Antitrust Aspects of “Unfairly High Patent Pricing” for Licensing Transactions in China

This guest blog has been written by Prof. HAO Yuan of  Tsinghua University School of Law.

 China is facing a pressing need to build its innovation-driven economy. To facilitate key features of an innovative economy Chinese anti-monopoly authorities, along with their worldwide peers, face a daunting challenge of transition from a static regime to a more dynamic one.  Several recent judicial and administrative disputes, including Huawei v. IDC, Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court, Shen Zhong Fa Zhi Min Chu Zi No. 857 (2011); Huawei v. IDC, Guangdong High People’s Court, Yue Gao Fa Min San Zhong Zi No. 306 (2013); and the NDRC’s administrative investigation against Qualcomm, Administrative Penalty Decision [2015] No. 1, point out the need to better understand the IP and antitrust intersection, particularly with regard to controversial issues such as  “unfairly high patent pricing (不合理专利高价)”.   This blog summarizes my recent paper (available on SSRN) which addresses this important issue (upcoming 2020 in GRUR International (Journal of European and International IP Law)).

Chinese Anti-Monopoly Law (“AML”), in contrast to US law but not facially dissimilar to EU competition law, pays substantial attention to a dominant market player’s unilateral “exploitative” conduct. Specifically, section 17(1) of the AML (2008) forbids a dominant undertaking from “abusing its market position” by selling at “unfairly high prices”. However, neither the Law nor later enacted Judicial Interpretations clearly define “unfairly high price” in the anti-monopoly sense. Correspondingly, courts and enforcement agencies have significant discretion in characterizing a market price as “unfairly high”, thereby potentially exposing an undertaking to harsh penalties.

Despite perhaps a legitimate institutional intention, this ex post legal risk of being found “unfairly high” could seriously curtail business entities’ ex ante incentive to innovate in China. Meanwhile, lacking adequate legal and economic guidance, this institutional discretion would likely result in significant error costs. Such costs are likely to be even more severe in the context of patent-intensive industries, particularly those in China’s burgeoning high-tech sector.

Section 55 of the AML arguably provides an IP “safety harbor”, providing that a proper exercise of IPR shall be immune from the AML scrutiny, while “an abuse of IPR, excluding or restricting on competition” shall not. As pointed out elsewhere on this website, this provision remains essentially unchanged in a recently proposed revisions to the AML.

Despite this statutory framework, recent cases indicate that the IPR immunity approach has been largely ignored in practice. In the 2011 Huawei v. IDC action, both courts found IDC’s patent pricing to be “unfairly high” primarily on three grounds: one, the licensing royalties IDC offered to Huawei were “apparently higher” than “comparable licenses”, i.e. those royalties IDC charged other companies previously (though whether these licenses were truly comparable with licenses made to Apple, Samsung and others was worthy of serious discussion); two, “IDC’s act of charging unfairly high licensing fee to Huawei, will force Huawei to either quit the competition in the relevant end product market, or accept the unfair pricing conditions, which will render Huawei to increased costs and decreased profits in the relevant end product market, directly restricting its capability to compete”; and three, IDC required Huawei to give global patent grant-backs on a royalty-free basis, an arguable violation of both the Antimonopoly Law and the then-existing Administration of Technology Import/Export Regulations,. Similarly in the Decision against Qualcomm, the NDRC also disregarded Section 55 immunity, finding that Qualcomm’s licensing conditions were “unfairly high” due to these three factors: charging a flat fee for an ever-changing patent portfolio without proving the replenished patents are of equal value to expired ones; coercion for free grant-backs; and using the entire end product as royalty base. So far, Huawei v. IDC and Qualcomm have been the only two completed Chinese cases that entailed an extensive “unfairly high patent pricing” analysis.  Other currently ongoing cases include Iwncomm v. Apple (Beijing IP Court), Huawei v. Panoptics (Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court), Xiaomi v. Sisvel (Beijing IP Court), and the anti-monopoly investigation by SAMR (China’s AML administrative enforcement authority) against Ericsson’s 3G/4G SEP licensing practices, etc..

It is true that both IDC and Qualcomm involved SEPs and  arguably an extra layer of FRAND commitment needs consideration, which may require additional law and policy analysis. For example, the courts might have looked to how to interpret FRAND in Chinese legal framework – is it a specific commitment to a SSO, or a general “principle (原则)” imposable by loosely grounded policy arguments? Will this FRAND interpretation affect an SEP holder’s anti-monopoly obligations in China?  And if so, how? Nevertheless, to a large extent these cases still reflected a practical departure from the statutory IPR immunity framework approach under Chinese law. Such an aggressive approach has also been reflected in Section 14 of the Anti-Monopoly Guidelines for IP Abuse (Draft for Comment 2017) as published by the Anti-Monopoly Commission of State Council. (Editors note: see the comments of the American Bar Association, as well as earlier drafts by enforcement agencies here). According to this rule-of-reason framework, “Business entities that enjoy dominant market positions may abuse their dominance by licensing intellectual property at unfairly high prices, excluding or restricting competition; while assessing whether such high pricing constitutes abuse of dominant market position, the following factors may be considered: (i) calculation method of license royalty, as well as the IP’s contribution to the value of goods; (ii) the business entity’s undertaking with regard to the IP licensing; (iii) the license history or comparable license standards; (iv) license conditions that may have led to unfairly high pricing, including territorial or product scope restrictions; and (v) whether a portfolio licensing includes expired or invalid IP”.

This laundry-list framework is not administrable. How these factors play out in a specific case, whether and how they would interact with each other, how much weight should be attached to each and every one of them, how to incorporate the pro-efficiency features into consideration … all these important practical questions remain unanswered. Facing such vague rules, patentees and other relevant market players would find it very hard to ascertain legal compliance. Vague rules combined with the high stakes often entailed in antitrust cases may lead to rent seeking and bad precedents, further upsetting a prior well-functioning market system, and harming market players’ confidence to  continuously invest in innovation.

One critical reason for this stark departure between the Law and enforcement may be the lack of an administrable test to differentiate “proper exercise” of patent right from “abuse”. Ambiguity lies in at least two aspects. First, due to the very mechanisms of patent regime in fostering innovation, even a proper exercise of right would necessarily restrict certain market competitions. Thus, it seems that an over-general standard of whether “to eliminate or restrict competition” cannot work as the ultimate test to differentiate abuse from legitimate exercise. Second, despite extensive use of “patent abuse” in the past decades worldwide, the exact contour of this concept remains elusive. Resorting solely to the various definitions and constructions in comparative law of sister jurisdictions, helpful as it is, would not solve these ambiguities adequately.

Mark Cohen, the editor of this blog, has also noted that one little-referenced basis for resolving the distinction between “proper exercise” and “abuse” is in fact found in Article 40 of the TRIPS Agreement, which creates a similarly vague dichotomy in permitting WTO members to provide remedies for abusive licensing practices.  Article 40 authorizes member states to address “licensing practices or conditions that may in particular cases constitute an abuse of intellectual property rights having an adverse effect on competition in the relevant market.”   Article 40 also permits member states to control mandatory grant backs of the type address in Huawei v. IDC.  The ambiguities in China’s AML and TIER may in no small part be due to the ambiguities within Article 40 itself, which may have been an important resource for the drafting of Article 55 of the AML.  Furthermore, as Prof. Cohen has separately noted, the legislative history of  Article 55 suggests that it was intended to provide greater assurance that enforcement of IP rights would not by themselves violate the AML, see Harris et al, Antimonopoly Law and Practice in China (2011), at 55. Prof. Cohen’s latter point was well proved in the little referenced, but authoritative, Statute Interpretation and Legislative Reasoning of the Anti-Monopoly Law (hereinafter “Statute Interpretation”) (published by the Legislative Work Commission of the NPC), which noted that, “To restrict competition by the exercise of IP right, is permitted by law after its balance of distinctive interests; in other words, certain restrictions must be imposed on competition to further technological innovation and improve competitive capability. Thus, monopoly status resulting from IP right as well as the restriction on competition because of the exercise of IP right, are legal acts based upon the legal authorization. Other jurisdictions generally treat the legal exercise of IP right as an exception to the application of antitrust laws” ; but on the other hand,  “[I]f an IP right holder abuses its right by exceeding the scope of exclusive right, in acquiring or strengthening a monopoly position, such act will not be protected, and if it excludes or restricts competition, the AML shall govern here.”

Though not a binding document in itself,  the Statute Interpretation can work as a useful guidance, since it embodied important legislative intents and reasoning at the time, particularly when no other legislative reports are accessible to the public. Therefore, to assess “unfairly high patent pricing”, a crucial question is whether the alleged excessive pricing act falls within the scope authorized by patent law. If the answer is positive, then even if this “excessive” pricing would restrict certain competition in the relevant market, such static efficiency loss is a necessary cost we deliberately pay for sustainable innovation, i.e. section 55 immunity applies. If and only if on the other hand, the alleged pricing has been proved to exceed the legally authorized scope of such patent, section 55 immunity will then be stripped and the high pricing act will be examined under section 17(1) of the AML. In other words, to be stripped of the IP clause immunity and subject to “unfairly high patent pricing” scrutiny under the AML lens, the alleged pricing must be not only excessive enough to exclude competition, but also in a way that departed from what patent law has originally contemplated.

Economic insights into the patent law jurisprudence of various jurisdictions, including China, US and EU, reveal that despite some rather subtle differences, all patent regimes promote innovation essentially through the instigation of dynamic competition. Specifically, the patent regime (1) bridges an innovator’s technological R&D to market demand: the better aligned a new technology is to consumer needs, the more valuable this “shell” of exclusive right would be in the marketplace, resulting in higher profit an innovator can harvest by excluding her imitating competitors (“competition by imitation” or “CBI”).  In addition, the patent regime enables innovators to signal potential “innocent” imitators utilizing mechanisms such as disclosure requirements, thereby reducing the amount of duplicative investment in innovation. See Edmund W. Kitch, The Nature and Function of the Patent System, Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 20, No. 2 at 278; (2) with some caveats addressed in my full paper, by restricting CBI with reasonably tailored claims of the patent right coupled with disclosure requirements, the patent regime simultaneously induces social resources into “inventing around” activities, i.e. to provide better/cheaper substituting technologies, thereby encouraging competition by substitution (“CBS”).    In certain circumstances, the fruits of such CBS  may also be protectable with a new property (patent) right. For example, if a competitor’s “inventing around” technology is found sufficiently “inventive” or “non-obvious”, it would likely be entitled to a patent in itself.  See Robert P. Merges, Intellectual Property Rights and Bargaining Breakdown: The Case of Blocking Patents, 62 Tenn. L. Rev. 75 (1994); and (3) feeling the pressure of CBS, the earlier patentee/innovator would likely be incentivized to keep on her next run of “inventing around”, striving to stay a winner in the marketplace. In this way, a virtuous circle of dynamic competition could come into force.

On the other hand, a brief comb-through of the economic foundations and jurisprudential development of antitrust law suggests that this regime promotes innovation essentially through efforts to maintain an (optimally) heterogeneous competition ecosystem. Based on an understanding of both innovation-facilitating mechanisms, two insights are worthy of note here. First, a mutual ground shared by both patent and antitrust regimes in their disparate routes to innovation is the common facilitation of dynamic competition. And correspondingly, Chinese anti-monopoly law should respect the very patent mechanism, i.e. the instigation of dynamic competition, which pivots on the CBS precisely through efforts including a restriction upon CBI. Therefore, to put it in practical terms, if an alleged act at the intersection with anti-monopoly law, such as an accusation of “excessive” pricing, merely caused a restriction on CBI   as indicated in supra-competitive profits, AML must refrain from intervening. In other words, AML should not lightly disturb a well-functioning circle of dynamic competition, simply because under its lens CBI  or static efficiency seems restricted in a link, and local optimum seems not achieved – as a result, a supra-competitive profit enjoyed by a patentee should be found legal per se if static efficiency loss is the only proven harm. More importantly, the focus should be instead on whether the questioned act would not only restrict competition, but also in a way that departed from what the patent regime has contemplated, i.e. the restriction is to dynamic competition or CBS itself. As an example of the latter scenario, consider a joint agreement between two patentees owning substituting technologies or a patent pool consisting of competing technologies, with the patentees or pool members consenting to suppression of one technology in promotion of another (others).

Coming back to the context of patent pricing, is it possible for a high pricing to restrict dynamic competition, thereby constituting an abuse under the anti-monopoly lens? Maybe yes in theory. Arguably in exceptional circumstances, certain pricing may be so excessively structured to actually constitute a refusal to subsequent or follow-on innovators, or at least a significant “margin squeeze” for them, and such refusal or squeeze in theory may lead to foreclosure of the CBS itself or competition in downstream markets, thus frustrating the circle of dynamic competition.. A little more discussion on the interaction of patent and market competition may help here. In a nutshell, from the perspective of a patent law student, there often exist three tiers of market competition. Tier I is vanilla CBI, referring to those competing technologies with mere replication or insubstantial changes, the only advantage of which are their lower prices (mostly by saving duplicating R&D costs). Of course, CBI can be efficient and legal in those circumstances where patentee grants a license, but in most other cases, CBI is legitimately excludable under patent law and antitrust shall never interfere. Tier II, competition by improvement, is really a higher level of CBI, in that competing technologies here involve substantial improvements on the patented technology, though still falling into the scope of earlier claims. Note a caveat here – patent law is clever enough to give certain leeway to those competitors with own substantial improvement, for example by granting a new patent right if the improvement has been found to be “inventive” or “non-obvious”, so that these competitors would have stronger bargaining power to negotiate with the original patentee and harvest higher profits from the pair of sequential innovation. This power and resulting profit would further incentivize competitors to do follow-on improvements. This is actually the scenario of blocking patents. Generally speaking, the second tier only applies to those industries that are characterized with cumulative innovation. Despite the substantial improvements, Tier II is still legitimately excludable under patent law and antitrust shall not interfere. Tier III is CBS, referring to those technologies that are capable of truly substituting the earlier patented technology to fulfill consumer needs in the market. By their very name, in most circumstances Tier III is comprised of “inventing around” technologies that do not fall into the protected scope of earlier patent, thus there exists no serious risk of being excluded by the earlier patentee unilaterally. The theoretical worry can happen however, at the rare circumstance of tier II and III intersection: occasionally an infringing improvement could be so radical that it would truly substitute the commercialized earlier patent as a break-through technology.   A real-world example here is the long deadlock between the famous Marconi diode patent and the Lee De Forest triode patent during the early development years of radio technology. This kind of radical improvement, even though literally infringing on the pioneer patent, is precisely the type of “creative destruction” Schumpeter emphasized many years ago that fuels innovation in a most powerful way – an innovator’s descendants can actually become the instruments of his destruction, yet the society benefits in the long run.

Following this train of thought, if we temporarily leave the “unfairly high patent pricing” context and turn  to some of the classical NIE (New Institutional Economics) scholarly works in a more general sense, including the conventional hypothesis of patent “anti-commons” (Heller and Eisenberg 1998), worry of over-broad pioneer patents’ suppressing effect on follow-on innovation (Merges and Nelson 1990), and recent conjecture of patent hold-up and royalty stacking in the SEP context (Shapiro and Lemley 2007), arguably they all may be considered as embodying (more or less) such theoretical worries of patent foreclosure on dynamic competition.

Inspiring as these theories were, they, need to be tested in practice.  Curiously, decades of empirical research in various industries have showed little success in proving these theoretical worries happening in the real marketplace, at least on a macroscopic level. A specific concurrent example for this striking disintegration between theory and empirical results is the robust innovation and significant consumer benefits (as indicated in quality-adjusted prices) in the SEP intensive wireless communication industry, in the shadow of persistent “patent hold up and royalty stacking” predictions. See Alexander Galetovic, Stephen Haber & Ross Levine, An Empirical Examination of Patent Holdup, Journal of Competition Law & Economics 11(3) (Aug. 2015); Jonathan Barnett, Antitrust Overreach: Undoing Cooperative Standardization in the Digital Economy, 25 Mich. Telecomm. & Tech. L. Rev. 163 (2019). There might be different explanations to this empirical difference. I give a rough quantitative analysis in my paper why the seemingly plausible theoretical worry of dynamic competition foreclosure is unlikely to happen in practice.  In addition, I argue that perhaps precisely because CBS  has always been a critical link pivoted by patent regime in its instigation of dynamic competition, throughout ages patent law has developed an implicit yet critical awareness to safeguard CBS from being foreclosed per se. This implicit awareness has been built into a wide variety of rules and principles of patent jurisprudence prevalent in many jurisdictions, such as the eligibility doctrine, inventiveness/non-obviousness and disclosure/enablement requirements in the granting phase, all-element rule and reverse doctrine of equivalents in infringement assessment phase, as well as in deeper principles underlying and threading these specific rules together. A good example for the latter is the proportionality principle well illustrated by Prof. Merges in his Justifying Intellectual Property (Chap. 6, 2011).  Surely these built-in mechanisms are not ironclad, but they may have worked in a more successful way than we give faith to, and the AML  should not overlook it.

Based on the above, I further propose that a patentee’s unilateral pricing act should be generally found legal per se in China; or at the very least, presumed legal under section 55 of the AML unless an agency/plaintiff can prove otherwise – that the alleged pricing constitutes an “abuse” in that it would disrupt dynamic competition. Specifically, a patentee’s unilateral pricing act should be immune from the “unfairly high pricing” scrutiny under Section 17(a) of the AML, unless an anti-monopoly plaintiff or enforcement agency can overcome all three following hurdles with concrete evidence, in addition to a persuading economic analysis: (i) the patentee enjoys a real dominant market position; (ii) such pricing constitutes a de facto refusal to deal, and (iii) the refusal would likely foreclose the very type of competition patent law has aimed to promote, i.e. dynamic competition. More specifically, the harm to dynamic competition can be proven in either one of the following two dimensions: i. In the same market of patented technology, a monopolist patentee’s constructive refusal to license would render radical all follow-on substitutes impossible to be developed (restriction on competition by substitution); or ii. In the circumstances of a vertically integrated monopolist patentee, the constructive refusal to license would foreclose the competition or subsequent innovation in downstream markets in which the patentee also competes.

True this burden seems high, but it is justified by three cumulative resources, (i) the above economic insights into the intersection of patent and antitrust; (ii) the prevalent non-interventionist attitude toward “excessive patent pricing” in sister jurisdictions; and (iii) the inevitable limitations of antitrust law, manifested in the error costs due to lack of proper information and economic analysis methodologies on dynamic efficiency. See Frank H. Easterbrook, The Limits of Antitrust, 63 Tex. L. Rev. 1 (1984).

Despite existence of formal empowerments in some countries/regions, almost all jurisdictions with well-developed antitrust jurisprudence have exercised a very cautious attitude in condemning a market price as “unfairly high” in practice. Section 17(1) of the AML does not have a counterpart in conventional US antitrust jurisprudence, and despite the existence of a theoretical counterpart in EU (Art. 102(a) TFEU), it has been rarely invoked. When it comes to patent pricing, the EC has been taking a virtually non-interventionist approach. This non-interventionist approach may have originated from the Commission’s awareness that many general objections against exploitative excessive pricing actions, such as the danger of undermining investment incentives of new entrants as well as dominant firms, difficulty in assessing “excessiveness”, risk of improper price regulation, and undue space for political rent seeking etc., are particularly true in the context of patent-intensive innovative industries.

Antitrust is costly. As Judge Easterbrook pointed out many years ago, in reality judges and enforcement officials are always equipped with imperfect information about actual effects of the accused practice, and such costs of information and their corresponding actions are the limits of antitrust. Part of these costs comes from the judicial ignorance and inhospitality against business practices. Very often, if a poor defendant in an antitrust case cannot convince the judge that his practices promote competition, he is doomed. Unfortunately, “the gale of creative destruction produces victims before it produces economic theories and proof of what is beneficial.” Consequently, this unfortunate judicial inhospitality and ignorance would inevitably generate substantial positive costs in practice.

During the transition from  a planned regime to market economy, China needs to overcome all kinds of obstacles, ranging from formal restraints in laws and institutional infrastructure, to lingering outdated theories and prejudice that die hard and can still be quite powerful impeding the progress. On an institutional level for example, varied degrees of inertia may unavoidably exist on anti-monopoly agencies’ enforcement philosophy, especially when it comes to high pricing acts that seem to harm consumer interest (albeit short-term) on its face, and which had long been the subject of pervasive regulation through local pricing bureaus, even prior to the existence of the antimonopoly law.  In view of this potential institutional inertia, the likelihood of inhospitality a monopolist patentee, domestic or international, encounters in “unfairly high pricing” cases could be substantial.

Antitrust has two major analysis modes: per se rule and the rule of reason. If equipped with thorough information of market practices and perfect analysis methodologies, rule of reason is the route to precision and ultimate truth. Unfortunately, as discussed above, that is not the case in reality. One may contend that during the several decades after Judge Easterbrook’s seminal writing, rapid development of economic theories have provided more substantial guidance in many areas, but I am still reluctant to say that the improvement has been so significant to render his insight obsolete, particularly in context of dynamic efficiency and IP related issues. As such, an ambitious rule-of-reason framework as embodied in Section 14 of the Anti-monopoly Guidelines for IP Abuse, would inevitably generate significant error costs despite its good-willed intention.

Admittedly, our presumed legal per se framework is not cost-free. It may be conceivable that in exceptional circumstances, a monopolist patentee’s excessive pricing would disturb dynamic efficiency yet escape the law because the plaintiff simply cannot meet the high burden. On a systematic level however, I believe this possible negative error would be at least offset by the significant positive error costs avoided. A per se rule has always been used to condemn (or excuse) whole categories of practices, even though some of them are actually beneficial (or evil), and one cannot have the savings of decision by a particular rule without accepting its cost of errors.  When we choose which analysis mode to go, what really matters is the overall probability. In summary, we presume patent pricing to be legal per se, because both economic insights and comparative law already showed us that the happening chance of a real exclusionary excessive patent pricing would be extremely low (roughly estimated to be 1/100,000 – 1/100M in the paper), and partially confirmed by empirical studies so far. The exact reasons can be further explored, but the bottom line is clear – it seems that in a vast majority of circumstances, again the market mechanism coupled with strong patent protection has been functioning adequately well to facilitate innovation. Facing this extremely low probability of real foreclosure on dynamic competition, it would be unwise in every individual case to incur enormous administrative and error costs only to search a mere possibility. In a brief conclusion, if either way we are destined to make mistakes, we naturally choose the side with less cost.

In contrast to private law, anti-monopoly law is a much stronger form of interference with the market by government. Perhaps too many people today have omitted this (not only in China) – a blunt instrument as it is, antitrust law acquires legitimacy only in a minority of cases where market failure really happens, rather than a mere theoretical possibility. “The history of Chinese economic reform has clearly told us, whenever a market-oriented policy became dominant and market mechanisms were more frequently used to allocate resources, the quality and speed of Chinese economic development was better.”  Wu Jinglian, The Economic Development of China (The Great Encyclopedia Press 2018), at p. 3 (translation is my own). On the contrary, every time Chinese economic policy was influenced by the theories of planned economy, “both macroeconomic risks and microeconomic interests were affected deleteriously… … Therefore, to resolve the many problems we are confronted with during the economic reform process of China, the only answer is to insist and deepen our reform centering upon the confidence on market economy and rule of law, and further use the market mechanism to allocate resources; it should never be the pursuit of more state interferences.” Id. When stepping into the deep water of reform today, China should learn its historical lesson and be especially cautious with those legal instruments that potentially interfere with price mechanisms, the core feature of a market economy.

The author wishes to thank Hon. David Kappos, Prof. Robert Merges, Chief Judge Randall R. Rader (retired), and Prof. Mark Cohen for their editorial suggestions.  The opinions expressed herein are the author’s own.

 

 

IMPACT OF RECENT AML LEGISLATION ON THE IPR/ANTITRUST INTERFACE

This blog provides an update on recent legislative developments involving the interface between IP and China’s Anti-Monopoly law. On November 28, 2019, SAMR published the Anti-Monopoly Compliance Guidelines for Undertakings (Draft for Public Comment) (“Draft Compliance Guidelines”) 经营者反垄断合规指南(公开征求意见稿), which according to SAMR is specifically intended to “encourage undertakings’ compliance with China’s Anti-Monopoly Law” 鼓励经营者合规经营. Comments were due on February 12, 2019.  On January 2, 2020, SAMR issued the Draft Amendments to China’s AML (Draft for Public Comment)反垄断法”修订草案 (公开征求意见稿) (“Draft AML Amendments”). Comments were due on January 31, 2020. These documents, along with the changes from the government reorganization coming China’s three antitrust agencies into one, may suggest new approaches to antitrust regulation and enforcement in the future in China. 

The ABA’s Antitrust Law and International Law Sections submitted comments to SAMR on the Draft Compliance Guidelines as well as the Draft AML Amendments. We welcome receiving comments that other organizations submitted on these proposed laws to publish or link on this blog.

According to the NPC Observer, the Draft AML Amendments are on the State Council’s calendar for the 13th NPC Standing Committee Legislative Plan. It is a priority Class II Project. According to the recent government reorganization, it would otherwise be expected that Ministry of Justice would prepare a draft of the AML revisions for consideration by the State Council which would then forward on to the NPC for three readings. This Draft AML Amendments appear to be an effort to ‘test the water’ or perhaps ‘jump start’ the revision process, as it is drafted at an earlier stage than the NPC calendar might otherwise require. China’s National Copyright Administration undertook a similar effort with the long-stalled copyright law amendments, by publishing its own draft for public comment, which eventually became a State Council draft for public comment in June of 2014.

From an IP perspective, there are several items that are worth noting: 

The first one is that Article 55 of AML (Article 62 of the Draft) stayed unchanged and there is no new IP-related content added to this draft amendment. This article provides:

“This Law does not govern the conduct of undertakings to exercise their intellectual property rights under laws and relevant administrative regulations on intellectual property rights; however, undertakings’ conduct to eliminate or restrict market competition by abusing (or misusing) their intellectual property rights are governed by this Law.”

Article 55 has been the subject of considerable discussion among academics and practitioners and is ambiguous in its scope, including the relationship between the legitimate exercise of an IP right and an anticompetitive act, the relationship with Contract Law and proposed Civil Code provisions on monopolization of technology, the difference between “IP abuse” and “misuse”, the impact of administrative rules 行政法规 and AML guidelines on Article 55, and ultimately whether the AML creates some kind of safe harbor against charges of monopolization.   

An example of the unsure relationship between the legitimate exercise of IP rights and competition law might be price-based claims for securing a license to a patent, which arguably restricts certain competition in the market but would otherwise constrain a patentee’s rights to license or charge prices as it sees fit (see, e.g., Art. 28 of the TRIPS Agreement, Arts. 65, 68 of Chinese Patent Law). Most high pricing cases to date in China have involved standards essential patents, where a FRAND commitment may be involved that arguably mitigates against letting market prices fully determine patent values. However, these cases may not take into account the lawful rights authorized by Chinese IP law including the right to charge market prices and to seek an injunction when a right is infringed, which is also arguably within the scope of AML Article 55/revision Article 62.

In a similar vein, the notion of essential facilities is not mentioned in both drafts, which means China may not be ready to fully support an essential facility doctrine in national legislation at this time. However, companies that manage IP assets, particularly in the standardization context, may still need to pay attention to this issue to minimize their IP risk related essential facilities claims/abuse of market dominance, particularly as the essential facilities doctrine continues to have an active influence in administrative enforcement and policy making, as well as in policy decisions involving SEP’s.

Article 20(6) of the Draft AML Amendments lists several types of abusive acts, including “discriminating among transacting parties on transaction conditions without justified reasons” (没有正当理由,对交易相对人在交易价格等交易条件上实行差别待遇).  The current AML additionally required that the discrimination arise from “identical circumstances” (or “an equal footing” in the MofCOM translation) as a condition to a claim of discriminatory pricing (Art. 17(6)). This may create additional uncertainty in IP licensing due to potential AML risks, because the reasons for removal of “identical circumstances” are unclear, the scope of what is a “justified reason” in a licensing transaction is also unclear, and IP licenses are typically not commodity or mass produced agreements but are custom-negotiated based on a range of factors including the role of any actual or threatened litigation, markets and market penetration, tax planning, any cross-licensing, etc. 

Article 14 of the Draft AML Amendments prohibits both horizontal and vertical agreements that “exclude or restrict competition” offers another possible distinction from the current AML.  Article 13 of the current AML requires a finding of “excluding or restricting competition” only with respect to horizontal monopoly agreements. While the courts have generally adopted a fact-based, rule of reason type approach to this issue, administrative agencies were more inclined to find such agreements vertical agreements illegal per se, subject to a few exceptions. This Draft AML Amendments clarify this issue, which could have an important impact on licensing transactions by requiring an analysis of competitive impact and would be more consistent with TRIPS Article 40, which regulates “licensing practices or conditions that … constitute an abuse of intellectual property rights having an adverse effect on competition in the relevant market.” (emphasis supplied).

Two other provisions worth noting are Articles 18 and 21 of the AML Draft Amendments. Article 18 would tighten the requirements for receiving an exemption from an otherwise offending monopolistic agreement by requiring that it gives rise to efficiencies such as improving technology or improving research and development, that are “necessary” for the claimed efficiencies to be realized. The ABA has suggested that this language would require a “hindsight” type of analysis and that Article 18 be revised to soften this condition by requiring only that the agreement be “reasonably necessary” to achieve the claimed efficiencies.  

Article 21 lists factors that may be used to determine whether an undertaking has a dominant market position, and adds new additional factors for the Internet sector including network effects, economies of scale, lock-in effects, and data control and handling capabilities. The ABA has suggested that it is inappropriate to have industry specific legislation for the Internet sector, that these factors may equally apply to other industrial sectors, and that requirements of this type are best reserved for “implementing regulations or guidelines.” 

The Draft Compliance Guidelines, like other administrative rule makings are not mandatory and have no binding legal force. The Guidelines provide general guidance on anti-monopoly compliance of business operators. Most of its contents have already been stipulated in the previous Anti-Monopoly Law and related guidelines.   

Neither the AML Draft or Draft Compliance guidelines offer any specific guidance regarding management of patent pools, obtaining clearance from SAMR for a pool, or operation of a licensing regime.

The absence of more detailed consideration of IP issues in these two documents is rather surprising considering discussion in other venues. Although the US government complained about antitrust enforcement in China in the Section 301 investigation, noting that “several submissions asserted that Chinese AML authorities use the AML as a tool to advance industrial policy rather than to protect competition”, there were also no references to the AML in the Phase 1 Trade Agreement. Chinese courts have also been addressing issues regarding abuse of dominance and standardization through documents such as the Trial Adjudication Guidance for Standard Essential Patent Dispute Cases promulgated by Guangdong High People’s Court, and the Beijing High Court’s Guidance for Patent Infringement Determination. In addition, IAM has also recently reported that there is a significant increase in SEP-related litigation in China, including foreign vs. foreign and foreign vs. Chinese cases. China has also recently become an important venue for resolution of international SEP licensing disputes. Perhaps the wiser approach is to let these contentious cases be resolved one by one, rather than risk over-legislating in an evolving area where there has been considerable political attention.

Prepared by Mark Cohen and Xu Xiaofan

 

Wang Binying and the Opportunity within the WIPO Crisis

The vote for WIPO Director General will be made in early March.  The Chinese candidate, Madame Wang Binying, is known to many in the foreign IP community in China, IP diplomats, and others.  She is currently a Deputy Director General at WIPO and is consider a front-runner for the position. Ms. Wang’s candidacy has elicited considerable opposition from many in the United States,  much of it ill-informed, but some of it raising legitimate concerns.  The Chinese media has responded in kind and accused the US of “bullying.”

Over a month ago, a bipartisan group of four U.S. senators had written to President Trump to request that the United States oppose Ms. Wang’s candidacy.  Wang’s name was put forth by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in November.  These senators have noted that “ Given China’s persistent violations of intellectual property protections, including through trade secret theft, corporate espionage, and forced transfer of technology, the United States and its allies must stand firmly against such a move.”

Other commentators have joined in the criticism, including Daniel Runde at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who recently co-authored an article, “Why the United States Should Care about the WIPO Election,” and  James Pooley, a former U.S. Deputy Director General at WIPO, is quoted in Foreign Policy as asking with regard to Ms. Wang, “[w]hy would you put the fox in charge of the [IP] hen house?”   I was also misquoted in the South China Morning Post as opposing Wang Binying on similar grounds.  For me, Ms. Wang’s candidacy is clouded – but not precluded – by the long shadow cast by Francis Gurry on WIPO’s relationship with China, not by any necessary risk of “IP theft”, which is a term I abjure.  I will discuss that issue later in this blog.

 

One concern is easily dismissed: Ms. Wang is eminently technically qualified to lead WIPO, as even some of her harshest critics note.  DDG Wang has excellent credentials. She has an LLM from the institution, where I teach (UC Berkeley, (1985-86), and  also obtained a certificate in commercial law from my own alma mater, Columbia Law School.  She also worked at the former State Administration for Industry and Commerce.  She has had a long-term tenure in senior positions at WIPO.  She even spent some time training at USPTO early in her career, upon the recommendation of a U.S. Foreign Commercial Service Officer, Clark T. Randt, III, who later served as U.S. Ambassador to China and who has known her for years.  In fact, my introduction to Ms. Wang occurred through Ambassador Randt when I served as IP Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing (2004-2008).

Another matter that should be cleared up is that she was somehow appointed by the Communist Party, as suggested by one journal.  The recommendation for Ms. Wang comes, appropriately, from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  It is  true, however, as the Washington Post has reported, that Ms. Wang’s appointment is part of a larger effort by China to assume leadership roles in a number of UN organizations and that most of these officials are likely Party members.  Moreover, U.S. diplomacy in this area is also hampered, as the Post has noted, “by the administration’s public contempt for the multilateralism and its damaged relationships with allies.”

As in every critique of things Chinese, there are also some ardent U.S. defenders.  Some U.S. patent lawyers have suggested to me that the U.S. doesn’t have a basis to criticize Wang or China because China has been strengthening  China’s patent system at the same time as the U.S. has been weakening its own IP regime.  While I am supportive of this observation, I believe it is irrelevant to Ms. Wang’s candidacy.  Different countries necessarily have different strengths and weaknesses in their IP regimes.  The WIPO position does not mandate international conformity with the nationality of its DG, even if that might be welcomed in some circumstances.  More importantly,  US patent practitioners should instead be primarily concerned whether WIPO will be handling international (PCT) patent applications in an expeditious and professional manner.  A second concern may be whether WIPO will embrace intellectual property norms consistent with U.S. policy in its role as the administrator of 26 separate treaties on intellectual property and as an organizer of conferences and training programs on intellectual property issues.

In contrast to the above, the serious  opposition to Ms. Wang generally breaks down into three related areas: (a)  Ms. Wang is a China-promoted official at a time of heightened U.S. concern over China’s support for “IP Theft”; (b) a China DG may be inclined to mishandle PCT applications or mismanage WIPO utilizing the extensive discretion afforded to her; and (c) WIPO’s policies in China are in need of  a change.  I discuss these below:

IP Theft

The United States government has long conflated a range of issues into “IP theft”, including cybersecurity, trade secret infringement, forced technology transfer, and restrictive market access policies.  Many of these policy issues are not within the domain of WIPO and therefore have a limited role in the discussion around Wang Binying.  Some of them are the subject of an ongoing WTO dispute involving forced technology transfer.  WIPO is primarily concerned with the more mundane tasks of filing international applications for patents, trademarks and designs, arbitrating IP disputes, and training on IP issues, and negotiation of new IP treaties.  Although IP enforcement and trade secrets are part of WIPO’s mandate, they occupy a very small policy-oriented role.

The reason there is a WTO case dealing with IP theft is simply that there are no WIPO cases.  WIPO, unlike the WTO,  is relatively toothless.  It cannot impose compensatory sanctions.  There is also no WIPO-administered treaty devoted to trade secret matters.  The U.S., which has been aggressively advocating for better international protection of trade secrets for several years, has successfully raised standards for trade secret protections outside of the WIPO treaty process, through free trade agreements and bilateral agreements, including the recent Phase 1 Agreement with China.  The major international agreement with the most teeth is the TRIPS Agreement (Article 39), which is administered by the WTO.  It obligates “Members” to “protect undisclosed information.” This affirmative obligation might, for example, support a WTO complaint against state-sponsored economic espionage or cyber-intrusions, among other acts.  Concerns about Ms. Wang aggressively pushing back on the U.S. IP theft policy agenda therefor seem badly misplaced.

A more significant concern than WIPO’s policy function is WIPO management.  The lion’s share of WIPO’s budget is derived from international IP filings, with Patent Cooperation Treaty Fees accounting for 75% of these receipts, followed by trademark fees, contributions, and design fees.  However, WIPO does not appear to have the same level of user accountability that other IP offices have.  For this reason, patent practitioners who actively used the WIPO system should be most concerned about how that system will be managed by a new DG, then with WIPO’s approach to “IP theft.”

PCT Applications and the Extensive Discretion Afforded by the WIPO DG

The record of the incumbent Director General, Francis Gurry, may serve as a useful guide to how much risk Wang Binying might present to US interests in WIPO’s administration of international patent applications through the Patent Cooperation Treaty.   James Pooley, a former WIPO Deputy Director General in charge of the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) process,  testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee in 2016, where he outlined these risks:

The agency, in my opinion, is run by a single person who is not accountable for his behavior. He is able to rule as he does only with the tacit cooperation of member countries who are supposed to act as WIPO’s board of directors. And he is ultimately protected by an anachronistic shield of diplomatic immunity…

During my tenure I witnessed how a lack of any effective oversight frequently led to reckless decisions, often reflecting a disregard for the legitimate interests of the U.S. There are many examples I could provide, but here I will focus on three: his gift of high-end computer equipment to North Korea, his secret agreements with Russia and China to open satellite WIPO offices, and his relentless retaliation against whistleblowers who dared to come forward with the truth.”

Mr. Pooley’s concerns about the integrity of WIPO internal controls should be treated seriously, as the PCT system, which Mr. Pooley managed, contains a wealth of technical information that is confidential.  China or another malevolent actor, through a compliant DG, might access the secure WIPO computer systems for inappropriate purposes.   The  PCT, which is administered by WIPO, allows inventors to file one application and then wait 30 months before choosing the countries where they need a patent. It is particularly vulnerable during the time frame before the patent is published (18 months after the application date_  During this period before publication, the application is a secret and should not be disclosed to the public and is therefore vulnerable to misappropriation.

The risk of misappropriation of patented information by China under a Wang Binying leadership is hard to quantify; however, it remains incumbent upon WIPO to insure the integrity of its systems in order for the PCT system to remain viable.   These risks have historically been especially acute with respect to China.  China has a weak record of addressing bad faith use of its patent and trademark systems.  There is no concept of “fraud before the patent office,” or a sanctionable “duty of candor.”  China’s past record of legalizing the use of overseas patent materials to support domestic patent applications provides scant comfort.  As late as 2008, China permitted the filing of applications on patents based on disclosures by others in overseas markets, provided they had not been published anywhere in the world, or made known or marketed in China. Design patents merely required that the patented design is not marketed in China  (2000 Patent Law, Arts. 22, 23).   This loophole led to a phenomenon known as “patent hijacking” and would typically occur at an overseas trade show where a new product was displayed before its public disclosure or marketing to China.  A Chinese visitor might photograph a new product at an overseas trade show, email a photograph to his home office, and the home office would then rush to the Chinese patent office to file a design patent application, lawfully claiming it as his or her invention.  The Chinese patent system provided incentives to “steal” others’ proprietary information.  In addition to this form of legalized technology misappropriation, the U.S. government has accused Chinese agencies of covertly compelling the transfer of technology from foreign investors, an issue that has recently been addressed by the enactment of China’s Foreign Investment Law.

China also permits the anonymous filing of patent applications, which can further obscure whether an applicant obtained technical information from an illegitimate source (Examination Guidelines 4.1.2). In fact, one U.S. professor, Percival Zhang, was identified as possibly usurping such information and filing a patent application in China anonymously.  Mr. Zhang’s activities are discussed in a federal civil court case brought by the alleged actual inventor.  He was later convicted in a federal court, apparently on other charges.

The civil court case also involved a PCT application, where a Chinese entity was accused of misappropriating confidential information in advance and applying for a patent in its own name.  As the court noted:

“In September 2016, …  Bonumose filed an international patent application regarding tagatose, listing China as a covered country. The application remained confidential until April 2017. But Bonumose learned soon thereafter that the Tianjin Institute had filed its own patent application in November 2016. Tianjin’s application listed several inventors, two of whom asked to have an “unlisted name,” which is an unusual practice. Bonumose believes that the unnamed inventors are Zhang and a former Cell-Free employee. It further believes that there was no way the Tianjin application—which substantially mirrored Bonumose’s confidential application—could have been developed without knowledge and use of the tagatose trade secrets.

The theory of Bonumose’s case is therefore that Zhang,…  shared the tagatose trade secrets with the Tianjin Institute prior to the Tianjin application’s publication in November 2016. Indeed, Bonumose alleges that the Tianjin Institute paid Zhang and Cell-Free in exchange for the trade secrets. Bonumose is litigating five claims against Zhang and Cell-Free: two breach of contract claims; two trade secret claims (one federal and one state); and a declaratory judgment claim to ascertain the parties’ rights …”

These past activities do not mean that Ms. Wang would necessarily condone such activities nor that prior activities continue at the same level as they have in the past.  However, it does suggest that these concerns should be addressed by WIPO or any new DG in his or her interactions with China.

Continuation of WIPO’s policies in China and the need for change

U.S. concerns about WIPO’s potential misuse of confidential information are further magnified by accusations regarding the relationship that the current DG, Francis Gurry, has enjoyed with China. I quote Mr. Pooley again:

“Mr. Gurry had negotiated secret agreements with both China and Russia, which were first announced not by WIPO but by the China Daily News and The Voice of Russia, respectively. I remember very well going to lunch with one of my senior colleagues, when he surprised me with the news of the Moscow office, while I was the one to first inform him about the Beijing office. These secretive deals provoked a storm of controversy among the member states of WIPO, and as a result at their annual meeting in October 2013 they could not agree on a budget for the organization.”

U.S. suspicions regarding Gurry’s relationship with China are magnified by his frequent travels to China and his high-level meetings with the Chinese government. Of course, there is nothing wrong with high-level Chinese government meetings, as China is an active user of the PCT and other WIPO facilities.  Of concern to me is that Gurry underscores in almost all his China interviews the importance of strong government management of IP, via, inter alia,  “repeated messaging from the leadership of the importance of intellectual property.”  In one interview Gurry noted that China’s IP system has evolved so quickly due to the central direction given to China’s IP system, and praised China’s successful “planned, systemic and leadership-driven system.”  Similarly, in a November 2019 interview, Gurry noted that  China’s development in intellectual property has been “outstanding” and underscored the “focus and support of the leadership.”  The interviewer, Tian Wei, by contrast, noted that “the top-down approach is of course sometimes something quite unique to China.”  Gurry’s support of top-down approaches to IP also extended to his Global Innovation Index, which accords considerable weight to raw numbers invention and utility model patent filings as an indicator of innovative capacity.  This approach tends to naturally favor metric-driven IP regimes.

My interview with the South China Morning Post, noted above, was in fact directed to this embrace of state-driven innovation by Gurry.  As I noted in the interview “If Wang steps into those [Gurry’s] shoes, 10 years from now we will no longer have an IP system based on markets.”   This blog has consistently advocated that, despite the many strengths of China’s IP regime, the main defect of China’s IP regime is the inadequate focus afforded to IP as a private property right and that an overemphasis on the “socialist” aspects of China’s developing market economy could be antithetical to such a private property rights orientation.  I have not only criticized Chinese efforts which might weaken a private property rights orientation, but also the efforts of other authorities, including the US and  WIPO, which support greater Chinese intervention in its markets.  Gurry has consistently ignored that a “planned, systemic and leadership-driven system” can easily deviate from the commitment China made at WTO accession in acceding to the TRIPS Agreement that “intellectual property is a private right”  [emphasis supplied] (TRIPS Preamble).

Would a DG Wang be different from DG Gurry? I have known DDG Wang Binying since my tenure at IP Attaché at the US Embassy in Beijing (2004-2008). She also enjoys cordial relations with many prominent and active U.S. IP lawyers and officials.  Indeed, several foreigners I spoke with thought that she should be given a chance to break out from the legacy of Francis Gurry and, given her expertise, could do an excellent job.  Much as Tian Wei noted in her interview that Gurry’s perspective on China’s IP regime is not consistent with some of China’s own criticisms of its regime, it would not be unusual to expect that Wang Binying may have a better understanding of the needs of her country than Francis Gurry.  In this respect, Francis Gurry may have done a disservice to China, the US and Ms. Wang.

I note with regret that Francis Gurry’s legacy also goes deeper than perspectives on the role of the state in China’s IP regime.  During my tenure at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and later at the USPTO on its China team (from 2004-2008, and 2012-2017), I was never invited to a WIPO-sponsored symposium in China.  In fact, I  was disinvited to one symposium when a Chinese sponsor affiliated with a WIPO program noted with surprise that an American was being invited to speak at a WIPO event in China.

The data on WIPO’s website further confirms the strongly China-oriented focus of the China office’s activities in China.  The online listing of programs of WIPO’s Beijing office fails to list any multinational program or a program with a foreign government. By contrast, the Singapore office holds regional and national programs, and Brazil’s office is engaged in South-South cooperation as well as hosting international events.  WIPO’s HQ has hosted multinational events in China as well, such as a recent judicial program, often with US participation.  I polled several diplomats who have resided in China prior to writing this blog.  Although there appear to have been some positive recent developments, their past experience of being denied opportunities to participate in WIPO programs was consistent with mine.   Would a DG Wang carry forward this nationalist orientation of China’s WIPO activities?

Conclusion

I believe that active management controls, oversight and perhaps structural reform can help address the risk of trade secret leakage and other management risks from WIPO.  I also believe that, if elected, Wang Binying might be able to leave the unhealthy legacy of Francis Gurry in China behind, and indeed could help improve relations with the United States by adopting a more collaborative and balanced approach.  Although she had been closely associated with DG Gurry, I know of no direct accusation against her with regard to any of the risks noted above.  However, the lack of any such accusation is not proof that the risks aren’t real, nor does it mean that U.S. concerns need not be addressed.  For the United States, these concerns generally also do not exist with respect to candidates from outside of China.   Indeed, whatever the success of her candidacy, it would be helpful for WIPO, its member states, and Ms. Wang herself to step out of the shadows and address those legitimate concerns raised by the United States and others.

If these concerns are properly addressed, both WIPO and U.S.-China IP relations can only be strengthened, and a DG Wang, if elected, would be off to a very good start.  As any student of modern Chinese knows, the Chinese term for crisis 危机 contains the character for opportunity 机会.  Wang Binying’s candidacy can present such an opportunity.

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.

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.