China copyright law

Okay, maybe not spectacular. But definitely real.

An article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, How a Plague on the Movie and Music Industries Became Their Chief Protector in China: Chinese search giant Baidu’s transition to creator and buyer of content has changed its priorities, sums up the change that is happening with China IP protection and enforcement:

Chinese search giant Baidu Inc. BIDU 3.47% was once a scourge of Hollywood and the U.S. music industry, which accused it of being a pipeline for pirated content.

Today when Baidu is involved in a copyright infringement case, chances are it is the one casting the blame.

Baidu’s about-face in the copyright fight reflects its emergence as a creator and buyer of content, a transition that continued recently when the company struck a deal to license original shows from Netflix Inc. NFLX 0.85% Other Chinese media companies are undergoing similar transformations, upending how entertainment is protected in the world’s second-largest economy, legal analysts say.

This article quotes Mathew Alderson, our lead China media and entertainment lawyer on how intellectual property protection in China is moving from something that was formerly done to make foreign companies and governments happy to something China now sees as economically important.

“One of the old rationales for copyright protection…is that it provides an incentive to invest. We are seeing that in play here in China,” said Mathew Alderson, a partner and entertainment lawyer at Harris Bricken in Beijing. “Copyright is no longer something imposed on China by the U.S. It is now a tool in Chinese hands.”

The Wall Street Journal notes that in the last ten years China’s courts have seen a 15-fold increase in copyright-related lawsuits:

One way to measure the change is by the escalating flood of lawsuits aimed at protecting intellectual property.

Nearly 87,000 copyright-related cases were filed in China last year, according to data compiled by China’s Supreme People’s Court, a 15-fold increase from 2006. These cases include claims of illegal distribution, or unauthorized reproduction, of written content, videogames, movies and TV shows.

And here’s the point that stems from this massive increase in copyright lawsuits in China: the companies that are bringing these lawsuits are not doing so for their health. They are spending time and money on these lawsuits because they believe that the economic rewards from doing so will be greater than their costs. They have rationally decided that China’s enforcement of its copyright laws warrants this conclusion.

All this is leading to big changes in how Hollywood and Western TV studios are handling their content these days, with most of them choosing to license their content to Chinese companies (like Baidu and Tencent), rather than work at getting that content into China on their own:

For Hollywood studios, striking deals with Chinese partners is much easier than trying to defend their copyrighted content on their own, said Eric Priest, a University of Oregon School of Law professor who researches copyrights and the Chinese entertainment industry.

“If you’re a content producer with an office in Hollywood, you aren’t going to be familiar with where Chinese netizens are getting unlicensed content,” Mr. Priest said. “You won’t be familiar with the shadowy set-top manufacturers who are installing apps that people buy that allow direct access to unlicensed content. You’re going to be much better off with a partner in China that can do that.”

 

Also just last week, a Beijing court awarded Tencent more than US $1 million in damages in a copyright infringement case. The defendant in the case was Baofeng Technology, a high-profile streaming site and manufacturer of VR hardware. Baofeng has been found liable for copyright infringement numerous times previously (including for unauthorized distribution of films, television, and the most recent World Cup), but that’s surely in part because it’s so visible. After its 2015 IPO on the Shenzhen exchange, Baofeng soared to a valuation of more than US$8 billion, and although its current valuation is closer to US$1 billion, it is a real company, with real assets.

In the case decided last week, Baofeng was found to have streamed the first 6 episodes of season 3 of The Voice of China without permission from Tencent, which had licensed exclusive streaming rights. The Voice of China (or whatever name it’s going by these days) is one of the most popular programs in China and it generates significant revenue for all of the companies involved with it. Tencent wanted to protect its investment.

Tencent’s victory in the litigation regarding The Voice of China is of a piece with other recent lawsuits regarding enforcement of motion picture copyrights in China, including Disney’s victory over a film that ripped off the anthropomorphic vehicles from Cars, decisions holding private cinema operators liable for exhibiting content without permission, and the recent controversy and lawsuit regarding Wolf Warriors 2. Copyright owners in China no longer have to just grin and bear it.

I hate to say we told you so on this, but we told you so on this Way back in early 2013, in China Intellectual Property Law. A Radio Interview For World Intellectual Property Rights Day, Dan Harris of my firm predicted that this day would come and explained why:

China is a lot better compared to ten years ago. I think very little of that has to do with the WTO. I think that China is better because China is getting wealthier, and because Chinese companies are starting to care more about IP. I am of the view that countries start doing well with IP when its own powerful companies really start caring about it. And I’ve seen this progression happen in Japan, I’ve seen this progression happen in Korea, I’ve read about how this progression happened in the United States. The reality is nobody is going to be able to force China to improve its IP from the outside, but big companies within China like Haier, like Huawei, like Lenovo — companies that care about their own IP — are going to be able to force China to improve. That’s what’s happening. And as more big companies come to the fore in China, China’s IP is going to continue to improve. And there’s not much that can be done to rush it. In fact, if anything China’s IP is improving nicely. Meaning, it’s improving at least as fast as Korea’s did, at least as fast as Japan’s did, and probably as fast as the US’s did, but the US was a long time ago.

In other words, China — like pretty much most countries, is a lot more likely to do what it perceives to be in its own self interest than to do something just because other countries are telling it that it should/must.

Granted, the legal principles in these cases are straightforward and from what I’ve seen, the facts patterns leave little room for interpretation. When the defendants explain why they weren’t infringing the copyright, they tend to sound like Vanilla Ice explaining why “Ice Ice Baby” wasn’t a blatant copy of “Under Pressure.” (I can’t wait to see who will be the Chinese Robin Thicke and state that they couldn’t possibly be liable for copyright infringement because they were drunk on baijiu throughout production.)

The point is not that Chinese courts are establishing new rights, but that they are enforcing the rights that already exist for copyright owners – and doing so in a meaningful way. Both Chinese and foreign copyright owners are turning to Chinese courts to enforce their rights, and are prevailing. At least with the easy cases.

In future posts, I will discuss what you can and should do to protect and enforce your copyrights in China.

China copyrights works for hireOver the past several years, an increasing amount of creative work has been outsourced to China: everything from special effects for movies to programming for video games to architectural designs for transit-oriented developments. These creative works are protected by copyright, but not always in a way companies expect. And because so much work in China occurs without a legally enforceable contract, once companies realize their IP portfolio is not nearly as robust as they thought, it’s often too late to do anything about it.

As a general rule, the creator of an original work (e.g., a song, movie, or video game) owns the copyright in that work. This is true in the United States and in China and in most every other country in the world. The main exception to the general rule is for “works for hire,” which are works commissioned and paid for by a third party. But this is not a clear-cut exception: it depends on the facts, and it depends on which country you’re in.

In the United States, a company will own the copyright to a “work for hire” by an employee if the work was made within the scope of that employee’s employment. A company will own the copyright to a “work for hire” by an independent contractor if the work was specially ordered or commissioned for use via a signed agreement that specifically states that the work is a work for hire and such work falls into one of nine statutorily defined categories (including motion pictures, translations, tests, and instructional texts). Many commissioned works (e.g., photography, software, and product design) do not fall into one of the statutory categories, and for those the company will need to have a signed contract that explicitly assigns the copyright. Even in the absence of a signed agreement, the company can argue that it has an implied license, but that’s not a great position to be in.

In China, the presumptions are somewhat different. China’s Copyright Law states that an employee will own the copyright to anything they create during the course of employment, except for engineering designs, product designs, maps, and computer software, and other works created mainly with the employer’s resources. For all other works, the employer essentially has a two-year exclusive license to use the copyrighted material, and thereafter a non-exclusive license. If an employer (a WFOE, say) wants to impose a different requirement on its employees, it needs specific language in a signed contract with the employee that assigns all rights in any “work for hire” to the employer. That contract should be in Chinese and governed by Chinese law, and it should be signed at the beginning of employment.

For “independent contractors” (whether individuals or entities), the contractor will own the copyright unless there is a specific agreement between the parties in which the contractor agrees to assign the copyright to the commissioning entity. And yes, this contract ought to be in Chinese and governed by Chinese law also.

This all sounds reasonably straightforward but a vast number of entities – including huge multinationals – still operate in China without proper agreements with their employees, let alone their “independent contractors.” These companies are essentially operating on the honor system, and sooner or later they’re going to pay by losing valuable rights.

China IP lawyerClients often ask us which of their entities should own their IP (patents, trademarks and copyrights) in China. The basic answer is usually simple: whichever entity will be using the IP in China.

There are some perfectly legitimate reasons for wanting to separate the ownership and exploitation of IP rights – reasons related to tax, liability, or corporate structure. But in the vast majority of situations, the only time IP ownership matters in China is when you are trying to enforce your IP rights. Chinese lawyers are expert at creating delay, and they know exactly how to exploit evidentiary gaps. And if you are attempting to bring an enforcement action in China but the plaintiff is not the registered owner of the IP, expect your dispute to take much longer than usual.

The Chinese lawyer on the other side will likely argue that someone who is not the registered owner of the IP cannot bring an action to enforce the IP rights and the mere fact the companies are under common control won’t be sufficient. A properly drafted license agreement might be sufficient – so long as the agreement is written in Chinese, registered with the appropriate authorities in China, enforceable under Chinese law, notarized, and authenticated by the Chinese Embassy, and so long as you do not run into any use issues. See China Trademarks: When (and How) to Prove Use of a Mark in Commerce. You can probably guess how often all of these things are done and done right by American and European companies. Most of the IP license agreements we are asked to review – no matter whether the company that comes to us is a two-person startup or a Fortune 100 company – are in English and governed by the laws of whatever country the plaintiff is in.

You better believe the Chinese lawyer for the Chinese company you sue in China for infringing on your China IP will be questioning each link in the evidentiary chain of your IP and pointing out each potential problem. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the chance to fix each of these problems in time before you sue, but doing so could add weeks or months or years to the process. And meanwhile, the infringing party will be going about their business using “your” IP. It’s death by a thousand (paper) cuts, and it’s a losing game.

Unless you have a really good reason to split ownership and use of your China IP into different entities, just keep it simple and use one company.

China WFOE complianceWhen I was in high school, a friend got a job at a liquor store, and was often asked to work there by himself. Soon enough, word got around and (human) nature took its course, as the store became extremely popular with a certain segment of the school. My friend hadn’t sought or even anticipated this sort of attention; he was 16 years old and just wanted some extra cash. But when the store got cited for multiple infractions, it came as no surprise to anyone. As my friend observes to this day, “What sort of business owner lets a teenager run a liquor store by himself?”

I was reminded of this story when I read the news that Disney had terminated Meng Dekai, International Special Project Director in China, upon discovering that he had signed numerous unauthorized deals for new Disney projects in provincial cities that few people outside China have ever heard of, including Zhengzhou, Hefei, and Baotou.

Meng had been at this since at least 2009, and in addition to signing deals on behalf of Disney, it came out that Meng had also formed a number of companies with names similar to Disney’s Chinese name and registered a number of trademarks that were similar to those registered by Disney.

It’s unclear what Meng’s master plan was. Yes, Disney knockoffs are rampant in China, notwithstanding the Chinese government’s one-year campaign (tied to the opening of Shanghai Disneyland last year) specifically designed to combat counterfeit Disney products. But it’s one thing to sell knockoff Mickey Mouse backpacks at a mall in Nanchang, where you could clear out in a day if you had to. It’s quite another to build and operate a theme park. Even if Meng received massive kickbacks from the local governments, it’s hard to imagine how he expected to get away with this. It’s also hard to understand why government officials of these lesser-known cities bought the snake oil Meng was selling.

When the China practice group at my firm saw this story, we just shook our heads ruefully, because this is the same problem, writ large, that we see all the time when companies go to China. Once companies have established a presence in China (e.g., a WFOE), a foundational question is: how are they actually going to do business in China, and who will have the authority to act on their behalf?

We regularly conduct audits of firms’ China operations, and the disconnect between the parent company and the WFOE can be shocking. We regularly turn up everything from FCPA violations to employees who cannot be terminated because they were engaged without written contracts to company seals that have been missing for years. And pretty much once a month, we hear from an American or a European company that has just learned (usually via an anonymous email) that one of its employees (usually a trusted senior employee) is secretly operating a competing business on the side. Sometimes though there’s no bad intent on behalf of the Chinese employees; it’s just that there’s no clear oversight and they are operating the “Chinese way.” This is a recipe for disaster, even under the best circumstances. And if you’ve got someone untrustworthy holding the reins in China, things can go from bad to worse in a hurry. See also China Compliance: Don’t Rely on Your China Staff and China Compliance: Don’t Rely on your China Staff, Part II.

Many foreign companies are in a quandary because of personnel or geography or both: they want to have one of “their” people managing operations on the ground, but none of “their” people are willing and/or knowledgeable enough to move to China. And so they end up delegating authority to a Chinese employee who is unprepared and/or unwilling to manage the operations in accordance with the parent company’s wishes.

It’s an awkward situation, and made worse by the quirks of Chinese corporate law, which require every WFOE to decide three things:

  1. the identity of the legal representative, a person with the ability and obligation to act on behalf of the WFOE;
  1. the identity of the general manager, a person who is in charge of the WFOE’s day-to-day operations; and
  1. the location of the company seal, a physical artifact that makes a document legally binding on the WFOE.

The most efficient solution is to appoint a single person as the legal representative and general manager, and have that person be resident in China and in possession of the seal. But this solution places a tremendous amount of authority with a single person, and many foreign companies are understandably reluctant to do so unless they have someone in China that they trust implicitly. As a result, the typical solution is that the legal representative is an employee of the parent company who lives outside China but is tasked with overseeing Chinese operations, the general manager is a Chinese national who lives in China, and the seal is held by a trusted third party in China like an accountant. Yes, it’s as inefficient as it sounds, but it’s usually better than the alternatives. Many of these problems have their genesis when the WFOE is formed without any legal advice on how to handle (and mitigate) these three decisions.

I don’t know what sort of contracts Mr. Meng signed on behalf of Disney, but they better hope he didn’t have access to the company seal and wasn’t the legal representative of the Disney entity he was representing. Right now, this story is just bad publicity, but it may end up costing them millions. And (because every good China Law Blog post ends with a moral) it’s also an instructive story for every company operating in China. How much do you really know about what’s going on in your Chinese office?

China trademark registrationFor many years, China has sought to wield the sort of “soft power” that comes naturally to many other developed nations: power not from military or economic might, but from having ideas and cultural exports that are popular in other countries. China has no shortage of ideas or culture, but few people outside China are interested in either, with the notable exception of Chinese food.

Most people outside China can’t name a single Chinese brand. Not one Chinese brand! It’s sad, but perhaps not that surprising. I’ve seen a range of explanations, usually some variation on the following: China doesn’t understand foreign markets; China doesn’t care about foreign markets; China can only copy products, not create them; and China’s authoritarian government stifles creativity. All of these explanations have some element of truth, but aren’t the whole truth. And though China hasn’t broken through on the world stage yet, to many observers it’s only a matter of time.

In fact, it may have already happened. The hottest thing in popular music is the app musical.ly, which allows users to create and share a 15-second video of them lip-syncing to a popular song. As a recent Rolling Stone headline put it, musical.ly has become “too big for pop to ignore,” and it is not only a way for existing pop stars to connect with their fans but also a platform for new stars to emerge. The app has more than 133 million users worldwide, is massively popular in the US (the company claims half of all US teens are users), and is a serious rival to Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram. And it is 100% Chinese, developed in Shanghai by two Chinese programmers who returned to China after working in California.

Did the founders of musical.ly crack the code, or just get lucky? It’s too early to tell, but thus far the one place where musical.ly has launched and failed to catch on is … wait for it … China. Meanwhile, do the millions of American teens using musical.ly know it’s a Chinese app? Do they even care? My guess is that very few know, and even fewer care. And that’s just the way China should want it. Only when Chinese products are accepted on their own merits can they form the basis for soft power.

Meanwhile, musical.ly waited until September of last year to file for trademark protection in China, which is about two years too late considering that the app was launched in 2014. Luckily for them, no trademark squatters filed in the interim; a bit shocking to me, but perhaps that’s the upside of not being successful in China. I’m not sure if it’s gratifying or discouraging to see Chinese firms make the same mistakes as foreign firms when it comes to trademarks in China, but I’m leaning toward the latter. Especially when the Chinese firms are backed by VC money and represented by multinational law firms. What are they thinking?

China trademark email

Our China lawyers regularly receive inquiries from companies (and other lawyers) asking if an email they have received from China is legit. The email usually goes something like this:

Dear [owner of US trademark]:

According to our trademark research team, the following mark has been published in the Chinese Trademark Gazette on [date]. We note that this mark is identical to a registration owned by your company.

[details of allegedly published mark]

The Chinese Trademark Office has already completed its examination of this mark and the mark is now open to opposition until [deadline]. The deadline is not extendable. If no one files an opposition before the deadline, the mark will proceed to registration.

Please let us know if we can be of assistance in opposing this mark.

[name of Chinese IP firm]

A lot of scams come out of China, including several we write about regularly: the bank account scam, the fraudulent company scam, the fake company scam, and the domain name scam. The first three are “carrots,” luring the mark with a promise of potential riches. The latter is a “stick,” offering assistance with a problem the mark didn’t know existed (and in most cases, doesn’t exist at all). And the emails described above seem to fall into the latter category of scams.

In my experience, however, these trademark emails are oftentimes not scams at all — at least not complete scams anyway. The firm sending the email is usually a real Chinese IP firm, a copycat trademark application really has been filed, and the deadline to oppose really is pending. Though the emails are a ham-handed form of business development they do sometimes provide a valuable service by alerting US trademark owners to an infringing China trademark application.

The problem is that the emails, and subsequent interactions with these firms (if any), rarely provide the proper context. Yes, under Chinese law it is possible to oppose a trademark application. But unless the applicant is your former business partner, your odds succeeding with a trademark challenge are generally not good. It doesn’t matter that the pending application is for a mark identical to your existing U.S. trademark registration. China is a first to file country for trademarks and that means that if you wanted to protect your mark in China, you should have filed an application in China before anyone else had the chance to do so. See Register your China Trademark NOW.

Recent decisions have given a glimmer of hope to owners of famous brands and to owners opposing applications filed by notorious trademark squatters, but those exceptions are limited. For the majority of trademark owners, filing a trademark opposition will not make sense. And that’s the point. If you get one of these emails what you need is not a law firm (real or fake) with just one goal in mind: separating you from your money to pursue a China trademark challenge claim that may or (more likely) may not make sense to pursue. What you need instead is a clearly real China IP lawyer who is looking out for your interests.

This lawyer then can undertake the following analysis to determine whether and how it may make sense for you to challenge the purported China trademark filing of your company or brand name or logo:

  1. Determine whether there really has been such a filing.
  2. If the email you received is not true and there has been no such filing, it may still make sense for you to apply for your own China trademark(s) so as to block such future filings.
  3. If the email you received is true and an application has indeed been filed for a China trademark that matches a name or even a logo used by your company uses, the next step is to determine whether granting the China trademark will negatively impact your business and therefore worth challenging. If you are planning to have your product made in China or to sell your product or services in China or even elsewhere outside your home country, determining whether you should challenge the trademark filing will require serious legal and business analysis. But if your company just provides plumbing services in your hometown, what happens in China likely will have no impact on you and so there is no point in your spending your time and money trying to fight off a trademark filing there.
  4. If the email you received is true and the application described in that email could negatively impact your business, you then need answers to the following questions:
    1. What can you do to try to stop the trademark application from succeeding?
    2. What are your odds of being able to stop the trademark application from succeeding?
    3. What will it cost you to try to stop the trademark application from succeeding.

Before deciding if or how to proceed in China against someone who is seeking to secure a China trademark for “your” name, you should first have thorough answers to the above questions.

Even better, if you do care about what happens to your name in China, file your own China trademark application now. Your costs will be less and your odds will be greater than having to file a China trademark challenge, especially since winning such a challenge only means that you now get to file for your own trademark. This beats waiting for a Chinese IP firm to tell you that you left the barn door open.

China counterfeit lawyersThe New York Times had a fascinating piece recently on the problems small business are having with knockoffs on Chinese e-commerce sites run by Alibaba. The story presented three case studies of companies making custom products: Vintage Industrial, a 25-person furniture maker based in Phoenix, All Earz Jewelry, a 1-person online jewelry shop based in Atlanta, and Reignland Concept, a 2-person online clothing store based in Los Angeles.

These companies all discovered multiple Alibaba listings for products that had been reverse engineered based on photographs on the companies’ own websites. Finding the counterfeit listings was the easy part, not least because the infringing listings use photos from the companies’ own websites. Removing those listings, and keeping new ones from cropping back up, has proven to be difficult and time-consuming, so much so that the small business owners are at their wits’ end.

I don’t blame them. Alibaba has a platform where IP owners can request removal of infringing listings, but it’s far from user-friendly. Our firm has never failed to remove an infringing listing, but we’ve been doing it for years and we have a team of Chinese-speaking lawyers and paralegals who understand China’s laws on intellectual property.

The best strategy, of course, would be to design a product that cannot be reverse engineered from a photo. But only a few products can be designed and marketed this way. For everyone else, protecting against infringement starts with registering your IP in China, and in particular any relevant trademarks, design patents, and copyrights. Without China registered IP, asking Alibaba to take down infringing listings will usually be an exercise in frustration.

Trademarks are the easiest to understand and the most important, because as we’ve discussed ad nauseam, China is a first to file country and once your brand gains notice in China, if you haven’t already filed for it someone else will. None of the products in the Times article were even remotely famous, which just goes to show how low the bar is in terms of gaining notice in China. A brand does not need to be famous to be profitable. And here’s the thing: a canny Alibaba seller will not only use the name of the brand but also register it himself, and thereby prevent not only the “true” brand owner but also other infringers from using that brand in China.

Are you listening, startups? I ask this because it is the smaller companies that so often have the problems described in the New York Times article, not because they are small, but because they did not do the registrations necessary to help prevent such problems or to be in a position to solve them if and when they occur. Our China IP team does a lot of work for big companies as well but much of that work is like shooting fish in a barrel. We send Alibaba the proof of our client having registered its trademark or its copyright in China and the offending product comes down.

Design patents protect product designs or aesthetic appearance. In the Times article, both the furniture and jewelry could maybe be protected by a design patent. But a design patent has an absolute novelty requirement: if a product isn’t new, it isn’t eligible for patent protection. And patent protection is country-by-country, so even if the products were protected by patents in the U.S. they wouldn’t be protected in China unless the owner had also filed in China. For companies that can easily tweak their product, this problem can be easily sidestepped; make a new version and it’s eligible for a design patent.

Copyrights protect original creative works in a fixed medium. In the Times piece, the furniture and jewelry could probably also be protected by copyright. China recognizes the validity of copyrights from any WTO signatory country, but if you are serious about taking down infringing listings on Alibaba, you’ll want to register your copyright in China. It just makes the process more smoothly and it increases your chances in making the process go at all.

Unfortunately for Reignland Concept, clothing designs can be difficult to protect under IP laws. Sometimes a clothing pattern can be protected by a copyright and/or trademark (e.g., the Burberry plaid) but that is more the exception than the rule. So although Reignland Concept may legitimately feel that its clothing is being knocked off by an Alibaba, that may just be the way fashion works.

However, Reignland could almost certainly use the protection of copyright infringement in one way: when the infringing listings use the exact photographs from Reignland’s website. The clothing may not be protected by copyright, but the photographs of the clothing are. This takedown approach works when Alibaba sellers are too lazy to take their own photographs, which is shockingly often.

Small business owners should take the Times article as a shot across the bow: no one is too small to need a China IP strategy.

China Trademarks
by Meaghan O’Malley. http://bit.ly/2nE4kcw

The Boston-based hamburger chain Wahlburgers, founded by Hollywood star Mark Wahlberg and his brothers, recently announced plans to open three restaurants in China, with an ambitious goal of opening up to 100 restaurants in China over the next ten years.

The project was announced as a joint venture between Wahlburgers and the Shanghai-based Cachet Hospitality Group. I have no opinion on the deal Wahlburgers struck (aside from a general lack of enthusiasm for joint ventures), but I do have an opinion about their trademark protection: they don’t have enough.

According to the Chinese Trademark Office website, the only trademark registration for “Wahlburgers” is in Class 43 for restaurants (餐馆). Yes, covering restaurant services is essential, but it’s really the bare minimum, and almost certainly won’t provide as much protection as Wahlburgers would want.

To understand why, it’s important to realize how the Chinese trademark system works. With few exceptions, a trademark registration for goods or services in a particular subclass only provides protection for that particular subclass. That’s a double-edged sword. It means that you don’t have to worry about your trademark being rejected because someone else has a confusingly similar trademark in another class (or even another subclass within the same class). But it also means that your trademark registration won’t prevent third parties from registering your exact trademark in other classes.

Here, Wahlburgers should have filed a trademark application to cover not only restaurants but also food. Their trademark registration prevents third parties from operating a restaurant called Wahlburgers, but has zero effect on anyone calling their hamburgers “Wahlburgers.” Moreover, anyone else could register the trademark “Wahlburgers” to cover hamburgers and other food, and then use the tagline “Home of the Wahlburgers®” on their menu and in their advertising. I’m sure that wouldn’t sit well with the Wahlbergs or with their Chinese partners.

It’s possible Wahlburgers was under an actual or imputed contractual constraint, as the US registration for “Wahlburgers” had already been licensed from Tom Wahl’s, a Rochester, NY-based hamburger chain whose website proudly proclaims it is “Home of the Wahlburger®.” But any dispute about who had the right to file trademark applications in China should have been sorted out quietly before holding a press conference to announce that Wahlburgers would be opening branches in Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Wuhan. If Chinese trademark squatters haven’t already filed applications for Wahlburgers to cover hamburgers and other food, they will soon.

It’s 2017. American companies going to China need to get their trademark act together. When you’re filing for trademarks in China, don’t think that the same rules apply as in the United States. Operate within the system as it actually is, not as you think it ought to be.

China entertainment lawyesSeveral stories came out this past week reporting on the recent failure of Chinese investments in Hollywood. Wanda’s highly publicized purchase of Dick Clark Productions, long rumored to be on the rocks, has fallen through for good, because Wanda paid only $25 million out of the $1 billion purchase price. Paramount’s deal with Huahua Media and Shanghai Film Group is foundering because Paramount hasn’t seen a red cent of the promised $1 billion. And more than a few people doubt whether Recon Holding’s $100 million deal to purchase 51% of Millenium Pictures will close.

Most – okay, all – of the lawyers who deal with China on a regular basis saw this coming from a mile away. Some context:

  1. Hollywood deals fall apart all the time. It’s the nature of the business, and hardly unique to Chinese-invested projects. But those deals have been getting more attention lately because so much of the money coming in is from China.
  1. Chinese investors have developed a not-completely-undeserved reputation as “tourist investors,” particularly when it comes to Hollywood: arriving with great fanfare, taking meetings with players across town, kicking the tires of every studio and production company that may be interested in Chinese investment (which is to say, every studio and production company in Hollywood), suggesting that a deal might be imminent … and then going back to China without agreeing to anything. See China Business Deals: What China Business Deal and China MOU. Like I Really Care.
  1. Because the Chinese yuan is a regulated currency, it’s always been difficult to get money out of China. We’ve been writing about this for a while, and in fact almost exactly one year ago I wrote a post in which I said, “Long story short, we can expect to see more US-China film deals fall through for lack of funding, and it won’t necessarily be the fault of the Chinese company.” Then my colleague Mathew Alderson wrote a three-part series of blog posts during the summer, followed by Dan Harris’ own five-part series in December. Chinese film companies are simply not free to do whatever they want with their own money; the government gets to decide.
  1. Chinese regulators are clamping down on any foreign investment deals, both because of the hundreds of billions of dollars leaving the country as capital flight, and because as a policy matter China wants to discourage “inefficient, uncreative Chinese companies that are simply achieving growth through acquisition.” Add to that increased scrutiny from U.S. politicians, and it’s not exactly Springtime for Renminbi.

Hollywood can bemoan the spigot being turned off, but there wasn’t nearly as much money coming in as was previously thought. It’s still not impossible to get money out of China, but you should say goodbye to buying sprees by Chinese companies snapping up Hollywood assets for no other reason than to convert their currency (cf: the scrapped sale of Voltage Pictures to Chinese metals company Anhui Xinke New Materials).

In light of the new reality, here are some tips on how everyone from studios to production companies to producers should proceed:

  1. Require the Chinese counterparty to pay a nontrivial amount of money upfront, and don’t begin performance until you receive it. If your contract doesn’t pass muster with Chinese regulators, you need to know as soon as possible. Your not receiving the upfront money is a really good sign that the deal itself will never work.
  1. If your deal is with a Chinese company with no presence in the U.S., don’t negotiate or draft it like a typical Hollywood deal. We review entertainment agreements all the time that are in English, governed by California law, and enforceable via arbitration or litigation in Los Angeles – and therefore virtually unenforceable against the Chinese party. You need an agreement written in Chinese, governed by Chinese law, and enforceable in Chinese courts. Do not fall into the trap of believing that because your counterpart Chinese company appears to have a tiny U.S. affiliate company that setting up your dispute for U.S. court resolution will work, because it almost certainly will not.
  1. Instead of fixating on money that your Chinese partner can transfer to the US to finance your slate of American films, start thinking about money that your Chinese partner can spend in China. Perhaps that means a shift toward co-productions in China. It might also mean more deals like the one for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter – ostensibly a buyout, but with profit participation for the production company.
  1. Consider forming a WFOE in China and having it becoming a profit center. China generally has no problem with WFOEs remitting money to their parent companies once all of the WFOE’s taxes have been paid.

It would be a mistake to assume this is just a temporary hiccup and that Chinese companies will be back investing huge amounts in Hollywood in a few months. China still has a ton of money, but for the foreseeable future, the money is staying in China.

China NNN Agreement and China Product Development Agreement
Eight China counterfeiting myths go up in flames

1. There’s no way to protect my brand in China against counterfeits, so I may as well not try. This is both false and self-defeating. China offers a number of ways to protect your IP, and is getting better every year. The first and most important step is to file a trademark application in China as soon as possible to cover your goods and/or services. This will provide you with a first line of defense against counterfeiters and trademark squatters. Once your trademark is registered you will be able to submit takedown requests to Chinese e-commerce sites, request Chinese customs to seize goods, and bring lawsuits for trademark infringement. And, at the same time as you file your trademark application, you can begin to craft a comprehensive IP protection strategy that incorporates copyright and patent registrations.

2. My Chinese trademark registration for my blockbuster movie will allow me to take action against people using “my” trademark on other goods, like clothing or breakfast cereal or toilets. Trademark protection in China is limited by the classes and subclasses of goods and services covered by your registration. If you want protection for other products, you need to register in the appropriate classes AND subclasses to cover those products. For some companies this means registering in all 45 classes. For other companies it means figuring out which products or services you really, really don’t want someone else to be selling under your name. And for most everyone, it is critical to file directly in China and not in Madrid.

3. You can remove counterfeit goods from Chinese e-commerce websites with a US trademark. Alibaba has been amenable to removing listings from Alibaba and Aliexpress, its foreign-facing sites, with just a US or a European trademark registration. But to remove listings from domestic Chinese e-commerce sites like Taobao and 1688.com you typically must have a Chinese trademark registration. Many other e-commerce or social networking sites require a Chinese trademark registration and every site will take action more quickly with one. When counterfeit goods of your product are being sold, time is literally money.

4. China is the biggest source of counterfeit goods in the world. Totally true. According to the 2016 annual report from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), more than 80% of all seized merchandise that infringed intellectual property rights came from either China or Hong Kong.

5. Chinese customs will seize counterfeit goods even if you only have a US trademark. Trademarks are national in scope, and with few exceptions a US trademark has no relevance in China. It certainly means nothing to Chinese customs. Imagine trying to convince U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to seize goods based on a Chinese trademark registration. It would never happen. If you want to be able to have Chinese customs seize infringing goods you need to have a Chinese trademark registration and you need to have registered that trademark again with Chinese customs.

6. The only way to have Chinese-made counterfeit goods seized is when they come in to the United States. U.S. Customs does actively inspect incoming shipments, but Chinese customs also actively inspects outgoing shipments. If you can provide the who, when, and where details about an upcoming shipment of infringing merchandise, you can have that merchandise seized by China customs.

7. My brand is famous outside China so that means the Chinese government will take action against counterfeit goods. No. Just no. The only way to be sure you have trademark rights in China is to register your trademark in China.

8. If I have my products manufactured in China, there’s nothing I can do to stop my manufacturer from selling them out the back door. Wrong. There is a lot you can contractually do to prevent your own manufacturer(s) from selling your own products as its products, starting with a China-centric NNN Agreement and/or NNN provisions in your manufacturing agreement. Using a China Product Development Agreement also often makes sense when you are in the early stages with your China manufacturer.