organizations engaged in the production or trade of goods, or the provision of services. (“goods” hereinafter includes services). “(Art. 2)

The draft offers very little in the way of improving procedures for trade secret litigation.  There are improvements to trade secret administrative enforcement.

“Chapter III: Supervision and Inspection

Article 15: When supervision and inspection departments investigate acts of unfair competition, they have the right to exercise the following powers of office:

(1) Enter business premises or other venues related to the conduct under investigation to conduct inspections;

(2) Question business operators under investigation, interested parties, or other entities or individuals, and request supporting materials, data, technical support or other materials relating to the acts of unfair competition;

(3) Make inquiries about, or reproduce, agreements, account books, invoices, documents, records, business correspondence, audio-visual materials or other materials relating to the acts of unfair competition;

(4) Order business operators under investigation to suspend suspected unlawful acts, to explain the source and quantity of property related to the conduct under investigation, and to not transfer, conceal or destroy that property;

(5) Carry out the sealing or seizing of property suspected to be involved with acts of unfair competition;

(6) Make inquiries into the bank accounts of business operators suspected of acts of unfair competition as well as accounting vouchers, books, statements and so forth relating to deposits;

(7) Where there is evidence of the transfer or concealment of unlawful funds, an application may be made to the judicial organs to have them frozen.

Article 16: When supervision and inspection departments are investigating acts of unfair competition, business operators under inspection, interested parties or other relevant units or individuals shall truthfully provide relevant materials or circumstances, shall cooperate with supervision and inspection departments performing duties according to law, and must not refuse or obstruct supervision and inspection.”

Although I believe most right holders seek improvements in trade secret enforcement, including more deterrent remedies, I am uncertain how much those desires extend to administrative enforcement.  Transferring of relevant confidential material to an SAIC official tasked with trade secret enforcement will raise concerns of further trade secret leakage, which are probably not of equal concern in the case of administrative enforcement of, for example, trade dress infringements covered under this draft law.    Moreover, the State Council has elsewhere stated that all administrative cases should be conducted ex-officio.  To me administrative ex-officio enforcement of trade secrets, with authority to enter business premises to inspect and conduct investigations, is problematic.

The draft law also seeks to increase administrative fines for trade secret theft, and improve burden of proof issues:

“Article 22: Where business operators violate the provisions of Article 9 of this law, the supervision and inspection departments shall order them to cease the unlawful acts, and shall impose a fine between 100,000 and 3,000,000 RMB depending on the circumstances; where the act constitutes a crime, criminal responsibility is pursued in accordance with law.

Where the rights holders of trade secrets can prove that information used by others is substantially the same as their trade secrets and that those others had the capacity to obtain their trade secrets, those others shall bear the burden of proof to show that the information they used came from lawful sources.”

It is unclear to me from Article 22, that this “burden of proof” reversal in the second paragraph above applies to administrative enforcement or civil enforcement, or even criminal process.  Moreover, the requirement of substantial similarity of the technology for the shifting to take effect, is probably too high a threshold, having been an impediment for plaintiffs in trade secret litigation in China to date.

Does this law go far enough in addressing trade secret issues in China?

Although SAIC has historically conducted many administrative trademark cases on behalf of foreigners, historically trade secret administrative enforcement has not significantly benefitted foreign companies or small enterprises.  As I previously blogged:

That there were 174 trade secret cases [for 2008-2010] out of 110,896 cases involving the Law to Counter Unfair Competition, or about 0.2% of the total. In addition, the data shows that average fines were 11,624 Yuan, and only 7 cases or about 4 % of the trade secret case were referred to criminal enforcement.  Like the civil system, the administrative system also appears to be frequently used to address employee theft of confidential information.  Precisely one third, or 58 of these 174 cases involved individual respondents; 24 involved private companies  (14%) and 23 cases involved individual businesses (13%).   There were no cases where a state owned enterprise or publicly held company was named as a defendant in an administrative action.  

One may question, therefore, whether this draft revision of the AUCL addresses the full range of substantive and procedural improvements that need to be made to improve trade secret enforcement in China, much of which may be more uniquely linked to trade secret protection compared to other IP rights.  Moreover, many of the problems are amplified by comparison with trade dress or other provisions of this draft law.

Much of the problem with trade secret protection has been in the lack of discovery in the civil system.  One significant advantage of improved trade secret administrative enforcement however could be in facilitating the transfer of information obtained in administrative investigations to civil courts or law enforcement authorities, consistent with State Council guidance on facilitating case transfers.  Improving civil procedures for trade secret cases could also greatly help in civil prosecution of trade secret cases, including by making necessary changes in evidence collection, burden of proof reversals, and other areas.

The current draft appears unduly oriented to instances where trade secret theft has actually occurred.  One critical area concerns the availability of relief for threatened misappropriation of trade secrets including preliminary injunctions, adoption of “inevitable disclosure” type doctrines, and evidence or asset preservation measures.  Such measures can be especially important as the harm that may be caused by a misappropriation may be incapable of being compensated for by the misappropriator or beneficiary of the theft. Although revisions to China’s Civil Procedure Law now permit preliminary injunctions for trade secret theft (Eli Lilly vs. Huang Mengwei),  China may wish to consider specific provisions in this law to facilitate more liberal dispensation of provisional remedies.  China had specifically provided for preliminary injunctive relief in other IP laws, before the most recent Civil Procedure law amendments, and may want to consider appropriate provisions for trade secrets.

Regarding threat of trade secret law, the current law also only addresses “disclosing, using, or allowing others” to use the secret information.   This deficiency could easily be remedies by including language on threat or imminent trade secret theft.    The Uniform Trade Secrets Act in the United States, by comparison, specifically addresses “actual or threatened misappropriation” which may be enjoined, and also provides a remedy for trade secret inducement.  The TRIPS Agreement itself clarifies that a key focus of WTO member trade secret obligations is “preventing information lawfully within their control from being disclosed to, acquired by, or used by others without their consent in a manner contrary to honest commercial practices.” (emphasis added).  The need for preventative measures is also reflected in TRIPS Article 41, which requires WTO members to have “expeditious remedies to prevent infringements.”  In addition, inducement liability is being considered in other China IP laws (patent/copyright) and does not appear to be part of this draft.  A clear definition of inducement liability may be helpful in limiting losses due to third party misappropriation of trade secrets.

China’s trade secret regime also has several other challenges, including difficult criminal thresholds; unclear relationships with labor law, labor mobility regulations, and employee non-competes; difficulties in gathering evidence; unclear divisions among the appropriate role of civil, criminal and administrative remedies;  and even an emphasis on trade secret protection as an aspect of market regulation, rather than as a civil IP right, as is under consideration.    Some of these deficiencies may be cured by judicial interpretation and guidance, as was previously addressed by the Supreme Peoples Court in an earlier Judicial Interpretation.

The focus on market regulation denies trade secret holders in China the ability to address infringement based on where a product that benefits from a trade secret misappropriation is sold, but instead may require litigation where the misappropriation occurred.  See Siwei v. Avery Dennison (Min San Zhong Zi No. 10/2007) (Sup. People’s Ct. 2009) (China).   This may also encourage foreign litigants, concerned about  local protectionism or undue influence of local companies on local courts, to seek remedies elsewhere (such as through Section 337 remedies in the United States).  In addition, the lack of discovery can also lead to the “exporting” of such litigation.  Making these necessary procedural improvements, including improving “success rates” for domestic trade secret cases and improving procedures for gathering evidence, may also enhance China’s position that Chinese judgements in trade secret cases are entitled to res judicata effect in other jurisdictions.

Former SPC Vice President, now Chief Procurator  Cao Jianming 曹建明, noted in 2005,  trade secret enforcement was the area with the “greatest difficulties” for the courts Industry has also raised concerns about many of these deficiencies.  While many of the changes in the AUCL on trade secret protection are positive, a more comprehensive approach could require reforms in other areas, including the practices of law enforcement and the courts, administrative law reform, civil law reform, and/or a stand-alone trade secret law.

My personal estimation: the AUCL draft is a beginning and not an end in the trade secret reform process.