China lawyers play down suspicions over Trump trademarks

Lucy Hornby
People pass by a real estate ad poster with a cartoon image of American president Donald J. Trump along the road on February 22, 2017 in Shenyang, Liaoning Province of China.
VCG | Getty Images

Donald Trump has basketball star Michael Jordan to thank for securing trademarks in China, legal experts in the country said on Thursday, as they played down concerns that Beijing's decision represented a special concession to the new US president.

Mr Trump now has the right to use his own name — and prevent others from using it — in categories ranging from beauty salons and spas to hotel services and restaurants. Intellectual property lawyers say both the approvals and the timing were the result of due process and reflect progress in closing a loophole that has allowed "trademark squatters" to exploit public figures' names.

"He was awarded the trademarks because he is already a well-known name, not because he is the US president," said Liu Zhanlin of Yingke Law, one of China's top IP specialists. "That's the legacy of the Jordan case."

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Mr Jordan spent years battling the Chinese sportswear brand "Qiaodan", culminating in a ruling by China's supreme court in January against "deceptive use" of public figures' names. The Chinese system is based on a first-come, first-serve basis, creating a lucrative opportunity — until the Qiaodan ruling — for squatters to register famous international brands.

Authorities have granted preliminary approval for Mr Trump's trademark in a number of sectors. However, his applications for "unlimited" use of his name and for trademarks in sectors such as mining and advertising, where he does not have business interests, were rejected.

"If all of the applications had sailed through without problems, I would have said that it appeared that Trump was being given special treatment, but this just seems like business as usual to me," said Matthew Dresden, an expert on Chinese IP at US law firm Harris Bricken.

News of the decision on Wednesday drew rebukes from Democrats and ethics experts, who questioned whether Beijing was seeking to curry favour with the new US president. The Trump Organization retorted that it had defended the Trump trademark in China for several years, long before Mr Trump's candidacy made him famous in the country.

The new regulations have resulted in victories for Château Lafite Rothschild, which is battling copycat wine bottlers, as well as for Mr Trump. But foreign companies remain frustrated by a dizzying array of potential translations into Chinese, as well as the need to defend across numerous categories.

For instance, US television network HBO is suing a restaurant of the same name, while Dow Jones and Dow Chemical once fought over the right to the Chinese character "dao".

Intense Chinese public interest in the US presidential campaign spurred Chinese citizens to file dozens of trademark applications using variations of Mr Trump's name over the past year. Hundreds were also filed for variations of Ivanka Trump, his daughter, "Trump's children" and other related trademarks.

The recent Trump victories are the result of 16 applications filed by the Trump Organization last April to prevent such squatting.

The saga of Mr Trump's claims provides a road map to his failed attempts to do business in a fast-growing but often very frustrating market.

Among the latest batch of trademarks, which will be valid within 90 days if no one objects, was the trademark to "Scion", the brand Mr Trump's children are developing for future hotel ventures. There are currently no Trump-branded hotels or properties in China, although a group hotel executive said last autumn the company planned to develop "20 to 30 hotels" in the country.

The application for Scion was filed in China in April 2016, although the Trumps only announced the rebranding in October.

Mr Trump has on several occasions over the past decade attempted to enter hotel or property deals. In 2010 he won the right to use the Trump name for golf clubs, buildings and malls, following a 2008 application that coincided with registering several shell companies in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen and an aborted deal with property developer Evergrande.

Mr Trump's longest, most bitter battle over his trademark was clinched last year. His name was not well-known in China in 2006 when a man named Dong Wei suddenly claimed "Trump" as a trademark in the construction industry, 10 days before the Trump Organization's own attempt. Mr Trump sued the trademark authority and lost in court.

But 10 years later, shortly before he won the election, he reclaimed the trademark on a technicality — Mr Dong had not renewed it when it lapsed. His registered address, an apartment in the gritty industrial city of Shenyang, has been unoccupied for several years, according to a neighbour who said he believed Mr Dong had died about three years ago.

Additional reporting by Archie Zhang