The Trump Administration and China IP Diplomacy: Old Wine In a New Bottle?

Two major China IP events occurred in late November and December. One of them was the long-awaited first phase of a settlement of the US-China trade war.  The second was the nomination of Wang Binying to replace Francis Gurry as Director-General of the World Intellectual Property Organization, a United Nations body and US reaction.  A common thread of concern over “IP Theft” unites the US perspective on these issues.  This is the first of a two-part blog, focusing first on the Phase One effort.

The First Phase Agreement

Although a final text of the 86 page agreement is reportedly being “scrubbed” by both sides to the negotiations, and will not be available until January, the Office of the US Trade Representative has called Phase One

an historic and enforceable agreement on a Phase One trade deal that requires structural reforms and other changes to China’s economic and trade regime in the areas of intellectual property, technology transfer, … The Phase One agreement also…establishes a strong dispute resolution system that ensures prompt and effective implementation and enforcement.

USTR’s fact sheet outlines these accomplishments in IP:

Intellectual Property: The Intellectual Property (IP) chapter addresses numerous longstanding concerns in the areas of trade secrets, pharmaceutical-related intellectual property, geographical indications, trademarks, and enforcement against pirated and counterfeit goods.

Technology Transfer: The Technology Transfer chapter sets out binding and enforceable obligations to address several of the unfair technology transfer practices of China that were identified in USTR’s Section 301 investigation. For the first time in any trade agreement, China has agreed to end its long-standing practice of forcing or pressuring foreign companies to transfer their technology to Chinese companies as a condition for obtaining market access, administrative approvals, or receiving advantages from the government. China also commits to provide transparency, fairness, and due process in administrative proceedings and to have technology transfer and licensing take place on market terms. Separately, China further commits to refrain from directing or supporting outbound investments aimed at acquiring foreign technology pursuant to industrial plans that create distortion.

In light of prior bilateral commitments and accomplishments by the Trump Administration to date, the fact sheet adds little that is new.

Let’s pull the IP paragraph apart:

China has already amended its laws regarding trade secrets and trademarks.  The reference to pharmaceutical-related intellectual property is, however, one welcome encouragement of efforts that were recently proposed in the CCP/State Council Opinionsgulation of November 2019.  These changes were in play before the trade war was launched, but had since been delayed.  This welcome recommitment is well supported by a new national appellate IP court, as well as by a recent decision by the new appellate IP Court combining civil and administrative adjudication in a patent dispute, which may also be a harbinger of a possible combined civil/administrative adjudication with third parties in other areas, such as for patent linkage such as with the China’s food and drug authorities or patent authorities.

USTR refers to the Phase One agreement as addressing “long-standing concerns” about trade secrets and “enforcement against pirated and counterfeit goods.”  One of the “long-standing concerns” in trade secrets involved enhancing administrative enforcement of trade secrets.  This commitment was expressed in the 2012 US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue and incorporated into plans of the National Leading Group.  Efforts to enhance “enforcement” against pirated and counterfeit goods appear is also redolent of increased administrative enforcement more generally – which downplays the significant changes underway in China’s judicial system, and have been the subject of numerous bilateral commitments under the former Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade.  For unknown reasons, many of the earlier JCCT commitments are no longer easily retrievable online, however, a list of commitments was prepared by GAO for the years 2004-2012, which demonstrates their long history.

Several factors combine to suggest that the US and China may be committing to a renewed focus on administrative enforcement: the role that administrative enforcement has played in the recent CPC-State Council Opinions on IP and other regulations, proposed legislation, and recent campaigns, and the problem of a long trade war without any acknowledged results which is affecting the markets and may drag into a presidential election cycle.  Late-term administrations may also be tempted to condone campaign-style IP enforcement, which can generate impressive enforcement statistics but have limited deterrence or long-term sustainability.    As Prof. Dimitrov has noted, IP campaigns are typically a “rapid resolution of a major problem,” done in response to a crisis or political pressure.  Prof. Mertha, another political scientist, described prior commitments to enforcement campaigns as part of the  “red face test: could the USTR state at a press conference, with a straight face, that the [trade] agreement was a good one.”  After much pain and drama, the Administration may yet be placing old wine in a new bottle, “rounding up the usual” enforcement outcomes —  as it ignores the scholarly literature surrounding campaign-driven outcomes of twenty to thirty years ago.  If these observations on Phase One are correct, then the goal of “structural change” in IP enforcement is illusive.

An administrative campaign focus would also ignore the low hanging fruit of China’s recent improvements and experiments in civil enforcement as well as pushing for further reform in administrative enforcement.  The Phase One Fact Sheet omits such pressing matters as continuing improvements in civil enforcement, long-standing problems with administrative enforcement transparency, promising developments in development of judicial precedent, the experiment of a new national appellate IP court similar to the CAFC,  the recent decline in foreign-related civil enforcement transparency, the dramatic decline in criminal IP enforcement including trade secret enforcement in the last several years, the need for rightsholders to have observable means of monitoring a trade agreement outcome in such areas as forced technology transfer or IP enforcement, or the impact of China’s aggressive antitrust regime on IP protection and commercialization, among other issues.   Enhanced punitive enforcement in enforcement, which both the US and China have also been calling for, may similarly be inconsistent with the primary goal of adequate compensation to victims of infringement. Furthermore, absent adequate procedural and substantive safeguards, this could also result in punishments being handed out to foreigners, as they have in the past.

The focus of an IP regime should instead be on transparency, fairness and adequate compensatory civil damages. Due to the many perceived weaknesses of China’s IP enforcement regime, the 2019 US-China Business Council, for example,  has noted in its 2019 survey that IPR enforcement was rated number 6 among the top 10 business challenges faced by the survey respondents.

The technology transfer language also contains much of the same old wine.  China committed to not conditioning foreign investment on technology transfer long before this trade war when it joined the WTO (2001).  It agreed at that time to provide for the “elimination and cessation of … technology transfer requirements” and that “the terms and conditions of technology transfer, production processes or other proprietary knowledge, particularly in the context of an investment, would only require agreement between the parties to the investment.“  Based on the Phase One fact sheet, it is also hard to see how Phase One agreement will add to the important additional legislative changes on this issue that China enacted earlier this year.

Rather than focus on legislative changes, the nature of the continued subsistence of forced technology transfer (FTT) is probably the more important trade issue at this time.  The 2019 Business Climate Survey of the American Chamber of Commerce in China characterized FTT as an “operational”, rather than a “legal” challenge, and placed technology transfer issues fifth in priority among IP-related concerns, well behind IP enforcement, with only 8 percent of respondents reporting it as the most significant IP issue their company faces.  This also appears to be the perspective of Prof. Prud’homme in his December 2019 presentation to the OECD, which outlines how FTT manifests itself.  Depending on the industrial sector, the Business Climate Survey notes that 41-58% of companies reported no difference in the amount of technology they shared with Chinese companies compared to other markets.  The US-China Business Council survey reached similar conclusions: technology transfer concerns ranked 24 out of 27 top concerns in the market. The Business Council further noted that only 5 percent of survey respondents report being asked to transfer technology in the past three years, yet the issue is an acute concern of affected companies in key sectors.

Has FTT declined as an issue of concern?  Earlier surveys by business chambers, before the trade war, suggested a higher incidence of FTT than is currently being reported.   Scholars and practitioners have also estimated that this issue has been exaggerated by the administration.  US data on sales of technology to China show a continued increase in technology licenses, as well as increases in licenses to unrelated parties, which may suggest greater confidence in the market and legal system.  One may argue about the sufficiency of the data, although the legal reforms and recent changes confirm to me that the principle strategic issue is how to ensure that technology is not lost through extra-legal /“operational” measures.

Another concern is that remedies for FTT  may end up again being another opaque process that may not bring the necessary relief.  As with the continuing emphasis on administrative enforcement of IP, China’s legislative efforts to date suggest that a principal remedy would be administrative remedies, as proposed implementing regulations to China’s Foreign Investment Law already suggest.

Conclusion: Is IP Any Different?

One of the better general overviews of the Phase One agreement had been written by Scott Kennedy for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  Scott’s article “A Fragile and Costly US-China Trade Peace” notes that  “ [I]n the short-term China and Xi Jinping are the clear winners. With only limited concessions, China has been able to preserve its mercantilist economic system and continue its discriminatory industrial policies at the expense of China’s trading partners and the global economy. “

The fact sheet for Phase One suggests that further dramatic improvements since the notable accomplishments of earlier this year may not be in the offing.  Perhaps these will be negotiated as part of any “Phase Two” deal.  For the moment, there is certainly nothing in these outcomes which sets forth a “structural change” such as might include a shift to a private property oriented approach to IP, including support of a civil system, a more limited role for the administrative system and less state intervention into IP protection, enforcement, and commercialization.  There is also no reference to the greater transparency necessary to enable rightsholders and governments to understand how China’s enforcement mechanisms operate to protect private rights in China’s socialist market economy.

Now, let’s see what the scrubbed text brings…

Upcoming blog: on the nomination of Wang Binying to WIPO Director-General.

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.

Edit 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 discipline 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.

Edit of December 18, 2019: Here’s a link to a presentation by Prof. Prud’homme at the OECD on the impact of FTT policies in China (Dec. 12, 2019).

Reviewing the 2017 SPC Report on IPR Judicial Protection: The Generalities and the Exceptions

There have been a number of empirical reports in recent weeks on China’s IP system. In this blog, I look at the annual Supreme People’s Court 2017 Report on the Situation Regarding Judicial Enforcement of IPR in China  (中国法院知识产权司法保护状况) which was released during IP week (the “Report”).

According to the Report, 2017 saw a major increase in IP litigation in China.  There were a total of 237,242 cases filed and 225,678 cases concluded, with an increase of 33.50% and 31.43%, respectively, compared to 2016.

First instance cases increased by 47.24% to 201,039.  Patent cases increased 29.56% to 16,010.  Other increases were in trademarks (37,946 cases/39.58%); copyright (137,267/57.80%); competition-related cases (including civil antitrust cases of 114) (2,543/11.24%).  Two counter-cyclical numbers stand out:  technology contract cases dropped by 12.62% to 2,098, and second instance cases increased by only 4.92% or 21,818 cases. Note that disaggregated numbers for civil trade secret cases are not disclosed in the Report, but are presumably included under “competition” cases.

Comparing dockets with the United States, in 2017 United States courts heard 4,057 cases patent cases, 3,781 trademark cases, and 1,019 copyright cases, according to Lex Machina.  The biggest margin of difference between the US and China was clearly in copyright cases.  Chinese courts heard 134.7 times more cases than the United States. However, Chinese copyright cases are less likely to be consolidated amongst different titles, claims or causes of actions, which can inflate the statistics  — although I doubt to a 100 or more fold level.

Administrative cases, the majority of which are constituted by appeals from the patent and trademark offices, showed an overall increase while patent validity cases decreased.  Administrative patent appeals dropped 22.35% to 872 cases, while administrative trademark cases increased to 7,931 cases, or by about 32.40%.  The drop in administrative patent cases is particularly notable in light of the increased activity in patent prosecution and patent licensing.  By comparison the numbers of Inter Partes Reviews undertaken by the USPTO during 2017, according to Lex Machina, were 1,723, in addition to 9 cases involving covered business method patents.

The SPC did not offer disaggregated reversal rates of the PRB and TRAB in its data; combined patent and trademark cases included 964 cases involved  affirming the administrative agency decisions; 150 involving a change in the administrative decision; 5 cases involved a remand for further review; and 24 cases were withdrawn.

Criminal IP cases have also continued to decline.  There were 3,621 first instance criminal IP cases in 2017, a decline of 4.69%.  Among those 3,425 involved trademarks (-3.93%) and 169 involved copyrights (-13.33%).  There was also a decline of 35% in adjudication of criminal trade secret cases to only 26 cases.  The decline in criminal cases since 2012 (when cases totaled over 13,000) especially in copyrights and trade secrets is odd as Chinese leadership has in fact recognized the need for deterrent civil damages, including punitive damages and criminal trade secret remedies.

The five provinces that receive the most IP cases continued to grow in influence. Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Guangdong saw an aggregate increase of 56.63% in IP cases, to 167,613 and now constitute 70.65% of all IP cases filed in China (p. 6).  Guangdong alone saw an increase of 84.7% to 58,000 cases and Beijing trailed behind at 25,932 cases with an increase of 49.2 percent.  Other less popular destinations also saw dramatic increases.  Jilin province had an increase of 210 percent, while Hunan and Fujian each saw increases of 73.8% and 73.14%.

Settlement and case withdrawal rates also changed in 2017.  Shanghai had the highest reported rate of the big five at 76.31%, while the inland province of Ningxia had an overall rate of 88.46%, including a 100 percent rate where litigants accepted judgments without appealing  服判息诉 (!).

The SPC also reported supporting 11 cross-district IP tribunals in Nanjing, Suzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Hefei, Fuzhou, Jinan, Qingdao and Shenzhen.  In addition, 10 provinces or autonomous cities established a system of combining civil, criminal and administrative jurisdiction over IP cases in their IP tribunals in the first half of 2017.  As noted however, despite this change in judicial structure, there was a decline in criminal enforcement and in some administrative appeals in 2017 overall (p.11).

The Report also notes that the SPC is actively supporting research on establishing a national specialized appellate IP Court (p. 10).   The SPC also actively participated in the providing comments on other draft laws, and devoted some effort to the revisions of the Anti-Unfair Competition law, including meeting three times with the legal affairs committee of the NPC, as well as numerous phone calls   According to the Report, the “majority of the opinions proposed were adopted into law” which leaves the question of what was not adopted.  One possibility may be the removal of a specific provision treating employees as “undertakings” under the revised AUCL.  In fact, I have heard that some NPC legislators are continuing to push for a stand-alone trade secret to further improve upon the revised AUCL.

The Report also points to several research projects undertaken by provincial courts.  Amongst those of interest are: a research project on disclosure of trade secret information in litigation in Jiangsu; a report on using market guidance for damages compensation of Guangdong Province; a report on standards essential patents in Hubei; and a research project of the Beijing IP Court on judicial protection of IP in international competition.

Regarding transparency, the Report notes that the SPC has published all of its cases on the Internet, however similar data is not provided for other sub-SPC courts (p. 16).

In international affairs, the Report notes that the SPC has participated in the discussions on the proposed treaty on recognition and enforcement of foreign civil judgments (p. 17), in the China-European IP dialogue, and has sent people to the annual meeting of INTA, amongst other activities.  No mention is made of US government engagements (p. 17).  This omission may be due to current political sensitivities.  Nonetheless, due to the increasing number of cross-border disputes and the need for better understanding of both our judicial systems, I believe judicial engagement with Chinese courts would continue to be a fruitful enterprise.  Indeed, Berkeley hopes to host a program on cross-border IP litigation with Tsinghua University Law School later this year.

Finally, while we are on the subject of the courts, I commend Susan Finder’s recent blog on how to translate court terminology.   I hope I have not departed too far here from her excellent suggestions!