A few days ago the invaluable China Film Insider ran a piece about how American cable powerhouse Home Box Office is trying to stop the Wuxi, China-based HBO Studio Restaurant & Bar from using the HBO name without permission. But this movie-themed restaurant has every right to its name. As of 2013, it has owned a trademark registration for “HBO” in Class 43 for restaurant services.
HBO is perhaps emboldened by the recent, well-publicized victories of Donald Trump and Michael Jordan, who triumphed after years attempting to wrest “their” trademarks away from trademark squatters. Or by the judicial interpretation released by the Supreme People’s Court last month describing how China was going to take a stricter stance against trademark squatters.
But even if the Trump and Jordan decisions are harbingers of a new trend in protecting well-known marks, brand owners like HBO need to understand the limits of such rulings. Michael Jordan and Donald Trump only won partial victories. The trademark squatters’ rights were only invalidated with respect to those products or services for which Jordan and Trump were already famous. For Jordan: sporting goods. For Trump: construction services. Notably, the decision by the Trademark Review and Adjudication Board (TRAB) that paved the way for Trump to register “TRUMP” for construction services left intact the trademark squatter’s right to use “TRUMP” for mining and drilling services. Because, presumably, Trump was unable to show that “TRUMP” was well-known for those services.
In the HBO Studio Restaurant matter, Home Box Office faces two big problems. First of all, HBO is not well-known in China in ANY context. Until 2014, when HBO signed a streaming deal with Tencent, the only place you could legally watch HBO in China was in high-end hotels that catered to foreigners. And HBO’s brand awareness in China hasn’t exactly taken off since then. A few months ago, Chinese actor Cao Jun, the star of the HBO Asia original production “Master of the Drunken Fist: Beggar So,” admitted to knowing very little about HBO. Frankly, HBO would have difficulty invalidating ANY trademark on the basis of being a well-known mark in China. But in this case, they have to climb an even steeper hill. They need to prove that the “HBO” name is well-known with respect to restaurant services. And that is almost certainly not going to happen. In the alternative, HBO could argue that the Wuxi restaurant’s trademark was filed in bad faith, but China has been unwilling to invalidate trademarks on this basis except in the case of marks filed by serial trademark squatters and former business partners.
Don’t get me wrong: this restaurant has shamelessly coopted the HBO name in their entertainment-themed Western restaurant, and the restaurant owner’s complaints on its Weibo account about being bullied for no reason by a big American company have the air of protesting too much. But HBO’s strategy is almost certain to fail, because the Wuxi restaurant has superior rights under Chinese trademark law.
It appears HBO has already been down this road before; they had filed an application on March 28, 2014 to cover Class 43 services (including restaurant services), but were rejected for everything but renting cooking equipment, renting drinking fountains, and renting non-theater, non-tv studios. The basis for the rejection is not publicly available, but it is almost certainly because the Wuxi restaurant had filed its trademark application first. I note that on June 6, 2016, HBO filed a new application for Class 43 services, apparently hoping for a different outcome on their second try. I wish them well, but am going to assume that they have a Plan B.
HBO’s better strategy would have been to quietly approach this restaurant and offer to buy the trademark. Maybe HBO already tried that and failed.
I took a quick look and there are dozens of registrations for “HBO” in China, covering all manner of goods and services. And most of them aren’t owned by Home Box Office. That’s a lot of invalidations and appeals to file. Good news for China IP lawyers, but not good news for HBO. Although HBO can take heart from one thing: HBO Studio Restaurant & Bar has a high rating on Dianping, the Chinese version of Yelp.
To reiterate: the recent trend in Chinese trademark jurisprudence to protect well-known marks is heartening, but only extends to those goods or services for which brands are already well-known. If you want to protect your mark for other goods and services, you need to file in a broader range of classes before anyone else.