Regaining Trademarks That Were Lost in Translation in China

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By Scott Miller and Yang Wang, August 3rd, 2017

In China, international companies and celebrities have often found themselves on the losing side in trademark or name right disputes. One reason is that an English word can be translated in Chinese either phonetically or conceptually, and there are usually multiple Chinese characters with the same pronunciation to choose from. Another reason is that the Chinese trademark system is a first-to-file system same as in Canada, but prior-use is not a reasonable ground to displace a registered trademark.

The original English names (e.g. Jordan) may be hijacked by local companies by using variation forms of the phonetics in English (e.g. Qiaodan) or the translation in Chinese characters (e.g. 乔丹). These variations are difficult to distinguish from the original names by local customers since the majority of the Chinese population does not speak or read English, especially seniors and people living in rural areas. For international companies and celebrities, the Chinese courts need to be convinced that their trademarks and names are recognized as "famous", which is a tremendously difficult threshold to establish.

China has started taking intellectual property rights more seriously because Chinese companies, such as Huawei, Lenovo, and Haier, are becoming powerhouses of valuable intellectual property. In recent trademark cases, we have observed a trend that the Chinese courts are now more willing to consider the brand reputation developed by previous use outside of China. Below are a few notable cases:

Michael Jordan v Qiaodan Sports Co. Ltd.

In China, the retired basketball superstar Michael Jordan is known as “乔丹”, the most common Chinese translation of his last name. In 2001, a local sportswear manufacturer Qiaodan Sports registered a number of trademarks including “乔丹” and “QIAODAN”. Michael Jordan sued for infringement of his name rights after finding that Qiaodan Sports brought in $276 million in revenue in 2012. The trial court ruled that “Jordan” is a common English name which is not uniquely associated with Michael Jordan. Furthermore, the use of one version of the English translation does not necessarily constitute infringement. Michael Jordan later on appealed this decision.

In December 2016, China's Supreme People's Court overturned earlier rulings. The court found that a strong link between “乔丹” and Michael Jordan personally was established in China before Qiaodan Sports had maliciously registered “乔丹”. The company was fully aware of Michael Jordan’s reputation in China and enriched by passing off. Therefore, the Supreme People’s Court invalidated the “乔丹” trademark registration. Meanwhile, the court held that the link between “QIAODAN” and Michael Jordan has not been established, as naturally Michael Jordan would not have used “QIAODAN” in any manner.

New Balance v New Boom, New Barlun, and New Bunren

In 2017, the Suzhou Intermediate People’s Court has ordered five shoe manufacturers using the name New Boom and the signature slanting “N” logo to pay $250,000 in fines to the state and an undetermined amount to New Balance. Another Chinese court had awarded New Balance $550,000 against companies making New Bunren brand shoes. We are still waiting for the outcome of an outstanding case against the brand New Barlun.

Most international companies do register their English brands when entering the Chinese market. However, what’s often forgotten, or deemed less important, is the registration of Chinese translations. This overlooking may cause significant economic losses eventually as a registration for the English words will not automatically extend to the Chinese translations.

Recent court decisions serve as encouraging precedents to international brand owners. The Supreme People’s Court is more willing to consider all relevant circumstances, in particular the fairness and commercial value behind the name or trademark. It also worth to mention that the Chinese Trademark Office has granted preliminary approval for nine Donald Trump trademarks it had previously rejected. The key to success is to present sufficient evidence to establish the link between the original names and Chinese translations, and show bad faith on the part of the trademark squatter. Recent cases emphasize the need for international companies and celebrities to identify and register Chinese translations or transliterations of their trademarks and names as soon as possible, in order to ensure that they are protected against trademark squatters.

 

For more information please contact:

 
Scott Miller, Partner, Head of the Litigation Department
T: 613.801.1099

E: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Yang Wang, Ph.D., Summer Law Student
T: 613.801.1082

E: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

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