Monday, June 18, 2007

Chinese Franchise Regulation: What Next?

With the promulgation of three pieces of key legislation, the Regulations, the Disclosure Management Measures (“Disclosure Guidelines”), and the Registration Management Measures (“Registration Guidelines”), the Chinese government has made significant strides in creating a systematic, efficient, and predictable franchise regulation regime. Undoubtedly, a well-established regulatory system in a dynamitic and relatively new product/service distribution model—franchise will theoretically lead to greater success for franchisors and franchisees alike.

The recent published 2007 China Franchise Industry Report [Chinese only] provides detailed statistics on the tremendous growth of franchising in China. To illustrate, China boasts of franchise systems in excess of 2,600, and franchised units exceeded 200,000 by the end of 2006. All that growth happened in a matter of nine years, starting in 1997 with the enactment of an interim franchise adminitration regulation.

China currently has already two great things going for exponential growth of the franchise scene: a fairly well-established regulatory regime coupled with a market ripe for affordable, proven business investment opportunities.

So, what is left in the regulatory puzzle?

In comparison with the U.S. franchise regulations, China has not compiled a Uniform Franchise Circular Offering (“UFOC”), which is the standard information disclosure document for franchisors. The FTC has officially adopted the UFOC format with some changes in 2007, and franchisors to franchise in the U.S. will have to comply with the mandatory disclosure requirements by 2008. Will China institute a standard, uniform disclosure document similar in nature to the UFOC? Or will it elect to just let the Disclosure Guidelines and the Regulations serve as the regulatory blueprint for franchisor disclosure? The Chinese Ministry of Commerce issued some opinions during a press conference on June 15, 2007 relative to the implementation of the Disclosure Guidelines and Registration Guidelines.

In the conference, the speaker stated that: “the Ministry of Commerce will continue to improve regulations on disclosure and registration systems…” This is not a definitive answer as to whether a UFOC like document will be instituted in the future.

In addition, the speaker also indicated that on the agenda of the Ministry of Commerce with respect to franchising regulation are the following:

1. to continue research into franchise contract regulation so as to effectively avoid contract fraud;

2. to continue to look for solution to balance the rights and interests of both franchisors and franchisees; and

3. to ensure and guide the healthy development of the franchise industry in China.

While the Ministry of Commerce work on its "to improve-and-renew-agenda", the current regulatory regime should be sufficient to protect the interests of franchisors and franchisees.

Wahaha's China arbitration request granted despite pendency of Swedish and U.S. lawsuits

Brad Luo's articles have illustrated the escalation of the trademark dispute between China's beverage giant, Wahaha, and the French company, Danone. The dispute centers around the ownership of trademarks used by 39 joint ventures which have evolved contractually between the companies since 1996. Danone claims that Wahaha has been using the trademark to unfairly compete with Danone and the joint ventures; Wahaha claims that the trademark transfer contracts, under which the joint ventures operate, was never approved by China's trademark authority and are void.

Choice of venue issues are complex in multi-national lawsuits and there is no great statutory relief in certain venues which will protect parties from multi-venue fights. This has proven to be a problem for foreign companies contracting with Chinese entities, in particular. An example is the case of China National Metal Products Import/Export Company vs. Apex Digital, 379 F.3d 796 (9th Circuit 2004). Apex Digital (Apex) is a California corporation that imports consumer electronic goods from China which it sells under its own brand name to retailers in the United States. In 2000, Apex entered into a series of contracts to purchase DVD Players from China National Metal Products Import/Export Company (Metal). Each of the contracts contained the following identical arbitration clause:

All disputes from or in connection with this Contract shall be submitted to the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission ("CIETAC") for arbitration which shall be conducted by the Commission in Beijing or by its Shenzhen Sub-Commission in Shenzhen or by its Shanghai Sub-commission in Shanghai at the Claimant's option in accordance with the Commission's arbitration rules in effect at the time of applying for arbitration. The arbitral award is final and binding upon both parties.

In March 2001, Apex filed a Statement of Claims concerning nine (9) of the purchase orders at the Shanghai sub-commission and the case was accepted. A week later, Metal decided that Beijing would be a better venue and filed a Statement of Claims concerning eight (8) of the purchase orders with CIETAC in Beijing.

Not surprisingly, Apex objected and requested consolidation of all claims into the already commenced Shanghai arbitration. CIETAC rejected Apex's objection and held that CIETAC could entertain both arbitrations at the same time, in different forums because the arbitrations were not "entirely the same." The difference? The Shanghai arbitration involved one additional contract.

The Beijing arbitration panel, unsurprisingly, ruled in favor of Metal as it had predicted. Metal sought enforcement in the United States. The United States District Court held, and the Ninth District affirmed, that the United States had to defer to CIETAC's internal rules to determine the validity of arbitral awards and had to enforce the Beijing decision.

Given the fact that the Wahaha/Danone dispute has been filed in three global forums, it raises serious questions: What do the joint venture contracts say about dispute resolution, venue selection, consolidation of disputes (if anything)? What happens if the Chinese tribunal rules in favor of Wahaha (that the IP transfer wasn't approved by the China Trademark Office) - will it void the contract in full or just negate the trademark transfer issues?

The Apex case exemplifies the impact of the dispute resolution clauses on the relationship and mechanisms to resolve disagreements. The agreement should always specify one institution for dispute resolution and, moreover, the issue of case consolidation should be taken into consideration when drafting contracts between multi-national parties. In Apex, CIETAC was asked to consolidate cases but refused to do so. Such refusal to consolidate cases is not improper in China. Thus, the only protection in these type of disputes is either to include a clause in the initial contract which expressly agrees to the consolidation of any cases concerning the transaction or the parties; or the warring entities can find a way to agree to consolidate the cases after a dispute arises.

In the Wahaha/Danone case, it is unlikely that Wahaha is going to agree to consolidate the cases in any venue other than Hangzhou. Hangzhou is the capital of China's eastern Zhejiang province and is home turf for Wahaha and Zong Qinghou. As the former chairman and founder of Wahaha (in the late 1980's), Zong has been the target of the allegations made by Danone and the primary catalyst for the escalated battle between the companies in the past 2 months.

Wahaha v. Danone: My Arbitration is Better Than Yours

Ok, this is getting really interesting!

Remember that Danone submitted the whole dispute to the Stockholm Institute of Arbitration on May 9, 2007? The arbitration is pending there in Sweden.

Remember that Wahaha also applied to have the Wahaha trademark transfer portion of the dispute with Danone arbitrated in the Hangzhou Arbitration Commission (“HAC”) on June 13, 2007?

In my last post, I was not sure whether HAC would take the case since the matter, on a bigger scale, is pending in Sweden.

But, surprise!! HAC accepted the petition for arbitration the very next day on June 14, 2007.

According to a report, Wahaha wants the HAC to determine whether the trademark transfer agreement, as a matter of law, is void since the Chinese Trademark Law requires such transfer to be approved by the China Trademark Office at the time of transfer (1996).

My hunch is that this might be Wahaha’s strongest argument. Wahaha Group in fact competed against Wahaha-Danone joint ventures; Wahaha Group actually used the trademark without the approval of the joint venture pursuant to the joint venture agreement. Therefore, without attacking the legality of the contract, Wahaha will have a very tough job in convincing the tribunals or a jury.

The next question that I anticipate to be raised after the “verdict” on the transfer issue is whether the contract in its entirety will be held as void. In my previous post, I discussed that Chinese Contract Law allows per se illegal clauses to be stricken in an otherwise enforceable contract. Assuming that the trademark transfer agreement is held as void by the HAC, will the original joint venture agreement (“Original Agreement”) survive the ordeal?

From a legal perspective, the rest of the Original Agreement should stand and continue to be effective given Article 56 of the Chinese Contract Law. But the really issue is what good is there for Danone if the Trademark transfer portion of the contract is void. Without the right to the Wahaha trademark, Danone’s joint ventures in China would only be a shell without its core value with which the Chinese consumers identify. Of course, Danone can rely on its own trademarks acquired elsewhere, but that is the topic of another day.