Sino Legend Saga Ends at US Supreme Court

The future ain’t what it used to be. (Yogi Berra)

Earlier this January, 2017, Sino Legend lost its long battle to have an ITC decision excluding its products form the US market reversed by a Supreme Court denial of its cert petition.

As I noted previously, the case presented an unusual set of circumstances, where Chinese courts had found that there had been no trade secret theft occurring in China, the USITC had found that there was trade secret infringement in an exhaustive opinion, China’s Ministry of Commerce sought a rehearing en banc after Sino Legend lost on appeal at the Federal Circuit, and a petition for certiorari was lodged by Sino Legend to the Supreme Court.  Attached are some of the US Supreme Court legal documents, including:  the petition for certiorari  (September 30, 2016); the amicus brief   of the Ministry of Commerce (Nov. 2016); the brief of   USITC in opposition (Dec 6, 2016);  brief of party respondent SI Group in opposition (Dec 6, 2016); reply of petitioners (December 20, 2016); and the Supreme Court’s denial of cert (Jan 9, 2017).

In its cert petition, MofCOM sought a reversal not only of the Sino Legend case but ultimately of the legal principle underlying the Tianrui decision.    The Chinese parties noted that in Sino Legend there a determination that there was no infringement in the case as litigated in China for facts arising in China.  As MofCOM’s brief notes:

[MofCOM] is disappointed by recent actions of the ITC. In wrongly interpreting Section 337 of the Tariff Act to allow the ITC to bar imports into the United States based on alleged actions conducted, and adjudicated, wholly within the borders of China, the ITC has impugned the sovereignty of China and refused to accord the comity expected of a trade partner.

MofCOM’s amicus brief further states:

The displeasure of [MofCOM] with what has unfolded in this, and other, recent ITC cases involving alleged trade secret violations should not go unnoticed. In this matter, there is no dispute that the alleged actions occurred entirely within China, by Chinese citizens, while working at Chinese companies. The alleged acts of misappropriation  were first raised by Complainant’s Chinese subsidiary in China. Both criminal and civil proceedings were instituted in China for these alleged misdeeds. The alleged conduct and actors in question were ultimately vindicated. However, Complainant, unhappy with the failure of proof in China, sought institution of a Section 337 proceeding in the United States based on the same conduct already adjudicated in China. The ITC conducted an investigation, ignored the rulings in China to the contrary, and determined that not only could the ITC bar products based on this conduct, but also that some of Complainant’s justify a limited exclusion order of Petitioner’s product.

The Chinese media had regrettably inaccurately described this case when it was decided at the ITC as a big victory for China involving a finding of no infringement in the US and China; rather a limited exclusion order was granted by the ITC in lieu of a general exclusion order.  China’s Supreme Court had also picked up on this inaccurate description when it regrettably determined that was one of the top 10 IP cases for 2014.  This recognition was troubling also as the complainant in the Sino Legend 337 case had sought a retrial of its case in China, which was denied by China’s Supreme People’s Court two  years later, in 2016.

The differences in final results in the US and Chinese decisions may also be due in part to disparate emphases in trade secret adjudication, with Chinese courts emphasizing similarities of technology between the parties, and the US courts relying more on unfair access to the technology by the alleged misappropriator.  One lesson of this saga is that comity may be more challenging to apply in trade secret litigation, which remains a relatively unharmonized area of IP law among various countries, and which is further weakened by differences in civil procedure including the limited availability of pre-trial discovery in China and many other countries.

The President-Elect, IP and China

Peter Harter and Gene Quinn wrote an excellent blog recently (November 9, 2016)  entitled “Trump on IP and Patent Reform: What Silicon Valley Doesn’t Understand.”   The authors dispute the contention of some in the tech community that Trump is disinterested in IP because he hasn’t discussed patent reform.  They raise four key points about Trump and IP:

1.      Trump’s campaign website, in the trade section, calls for the U.S. to pursue China and others for stealing American IP.

2.      The GOP campaign platform sets forth that: (a) patents are a private property right like land protected by the Constitution; an (b) theft of IP has become a national security issue.

3.      John G. Trump, the Uncle of Donald Trump, was an MIT Professor who was also an inventor, scientist, and entrepreneur that served his country during World War II inventing new radar technologies.  (Here’s a New Yorker article on his John G. Trump).

4.      Much of Trump’s wealth is tied up in the value of the various Trump trademarks and his own likeness, which he licenses and commercializes.   

As is evident from the above, a significant element of Trump’s stated IP policies to date are tied in with his policies towards China.  In fact, his China policies are also closely related to his trade policies.  On his campaign website, three of his seven points to rebuild the American economy through free trade are China-specific including: (a) instructing the Treasury Secretary to label China as a currency manipulator; (b) Instruct the U.S. Trade Representative to bring trade cases against China, both in this country and at the WTO; and (c) use every lawful presidential power to remedy trade disputes if China does not stop its illegal activities, including its theft of American trade secrets – including the application of tariffs consistent with Section201 and 301 of the Tariff Act of 1974 and Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962.  The Trump website also cites the U.S. ITC report on the Theft of American Intellectual Property (2013) for the proposition that improved protection of intellectual property in China would produce more than 2,000,000 more jobs “right here in the United States.” 

Trumps’ economic advisor,  Dr. Peter Navarro, is an economist who teaches at the University of California, Irvine who may have assisted in elevating these IP issues to the attention of the President-elect.  Dr. Navarro has written several books on China-related political and trade issues including “Death by China”, “Crouching Tiger: What’s China’s Militarism Means for the World”, and “The Coming China Wars: Where They Will be Fought and How They Can Be Won.”  Death By China has been made into a documentary.  Parts of the book and movie discuss counterfeiting and piracy, trade secret thefts, substandard and counterfeit products, and technology transfers.

Considering the President-elect’s various businesses, there are, indeed, numerous trademark registrations (live and dead) for Trump-related trademarks  in the United States and in China, including eponymous trademarks Donald J. Trump for various products, Trump University, Trump Shuttle and Trump Tower.  I venture to guess that when he assumes the presidency, Donald J. Trump will be the most prolific developer of brands and owner of trademarks of any US president. 

Sadly — and not unlike other famous figures — Donald Trump may also thereby become the US president with the most trademarks squatted on in China.  Attached here is a list of some of some of the Trump marks on the official website of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, and of a private website.  Full Disclosure: these websites may not be fully up to date, and it would be very time consuming to determine if each of the trademark applications involving the Trump name were made in good faith.  On first glance, not all of them were applied for by companies that look like Donald Trump’s Chinese name is (唐纳·川普, or Tangna Chuanpu in Romanized Chinese).  As an experiment to see what type of company might be applying for the Trump mark, on the last two pages of this attachment, I also looked up other marks held by one company that owns a Trump Tower mark. This company also owns a Samsonite Mark and a mark that looks like the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, an interesting choice of marks for classes 18 (leather goods) and 32 (light beverages). 

It seems like leather companies, such as this company, have been engaged in interesting branding choices in China.  In a wholly unrelated high profile case earlier this year, another leather company won the right to use Apple’s iPhone mark as its brand for leather goods.  In my personal opinion, it would serve China well to clean up its registry of squatted marks to avoid these issues for Presidents-elect, tech companies, and run of the mill entrepreneurs.

Summarizing the SPC’s 2015 White Paper

 

WP_20160420_005China releases much of its IP data in April, on the margins of World IP Day (April 26).  This year there have been important conferences summarizing these reports in advance of their release, including reports from the Supreme People’s Court on IP litigation, as well as white paper reports on specialized IP courts in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong.  In addition, there are SPC reports on fifty model cases and 10 big IP casesThe Western media has also reported on some of these reports, as have state run media in Chinese and in English.   This blog has reported on SPC whitepapers and model cases for some time.  As in prior years many provincial courts, such as Hubei, are also reporting out white papers of various kinds, as have IP and administrative agencies, such as Beijing municipality.

As in prior years, interpretation of the data, particularly for the foreign business community, can be challenging.  Here is my digest of the SPC’s important 2015 White Paper:

Foreign Cases Are a Shrinking Share

Perhaps the most dramatic national news from the official national data involving foreigners is that in 2015 foreign related IP cases dropped 22% in absolute numbers from last year, despite an overall increase of 7.2% of total decided IP cases. The total number of civil cases involving foreigners was 1,327.   As a consequence, foreign related IP civil cases as a share of total cases dropped from 1.9% (2013), to 1.8% (2014), to 1.2% (2015).   By contrast, total administrative cases in 2015 were 10,926, of which 4,928 were foreign or about 45%, continuing the trend of an outsized foreign administrative presence, with an undersized infringement role.

Data from other sources also casts some doubt on the “foreign-related” data in the SPC’s report.  The Shanghai IP courts reported that approximately one in six lawsuits received involved an overseas party, with most pursuing trademark or patent infringement claims.  A newly set up database company, IP House, also reported that over 20% of the IP litigation in Beijing involved foreigners.  Former SIPO Commissioner Tian Lipu also cast doubt on data suggesting that the amount of foreign-related IP litigation is under 5%, in a letter to then USPTO Director Kappos.  Conflicting data on foreign-related cases is likely due to the manner of reporting.  Although there is no official explanation I know of, I believe that foreign-related cases are likely those cases reported as foreign related for purposes of suspension of mandatory time frames for adjudication under China’s civil procedure law.  However, litigation commenced by a foreign invested entity in China may be characterized by the SPC as a domestic case.

Another explanation may be that the high level of foreign-related administrative cases may be due to the centralization of IP prosecution in the headquarters of many foreign companies which file these cases in the name of the parent company.  After China’s patent office or trademark office grants the right, the foreign company might then transfer the rights to the subsidiary.  This transfer is validated by the high percentage of related party IP licensing activity which US census also reports. I have not, however, seen any studies that seek to correlate foreign licensing activity, foreign investment and foreign-related litigation, which might support this hypothesis.

As I have noted elsewhere, comprehensive data must, however, await publication of the relevant source cases or data by the SPC and other courts.

IP Cases Continue to Grow Overall

The shrinking reported foreign share contrasts with the rapid growth of IP cases in China.  The SPC reported that newly reported first instance IP cases increased to 130,200, up 11.73% from 2014.  Total cases adjudicated were 123, 059, an increase of 11.68%, of which 101,324  were civil cases, an increase of 7.22%.  Administrative cases adjudicated constituted 10, 926, an increase of 123.57%, most likely due to changes in China’s trademark law which establish a more direct role for the courts.   Criminal cases adjudicated were 10,809, maintaining their slightly decreased level since 2013 (the SPC report notes that the cases are “stable” 同比基本持平)。

Patent Cases Continue to Grow

The SPC reported that patent and licensing cases continued grow, and that they increasingly involved complex areas of technology, with an increase of 22.1% to 13,087 cases.   However, I have not yet seen a breakdown of cases by type of patent or technology type which fully documents this observation.  The data appears too general at this point, considering that perhaps 2/3 of China’s patent cases involve unexamined utility models and designs of varying technological complexity, the relatively small share of licensing disputes, and the reality that many software and unfair competition cases may in fact involve high technology cases (but may not otherwise be reported as such).

Unfair Competition Cases on the Rise

The SPC report shows that unfair competition cases have increased, including those involving the internet and software technologies. Civil cases increased to 2,181, with antitrust cases increasing to 156. The total increase was 53.38%. Trade secret cases have not yet been separately reported out. They are generally a significant share of this relatively small portion of the IP docket. In 2009, for example, there were 1,282 cases under the Law to Counter Unfair Competition in the courts, of which 253 involved trade secrets.

What the Data Suggests on Courts Foreigners May Want to Pay Attention To

A foreigner traveling to China who is considering where to bring a case, or risks of being sued in a particular venue, should not consider all court as equally well situation.  The Beijing courts, for example, clearly play a key role in foreign related IP adjudication. As administrative cases are overwhelmingly located in Beijing, the Beijing IP court hears perhaps 80% of the combined civil/administrative foreign docket.

In addition, the SPC reports that Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Guangdong accounted for 70 percent of the first instance IP litigation of all types. Shanghai is also a good place to engage, as it has the SPC has established an international exchanges base there. Indeed, the Shanghai white paper also reported out on its exchange activities, including singling out a significant conference last year with the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Still, several courts are assuming increasing importance, and some may pose defensive risks and opportunities for foreigners.   Jiangsu’s docket increased by 38.71%; the docket in Tianjin increased by 50.41%. Anhui saw an increase of 101.26%, while courts in Shandong, Shaanxi, Hunan and Helilongjiang all saw increases of over 30%.

Just as the specialized IP courts were releasing their white papers, the SPC reported that NPC delegates from a number of provinces had been asking to establish their own IP courts in their region, and that the SPC would report out in August on these proposals.  In my opinion, these requests reveal the problem of this otherwise noble experiment in specialized IP courts: if multiple regions have specialized IP courts at the intermediate level, then efforts to insure national unity in reduce local protectionism in IP litigation through a national appellate court may be compromised. However, it is also important to note that these specialized IP courts would replace specialized IP tribunals – a significant difference from US trial court litigation, which  involves courts of general jurisdiction.

At the same time as these papers were being released, a judicial delegation from China was engaging with US federal and state judiciary to discuss the role of IP courts and possibility of future cooperation (see picture above by me from the Wisconsin Supreme Court).  I also believe that we can expect more discussion on these important issue in the months and years ahead.

GAI and ABA Pubish Their AUCL Comments

Attached are the comments of the American Bar Association Sections on International Law and Antitrust Law  on the proposed draft revisions of the Anti-Unfair Competition Law (AUCL)  as well as comments of the Global Antitrust Institute of George Mason University.

The ABA’s comments are comprehensive – addressing IP issues (including trade secret and trade dress), advertising law, competition law issues and commercial bribery.  GAI’s  comments are focused on the interface between the AUCL and the Antimonopoly Law.

Regarding the overlap with the AML, the GAI advocates that “any provisions in the AUCL that relate to conduct covered by traditional antitrust laws, or conduct covered by China’s Anti-Monopoly Law, be either omitted entirely or revised to limit liability to situations when there is substantial evidence of harm to competition.  … The AUCL should be implemented in a manner consistent with these objectives of competition policy.”  The same argument might be applied to other laws in China, such as Section 329 of the contract law, which deals with monopolization of technology.   In fact, China has a long history of industrial policy regulation of competition, much of which was enacted prior to China’s antimonopoly law.

Neither set of comments fully addresses a core concern of the proponents of this draft,  “that the administrative law enforcement is dispersed, that law enforcement standard is not unified, that the legal responsibility system is not perfect, and that the punishment is too lenient.”  Prior experience of administrative trade secret enforcement of the AUCL has shown that foreigners have not been a significant beneficiary, despite high level political attention paid to increased trade secret protection.   In the trademark context, SAIC’s foreign-related docket is several multiples of all foreign-related civil IP cases.  Increased administrative enforcement authorities raise several complicated concerns:  will these authorities be used fairly on behalf of Chinese and foreigners alike,  will trade secrets be protected by administrative agencies, are the courts better situated to adjudicate the various divergent issues,  what priority will AUCL enforcement assume in SAIC’s vast bureaucracy,  how will these expanded authorities be coordinated with criminal law enforcement and the courts, etc.

 

 

Imminent Program in Shanghai with the IP Judiciary

IP Key, the European program for IP cooperation with China is sponsoring an EU-China Judge’s forum in Shanghai on March 17-18.  The program is jointly organized by IP Judicial Protection Research Center of Supreme People’s Court, Chinese Courts International Exchanges Base (Shanghai) for Judicial Protection of Intellectual Property Rights and the European Commission.  Topics to be covered include:

  • Innovation of Business Model and Intellectual Property Protection
  • Burden of Proof, Damages Calculation and Punitive Damages in IP Lawsuits
  • Judicial Protection of Trade Secrets

For more information on this activity, visit the IP Key website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(一)以盗窃、利诱、胁迫、欺诈或者其他不正当手段获取权利人的商业秘密;

(二)披露、使用或者允许他人使用以前项手段获取的权利人的商业秘密;

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Chapter III: Supervision and Inspection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of NDA’s and Smoking Guns: China’s Evolving Landscape of Trade Secret Protection

A recent class at Fordham law school with seasoned IP lawyer Benjamin Bai, of Allen & Overy’s Shanghai office, brought home to me some of the differences in substantive technological secret protection between the US and China.  The SI cases in particular, where technical trade secrets were litigated in both the United States and China suggested that some major differences between the US and China are that US IP practices tends to emphasize access over similarity of technology, while Chinese practice tends to focus on similarity.  In this sense, Chinese courts may appear to be “misappropriator friendly,”  although a more accurate assessment may be that the courts are friendly to the party acquiring or developing proprietary technology.

According to Mr. Bai, Chinese courts may tend to analyze each claim of trade secret protection (in a manner similar to a patent litigation) and be less inclined to accept arguments from plaintiff that a given technology, overall, is similar to the technology claimed by a plaintiff.   In Benjamin’s estimation, the Chinese courts in the SI group cases may have been correct in noticing that small differences in the subject technology have significant implications.   China’s trade secret law specifically provides, in a judicial interpretation, that reverse engineering is a defense to a claim of trade secret misappropriation.  This “similarity” approach goes a step further by providing a non-infringement defense based on modifying misappropriated technology.

The notion of whether a technology is “similar” is evocative of the “doctrine of equivalents” (“DOE”) in patent infringement matters.  However, patent law cases generally do not accept notions of reverse engineering as a defense to infringement claims.    The DOE also acts as an incentive to early disclosure of a patented invention by insuring that a given technology receives an adequate breadth of protection.  Trade secret cases do not share similar policy motivations.  Trade secret law is intended to protect instead against unfair misappropriation.   An undue focus on similarity can obscure the unfairness of the underlying  misappropriation.  Indeed, one of the few cases in China that determined that similarity by itself was not a defense Chongqing Long Life Xinxieli Chemical Company Ltd vs. Hu Xiantang et al. (重庆长寿新协力化工有限公司等诉胡宪堂等侵犯商业秘密纠纷案) was based in part on the original fraudulent acquisition of the technology. The court noted in that case that “the illegal obtaining of trade secrets and its subsequent modification still is a trade secret infringement.” (本院认为,首先,被告东荣公司通过非法手段获取了涉案商业秘密,不管其是直接实施还是略加改进后再实施,其行为的侵权本质并未改变。即非法获取并实施商业秘密是侵权行为,对非法获取的商业秘密进行改进同样是侵权行为。) (2010)渝一中法民初字第00055号).

Evolving trade secret jurisprudence in China suggests that a plaintiff is more likely to succeed while the “gun still smokes” and before the technology has actually been applied.  The Shanghai Eli Lilly case  involved a preliminary injunction while there was still a smoking gun, with no need to consider “similarity.”   This “early stage” access case  is also reflected in the dispositions of Chinese and US law enforcement.  One Shanghai police official told the press in 2012 “Only [trade secret] cases in which there are no reported perpetrators tend to be complicated.”   A recent criminal conviction in the United States involving theft of Dupont/Monsanto seed suggests is another example of early stage / smoking gun misappropriation.

US companies when they become obligees under non-disclosure agreements may find themselves in a difficult position in an access-oriented jurisdiction, as their NDA’s can easily become smoking guns for claims of trade secret theft if a court has an access-oriented approach.  A recent example of such a case was the recent decision involving Caterpillar’s “Bug Coupler” technology, which involved disclosure of technical secrets from a supplier pursuant to an NDA, and a court’s determination that Caterpillar continued to benefit from such disclosure in its subsequent product development.  Caterpillar was ordered to pay damages of $73.6 million, the largest in Illinois history for a trade secret claim.

As US lawyers use increasingly stronger non-disclosure, non-use and non-circumvention type agreements in China, the risks exists that they will also be subject to similar agreements from Chinese companies seeking to co-develop technology or products.  In such instances, a US company may wish to ensure application of Chinese law, which might give it the benefit of a less access-oriented approach to technology development.

The differences in approach of China and the United States also may reflect differences in legal culture in both countries.  As trade secret cases are adjudicated by IP judges, these same judges may be unduly informed by patent notions of prior art (or public availability of trade secret information), as well as the doctrine of equivalents (in looking at similarity).   US federal and state judges are likely to have less specialized backgrounds.  Moreover, state judges and federal appellate judges other than the Federal Circuit, do not adjudicate patent matters at all and may therefore be less inclined to make these comparisons.  China’s employee-friendly labor laws also view non-compete agreements with some skepticism, including not utilizing doctrines such as “inevitable disclosure” with as much frequency as US courts.

My hope is that as the bilateral technology transfer environment develops, there is greater harmonization  in our trade secret regimes. smokinggun