In the spirit of starting out 2018 on the right foot, I have compiled a list of 12 trademark-related resolutions for any company that does business in China and has at least one brand that they care about.
To the resolutions!
1. Register the trademarks you are using in China for the products/services you are using. This is as close to a no-brainer as there is in China IP. But nearly every week we hear from folks who have discovered that someone else registered their trademark in China, so here goes: China is a first-to-file jurisdiction for trademarks and does not have robust enforcement against trademark squatters. A foreign trademark registration has no relevance in China, because every country has its own trademark system. And no matter how well-known you may think your trademark is, it’s not well-known enough in China to gain protection without registration. The bottom line is that if you don’t register your own trademark, someone else will do it for you – and then you’ll be faced with the unpleasant choice of either paying them off or selecting a new brand name for China. Think of it this way: if you lived on the San Andreas Fault and earthquake insurance was really cheap, wouldn’t you buy insurance?
2. Register your trademarks in additional classes/subclasses. For better or worse, trademark protection in China is limited to the subclass(es) in which a given trademark is registered. With a few minor exceptions, if you have a trademark for a single good in a given subclass, that registration will also cover ALL other goods in that subclass, but no other goods in any other subclass. And because China does not have an affirmative use requirement, it is possible to register your trademark to cover goods and services beyond those you are actually using in China. It could be for goods/services that you hope to use in China one day, or it could be for goods/services you simply don’t want anyone else to use in China using your name. Most companies conduct a cost-benefit analysis and select a few high-priority classes in which they would like protection. If you make swimwear, you probably don’t care too much about someone selling motor oil or microscopes using your brand name. But if you’re a company with deep pockets and/or a deep-seated aversion to seeing someone else use your logo, think about the Starbucks approach: register your trademark in all 45 classes and all of the related subclasses.
3. Register more trademarks than you are currently using. The logic here is similar to the previous resolution. China doesn’t require proof of use to register (or maintain) a trademark, so you can register trademarks that you have never used in any classes (and may never use). These could be marks that you hope to use in China one day, or they could be marks that you simply don’t want anyone else to use in China. Usually the latter category includes trademarks that the China Trademark Office (CTMO) would not deem to conflict with yours, but that you would consider objectionable.
4. Monitor your trademarks. The CTMO is not the most communicative bureaucracy. Absent a challenge (e.g,, based on use or validity) to your trademark, after registration you won’t hear from them for another 10 years, and that’s assuming you renew the mark. You won’t hear from them if a third party tries to register a mark that is similar to yours and in the same subclass(es). You also won’t hear from them if a third party tries to register the exact same mark that you have registered in the U.S. In either case you may have grounds for a successful opposition, but it will depend on the identity of the third party. (Your best shot is if the applicant is a current or former business partner.) But the window of opposition is relatively short – three months from the date of publication – and it’s hard to oppose a trademark you don’t hear about until too late. You can also attempt to invalidate a mark after registration, but at that point you’re fighting a rearguard action against a mark that will be valid unless and until you succeed in invalidating it. The best solution, of course, is to file applications yourself before third parties can do so. But failing that, regularly monitor the CTMO database and the Trademark Gazette for potential conflicts.
5. File non-use cancellations against squatters. Has “your” mark has been registered by a trademark squatter in China? Some squatters have no intention of ever using their registered trademarks in commerce; their sole goal is to sell the mark to the highest bidder. The good news is that three years after registration, all trademarks are vulnerable to cancellation for non-use. If you have the patience to wait three years (or only recently found out about the existence of such a mark), this could be a great option. As an initial step, you should conduct a thorough Internet search to see if the mark is being used. It’s not foolproof, but given the preeminence of e-commerce in China, if someone is legitimately using a mark in China, the Internet will contain signs of such use. If the search comes back clean, file a non-use cancellation against the squatter and also file a new trademark application of your own. (Cancelling a trademark does not transfer ownership of the cancelled mark; it just renders the mark invalid.)
6. Come up with a Chinese name for your mark and register it. If you care about your brand in China, it’s not enough just to register the English-language version. You also need to protect your Chinese brand – even if you don’t even have one yet. The minute your English-language brand gets attention in China, it will be given a Chinese name by the local media and consumers. Without exception. And the minute that happens, someone will register the Chinese name as a trademark, and you’ll have forfeited not only the right to use your Chinese brand name, but the ability to choose it in the first place. This story has played out a number of times throughout the years, with companies from Pfizer to Hermes to Penfolds.
But knowing that you need a Chinese name is different from actually selecting one. As I wrote just a few months ago:
Picking a Chinese name is tricky, and simply being fluent in Chinese does not make someone an expert in Chinese-language branding any more than being fluent in English makes a random American an expert in English-language branding. Far too often we see companies delegate this important decision to their “guy in China,” with predictably middling results. Yes, it’s better than having a non-native speaker pick the Chinese brand name by using Google Translate, but that’s not saying much. We work with several branding companies that specialize in this work.
In the conclusion of this two-part post, I’ll present six more resolutions. Happy new year, everyone!