Friday, June 1, 2007

Trademark Protection in China—More Steps Forward

On the heels of the Starbucks v. Shanghai Starbuck case, another foreign trademark holder doing business in China had its day in court and won. Of course, this is only in the trial court; appeals might follow.

In this case the plaintiff is the French company Lacoste, trademark holder of the famous “Crocodile” clothing trademark. Lacoste registered the “Crocodile” mark in October 1980, and the China Trade Mark Office, according to a Chinese report, put this mark in question on the list of “Famous Trademarks to Be Targeted for Protection.” (《全国重点商标保护名录》)

Defendants are three Chinese companies: Guangzhou Tai Crocodile Clothing Co., Ltd. (“Guangzhou Crocodile”), and two other sellers of Guangzhou Crocodile’s clothes. Curiously enough, Guangzhou Crocodile had its trademark “Golden Crocodile” registered, which can be described as a crocodile crouching in water waves, and with the Chinese Character “金鳄”next to them, which means “golden crocodile.” According to the facts of the case, Golden Crocodile places the crocodile portion of its mark in the prominent areas of clothes, while sews on the water wave and the Chinese characters in the background, which bear the same colors as the materials used for clothes as a whole. The intention of this, I guess, is to display the crocodile prominently, and let the rest of the mark fade away into the background.

Lacoste sued, joining the three defendants, in Beijing’s First Intermediate People’s Court for trademark infringement and trademark dilution, and it further pleaded for an injunction, public notice of such infringement, seeking also damages in the amount of ¥1,000,000.

Congratulations to Lacoste. It pretty much wrote its own ticket in its pleadings because the Court gave it basically all it asked for: infringement and dilution of the Crocodile mark by Guangzhou Crocodile; cessation of production by Guangzhou Crocodile; destruction of all infringing clothes; damages in the amount of ¥760,000; a public apology to be issued by the three defendants on the China Industry & Commerce Times.

Yes, this is a sweet victory for Lacoste and its lawyers. While the board members of Lacoste celebrate with French wine, I celebrate this case with this blog post for the following reasons:

1. The court carefully examined the circumstances of Defendant Guangzhou Crocodile’s use of its own mark; it focused on Guangzhou Crocodile’s misuse of its mark, and held that the misuse of a legitimate trademark, in certain circumstances, could constitute infringement of another’s trademark.

2. The Court cited a case out of Changchun Intermediate People’s Court. In that case, the Crocodile trademark was held to be a “famous mark.” The Court cited this holding in part to bolster the fact that Lacoste has an indeed famous mark, which is entitled to legal protection in China.

3. The Court extended infringement liability to sellers of products that infringed on the trademark holder’s rights. In its opinion, the Court expressed in strong language that the two co-defendants, as sellers of clothing, failed to investigate thoroughly the legitimacy of Guangzhou Crocodile’s use of its trademark, and such an obviously subjective failure to investigate resulted in sales that violated the rights of Lacoste. And such a gross failure to investigate warrants civil liability (negligence, tort liability).

4. The remedies handed out by the Court are appropriate. Even though the Court did not grant the full amount sought in damages by Lacoste, it imparted more value to Lacoste and trademark holders than the ¥24,000 can buy in China—a clear message that reads: “Don’t Mess with Legitimate Trademarks of Others!”

Cheers! À votre santé ! 干杯!!

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