In an indictment unsealed last week, the U.S. Department of Justice charged two companies – one based in China and the other in Taiwan – as well as three individuals, with trade secret theft, conspiracy to commit trade secret theft, economic espionage, and other related crimes. These charges are the latest in a recent string of similar prosecutions, as U.S. officials have sought to combat the threat of Chinese economic espionage against American technology companies, defense contractors, and other entities.

The indictment claims that defendants stole trade secrets from U.S.-based Micron Technologies, Inc., relating to the research and development of dynamic random-access memory (DRAM), a technology used to store data in electronic devices. DRAM had been identified by the Department of Commerce as an “essential component of U.S. military systems.” According to the indictment, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has “publicly identified the development of DRAM technology as a national economic priority because PRC companies had not been able to develop technologically advanced DRAM production capabilities, and PRC electronics manufacturers relied on producers outside the PRC to supply DRAM.”

The indictment claims that United Microelectronics Corporation (UMC) (a semiconductor company headquartered in Taiwan) and Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit, Co., Ltd. (a PRC-funded company dedicated to the development and manufacture of DRAM) entered into a technology cooperation agreement to develop DRAM for a product described as “32nm and 32Snm DRAM.” The companies subsequently recruited three former Micron employees, including the former head and two former employees of Micron’s Taiwan subsidiary responsible for making DRAM, all of whom left Micron to work for UMC in 2015 and/or 2016. The indictment further claims that prior to leaving Micron, the former employees downloaded and took Micron information pertaining to at least eight different trade secrets, totaling nearly 1,000 files.

According to the indictment, the defendants used the numerous Micron trade secrets to “advance the development of UMC’s F32 DRAM technology,” including filing five patents and a patent application concerning DRAM technology that “contained information that was the same or very similar to technology described in Micron’s trade secrets.”

The indictment follows the recent addition of Jinhua to the Department of Commerce’s “Entity List,” which the Secretary of Commerce stated will limit Jinhua’s “ability to threaten the supply chain for essential components in our military systems.” Notably, the DOJ also filed a civil action seeking an injunction preventing UMC and Jinhua from exporting, selling, or importing to the U.S. any product containing DRAM manufactured by either Jinhua or UMC.

The indictment is the fourth case brought by the DOJ relating to Chinese economic espionage in the last three months. The three other cases are the following:

  • Charges against ten defendants working for the Jiangsu Ministry of State Security (JSSD), alleging conspiracy to steal information from U.S. and European defense contractors relating to aerospace technology (Oct. 30, 2018);
  • Charges against Ji Chaoqun, a Chicago resident, for allegedly assisting JSSD to recruit U.S. engineers and scientists, including U.S. defense contractors (Sept. 25, 2018); and
  • Charges against Xiaoqing Zheng, a GE engineer residing in New York, alleging theft of GE trade secrets relating to turbine technology (Aug. 1, 2018).

In noting that Chinese economic espionage against the U.S. is “increasing rapidly,” Attorney General Sessions has announced a new initiative dedicated to curtailing Chinese theft of U.S. trade secrets. A video of the DOJ’s announcement of the indictment is available here. The flurry of recent activity clearly demonstrates that the DOJ is continuing to increase its policing efforts.

On September 14, 2018, a former scientist at GlaxoSmithKline (“GSK”) pled guilty to conspiring to steal trade secrets from his former employer. Dr. Tao Li was accused of stealing confidential information about anti-cancer drugs from a GSK facility in Upper Merion, Pennsylvania after conspiring with other GSK employees who provided information to him via email, in person, and on a thumb drive. Dr. Li had established a rival company in Nanjing, China with financial backing from the Chinese government. The trade secrets allegedly stolen from GSK included detailed information about multiple products under development and information about manufacturing these products. This case is part of a larger trend, as federal authorities seek to crack down on the theft of trade secrets used to establish competitor companies in China. The United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, William McSwain, commented “[n]ot only is this a serious crime, but it is literally a form of economic warfare against American interests. Such criminal behavior must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” Dr. Li will be sentenced on January 4, 2019 and faces up to 10 years in federal prison.

On August 1, 2018, Xiaoqing Zheng was arrested for alleged theft of trade secrets belonging to General Electric (“GE”). Mr. Zheng, a graduate of MIT and an engineer who worked in the Power division of GE, is accused of stealing dozens of encrypted computer files related to turbine operation. In order to get the files out of the building, Mr. Zheng allegedly hid the data in the code for a picture of an “innocuous looking” sunset, which he then emailed to his personal email address. However, GE had been monitoring Mr. Zheng’s computer activity after it learned that he had downloaded 19,000 other files to an external hard drive. According to a company statement, GE had been in “close cooperation with the FBI for some time on this matter.” The statement continued, “At GE, we aggressively protect and defend our intellectual property and have strict processes in place for identifying these issues and partnering with law enforcement.” The FBI complaint alleges that Mr. Zheng was using the trade secrets to benefit an aeronautical company he owns in China. This isn’t an isolated incident. Just last month, China-based Sinovel Wind Group paid a $57.5 million dollar settlement related to stolen data regarding wind turbine technology that it took from Massachusetts-based technology company American Superconductor Inc.

In July 2018, U.S. District Judge James Patterson imposed a $59 million penalty against China’s largest wind-turbine firm, Sinovel Wind Group LLC (“Sinovel”), for stealing trade secrets from a Massachusetts-based technology company, American Superconductor Inc. (“AMSC”). This fine was imposed as restitution to the American company, AMSC, after Sinovel was found guilty of stealing trade secrets in federal criminal court in January 2018. At trial, the court found that AMSC’s losses from the theft exceeded $550 million. The ordeal left AMSC in perilous financial shape. The U.S. Department of Justice said that the company lost more than $1 billion in shareholder equity and 700 jobs. Because of the severity behind Sinovel’s theft, the court ordered Sinovel to pay $1.5 million in fines and $57.5 million in restitution, and the company was put on probation for one year. The parties reached a settlement with Sinovel, which it agreed to pay the $57.5 million in restitution.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Cronan stated, “[a]s demonstrated by this prosecution, intellectual property theft poses a serious threat to American companies, and the Department of Justice is committed to aggressively investigating and prosecuting individuals and corporations who undermine American competitiveness by stealing what they did not themselves create.” This case further affirms the United States’ commitment to prosecuting the theft of intellectual property through criminal and civil penalties.

Those who perpetrated the thefts live abroad. One has been successfully prosecuted in Austria. U.S. charges are still pending against him, as well as two others who live in China.

On August 18, 2017, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) launched a formal investigation pursuant to Section 301 of the Tariff Act of 1974 on the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The probe sought to determine whether the acts, policies, and practices of the PRC related to technology transfer, intellectual property, trade secrets, and innovation were discriminatory towards U.S. firms and undermined the United States’ ability to compete fairly in the global market. Section 301 allows the President to seek removal of any act, policy, or practice of a foreign government that violates an international agreement or that unfairly burdens or restricts U.S. commerce.

On March 22, President Trump issued a Memorandum stating the USTR found PRC actions do undermine U.S. firms’ ability to compete fairly in the global market by (1) requiring or pressuring U.S. companies to transfer technology to Chinese companies; (2) imposing restrictions on, and intervening in, U.S. firms’ investments and activities, including through restrictions on technology licensing terms; (3) obtaining cutting-edge technology by directing and facilitating the investment and acquisition of U.S. companies by Chinese companies; and (4) conducting and supporting intrusions and theft from the computer networks of U.S. companies.

In response, the President has directed the USTR to address these violations via a combination of retaliatory tariffs, World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement, and the Department of the Treasury to address via investment restrictions. Continue Reading USTR: China Discriminates Against U.S. Firms Related to Tech Transfer, IP, and Trade Secrets

U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Ambassador Robert Lighthizer initiated an investigation on August 18, 2017 pursuant to Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. The probe will determine whether acts, policies, and practices of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) related to technology transfer, intellectual property, trade secrets, and innovation are discriminatory towards U.S. firms by undermining the United States’ ability to compete fairly in the global market. Section 301 allows the President to retaliate by removing any act, policy, or practice of a foreign government that violates an international agreement.

The investigation began after PRC President Xi Jinping unveiled a cybersecurity law to “protect personal information and individual privacy,” as reflected in China’s Made in China 2025 initiative. The law requires foreign companies operating in China to store their data on local servers. U.S. companies are now also being instructed to participate in joint ventures with Chinese enterprises, therefore sharing valuable technology information with their Chinese counterparts.

USTR allegedly finalized its report in December 2017, and the remedies are undergoing vetting in the interagency process. However, the U.S. may partner with the European Union and Japan to seek consultations through the WTO, rather than solve the issue unilaterally.

Pursuant to the Trade Act, Ambassador Lighthizer must determine within 12 months from the date of the initiation whether the Chinese government violated U.S. intellectual property laws. The retaliatory action proposed by USTR, if any, must be implemented within 30 days of the determination. USTR may delay the implementation up to 180 days if the agency determines that substantial progress could be made by the foreign government. If the determination is affirmative, then USTR will decide what action to take.

If Ambassador Lighthizer recommends retaliation under Section 301, the President could impose sanctions on certain Chinese industries, specifically steel. The current administration has demonstrated a tough stance on overcapacity by imposing a 25 percent global tariff on imported steel products, and a 10 percent global tariff on imported aluminum products.

As expected, the Chinese government is already demonstrating “tit for tat” retaliation by self-initiating anti-dumping (AD) and countervailing (CVD) investigations on imports of sorghum from the United States. In addition, China is already among one of the countries that has requested consultations from the WTO regarding the safeguard measures on solar cells and residential washing machines.

The USTR is expected to release its findings to the President within the coming months.

Sinovel Wind Group Co. Ltd. (“Sinovel”) was convicted on January 24, 2018 for stealing trade secrets from AMSC, a U.S. based company. In March 2011, Sinovel, a manufacturer and exporter of wind turbines based in the People’s Republic of China, contracted with AMSC to sell more than $800 million in products and services for its wind turbines.

On June 27, 2013, Sinovel was charged of conspiracy to commit trade secrets theft, theft of trade secrets, and wire fraud, along with Su Liying, Sinovel’s Deputy Director of Research and Development Department; Zhao Haichun, a technology manager for Sinovel; and Dejan Karabesevic, a former employee of AMSC Windtec Gmbh, a wholly-owned subsidiary of AMSC. The evidence presented at trial showed that Sinovel conspired with the other defendants to obtain AMSC’s copyrighted information and trade secrets in order to produce wind turbines and to retrofit existing wind turbines with AMSC technology without paying AMSC the more than $800 million it was owed under the contract.

Because of the theft of its information and trade secrets, AMSC lost more than $1 billion in shareholder equity and approximately 700 jobs, over half its global workforce. Sentencing is set for June 4, 2018. U.S. Attorney Scott C. Blader stated that the “verdict sends a strong and clear message that the theft of ideas and ingenuity is not a business dispute; it’s a crime and will be prosecuted as such.”

The International Trade Commission (ITC) issued a Limited Exclusion Order (LEO) excluding imported crawler cranes from Chinese manufacturer Sany Heavy Industry Co that were designed and manufactured using the misappropriated trade secrets and patented inventions of Manitowoc Cranes. The Commission’s final determination in the In Re Certain Crawler Cranes and Components Thereof investigation (Inv. No. 337-TA-887) confirms that the ITC is a favorable forum in the fight against foreign intellectual property theft, especially in cases where jurisdiction may be difficult to establish in U.S. Courts.

The ITC issued its Final Determination affirming, in part, Administrative Law Judge Shaw’s Final Initial Determination that Chinese heavy machinery manufacturing company Sany Heavy Industry Co. had misappropriated Manitowoc Cranes trade secrets in developing its products, infringed on two of Maitowoc’s patents, and harmed the U.S. domestic crawler crane industry. The ITC determined that at least one product infringed certain claims of one of Manitowoc’s patents and that six trade secrets of Manitowac’s were protectable as trade secrets and misappropriated.

Continue Reading ITC Excludes Chinese Company for 10-Years for Trade Secrets Misappropriation

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[via Flickr user BriYYZ]

Many U.S. lawyers are surprised when I tell them that China has legal protection for trade secrets.  Although China’s trade secret protections are scattered across several statutes, the most important is the Anti-Unfair Competition Law (AUCL). Article 10 of the AUCL defines a trade secret as technical and business information unknown to the public which has economic value and practical utility and for which the trade secret owner has taken measures to protect its confidentiality. Article 10 of the AUCL prohibits three forms of misappropriation:

  • The acquisition of a trade secret by theft, inducement, duress or other illegal means;
  • The disclosure or use of a trade secret acquired by the above-described illegal means; and
  • The disclosure or use of a trade secret in breach of an agreement or confidentiality obligation imposed by the trade secret owner.

Continue Reading Surprise: Trade Secrets Are Protected In China

The chair of Temple University’s physics department has been indicted for allegedly providing U.S. technology to China. Dr. Xioaxing Xi, a U.S. citizen and native of China, is an expert in the field of magnesium diboride thin film superconducting technology. According to the indictment, Xi was involved in a scheme over many years to funnel thin film superconducting technology to third parties in China.

Continue Reading Chair of Temple University’s Physics Dept. Indicted for Providing U.S. High Tech to China