U.S. Trade Agency’s China Focus Good for Cleantech Companies

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The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) is the federal agency responsible for conducting trade negotiations and developing and coordinating U.S. trade policy.

As it did last year, the USTR will again make intellectual property rights (IPR) a top priority in trade relations with China in 2014. While Hollywood movie copyrights and drug patents may be the first IPRs that come to mind, IPR in green technologies could also be heavily impacted by the USTR’s attention to China.

The copyright and trade secret dispute between American Superconductor (AMSC) and Sinovel (see, e.g., previous posts here, here, here and here), a Chinese wind turbine manufacturer, highlights the risks of doing cleantech business in China and provides an indication of what is at stake for green IPR holders.

In that case, AMSC accused Sinovel of unauthorized use of its turbine control software source code and the binary code, or upper layer, of its software for certain power converters used in its 1.5 MW turbines. AMSC alleged that Sinovel illegally used the source code to develop a software modification so Sinovel could circumvent the encryption and remove technical protection measures on the power converters.

The U.S. government – not the USTR, but the Department of Justice – got involved when it filed an indictment in federal court in Wisconsin alleging that Sinovel, two of its employees, and a former AMSC employee conspired to commit trade secret theft and criminal copyright infringement. According to the indictment, AMSC was cheated out of $800,000,000.

By tying IP to trade, The USTR may be able to obtain tangible improvements such as tougher laws and improved enforcement measures. Hopefully, this could cause a larger shift in attitude in China toward one of respect for IPR, a change that would help both US and Chinese cleantech companies.

Of course, the USTR’s bailiwick extends beyond IP, and the clean tech industry benefits from its other activities as well. Most notable, perhaps, was the joint effort of the USTR and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to enforce trade duty orders against Chinese solar panel makers engaged in unfair trade practices.

US-Chinese relations are a hot topic in cleantech. Indeed, one of the panels at this year’s UC Hastings Cleantech Roundtable is entitled “Beyond Trade Wars: Enhancing US-China Clean Tech Relations.”

Eric Lane is a patent and trademark attorney and the Principal at Green Patent Law in San Diego and the author of Green Patent Blog. Mr. Lane can be reached at (619) 818-6043 and at elane@greenpatentlaw.com.

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About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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