US Suspends IP Case Against China at the WTO. Quo Vadis Europa?

DS/542, the WTO case that the US filed against China regarding China’s legal regime for foreign technology transfers, has now been suspended by order of the Panel.  The parallel case that was filed later by the European Union has not yet been similarly suspended.

When I was in Beijing earlier this June 2019, I gave several talks regarding US-China trade, and I questioned why the US case was not suspended or dismissed. The US case set forth a very limited “de jure” or “as such” case of violation of certain TRIPS obligations, including national treatment with respect to licensing of patents, as well as TRIPS-inconsistent measures regarding the contribution of patents to joint ventures.  By filing the case immediately after the 301 Report regarding technology transfer and innovation, the US case seemed to be making the point that the WTO was still a viable mechanism for certain of the US complaints regarding China’s technology transfer regime.  It was welcomed by those who believe that the WTO continues to play an important role in trade disputes. Suspending the case now in a sense confirms that Donald Trump accomplished legislative reform more quickly with jaw-boning and tariffs than the WTO could have with dispute settlement proceedings.

However, the White House should also not rush to praise itself on the utility of its approach to using the WTO dispute mechanisms.  As I previously noted, the US complaint was narrow.  It only focused on a few laws and regulations regarding patents.  With the passage earlier this year of numerous legislative reforms, including removal of the most offensive provisions of the Administration of Technology Import/Export Regulations, as well as amendments to the Joint Venture Implementing Regulations what the US sought to challenge as de jure WTO violations have been resolved.  Numerous other issues that were identified in the Section 301 report, whether credible or not, were not raised in the WTO complaint.  In some aspects, this case was long overdue and relatively straight-forward.

Why has the EU case not been dismissed?  One explanation may be that the EU may yet follow the lead of the US in seeking a suspension based on how the current legislative packages are implemented. If the EU does not move to suspend the case,  an alternative explanation is that the EU case was more comprehensive than the US case and therefore harder to suspend or dismiss.  The EU case may yet stand as a raison d’etre for the WTO dispute mechanism.  The EU raised concerns over a wider range of laws, regulations, and policies, including Made in China 2025, antitrust laws and new electric vehicle regulations. It also included catch-all claims that extended to how laws and other normative documents are implemented, including their  “nullify[ing] or impair[ing]” the benefits accruing to the European Union.

In its summary of the EU complaint, the WTO docket sheet narrowed the EU’s complaints down to more closely mirror the US complaints.  If these are indeed the only claims that the EU is now pursuing than a similar suspension would make sense.  However, if the complaint remains unamended, it is the kind of complaint the US might have filed as an outcome of the Section 301 investigation.  This now leaves the EU with the option of continuing to push for additional improvements in tech transfer to China through the WTO system or, instead, pursuing other solutions such as trade diplomacy.

 

Unpacking the Role of IP Legislation in the Trade War

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Here is my attempt to unpack recent legislation and their relevance to the on-going trade dispute.

In recent months, China has amended its Foreign Investment Law, the Technology Import/Export Regulations (“TIER”), the Anti-Unfair Competition Law regarding trade secrets, and the Trademark Law, with new provisions on bad faith filings and damages. A summary of the Trademark Law revisions provided by SIPS is found here. China also amended the Joint Venture Regulations provisions removing provisions that which limited a foreign licensor’s freedom to license technology beyond years or to restrict use of licensed technology after the 10 year period had elapsed.

With the revisions to the TIER and the JV regulations, much of the basis for the US and EU complaints against China at the WTO regarding de jure forced technology transfer may have evaporated (WTO Disputes DS542, and DS549). However, the public dockets do not indicate that the cases have been withdrawn.

China seems to have determined that it has crossed a line in how much it can accommodate US demands. Bloomberg reported on a commentary published after the imposition of escalated sanctions in the influential “China Voice” column of the People’s Daily which accused the US of fabricating forced technology transfer claims. The commentary is entitled “If you want to condemn somebody, don’t worry about the pretext”, with the sub-title, written in classical Chinese: “‘Forced Technology Transfer’ Should Stop!”. (欲加之罪,何患无辞 – “中国强制转让技术论”可以休矣). The title is a quotation from the Zuo Zhuan, a classic of Chinese history written around 400 B.C. that realistically describes the palace intrigues, military tactics, assassinations, etc. from the chaotic “Spring and Autumn” period from 771-476 B.C. The People’s Daily view is also shared by a number of scholars and observers who view the problem as exaggerated or mischaracterized (apart from the TIER and JV regulations). However, this view has been rejected by USTR Lighthizer, as was reported in a recent NPR interview (March 25, 2019):

“CHANG: Though a number of scholars believe the Trump administration is overstating how often forced technology transfers are happening.

LIGHTHIZER: Well, I guess I don’t know who those scholars are. We did an eight-month study on it, and I think it’s the very strong view of the people that we talked to that it’s a very serious problem and has been for a number of years.”

(Update of May 21, 2019: A recent EU Chamber survey in fact showed an increase in businesses reporting that FTT is a concern, from 10% two years ago to 20%.)

There have also been several IP legislative developments that may not be as directly linked to US government trade pressure. Perhaps the most important is the launch of China’s new national appellate IP Court effective January 1, 2019. The NPC has released a draft of the civil code provisions on personality rights (See this translation). Personality rights can be important tools in addressing trademark squatting, such as in the Michael Jordan case with Qiaodan. CNIPA also released Draft Provisions for Regulating Applications for Trademark Registration (关于规范商标申请注册行为的若干规定(征求意见稿) which addresses bad faith registrations. CNIPA released a draft rule for public comment on Protection of Foreign GI’s (国外地理标志产品保护办法 (修订征求意见稿)on February 28, 2019. The comments focus on generic terms and a GI expert committee for examination of foreign GI’s. Here are INTA’s comments on the trademark registration and GI proposed rules. CNIPA also proposed changes to patent examination guidelines on such issues as proof of inventive step and what constitutes “common knowledge.” Here are AIPLA’s comments from April 4, 2019.

Still pending are proposed amendments to the Drug Administration Law, with comments due by May 25, 2019. This is a second public comment draft released by the NPC. Ropes & Gray has provided a useful analysis. The proposed changes to the DAL also include increased punitive damages for counterfeit medicines, in line with increased penalties in the IP laws (Trademark, AUCL, etc.). There are also proposed changes to the patent law which was released for comment earlier this year. Of particular interest to the pharma sector in the proposed changes were provisions calling for patent term restoration. However, a hoped for inclusion of patent linkage through an “artificial infringement” provision to trigger an infringement challenge by reason of a pharmaceutical regulatory approval has not yet materialized. There were also rumors that China and USTR has scaled back regulatory data protection for biologics from the 12 years that had originally been proposed by China in 2018 to the 10 year period provided by the US Mexico Canada Free Trade Agreement.

What is the relationship between all these legislative changes and the trade war? Larry Kudlow, the Director of the National Economic Council, described the legislative snafu that caused the administration to reinstitute tariffs as follows:

“For many years, China trade, it was unfair, nonreciprocal, unbalanced, in many cases, unlawful. And so, we have to correct those and one of the sticking points right now as we would like to see these corrections in an agreement which is codified by law in China, not just the state council announcement. We need to see something much clearer. And until we do, we have to keep our tariffs on, that’s part of the enforcement process as far as we are concerned.”

So what are the unenacted “laws” and what is the State Council “announcement” that Mr. Kudlow is referring to and which in his view launched this new trade war escalation? I doubt that Mr. Kudlow has read China’s Law on Legislation and understands the difference between a Law passed by the NPC and a State Council Regulation, particularly as US and European practice in recent months appears to be oblivious of legislative nomenclature and its role in determining what constitutes a legally binding document.

Perhaps Mr. Kudlow is talking about the NDRC 38 agency MOU published in late 2018 regarding punishments for serious patent infringement, including use of social credit system. The NDRC document is clearly inferior to a Law or State Council Regulation, but it was a directly promulgated document of a State Council agency. As the patent law amendments have not been enacted yet, he may be referring to this delay in enactment and the failure to increase damages for infringement as has been provided by other statutes. In my own view, the focus on punitive or even statutory damages is misguided as is increased administrative enforcement, as the primary reason that damages are low is the failure of most Chinese courts to impose fully compensatory damages and abide by priorities in law for establishing damages. But I hope to have more on that in another blog…

One thing is certain: China has been timing legislative developments with trade diplomacy. This may lead one to believe that China’s approach to the new laws was purely transactional, and/or there were other laws that the US was also expecting but that China has since declined to deliver. The previously mentioned NDRC 38 Agency MOU was enacted before the G-20 meeting but made publicly available shortly thereafter. 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, appear to have been timed with the 301 announcement in March 2018. In addition, the revocation of TIER provisions, JV implementing regulations, and amendments to the Trademark Law and AUCL revisions all were enacted with incredible efficiency, often denying any opportunity for meaningful public comment in violation of prior procedural practices. A reasonable guess may be that there were some additional laws or regulations that the US was expecting but that China had determined it could not deliver, or deliver in the time frame provided. Nonetheless, the legislative track record thus far is quite impressive.

China’s improved environment for technology transfer and technology collaboration is coming at a time when the United States has tightened up its controls with China. The most notable legislation in this area is the John S. McCain Defense Authorization Act for 2018 (the “Act”), including the enactment of the Foreign Investment Risk Reduction Modernization Act and the Export Controls Act of 2018. These laws extended export control and foreign investment control authorities to foundational and emerging technologies, as well as to non-passive, non-controlling investments. Much of the technologies of concern overlap with Made in China 2025 and other Chinese industrial policy documents. Although the Act did not specifically create “black” and “white” countries as subjects of controls, the Congressional history did point to special concerns about China:

“Congress declares that long-term strategic competition with China is a principal priority for the United States that requires the integration of multiple elements of national power, including diplomatic, economic, intelligence, law enforcement, and military elements, to protect and strengthen national [t]security, [including] … the use of economic tools, including market access and investment to gain access to sensitive United States industries.”

The most recent report which analyzes the impact of US and Chinese regulations on Chinese investment in the United States by Rhodium Group is found here (May 8, 2019). The report notes an “over 80% decline in Chinese FDI in the US to just $5 billion from $29 billion in 2017 and $46 billion in 2016. Accounting for asset divestitures, net 2018 Chinese FDI in the US was -$8 billion. Meanwhile, American FDI in China dropped only slightly to $13 billion in 2018 from $14 billion in 2017.” The Rhodium report also notes that “the chilling impact of politics on US FDI in China was mostly visible in the ICT space where new investment declined significantly last year.” Other countries have also been enacting similar restrictions on FDI in sensitive areas, as pointed out in a recent article by my Berkeley colleague Vinod K. Aggarawal. Note: I will be speaking at a forthcoming AIPLA webinar on export controls and IP strategies on May 23, 2019 as well as at forthcoming events in China (to be announced).

In addition to these legislative efforts, the US has undertaken steps to restrict H1B visas for talented scientists and engineers and the FBI has created a new working group to address economic espionage from China. The Committee of 100 released an important paper in 2017 showing that Asian Americans were more likely to be prosecuted for economic espionage than any other ethnic group, are also subject to higher sentences and were twice as likely as other groups to have cases against them dismissed. Some observers fear that overly broad regulation and enforcement by the United States may now be encouraging exactly what China has sought to do for decades: repatriate to China the vast talent pool of Chinese scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to contribute to the technological development of the motherland.

Although there have been few legislative efforts directed to making US science and technology more competitive in response to these perceived threats from China, there have been several general reports and proposals. The National Institute of Science and Technology recently released a green paper, “Return on Investment Initiative for Unleashing American Innovation” (April 2019) to improve federal technology transfer and entrepreneurship. There are increasing calls for Congress to fund the long defunct Office of Technology Assessment, which once played an active role in analyzing US-China technology trade.

Several trade organizations and think tanks have called for increased US funding in science and technology, among them is the recent report of the Task Force of American Innovation, “Second Place America – Increasing Challenges to America’s Scientific Leadership” (May 7, 2019). The R&D graph at the head of this blog showing China’s rapid growth in R&D is from that report. The report notes:

“America’s competitive edge is now at stake, as China and other countries are rapidly increasing investments in research and workforce development in order to assume positions of global leadership. Our nation risks falling perilously behind in the basic scientific research that drives innovation, as our global competitors increase support for cutting-edge research and push to the forefront in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, aerospace, advanced manufacturing, and the next generation of telecommunications networks.”

To round out this summary of legislative developments, there have been developments at the USPTO that impact US relations with China on IP. The USPTO published a proposed regulation which will regulate legal services for the rapidly increasing number of Chinese pro se trademark filers in the US (2/15/2019). This proposed regulation would require these applications to use a US licensed attorney. The purported purpose of this change in current practice is “instill greater confidence in the public that U.S. registrations that issue to foreign applicants are not subject to invalidation for reasons such as improper signatures and use claims and enable the USPTO to more effectively use available mechanisms to enforce foreign applicant compliance with statutory and regulatory requirements in trademark matters.” The rule also seems generally consistent with TRIPS Art. 3, which permits WTO members to require “the appointment of an agent within the jurisdiction of a Member … to secure compliance with laws and regulations which are not inconsistent with the provisions of [the TRIPS] Agreement”.

Another important development involves USPTO efforts to clarify subject matter eligibility under Sec. 101 of the patent act, and functional claim limitations for computer-enabled inventions under Section 112. The United States had been weakening and destabilizing protections in these important areas affecting artificial intelligence, fintech and biotech inventions at the precise time when China had been strengthening its protections. These are important steps towards strengthening predictability in our domestic IP system, which may be further strengthened by proposed legislative changes.

Ironically, China’s improvements in its investment and tech transfer environment are coming at a time of heightened concern over a Chinese technological threat and increased US and international regulatory scrutiny. It may be difficult, therefore, to perceive any immediate positive impact from changes in China’s investment environment. Indeed, the media has recently been reporting on decisions of different companies or entrepreneurs to close down R&D operations in each other’s markets. Hopefully, both countries may ultimately create the right mix of IP enforcement and protection, regulatory controls over collaboration and industrial policy to enable bilateral scientific collaboration to once again flourish and contribute to the global economy.

The 600 Billion Dollar China IP Echo Chamber

“Most people use statistics the way a drunkard uses a lamp post, more for support than illumination.”  Mark Twain

What are the losses due to “IP Theft” from China? On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I heard the range of $300 billion to $600 billion repeated from various sources without any critical gloss. These numbers have taken on a greater legitimacy than they likely deserve, in terms of capturing the scope of US concerns, the magnitude of the loss and shaping the Trump administration’s unilateral retaliation.

The 2017 and 2013 reports from the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property (the “Commission”) appear to be the origin of much of this data.  The data was also referred to in the Section 301 Report (p. 8) and in a subsequent White House report “How China’s Economic Aggression Threatens the Technologies and Intellectual Property of the United States and the World” (June 2018).

In 2017, the Commission found that “Chinese theft of American IP currently costs between $225 billion and $600 billion annually.” The Commission pulled together different sources of data, including sales of counterfeit and pirated goods ($29 billion), and that “the value of software pirated in 2015 alone exceeded $52 billion worldwide.” The Commission further noted that there was “a paucity of reliable data on the economic costs of patent infringement” and that American companies were most likely the leading victims of this “IP Theft.”  It estimated losses of at least 0.1% of the $18 trillion U.S. GDP.

The largest single loss contributor to the Commission’s estimate was based on data provided by create.org and later repeated by the White House, that trade secret theft cost between 1% and 3% of US GDP, and totaled between $180 billion and $540 billion.  One critic (Stephen S. Roach) of these loss figures recently noted that “the figures rest on flimsy evidence derived from dubious ‘proxy modeling’ that attempts to value stolen trade secrets via nefarious activities such as narcotics trafficking, corruption, occupational fraud, and illicit financial flows. The Chinese piece of this alleged theft comes from US Customs and Border Patrol data, which reported $1.35 billion in seizures of total counterfeit and pirated goods back in 2015.”  One area of overlapping concern I have with Mr. Roach is the use of Customs seizure data to justify allocating as much of 87% of global “IP Theft” to China. Seizures by US Customs of Chinese originating counterfeit and pirated goods are as high as 87% of global totals. However, this does not mean that China is the source of 87% of the world’s production of these goods, nor does it address trade secret infringement or patent infringement origination. See The 2017 Commission Report at p. 3.  Misunderstanding about the utility of Customs data contributes greatly to the weaknesses of many IP infringement loss estimates.

The 2013 Commission Report noted that “it is safe to say that dollar losses from IP theft are hundreds of billions per year, which is at least in the range of total exports to Asia in 2012 (valued at $320 billion).” This report pulled together several sources, including OECD data that estimated global trade in counterfeit and pirated goods as $200 billion in 2005 (p. 25).  All the studies to date, including this 2013 Report, have recognized the difficulties inherent in doing accurate loss estimations, although many have also not distanced themselves from sources, such as the OECD 2005 data which had not stood the test of time.

Remarkably, the loss data itself has been relatively consistent over approximately two decades despite different methodologies and varying definitions of what constitutes “IP Theft”. During my tenure at the US Embassy (2004-2008), the typical guestimate was $200 billion to $250 billion per year.  These guestimates enjoyed wide currency in Washington.  For example, Congressional Reports, such as H.R. 110-617 “Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act of 2008” stated: “[I]ncreasing intellectual property theft in the United States and globally threatens the future economic prosperity of our nation. Conservative estimates indicate that the United States economy loses between $200 and $250 billion per year, and has lost 750,000 jobs, due to intellectual property theft.”  This data was typically based on counterfeit and pirated goods “compris[ing] six to nine percent of all world trade, the bulk of which violates the intellectual property rights of United States businesses and entrepreneurs.”  (Id.). Six to nine percent, however, easily gets rounded up to 10 percent, as Congressman Donnelly from Indiana noted at about the same time:

“It is estimated that these [counterfeit] products comprise almost 10 percent of world trade, that they are costing American companies nearly $250 billion in revenue and an estimated 750,000 jobs.”

The number was also widely adopted by IP advocates. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in its report What Are Counterfeiting and Piracy Costing the U.S. Economy, (2004) circulated the 200- 250 billion dollar number, as did a National Geographic film. In fact, I used the $250 billion dollar figure when I was IP Attache in Beijing (2004-2008) to urge additional support for my elevation in diplomatic rank, as it seemed rather odd that I had been tasked with a problem costing nearly 750,000 jobs and I had no staff of my own. An article in Ars Technica (2008) noted that this earlier $250 billion/750,000 job number may have its origins in a Forbes magazine article from 1993. There are also references to loss calculations of 200 billion dollars per year appear from as early as 2002 in Congressional reports.   To the extent that these calculations rely upon a base estimate of “approximately” 10 percentage points of world trade being in counterfeit or pirated goods, this data point harkens back to an OECD estimate of world trade in counterfeit goods at 5% in 1998. That number was however revised downward to 1.95% in 2007, at an estimated value of $250 billion. The OECD data seems to be the origin of the $250 billion IP Theft loss figures current at that time.

Other USG studies have shown a more cautious approach. A 2010 Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) study analyzed the economic effects of counterfeit and pirated goods and found that “it was not feasible to develop our own estimates [of the total value of counterfeit or pirated goods] or attempt to quantify the economic impact of counterfeiting and piracy on the U.S. economy.” Noting the lack of data as a primary challenge to quantifying the economic impacts of counterfeiting intellectual property and goods, the GAO concluded that “neither governments nor industry were able to provide solid assessments of their respective situations.”

The U.S. International Trade Commission in a well-researched report,  China: Effects of Intellectual Property Infringement and Indigenous Innovation Policies on the U.S. Economy, (2010) calculated that the theft of U.S. IP from China alone was equivalent in value to $48.2 billion in lost sales, royalties, and license fees. This estimate falls within a broad $14.2-billion to $90.5 billion range.  The breadth of this range is explained by the fact that many firms were unable to calculate their losses. Of the $48.2 billion in total reported losses, approximately $36.6 billion (75.9%) was attributable to lost sales, while the remaining $11.6 billion was attributable to a combination of lost royalty and license payments as well as other unspecified loss.

The current concerns around “IP Theft” as identified in the Section 301 Report include licensing of technology, an issue that is not covered by US Customs seizure data. Any calculation of losses due to IP Theft from non-payment of royalties should include estimates of lost royalties or license fees. Most of the current calculations do not include such data. Nonetheless, as I have noted elsewhere, accurately calculating lost royalties can be especially difficult as many licensors use tax haven jurisdictions to manage patent portfolios. There may be implied licenses in product purchases form OEM suppliers, and there can be valuation challenges. However, China’s relatively small role as a purchaser of US technology and its dominant role as an exporter of high tech or information technology products does suggest that it is a significantly under-licensed (infringing) economy. For example, China has leaped from exporting only 2% of the world’s information technology products in 1996, to 33% in 2015. Yet China has purchased very little technology directly from the US over the years, and its technology payments are a very small share of total trade. There is likely a huge shortfall in unpaid royalties from Chinese manufacturers.

Many discussions around IP theft have also declined to take into account cybercrime and other security threats. According to an often cited 2013 report by the International Data Corporation (IDC), direct costs to enterprises from dealing with malware from counterfeit software were estimated to hit $114 billion in 2013 and “potential losses from data breaches” might have reached nearly $350 billion.” However, data breaches are not necessarily a form of IP infringement, as they can be undertaken for other purposes, including simply injuring the computer system of a competitor through a denial of service attack.

Apart from differences in methodology, there are different definitions of “IP Theft” that should be affecting total loss calculations. The FBI currently  defines “Intellectual property theft” as “robbing people or companies of their ideas, inventions, and creative expressions—known as ‘intellectual property’—which can include everything from trade secrets and proprietary products and parts to movies, music, and software.” This definition notably would exclude any non-willful infringement, i.e., where there is no “robbing” as well as trademarks – which are not specifically enumerated.

In its 2013 Report, the Commission offered some examples of “IP Theft”, which also excluded trademark protection, and failed to discuss patent protection: “IP theft varies widely in both type and method. It ranges from more commonly known forms, such as software and music piracy, to more elaborate types, such as the use of economic espionage tactics to steal complex industrial trade secrets. Each type of IPR violation harms an economy in unique ways and brings with it a discrete set of challenges that make both deterrence and enforcement difficult.”

These approaches to “IP Theft” are different from the meanings advanced for the same term in the last decade. Victoria Espinel, who has had a long and distinguished career in IP and international IP issues, testified in Congress in 2005 when she was with USTR and spoke of “IP Theft”  in terms of the fight against ‘fakes’, declining to mention patents for inventions or trade secrets.   This was consistent with the focus at that time on criminal copyright and trademark focus of US government advocacy in China, including the bringing of a WTO case (DS362):

“Our companies report billions of dollars in lost revenue, irreparable harm to their brands and future sales, all of which ultimately affects U.S. workers who design and produce legitimate products forced to compete against Chinese fakes. We want and look forward to working closely with you and your staff in combating the theft of American IP in China.”

“IP Theft” of the prior decade certainly appears under-inclusive in not focusing on patent or trade secret infringement.  It also fails to reflect that most IP infringement is addressed by civil remedies, where questions of willfulness are secondary to the harm being caused. Criminal remedies, while important, are relatively rare in most legal systems. This approach is consistent with the TRIPS obligation to treat IP as a “private right.” Moreover, the TRIPS Agreement itself does not require member states to criminalize patent infringement or trade secret infringement.  Finally, there may be grey areas including market access barriers, investment restrictions, government procurement restrictions, informal government supported forced technology transfer, or aggressive use of antitrust laws that many would argue need to be included in the definition of “IP Theft”.  Many of these would also be very difficult to quantify.

“IP Theft” is also slightly over-inclusive, as there are also certain forms of bad-faith behavior that may be sanctioned by the state and permissible under international IP rules. For example, rights holders in China face a significant burden of bad faith patent and trademark applications that entail costs of challenging and invalidating these rights, while US-based rights holders often complain about non-practicing entities and patent trolls.

Individuals who might suspect an exaggerated “IP Theft” loss estimate might be surprised to know that there are data points that have typically been omitted from these calculations. For example, US Customs data typically does not include the value of goods excluded from the US market under Section 337 exclusion orders. I am unaware of any methodology that attempted to extrapolate from US damage awards in US courts against Chinese infringers. USTR in its 301 report, was also unable to calculate the value of “forced technology transfers” in joint ventures or technology transfers. Certain rights, such as plant varieties and plant patents are typically not included in loss figures, nor are losses due to design infringements. Consequential damages (attorneys fees/court costs/losses to brand value/harm to public health or safety) are also often not included in the above calculations.

There are also factors that could reduce the loss figures that have often not been used.  Assumptions about the US being the overwhelming victim of “IP Theft” are hard to substantiate. I suspect that different countries and industries bear different costs in different markets. European companies, for example, likely suffer most from trademark and design infringements of luxury goods.  In the United States, over 50% of US patent applications originate with foreigners; logically this may mean that a substantial portion of the injury suffered by US companies overseas due to patent infringement may be attributable to innovations that occurred outside of the United States.

Calculating how much “IP Theft” originates from China also ignores whatever the “baseline” is for infringement in the US.  Historically, for example, the greatest value of software piracy losses were in the United States, According to BSA data for 2017, China’s piracy losses were 6.8 billion, while the US was 8.6 billion. In addition to other deficiencies, US Customs data is based largely on the pro-active behavior of US rightsholders and thereby considerable selection bias. As one example, if “IP Theft” priorities were based on Custom data, apparel, watches and footwear would be the major area of US trade concern with China, as there were the three categories of goods most seized by US Customs in 2017.

“IP Theft” losses also do not necessarily reflect losses due to unredeemed WTO commitments, nor are they based solely on violation of WTO disciplines.  The TRIPS Agreement, for example, does not require members to criminalize willful trade secret theft – which is likely a major contributor to the current calculations. Moreover, if the calculations were one that adhered to WTO procedures, then the various methodologies would also need to look to WTO jurisprudence in terms of calculating damages when a WTO member fails to implement a WTO decision involving IP. A good reference point might be the “Irish Music” (DS160), which the US lost, and where the US was required to pay 1.2 million euros per year as an arbitral award in the early 2000’s. Another reference is the Antigua/gambling dispute, where the island of Antigua was permitted to retaliate against US IP interests in the value of 21 million dollars per year, considerably less than a claim by Antigua of 3.44 billion dollars.

Tying tariffs to losses due to IP theft has other challenges.   While it may help address a sense of national outrage, the unilateral imposition of tariffs on Chinese imports is unlikely to benefit any US victim of IP theft, nor do the tariffs themselves appear to be geared to a particular loss threshold. Instead, the tariffs are loosely based on loss estimates but appear primarily oriented to forcing China to change its behaviors.

A cynical reader looking at the data might conclude that large loss numbers are self-serving and make compelling rhetoric in the echo chamber of Washington, DC. Someone looking over the history of the data might, however, view their weaknesses as due to such factors as difficulties in collecting data, the growth of the Chinese economy and changes in infringement practices, and changing technologies including the growth of the Internet as a vehicle for content and goods delivery. The current focus on “technology” in the scope of IP Theft might be viewed as a belated recognition of how the Chinese economy has become more technology-oriented in the past decade.

In my view the statistics do serve as more than a “support” of the type referred to by Mark Twain, above. They also help to “illuminate” a deeply felt and sustained injury that is otherwise hard to calculate.

Note: The author (Mark Cohen) has contributed to many of the reports noted above, typically in a private capacity.

Corrections to the above are welcomed.

THE TIER IS REVISED…

After nearly twenty years of advocacy, China has finally revoked certain offensive provisions of the Administration of Technology Import/Export Regulations (“TIER”), effective March 18, 2019.   The decision was made by State Council decision no. 709, paragraph 38 of March 2, 2019,  which provides as follows:

三十八、删去《中华人民共和国技术进出口管理条例》第二十四条第三款、第二十七条、第二十九条。

第四十一条改为第三十九条,修改为:国务院外经贸主管部门应当自收到本条例第三十八条规定的文件之日起3个工作日内,对技术出口合同进行登记,颁发技术出口合同登记证。

A rough translation is:

38. Delete Article 24, Section 3, Article 27 and Article 29 of the Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on the Administration of Import and Export of Technology.

Article 41 shall be changed to Article 39 and revised as follows: “The competent foreign economic and trade department of the State Council shall, within 3 working days from the date of receipt of the documents stipulated by this Article 38  register a technology export contract and issue a technology export contract registration certificate.

The relevant provisions being modified of the TIER, as translated on the WIPO website, are as follows:

24 (3): Where the receiving party to a technology import contract infringes another person’s lawful rights and interests by using the technology supplied by the supplying party, the supplying party shall bear the liability therefore.

27: Within the term of validity of a contract for technology import, an achievement made in improving the technology concerned belongs to the party making the improvement.

Article 29 A technology import contract shall not contain any of the following restrictive clauses:

(1) requiring the receiving party to accept any additional condition unnecessary for the technology import, including buying any unnecessary technology, raw material, product, equipment or service;

(2) requiring the receiving party to pay exploitation fee for a technology when the term of validity of the patent right in which has expired or the patent right of which has been invalidated, or to undertake other relevant obligations;

(3) restricting the receiving party from improving the technology supplied by the supplying party, or restricting the receiving party from using the improved technology;

(4) restricting the receiving party from obtaining technology similar to that supplied by the supplying party from other sources or from obtaining a competing technology;

(5) unduly restricting the receiving party from purchasing raw material, parts and components, products or equipment from other channels or sources;

(6) unduly restricting the quantity, variety, or sales price of the products the receiving party produces; or

(7) unduly restricting the receiving party from utilizing the channel for exporting products manufactured using the imported technology.

This is one of 49 separate legislative provisions being modified by notice 709 of the State Council.

The TIER was itself part of ongoing WTO disputes (DS542, and DS549).  In addition, it was called out by USTR in its 301 Report on China’s forced technology transfer regime .  A panel had recently been composed in the US case against China (DS542).  The State Council has now addressed the most onerous provisions of the TIER by removing those provisions that had most obviously violated China’s National Treatment obligations under TRIPS Article 3, including footnote 3, which addresses discrimination in “the availability, acquisition, scope, maintenance and enforcement of intellectual property rights as well as those matters affecting the use of intellectual property rights.”

The legislation is immediately effective.  However, it does not address contracts that had previously been negotiated under the prior TIER.  Article 84 of China’s Law on Legislation does provide for the possibility of retroactive effect where the new legislation is made in order to better protect the rights of citizens, legal persons and other organizations, and may apply in this circumstance.  It will be up to the courts and/or the State Council to issue necessary interpretative guidance.

Interestingly, China did not take a “phased” or “limited” approach to revoking these terms, such as providing for limiting the application of mandatory provisions to protect smaller businesses or creating a default provision that could be waived in writing.  The Chinese government, to its credit, thus intended to rely solely upon the market and any other general provisions of the Contract Law.  China also did not seek to clarify the relationship between the TIER and China’s Contract Law or Antimonopoly Law, which had overlapping provisions with the TIER, and which should now apply more clearly and equally to foreign and domestic licensors.  However, the TIER provision regarding non-profit oriented technical cooperation, including government to government science and technology cooperation also continues to be in effect.  Specifically, article 2 of the TIER states that the legislation governs “technical cooperation” including “technical services and transfer of technology by other means.” (Art. 2).

It will be interesting to determine if the changes in the TIER have any impact on the manner in which technology is transferred by foreign companies to China, including use of affiliated/subsidiary companies of foreign companies in China to import foreign technology to avoid application of the TIER to technology imports.  The majority of US licensing transactions to China had been through such intermediated/affiliated entities.  After the affiliated licensee takes over the licensing activity of the licensor, any subsequent sub-license was believed to be governed by China’s Contract Law.

The amendment also comes shortly after China passed a new Foreign Investment Law on March 15, 2019, which also purports to address the forced technology transfer problem identified in the Section 301 report.  These legislative efforts thus appear to be part of a package intended to address US concerns.

Blog post by Mark Cohen.  Thanks to Jill Ge of Clifford Chance, Shanghai for pointing out this legislative development to me.  Thanks as well to the many lawyers, companies, officials, judges, and business people over the years who have advocated for revising the TIER and to the State Council for finally undertaking these revisions.

Catching up With The Literature on Forced Tech Transfer…

FTT
(from the OECD report, discussed below)

While President Trump has extended the truce on the trade war, academic and business debate around the nature of “forced technology transfer” (FTT) practices in China and appropriate business and legal strategies continues.

A  study last year by Dan Prud’homme and his team, discussed earlier in this blog, was one important empirical effort looking at the nature and consequences of FTT.  Their FTT Strategy & Risk Forecasting Matrix was intended to 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.  In January 2019, the OECD also released a study on International Technology Transfer policies which cites to the Prud’homme study and further describes FTT, as well as the various international agreements and practices that may constrain it.  Consistent with the approaches of the US and EU in the currently pending WTO case, the study highlights the importance of joint ventures for transfer of technology in China (para. 90), pointing to equity restrictions as one reason for such licensing arrangements.   Because of the high volume of multinational and governments in tech transfer, the OECD reports also underscores the importance of transparency in the tech transfer process to “distinguish[] voluntary  technology transfer from its more constraining variants.” [para. 92].  Predictably, the report also cites to the same provisions cited by the United States and Europe in the pending WTO case against China regarding its FTT polices [para 65].

A timely and business-oriented to FTT was presented by the IP consulting firm Rouse in a highly useful webinar of February 27, 2019, available here.  The speakers, Tim Smith and Chris Bailey, noted that due to the current trade dispute with the US, Chinese prospective JV and business partners are currently “falling over themselves” not to require tech transfer as a condition to a deal.   The speakers also noted that there had been a resurgence of joint ventures in tech-driven deals with China.  In addition, smaller companies have found that it has become more expensive to develop market share in China making a JV more attractive.  Even if a JV is not mandatory, the access to local capital and expertise can be a rationale for forming a JV.  The additional capital may also lead to higher valuations if an IPO exit is contemplated for the joint enterprise.

The speakers noted that Chinese companies are also increasingly more concerned about less traditional factors of a tech transfer such as whether they can scale up quickly using the technology, how they will handle IP infringements in China, and whether the technology can offer an immediate competitive advantage.

Amongst the newly emerging business structures, the speakers also noted that there have also been  an increasing number of offshore joint ventures formed outside of China that then reinvest China.  The Chinese party may also try to take a stake in a foreign party, and then license the technology into China. The Chinese party thereby may become a financial or strategic investor in the foreign partner.  Contrary to the common understanding, the Rouse speakers also underscored that state-owned enterprises are not as “untouchable” in IP or licensing disputes with foreign partners as private companies.  In some cases they may be better targets for litigation, as they may be more concerned about reputational risks from IP law suits than privately-owned companies.

The presenters also noted that there are deals where China is licensing out have become more common, particularly in new technologies such as AI, VR/AR, electric vehicles and battery technologies.  Western businesses are increasingly looking to Chinese businesses for these innovations.

As is evident from the above, the presenters’ viewed the current WTO dispute around the TIER and other concerns over FTT to be “yesterday’s issue” for practitioners and business people.  They also point to the data from recent surveys showing that a minority of US and European Companies have been asked to transfer technologies by their business partners, often as a condition of obtaining market access. However, they also note that companies have long utilized work arounds to the TIER, which has been on the books since 2002.

The Rouse webinar is particularly instructive in documenting the sophistication of Chinese licensees and future licensors.  Of course, the subsistence of a discriminatory provision as “yesterday’s issue” is also not justification for its continued existence.  If anything, it underscores how much of an unncessary, if not counterproductive,  impediment China’s Administration of Technology Import/Export Regulations (TIER) has become.  From a WTO perspective, even if the TIER is often irrelevant to current transactions, the key issue  in WTO jurisprudence is likely to be whether “expectations of the competitive relationship” offer less favorable treatment to a foreign licensor than a domestic Chinese licensor.   Further, the presence of “additional regulatory hurdles”, such as the necessity of using a domestic subsidiary or an offshore joint venture to sub-license a technology due to discriminatory provisions that exist for a foreign licensor,  does not afford a useful justification for a discriminatory provision.  Indeed such additional regulatory hurdles may constitute de jure discriminatory treatment, as was documented in the case the United States brought against the EU regarding its regime for Geographical Indications (See Para. 7.314, WTO Panel Report)  Due to the increasingly sophisticated experience of Chinese companies, including their willingness to contribute capital or participate in complex multinational licensing structures, the webinar ultimately proved to me that the TIER itself has also largely outlived its usefulness in protecting “vulnerable” Chinese licensees.

An important legislative development that also deals with FTT is China’s revised Foreign Investment Law.  The European Union Chamber of Commerce has released its comments on the draft law here. The comments were due February 24, 2019.  This draft law addresses some foreign concerns about FTT involving foreign investments in China.  The EU’s comments on the FTT provision are as follows:

“Article 22 explicitly prohibits administrative organs and their staff from using administrative means to force the transfer of technology, which echoes the language used in other high-profile policies that have been released in recent years, most notably State Council Document No. 19 (2018). However, this leaves open the possibility for any non-administrative body to use any other means to compel technology transfers. Instead, the Foreign Investment Law should simply prohibit forced technology transfer by any means.”

I personally believe that the language of the draft law, by itself, is insufficient. Other observers, such as Rouse in its webinar, have noted that other incentives to FTT remain, including restrictions arising from national security, foreign investment restrictions, Made in China 2025 incentives, data localization requirements, etc.  Moreover, the draft law does not present a clear pathway to present legal challenges to local authorities, and to minimize any possible retribution when a foreign company complains about extortionary practice.  Prior history shows that foreigners are also highly reluctant to bring law suits against the same local governments that may be involved in regulating their investments. One partial solution is for China’s new national appellate IP court to consider taking jurisdiction over these FTT disputes. The Chinese government might also consider other measures such as creating an ombudsman for foreign investors, fast track administrative reconsideration of investment reviews, improvements to trade secret protection and employee mobility rules, and other measures that constrain the ability of local governments or individuals to directly or indirectly encourage a foreign investor to relinquish its technology, whether through legal or illegal means.  As another example, if the Chinese government seriously wants to address the problem of FTT, the theft of trade secrets that is undertaken in “support” of national or local government technology policies might be subject to enhanced penalties.  Moreover, such cases should be adjudicated by courts other than ones located in the jurisdiction where the misappropriation occurred.

Update from February 28, 2019: A second draft of the Foreign Investment Law has been released and made available in English by the NPC observer.  It is available here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Measure the Steps to a Binding Truce…

“The real question is so we do a memorandum of understanding, …. How long will that take to put into a final binding contract” (President Trump)

“From now on … we are going to use the term ‘trade agreement’” (Amb. Robert Lighthizer)

 

This week President Trump and Amb. Lighthizer debated whether the administration will be concluding an “Memorandum of Understanding” or a “Trade Agreement” with China to resolve the current trade dispute, as detailed in Bloomberg.   However, both countries cannot enter into treaties or agreements ratified by their legislatures in the short time available to them.  The more meaningful question is not whether an “agreement” is binding, but whether the underlying commitments require actions that are binding.

US-China trade agreements have often had the staying power of the dew on a summer’s rose.  One reason was that the underlying commitments did not require clear, binding legal action.  A good example of such a non-binding commitment was the 2010 JCCT agreement on government procurement of indigenously innovated products:

China and the United States will not adopt or maintain measures that make the location of the development or ownership of intellectual property a direct or indirect condition for eligibility for government procurement preferences for products and services. China and the United States will continue to discuss whether this principle applies to other government measures.

What was the “measure” that China was not supposed to adopt or maintain?  To someone unaware of its background,  it appears that the United States had a similar problem as China.  Furthermore, a US reader may think that we asked China to enact a “law” to address discriminatory government procurement.   Oxford defines “measure” as a “legislative bill.”  By contrast, Chinese legal scholars know the term “measure” as vague and not binding.  As an example: the word “measure” appears 32 times in China’s accession documents to the WTO in a descending hierarchical order as “law regulations and/or [other] measures. ” As an ambiguous term, it could mean either a  type of law or regulation (both of which or binding) or a non-binding administrative rule.

The 2010 commitment predictably  led to problems in implementation by localities who did not believe they were bound by this negative commitment.  As my colleague Stanley Lubman noted in a Wall Street Journal blog in July 2011:

[W]hile government policy on procurement has receded from the original position and “indigenous innovation” has been “delinked” from government procurement requirements, implementation of this shift is problematic because acceptance and commitment by sub-central (provincial and municipal) governments are needed to make it meaningful.

The 2016 JCCT Commitment on innovation of indigenous innovated products attempted to clean up the vague language from the 2010 JCCT by acknowledging issuance of a State Council document was required:

The General Affairs Office of the State Council issued a document recently, requiring all local regions and all agencies to further clean up related measures involving linking the indigenous innovation policy to the provision of government procurement preferences, so as to practically implement the commitment made by the Chinese side.  The U.S. side welcomes this development.

This commitment, in its legal terms, is a vast improvement over the 2010 JCCT commitment. It clarified that the obligation was not a bilateral one.  It also required the State Council, an authoritative agency with the power to bind inferior agencies, to issue a “document” (presumably a regulation in the heirarchy noted above).  Finally, it required local governments to “clean up” conflicting “measures” with an identified offending policy.  Using a high level document to address inferior legislative acts also made the commitment more easily verifiable.

This problem of binding commitments and conflicts with local policy is nearly identical to current issues of “forced technology transfer” where local governments may sense that there is currently no national law that doesn’t prohibit them from demanding that foreign technology owners relinquish their rights.  China’s proposed adoption of a Foreign Investment Law that prohibits forced technology transfer would be one positive step in the direction of addressing that issue.  However that law and its enforcers should specifically address contrary policies and incentives that exist throughout the country.  To further ensure enforcement, at a minimum the new national appellate IP court should have original jurisdiction over challenges brought by foreign businesses against these local practices.   The court could provide  transparent, verifiable, professional and fast resolution by accountable authorities independent of direct local influence.

A 2016 GAO report on clean energy cooperation with China provides another example of a meaningless trade commitment.  That reported stated:

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has identified a potential discrepancy between Chinese law and the bilateral U.S.-China Science and Technology Agreement upon which the IP Annex to the CERC [Clean Energy Research Center] Protocol is based, according to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office officials. These officials stated that the potential discrepancy is related to ownership of any improvements made to IP licensed between U.S. and Chinese entities.

This language underscores the problem that a bilateral MOU or “agreement” may have no legal significance when there is a contrary State Council regulation, namely China’s Administration of Technology Import-Export Regulations (TIER).  The TIER mandates that the Chinese side own any improvements to technology licensed in bilateral science cooperation projects, and is therefore at odds with the inferior negotiated agreement.  This text leaves the dispute open to future diplomacy, which is not a realistic approach for private business disputes.

There are numerous other examples of poor drafting or drafting of IPR commitments that at best would accomplish only short term goals.  USG and Chinese negotiators in their haste to resolve a difficult set of issues should not lose sight that the underlying commitments of any agreement that meaningfully address US concerns must be phrased in terms of legally binding actions.  These legally binding actions must also be durable, and should not be be countermanded by local measures. They should also be easily susceptible to USG verification.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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