By Matthew Dresden
We are on record (and then some) about the importance of registering your trademark in China. In spite of our efforts — or perhaps because of them — nearly every week someone contacts us after discovering someone else has registered “their” trademarks in China.
Most people lump all such third party registrants together under the common rubric of “trademark squatters,” but in fact, the registrants can be separated into five distinct categories, and the appropriate response (and the likelihood of success) depends on the category in which category they fall.
Category One – The Extortionist
China’s laissez-faire attitude towards bad-faith trademark registrations has created a cottage industry for numerous “entrepreneurs”: individuals who register brand names belonging to foreign companies and then hold those brand names for ransom. Anyone who deals with China trademarks has run into this sort of trademark squatter. They have filed hundreds of applications, for a wide variety of brand names and in a wide range of Nice classes. The registrations may be for different sorts of goods or services than what the brand is known for. The trademark squatter has no connection to any of the brands, and no intention of ever using them in commerce. They are a classic non-practicing entity, and their sole intent is to monetize the trademark registration by selling it to the highest bidder. They will sometimes approach the trademark owner, or they may sell the trademark to another third party on one of China’s trademark clearinghouse websites. The prices can vary but US$10,000/registration is a common starting bid.
Such registrations are the very definition of bad-faith, and you would think they would be easy to invalidate. Not so. China is slowly getting better at dealing with these situations, but even in egregious cases, it’s far from a slam dunk. The typical route involves an invalidation proceeding and an appeal and then maybe another appeal. All of this can take years and cost thousands of dollars, and there’s no guarantee of success. It’s easy to see why many foreign brand owners just pay the money and move on, as with a nuisance lawsuit. Alternately, some brand owners will wait three years and file a non-use cancellation. See China Trademarks: When (and How) to Prove Use of a Mark in Commerce.
Category Two – The Counterfeiter
Companies find the first category of trademark squatter exasperating, but they find the second category infuriating. These squatters have registered foreign companies’ trademarks not to hold them for ransom, but to use them in commerce. Indeed, these squatters’ business model is to produce counterfeit goods they can sell in China (and in any other country where the foreign company has not registered its trademark) without fear of reprisal from the true brand owner – because the squatter legally owns the trademark in China! Sometimes they will sell the same kinds of goods as the true brand owner, sometimes not – it all depends on how well-known the brand is, and what the squatter thinks will generate more money for them. Oftentimes you’ll see these squatters register several foreign brand names in China, all in the same classes of goods. If one foreign brand is good, four are better.
It is usually more expensive for the true brand owners to purchase these registrations because the registrations are worth more to the trademark squatter. Moreover, a non-use cancellation will not succeed, because the marks are actually being used in commerce. It is sometimes possible to succeed with a bad-faith invalidation, but this will largely turn on whether the mark was well-known in China, which is a difficult thing to prove. For many years the de facto Chinese position has been that if foreign brand owners cared about their marks in China, they should have registered them there. Here, the alleged trademark squatter is using the mark in commerce and probably also employing people and paying taxes on its income. That looks a lot better to Chinese authorities than a sole-proprietor non-practicing entity who lives with his parents in Kunming or Kansas.
Category Three – The Stiff-Arm Competitor
The third category of squatter looks a lot like the second category – they file trademarks covering a certain, fairly narrow set of goods. But this type of squatter isn’t a counterfeiter and has no plans to use the marks in commerce. Rather, this squatter is your competitor, and their goal is to prevent you from entering the Chinese market (at least under your preferred brand name). The more specialized the market, the more likely this is to occur because everyone knows all of the other players. More than once I’ve seen a Chinese manufacturer in a specialized industry register the trademarks of all its European and American competitors. They then offer the competitors a Hobson’s choice: buy the trademark at a grossly inflated price (upwards of $250,000K) AND designate the competitor their exclusive distributor in China, or say goodbye to their brands in China.
The stiff-arm competitor often also oftentimes will threaten to block products manufactured with its trademark by anyone else from leaving China. In other words, they may threaten to effectively shut down your entire business worldwide by choking off your sole production point.
Brands that are actually well-known in China may have some success in wresting trademark registrations from such registrants, but as noted above that rarely happens. Most foreign brand owners in this position are out of luck. The argument that these trademark squatters gamed the system is not going to get much traction.
Category Four – The “Helpful” Supplier
Sometimes companies will find that their brand names have been registered by a familiar entity – their own supplier or distributor in China. If the supplier or distributor is still producing or distributing goods for the company, the proffered explanation is usually benign: the supplier or distributor registered the mark to prevent any rapscallion squatters from doing so first. This may be true, but the brand owner should wonder why the supplier/distributor didn’t inform them first and/or ask if the brand owner wanted to register the mark itself. Nonetheless, if the relationship is still positive, it is a relatively straightforward process for the supplier/distributor to assign the mark to the brand owner. Some suppliers/distributors will attempt to retain ownership of the trademark but this should be resisted.
If the relationship has turned ugly, which is usually the case when the trademark owner is a former supplier/distributor, a simple assignment may be difficult to procure. But this situation is the easiest one in which to prove a bad-faith registration. So long as you can prove the existence of a business relationship with the supplier or distributor (e.g., through purchase orders, contracts, and other documentation), it is quite likely the squatter will be forced to give up the registrations. Needless to say, the process is a lot easier if you have a signed, chopped manufacturing agreement or distributor in which the supplier specifically agrees not to register your IP. See China Trademarks and Your Chinese Distributor.
Category Five – The Coincidental Copycat
The last category isn’t really a traditional trademark squatter and arguably shouldn’t even be part of this list. Occasionally, someone in China registers “your” trademark because they came up with it on their own independently. This only happens with word marks – it is highly improbable two applicants would come up with the same logo by blind chance. In these cases, the trademark owner may be willing to sell the trademark, but if they’re not, there’s little you can do about it. The registrant simply followed the dictates of China’s Trademark Law: they were the first to file (not you), and so they get to keep the mark.
In sum: if you find that your brand has been taken by a trademark squatter in China, first determine the category they fit in, and then plot your strategy accordingly. Better yet, register your trademark right away and prevent having to strategize at all.
Matthew Dresden, ChinaLawBlog.com‘s China trademarks lawyer, is a partner at the Harris Bricken law firm. He specializes in international and China law, with a focus on technology and entertainment law and Chinese transactional and IP work.