IPO Comments on the Trade Secret Rules

The Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPO)  has submitted bilingual comments to SAMR on the draft Trade Secret Rules 《商业秘密保护规定(征求意见稿) 》.   The comments are found here and at the IPO website   I blogged about these rules previously here

IPO’s substantive trade secret comments on a range of issues governed by both the Phase 1 Trade Agreement and emerging best practices are especially welcome. In my view, IPO also correctly notes that “[t]he Draft Rules contemplate an expansive role for administrative authorities in connection with trade secret enforcement.” It properly advocates for harmonization with the people’s courts in such matters as “uniformity, predictability, transparency, oversight, and procedural protections that are provided to the affected parties through judicial review.”   IPO also notes that rule making like this would be better if accomplished through than State Council Regulations to ensure that they are sufficiently authoritative.  I also agree. 

Thank you IPO for making these publicly available!

SAMR’s Draft Trade Secret Rule: An Unchartered Step Forward?

As previously discussed, SAMR released a draft trade secret protection rule for public comments on September 4 (the “Rule”).  Comments are due October 18, 2020.  I have attached here a draft translation of the Rule. 

The Rule supersedes prior SAIC rules on trade secrets enacted in 1995 and amended in 1998. Like the earlier rules, this Rule is primarily directed towards administrative enforcement of trade secrets.   The Rule does drift into the jurisdiction of many other agencies and laws, many of which are not within the jurisdiction of SAMR.

A noticeable element of the Phase 1 Trade Agreement with China of January 15, 2020 is that it failed to require China to take any administrative measures or campaigns against trade secret infringement, although it did request administrative measures in other areas.  This omission may not have been an oversight.  My hope is that the negotiators may have recognized that a JCCT commitment made between the US and China in 2013 which obligated China to take administrative enforcement measures including “adopt[ing] and publish[ing] an Action Program on trade secrets protection and enforcement” accomplished little due to the inherent weaknesses at that time in trade secret administrative enforcement and the unwillingness of foreign companies to come forward with administrative trade secret complaints. It is unclear to me whether SAMR can address these institutional challenges due to the inherent sensitivity of most trade secret cases.

Broadly speaking, the Rule seeks to further expand and legitimize administrative enforcement as a viable vehicle for trade secret enforcement.  However, ambiguities in the Rule, uncertainties over jurisdictional issues, as well as uncertainty around SAMR’s available resources may limit its effectiveness.  The ambiguities begin with the title to this document: it is nominally a “rule” (gui’ding) rather than a State Council enacted regulation (fagui). Under the Law on Legislation, this will limit the effectiveness of the Rule in governing other agencies’ actions or directing judicial actions.  Another overarching concern is how the Rule aligns with judicial interpretations and other guidance from the courts on trade secret infringement.  These documents were previously discussed here.

The earlier rules overtly discriminated against foreign natural persons by only providing protection for Chinese citizens.  This draft Rule does not significantly improve on that discriminatory provision.  It only offers protection for Chinese trade secrets (Art. 3).    

Foreign companies who have generally preferred civil or criminal remedies for trade secret infringement may consider initiating administrative cases as an alternative or precursor to such lawsuits owing to such factors as their greater speed, their ability to gather and preserve evidence, available of administrative injunctions and the support that may be given by local authorities.  However, I believe that China’s IP courts have the greater capacity to handle technologically complex issues, have not been burdened by a record of statutory discrimination against foreigners, and may continue to be the preferred destination for resolution of most cases. 

Here are some other concerns:

Art. 5: The rule encompasses technical information, business information and other commercial information.  This may reflect a commitment made by China in the Phase 1, footnote 1 defining trade secrets.  The Phase 1 Agreement also includes “electronic intrusions” within the scope of trade secrets.  To me, an electronic intrusion is an act, not a type of information.  See Article 9 of the Anti-Unfair Competition Law revisions (AUCL), which defines electronic intrusion as an infringing act.

Art. 7: Defines “commercial value” as arising when an intruder tries to obtain a trade secret by “improper means.”  To me this is a method of conduct, not something that defines a value.  Perhaps this language is intended to address a situation where a “luckless infringer” mistakenly believes a trade secret has significant value, as was the case in T-Mobile v. Huawei dispute over the “Tappy” robot, where no damages had been found by the jury.  As in the criminal investigation of Huawei in the United States, the impact of this provision may be to permit a public remedy (administrative enforcement) where a private civil remedy was lacking due to no damages.

Article 8: Lists confidentiality measures, any of which may be held to be sufficient to protect confidential information.  This seems too lax to me: the adequacy of the protective measures should be based on the type of information and how it is used, not on whether there is one adequate measure in a range of possible measures to address some of the risks of misappropriation.

Article 10: Sets the criteria for determining ownership of a trade secret.  Trade secrets are a subject of the civil law (Article 123 of the General Provisions of the Civil Law, 中华人民共和国民法总则).  Questions about employee ownership of IP rights have been hotly debated in China  I believe it is inappropriate to try and resolve such questions in a administrative rule making.  SIPO had previously attempted such an effort involving all IP rights, which involved extensive interagency coordination.  Given the complexity of the issue, and the close relationship between trade secrets and other IP rights,  a high level agency or party effort, or a coordinated inter-agency process involving the courts is the appropriate way to address these issues. 

The Rule also does not fully contemplate the impact of other statutes and regulations on determining what constitutes reasonable efforts to protect a trade secret, including cybersecurity laws, company laws, labor laws, contract law, technology licensing regulations and other national interests.  See also Article 14(3), Article 18 (regarding privacy laws) and Article 32 (regarding compulsory licensing of trade secrets) and Article 37 (state secrets).

Article 12: Refers to business “operators” rather than rightsholders.  This addresses Phase 1 Agreement concerns (Art. 1.3) that all natural and legal persons should be considered business operators.  The change first appeared in Article 2 of the AUCL.  It would ultimately be simpler if references to “business operators” were eliminated entirely, as it leaves open the question of under what circumstances an individual is a business operator and unnecessarily underscores the lineage of the AUCL as an unfair competition law rather than an IP law.

Article.13: The definition of what constitutes “disclosure” of a trade secret leaves open a catch-all “etc.”  The draft would benefit by specifically enumerating the unauthorized publication of a patent as constituting an unauthorized use of a trade secret.  Allegations that individuals have misappropriated trade secrets from the United States and used the underlying information to file patents have been made in US litigation.

Articles 18:  Trade secret complaints are lodged with the county government.  There are over 2,800 county level administrations in China. This process was dictated by the AUCL revisions (Art. 4) and may ultimately represent a huge expansion in administrative enforcement of trade secrets, similar to the expansion of administrative patent enforcement and the contemplated expansion in administrative copyright enforcement in proposed copyright law revisions. The expansion could pose risks of abuse by well connected local companies suing their competitors for trade secret theft.

An exception regarding filing of trade secret complains exists if the complaint involves a foreigner.  The complaint must then be filed at the provincial government level (Art. 38). 

Article 19: Potentially broad exceptions to trade secret protection are established by the Rule, including for reverse engineering, shareholders accessing company information, and disclosing information in the public interest.  The Rule does not limit these exemptions by requiring that any confidential information that is obtained is appropriately protected or limited.

Art. 24: The Phase 1 Trade Agreement requires a burden of proof reversal in civil trade secret proceedings (Art. 1.5) as does the AUCL (Art. 32).  This Article contemplates a similar mechanism for administrative enforcement proceedings.   

Art. 29: SAMR may mediate trade secret disputes and arrange for compensation.  This provision, along with other provisions on referring matters to civil or criminal litigation, raises issues about the type of coordination that will be instituted among civil, criminal and administrative enforcement.  As SAMR fines are a means of punishing infringement, a better approach might be to let judicial institutions mediate disputes, as they are often engaged in mediation in the context of on-going litigation.    

Art. 31: Another issue of enforcement coordination involves high civil fines.  Such fines may be used to substitute for criminal enforcement or could reduce the availability of civil compensation, and should be avoided in such circumstances.

Art. 33: A good faith infringement defense is provided where the infringer can show that it has paid reasonable compensation. This may open up a window for fictitious or under-valued contracts to minimize trade secret litigation exposure.

Article 36: This Article requires that state organs not reveal trade secrets.  This is also required by Article 1.9 of the Phase 1 Agreement.  However, it is questionable whether SAMR has jurisdiction over the behavior of other agencies. This provision is welcome, but may also be another legislative overreach.

Please send your comments or corrections on this blog and my draft translation

SAMR Releases Legislative Work Plan for 2020

On 26 March 2020, SAMR released its Legislative Work Plan for 2020 (“2020 Legislative Plan”) 国家市场监督管理总局2020 年立法工作计划. In 2020, 7 draft laws and administrative regulations行政法规, including the Amendment to the Detailed Rules for the Implementation of the Patent Law and the Amendment to the Anti-Monopoly Law, will be proposed for deliberation to the Ministry of Justice. Additionally, 48 administrative rules部门规章 will be formulated or amended.

SAMR’s practice is to designate one or two SAMR bureaus/departments with primary drafting responsibility for these projects. This is likely the second time that a yearly legislative work plan was publicly released since SMAR was organized in 2018. The prior legislative work plan is here.

The Class I Projects of administrative rules shall be submitted for legal review by June 30, 2020,  and completed by the end of the year. The 2020 Legislative Plan does not give a specific deadline for the 7 laws and administrative regulations, as well as the Class II Projects of administrative rules. It simply states that these categories shall be submitted for review on time, ensuring high-quality and efficiency (“部门规章第二类项目以及法律、行政法规,要确保高质高效推进,按期送审”).

IP-related projects, drafting departments, and some brief comments follow below:

Laws and Administrative Regulations:

1.Anti-Monopoly Law 中华人民共和国反垄断法. On January 2, 2020, SAMR issued the Draft Amendments to China’s AML (Draft for Public Comment) “反垄断法”修订草案 公开征求意见稿) (“Draft AML Amendments”). The ABA’s Antitrust Law and International Law Sections submitted comments to SAMR on the Draft AML Amendments. According to the NPC Observer, the Draft AML Amendments are on the State Council’s calendar for the 13th NPC Standing Committee Legislative Plan. It is a priority Class II Project. According to the recent government reorganization, it would otherwise be expected that the Ministry of Justice would prepare a draft of the AML revisions for consideration by the State Council which would then forward on to the NPC for three readings.  As mentioned in a previous blog, Article 55 of current AML (Article 62 of the Draft AML Amendments) stayed unchanged in the most recent draft and there are otherwise very little IP-related amendments contemplated at this time. 

Drafting Department: Anti-Monopoly Bureau

6.Regulations for the Implementation of the Drug Administration Law 中华人民共和国药品管理法实施条例  On August 26, 2019, China’s National People’s Congress adopted the new Drug Administration Law (“DAL”), which took effect on December 1, 2019. The legislative history is set forth in the NPC Observer. As noted in the previous blog, the new law addresses some important issues involving counterfeit and substandard medicines. However, it does little to improve the IP regime for innovative medicines.

In order to coordinate the implementation of the DAL, the revision of other supporting regulations and administrative rules will be further implemented this year.

The Regulations for the Implementation of the DAL had been amended and published on March 2, 2019. It has now been put into the Legislative Plan again. These revisions may be intended to implement changes in the newly revised DAL. On the other hand, it is also hoped that a linkage system would emerge as part of a package of legal reforms as contemplated by the US-China Phase 1 Agreement and to implement an earlier CFDA policy decision.

In addition, this 2020 Legislative Plan includes more than ten Drug/Medical Devices-related administrative rules, including: Measures for the Administration of Drug Registration药品注册管理办法, Measures for the Supervision and Administration of Drug Production药品生产监督管理办法, Measures for the Supervision and Administration of Drug Operations药品经营监督管理办法, Measures for the Supervision and Administration of Drug Online Sales药品网络销售监督管理办法, Measures for the Administration of Registration of Medical Devices医疗器械注册管理办法, Measures for the Supervision and Administration of Medical Devices医疗器械生产监督管理办法, and the Measures for the Supervision and Administration of Medical Devices医疗器械经营监督管理办法

Drafting Department: National Medical Products Administration (NMPA)

7.Rules for the Implementation of the Patent Law 中华人民共和国专利法实施细则. The Rules for the Implementation of the Patent Law, were last amended in 2010. It is likely that these amendments will also be in the form of amendment to the previous Rules,  and perhaps may anticipate some of the changes expected in a revised patent law

On January 4, 2019, the National People’s Congress released a public comment draft of the long-awaited revised patent law. The NPC Observer’s summary of the legislative history to date is here. As we noted previously, a major disappointment remains the absence of a patent linkage regime, including a notion of “artificial infringement.” If the new Patent Law fails to address patent linkage, then the Rules for the Implementation of the Patent Law are also very likely to omit a patent linkage regime.

Drafting Department: China National Intellectual Property Administration (CNIPA)

Administrative Rules:

 Class I Projects

10.Provisions on Prohibiting Infringements upon Trade Secrets禁止侵犯商业秘密若干规定.  SAIC, as a predecessor agency to CNIPA, promulgated the Provisions on Prohibiting Infringements upon Trade Secrets in 1995 and amended it in 1998. These Provisions were formulated in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Unfair Competition Law then in effect.  These early rules were especially important for administrative enforcement of trade secrets and do need to be amended in light of recent revisions to the Anti-Unfair Competition law.  One overdue change is to correct language that specifically enumerated rights in trade secrets to Chinese citizens, legal persons or other organizations, and not to all natural persons such as foreign natural persons, which is a legacy that unnecessarily violates national treatment obligations (Art. 2): “The term ‘rights holder’ in these regulations refers to citizens, legal persons or other organizations that have ownership or use rights over trade secrets according to law. ” 本规定所称权利人,是指依法对商业秘密享有所有权或者使用权的公 民、法人或者其他组织。

In addition, in the Phase 1 IP Agreement, the trade secret provisions generally memorialize amendments already made to China’s Anti-Unfair Competition Law, including an expanded scope in defining “operator” (Art. 1.3), acts that constitute trade secret infringement (Art. 1.4), as well as a shifting of the burden of proof in civil proceedings where there is a reasonable basis to conclude that a trade secret infringement has occurred (Art. 1.5). The Agreement also requires China to change its trade secret thresholds for “initiating criminal enforcement.” (Art. 1.7).  It is hoped that some of these provisions will be incorporated into China’s administrative trade secret enforcement mechanisms.

Drafting Department: Price Supervision and Inspection and Anti-Unfair Competition Bureau

36.Measures for the Administration of Trademark Agency 商标代理管理办法

Drafting Department: CNIPA

37. Provisions on Protecting Geographical Indication Products地理标志产品保护规定. Prior rules in this area had been adopted by one of the precursor agencies to SAMR, the State Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine in furtherance of China’s sui generis GI system. On April 3, 2020, CNIPA promulgated the Administrative Measures for the Use of Geographical Indications (Trial) 地理标志专用标志使用管理办法(试行). These measures will hopefully also be harmonized with China’s trademark-based GI system, which is also undergoing reform (see item 55, below). 

Drafting Department: CNIPA

38. Official Logo Protection Measures官方标志保护办法. On March 24, CNIPA released Official Logo Protection Measures (Draft for Public Comment). Comments will be due on April 23, 2020.  

 Drafting Department: CNIPA

 Class II Projects

54. Provisions on the Determination and Protection of Well-Known Trademarks驰名商标认定和保护规定.

Drafting Department: CNIPA

55Administrative Measures Concerning the Registration of Collective Marks and Certification Marks集体商标、证明商标注册和管理办法.

Drafting Department: CNIPA

Class I Projects Administrative Rules Nos. 36 and 37 and Class II Projects Nos. 54 and 55 all have prior effective versions that were issued in 2014 or earlier.  It is likely that these projects will be in the form of amendments to the previous Administrative Rules.

Prepared by Dr. Xu Xiaofan and Mark Cohen