Thursday, July 19, 2007

Levi’s Looking Pretty in Chinese Court Despite Painful Lesson

As Dan Harris stated repeatedly in his China Law Blog (“CLB”), Chinese trademark law is “simple and effective” when enforced. Clothing giant Levi Strauss & Co.’s (“Levi’s Co.) recent victory in a Shanghai court would further bolster Dan’s averment, but its triumph came with a unique twist. So let’s just call the victory “bitter sweet.”

Levi’s Co. is known for its jeans in America and beyond. (My first pair of jeans in the U.S was a pair of blue Levi’s, which still go well with my boots.) In 1974, Levi’s Co. registered its LEVI’S trademark with the Chinese Trademark Office and has kept the registration effective by renewing and adding more categories of clothing related to the trademark since then.

Levi’s Co. entered into a distribution relationship with Shanghai Beizi Clothing Company, Ltd. (“Beizi Clothing”) some time before 2005. (I have not been able to verify the exact starting date.) And Beizi Clothing was to be a non-exclusive distributor of Levi’s products, probably in Shanghai (for lack of information, this fact might be a little off.).

In June 2006, a branch office of the Shanghai Administration of Industry & Commerce (“SHAIC”) caught Beizi red-handed in selling counterfeit Levi’s jeans. After investigation, the SHAIC issued an administrative order, penalizing it for selling counterfeit products. Soon after, Levi’s Co. woke up from this nightmare and sued for trademark infringement in the Shanghai 1st Intermediate People’s Court. Levi’s Co. asked for an injunction, civil damages in the amount of 500,000 yuan, and a public apology in the Morning News (a local newspaper).

The Court hammered Beizi Clothing, taking the SHAIC’s administrative order as a prima facie case for trademark infringement. With some feeble attempts to challenge the “famousness” of Levi’s brand, Beizi Clothing was ordered to cease all infringement activities, pay 100,000 yuan, and issued a public apology.

Sounds like a slam dunk for Levi’s Co.? Right! Easy case. But doesn’t this whole thing bother anyone? By now, you might be thinking what I am thinking now—“What the hell was Levi’s Co. thinking in picking this unscrupulous distributor?”

Besides that thought, a few other Chinese idioms keep echoing in my head: “引狼入室” and “同床异梦”.

Let me explain. The first idiom literally means leading a wolf into your bedroom, and if you do that you might have to face the consequences of a devious company (pun intended.) The second one gets even better, which means sleeping in the same bed but with different dreams. It applies to relationships where parties only superficially cooperate, while they actually possess different visions about their relationship.

Ok, I know that Levi Strauss & Co. is incorporated in Delaware and headquartered in San Francisco, and that it is unfair for me to expect it to know traditional Chinese wisdom. But, could Levi’s Co. have done a better job of choosing a local Chinese partner? I think so and I run the risk of Monday morning quarterbacking (hindsight wisdom). However, for the sake of good corporate governance, any foreign company selecting partners in China should bear in mind choosing your partner carefully. Find yourself a friend, not a foe. To do that, you got to abide by Ten Commandments for doing business in China as compiled by ChinaSolved.

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