China trademarkA couple weeks ago, the online Chinese magazine Sixth Tone ran a story titled “China Founds Trademark Office to Protect Domestic Brands.” The gist of the story is that on Oct. 17, 2018, a new trademark office was established in Shanghai for the sole purpose of helping Chinese companies protect their intellectual property overseas:

The Shanghai Trademark Overseas Protection Office will support Chinese companies in international copyright disputes by providing guidance, training, and legal services. It will also create a think tank of experts to share their professional suggestions with businesses.

Though China is rife with bootleg DVDs, shoes with backward Nike swoosh logos, and countless imitations of other foreign products, its own time-honored brands fall victim to copycats too, according to the State Administration for Industry and Commerce.

The piece goes on to note that “on more than 80 occasions since 2004, well-known domestic [Chinese] brands have filed trademark infringement cases against foreign companies.”

Really? China is forming a new trademark office because of 80 instances of infringement in 14 years? Upon reading this story, I checked the calendar to see if it was April Fool’s Day. Not even close. I then checked with some trademark lawyers in China and they were unaware of this story, skeptical that the office actually existed, and unclear what would be achieved even if it did.

It goes on. The story received scant coverage in the Chinese press, and didn’t even rate a mention on the Chinese Trademark Office’s website – which is not surprising, because this purported office seems to have no connection with the Chinese Trademark Office. It appears to be a project solely of some subset of the Shanghai Administration of Industry and Commerce, ostensibly to demonstrate Shanghai’s prominence as a defender of Chinese intellectual property. It’s also a useful bit of propaganda, countering the prevailing narrative of China as a country that lets its companies steal foreign IP with impunity and without consequences. The old “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” strategy!

I have no doubt that some Chinese brands have had to deal with infringement overseas. I also have no doubt that the relative scale and dollar value of such infringement is miniscule as compared to the infringement of foreign brands in China. Moreover, when Chinese brands are ripped off overseas, they can pursue meaningful, robust remedies – at least in large markets like the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the EU.

And who, exactly, is infringing Chinese trademarks overseas? My sense is that few Chinese brands have cachet overseas, except among the overseas Chinese community, which suggests that foreign IP infringement is mostly (if not wholly) driven by Chinese entities. I don’t know if this is actually true, but would love to see a study. If only there was a think tank that could address these issues…

I hope I’m wrong about the Shanghai Trademark Overseas Protection Office and that it’s more than just a propaganda talking point. Because the truth is that Chinese companies do need help protecting their IP overseas, and it makes complete sense to have a China-based resource (like the EU’s uniformly fantastic IPR helpdesks). I can’t tell you how many times we see Chinese companies enter the U.S. market and do just about everything wrong, whether it be corporate formation or employee management or IP protection. And then it takes twice as long and costs five times as much to clean things up instead of just doing it right the first time.