China IP lawyers

I am not a big fan of filing Madrid Protocol applications for China. In certain situations, they can work well, but when they don’t work (which is fairly often, especially when applications are filed without forethought) the trademark registration process takes longer and costs more than just filing a national application. See China Trademarks. Register Them In China Not Madrid.

Filing a priority application in China is another matter. As part of the IP modernization begun under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, China acceded to the Paris Convention in 1984. Under the Convention, if you file a trademark application in one Paris Convention country, and then file an application on a priority basis in another Paris Convention country within 6 months of the date of the original application, you can claim the first filing date as the date for your subsequent applications as well. For example, if you filed a trademark application in the United States on May 1, 2017, you would have until November 1, 2017 to file a trademark application for the same goods/services in China and still be able to claim the May 1, 2017 filing date for your China trademark application.

The vast majority of countries in the world are signatories to the Paris Convention, so the convention has wide-ranging effect. Priority filing is particularly important in first-to-file countries – most notably China – where there often truly is a race to the trademark office between legitimate IP owners and unsavory trademark squatters. See Register Your China Trademark or Go Home.

Priority filing can be an extremely useful tool for China trademark protection, but there are a couple common misconceptions about it. First, priority filing will not improve your odds of registration. The only thing priority filing does in China is establish an earlier filing date. An application filed on a priority basis is considered a national application, and once it is submitted it goes through the same examination process as any other national application. In other words, if you have priority filing for a brand name or a logo that has already been registered as a trademark in China, you will not succeed in getting your brand name or your logo registered in China.

Second, priority filing is not the only option for filing in China. Sometimes clients will contact our China IP lawyers in a frantic rush because they have received notice that they have only a few days before the priority filing window closes on their trademark, and they believe that once that window closes they will not be able to file a trademark application in China at all. Not so! The only effect of the priority window closing is that you cannot claim an earlier filing date. Going back to the earlier example, if you filed a trademark application in the United States on May 1, 2017, and then filed an application in China for the same goods/services after November 1, 2017, the deemed filing date in China would be the actual filing date for China. Priority filing changes the deemed filing date, nothing else.

Another important point regarding priority filing is that priority filings are limited to the same goods/services as in the original application. In this way, priority filing is similar to Madrid Protocol filing, and often not well suited to filing in China. But if the application only covers a narrow range of clearly stated goods/services, and those are the only goods/services that you care about protecting in China, it will work just fine. Priority filing cannot be used for the “Starbucks strategy” of covering all goods/services. But if you use it to establish a beachhead and cover the most important goods/services, it will usually dissuade the first wave of squatters.

Because the description of goods and services for trademarks in the United States (and for many other countries as well) is often quite different than the description of goods and services for China trademarks, for clients interested in filing in both countries I generally recommend filing concurrent applications without regard to priority. But for clients who first file in the United States (or some other Western country) and then realize belatedly that they ought to protect their IP in China as well, a priority filing can be ideal. More than once, a priority application has meant the difference between securing a China trademark registration and having to deal with a trademark squatter with superior rights.

China box office numbersAs reported by numerous media outlets, the MPAA-requested audit of the Chinese box office numbers is complete and the numbers ain’t pretty. Chinese theaters underreported 2016 box office results by 9%, which given the 25% revenue share for quota movies, means that US studios have been underpaid by about $40 million.

I don’t know anyone who follows the Chinese movie business who was surprised by these results. No, I take that back. Many people (myself included) were surprised the number wasn’t considerably higher. One possible explanation is that PricewaterhouseCoopers conducted the audit, and after the Oscars debacle they were probably triple-checking their results and eliminating anything they couldn’t justify six ways from Sunday. And even with that, they still found a 9% discrepancy.

The full audit results haven’t been publicly released; all we know is that the auditors looked at data for 29 films in a handful of theaters and then extrapolated the results across China’s more than 40,000 screens. Such extrapolation, based on statistical sampling, is commonplace and perfectly normal, but I have to wonder what a full audit would have found. Without putting too fine a point on it, a lot of strange things happen in China’s third and fourth-tier cities. Even as it is, the audit found a whole host of irregularities, including unreported screenings, unreported ticket sales, and counting box office revenue as concession sales. No word on whether the audit turned up more instances of ascribing ticket sales from US films to Chinese films – which is what happened in 2015 when an alleged $11 million in ticket sales for Terminator: Genisys were instead attributed to the Chinese propaganda film The Hundred Regiments Offensive.

So what now? One argument is that the audit helps the United States in its ongoing negotiation to increase the quota and the revenue share, but it’s also likely that it hurts. China already knew it had massive problems with movie accounting and had taken steps earlier this year with a very public punishment of 326 cinemas for box office fraud. Being called out in the press like this by foreigners is a tremendous loss of face. Then again, $40 million is a lot to leave on the table.

It’s easy to understand the studios’ frustration that led to the audit. Box-office fraud in China has been rampant for years, and even the box-office revenue that is reported takes eons to get paid. And as China’s box office continues to grow, the revenue share becomes an increasingly important part of studios’ bottom line. Long gone are the days when revenue from China is just a nice bonus for US studios; indeed without China, some movies wouldn’t be made at all.

I’m reminded of the opening lines of Annie Hall: “There’s an old joke. Two women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’” That’s essentially how the studios feel about their relationship with Chinese movie theaters – full of underreported revenue and unhappiness, and they hope it never ends.

Of course, if the studios actually see the $40 million in additional revenue, the audit will be worth it. Either way, we can expect to see more of them.

And it’s not like the US studios are the only ones who should be conducting audits. We work with accounting firms that audit Chinese film and television productions on behalf of Western investors, and the extent (and creativity) of the financial shenanigans is astounding. For most of these audits, there’s no political or reputational element; it’s just common sense.

If you’re dependent on your Chinese partner to account for and remit revenues (be it in the movie industry or otherwise), an audit should be part of your repertoire too.

China tradmark squatter
China trademarks. Very crowded.

The United States and China are the two busiest jurisdictions in the world for trademarks, with radically different approaches. The USPTO requires applications to be narrow in scope: the identification of goods/services can only include goods/services the applicant is actually using or has a bona fide intent to use, and before the application can proceed to registration the applicant must provide proof of such use. Subsequently, in order to maintain a valid registration, trademark owners must provide proof of continued use.

China, meanwhile, strongly prefers goods/services be identified according to the Nice Classification system, and it has no requirement that an applicant prove use at any time. The one exception is the non-use cancellation proceeding, by which a third party can challenge a trademark registration. Following such a challenge, if the trademark owner cannot provide proof of use within the three prior years, the trademark registration will be cancelled. But absent a third party challenge, the trademark will remain valid. The Chinese Trademark Office (CTMO) does not conduct sua sponte investigations.

Over the past 10-15 years, China has encouraged trademark applications in both explicit and implicit ways. In an interview last year with WIPO, Zhang Rao, the Commissioner of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC), which oversees the CTMO, identified five factors driving the large numbers of trademark applications:

  1. The Chinese government’s goal of boosting “mass entrepreneurship and innovation.”
  2. The implementation of the 2014 Trademark Law, which was an improvement on the previous trademark law.
  3. SAIC authorities’ and market regulators’ work to create a level playing field for all regarding trademark rights.
  4. SAIC’s efforts to improve the efficiency and accessibility of trademark applications, with a particular focus on online applications.
  5. Extensive outreach efforts to increase public awareness of the value of registered IP.

To Zhang’s comments I would add:

  1. Because it is difficult to invalidate a trademark registration in China because of bad faith, it incentivizes trademark squatters to file trademark applications “on spec,” and similarly incentivizes legitimate brand owners to file far more trademark applications in far more classes than they would (or could) file in other jurisdictions.
  2. The Chinese government has operationalized its goal of boosting innovation (Zhang’s first point above) with a numerical pay-for-play scheme: more filings = more money. Mark Cohen’s China IPR Blog has commented on this strategy numerous times with respect to patents; I don’t know for certain if trademarks have been promoted the same way but wouldn’t be surprised.

For all of these reasons and more, China has seen a staggering increase in the number of trademark applications: more than 760,000 trademark applications were filed in 2006, and that number increased to 2.8 million in 2015. In the US, the second busiest trademark jurisdiction, fewer than 400,000 trademark applications were filed in 2006, and slightly more than 500,000 in 2015. (The statistics are from WIPO using class count data: an application in two classes counts as two applications, an application in three classes counts as three applications, etc.) And China continues to widen the gap; in 2016, more than 3.6 million applications were filed.

Meanwhile, the CTMO has been hiring a number of young, inexperienced trademark examiners whose default position is to reject any application that seems like it might conflict with a previously filed trademark.

This all adds up to an increasingly inhospitable environment for filing trademark applications in China. Every new trademark application is another potential conflict for subsequently filed applications. Our China trademark team has seen an uptick in rejections in our day-to-day work, and though it’s hard to prove causation it sure doesn’t feel like a coincidence.

To make things even more complicated, there’s a disjunction between the standard for trademark infringement and the standard for trademark registration, with the latter being considerably more strict. That has led to a number of trademarks that are in a strange sort of limbo: too similar to existing marks to be registered, but not so similar as to constitute infringement were they to be used. This effectively places such trademarks in the public domain. If a company’s goal is simply to manufacture products in China without fear of someone else interfering with production or exports, all is well. But if the goal is establish a brand name in China, the only answer is to find a new brand name.

The moral of the story is that to succeed with trademarks in China you must register your trademarks both early and often, and conduct meaningful searches before filing each and every application. Even if a trademark squatter doesn’t take your exact mark, one of the millions of new trademark applications each year might block your application on other grounds.

China brandingWe’ve been writing for years about the need to register Chinese-language versions of your trademarks. Back in 2015 I wrote, “If you care about your brand in China, it’s not enough just to register your English-language brand. You also need to select a Chinese name and register that as a trademark in China. Otherwise, you’ll forfeit not only the right to use your Chinese brand name, but the ability to choose it in the first place.” See Don’t Be Like Mike: Register Trademarks In CHINESE.

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.

Typically, a foreign company’s Chinese name falls into one of the following categories:

  1. A direct translation. (This usually only works with companies that use actual, translatable words in their name.) This is what Microsoft has done: 微软, Chinese characters for “micro” and “soft.”
  2. A transliteration, in which the Chinese characters approximate the sound of the English-language name. This is what Google has done: 谷歌, Chinese characters that make the sounds “gu” and “ge.”
  3. A new name with a positive connotation with no obvious connection to the English-language antecedent. This is what Pfizer has done: 辉瑞, Chinese characters that make the sounds “hui” and “rui” and mean “brilliant and auspicious” (more or less).
  4. A combination of the above. This is what Starbucks has done: 星巴克, the Chinese character for “star” and Chinese characters that make the sounds “ba” and “ke” (“bucks,” more or less).

Selecting your Chinese name is just the first step, though. You then need to register the mark as a trademark, and you also need to think about copycat or soundalike marks. Because China has a limited number of syllables, it is easy to come up with homophones to a foreign company’s Chinese name – especially when that Chinese name is a transliteration. This makes it even more difficult to protect your Chinese name. Chinese trademark examiners might reject a mark that has all of the same characters as yours except one, but if the mark has all different characters and they just have similar pronunciations, the mark is much more likely to be approved.

Where we see this most often is the following scenario: a foreign company has a word mark, and that is what they register in the U.S., Europe and China. They incorporate this word mark in a logo that is slightly distinctive – say an oval around the text and in a specific color. The foreign company is careful, and comes up with a Chinese language version of their mark that they register in China. Then a Chinese entity registers two completely different Chinese characters, often with a similar sound, which they then insert into a graphic with the same shape and the same colors. In this way, the Chinese entity produces a deceptively similar trademark without infringing on the specific word mark the foreign company registered.

This is a problem, and it’s made even worse when (1) the client has only registered the Chinese-language version as a word mark or (2) the logo is too generic to be protectable as such.

What can you do? If you’re going to have a logo, make it distinctive, and make sure you register that too. And when you come up with a Chinese-language name, think about also registering other Chinese-language names with characters that have similar sounds and/or meanings. It’s a prophylactic measure akin to registering multiple domain names – annoying, but better than the alternative path of brand dilution or litigation. Trademark owners should also seek, via contract, to constrain their Chinese manufacturers, distributors, and other business partners (especially their distributers and resellers) from registering any trademarks similar in any way (including soundalikes and marks with similar meanings). This won’t affect the trademark squatters, but a significant percentage of trademark infringement comes from current or former business partners.

Bottom Line: Think through what you are trying to accomplish in China with both your English language and Chinese character branding and your logo and take steps to protect those things. Now.

China lawyers
Does New Balance’s recent trademark victory portend a new China IP balance?

What should we make of the most recent New Balance decision?

As widely covered in the press, a Suzhou court last week awarded the Boston-based athletic equipment company New Balance $1.5 million in damages in a trademark infringement case. Zheng Chaozhong, Xin Ping Heng Sporting Goods Limited Company and Bo Si Da Ke Trading Limited, who sold “New Boom” branded footwear in China, were found liable for infringing New Balance’s stylized “N” trademark and otherwise deceiving consumers as to the source of goods.

The decision has been rightly lauded as a landmark: the damages are the highest amount ever awarded to a foreign company in a trademark infringement case (and tied with the highest amount awarded to any company). Though rare, this sort of case sends a strong message both to those who would infringe on others’ trademarks and those who try to stop them. \

It’s important to keep things in perspective, though. How strong a message does this decision actually send? New Balance has sold shoes in China since 1995, and according to one report has more than 2000 stores there. The “New Boom” brand is only one of many Chinese knockoffs; I can only imagine how many lawsuits New Balance is pursuing in China. As another of the China attorneys in my firm put it, this win by New Balance shows progress but it isn’t groundbreaking.

I remember buying New Balance shoes when I was a graduate student in Shanghai. I went to a branded New Balance store adjoining a relatively high-end mall, but despite the location and the salesman’s almost self-righteous assurance, along with my Chinese classmates’ concurrence, I still wasn’t confident the shoes were authentic. I ended up purchasing a pair, and was happy I did, but you can see the problem. I was a discerning consumer, I wanted to buy genuine goods and I was willing to pay the going price, but because there were so many knockoffs on the market, I almost didn’t buy anything.

So yes, this is a great decision for owners of IP, but until it becomes commonplace it won’t send a strong message to foreign brands. And from what I’ve seen, this case is about as blatant a case of infringement as the Under Armour/Uncle Martian matter. In the United States, the infringing party would have been slapped with a temporary restraining order, soon followed by a permanent injunction, and this case wouldn’t even have made the local news.

This decision is yet another step in the right direction, and as both foreign and domestic companies continue to protect their interests in China through the legal system, I think we’ll see more decisions like this. But let’s not overstate things. This is just a Chinese court enforcing Chinese trademark law in a straightforward case. Foreign companies still need to be vigilant about protecting their IP rights in China, and that means registering their trademarks in China, monitoring the China Trademark Gazette and Chinese social media to try to spot infringers, submitting takedowns to Alibaba and other e-commerce sites, and filing lawsuits.

We must take the Chinese trademark system as it is, not how we want it to be.

China movie quota lawyerWhat a wild ride it’s been for the Chinese film industry! Until July 27, it had been a year of one depressing story after another. Downward-trending box office, high-flying entertainment companies imploding, deals to purchase foreign assets falling through, the biggest movie studio on the planet sold to a real estate developer, the can’t miss co-production The Great Wall tanking. Even the Transformers franchise couldn’t save the day, with the latest installment performing well below expectations in China.

But on July 27, the action film Wolf Warrior 2 opened, and within 12 days of its release it had already become the highest-grossing film of all time in China. As of this writing the film has pulled in more than $720 million in China alone. The narratives are almost writing themselves, with pundits trying to explain why Chinese people are going in droves to see a jingoistic film about a Chinese special forces operative in Africa.

I’m not going to wade into those waters except to note William Goldman’s aphorism that when it comes to the film business, “Nobody knows anything.” The phenomenal success of Wolf Warrior 2 was anything but a foregone conclusion. The first movie was a surprise hit, earning about $89 million, but it’s not like people were lining up Episode 1-style for a sequel. Back in May, Wolf Warrior 2 was pilloried online when it came to light that its trailer had lifted footage from X-Men: First Class. Moreover, Wolf Warrior 2 was released on the same date as the government-backed propaganda film The Founding of an Army, and the latter was allotted the lion’s share of screens.

This movie – this particular movie – couldn’t have come at a better time for China. Hollywood is in the midst of negotiating the terms of foreign (read: Hollywood) films’ market access to China. American studios find China’s protectionism exasperating on multiple levels, with the biggest complaints being (1) the quota system, which only allows 34 foreign films (largely US studio films) each year on a revenue-sharing basis (2) the low percentage of receipts allotted to the foreign studio (currently 25%) for such revenue-sharing films, and (3) the foreign studio’s inability to control the release date. The last point is more serious than might immediately be apparent – not only does the Chinese government determine when each film will be released (via a largely opaque process), it also imposes unofficial blackouts during which no new foreign films are allowed to be released.

Aside from discussions about WTO obligations and fair play, US studios’ best argument for expanding access to the Chinese film market has been an economic one: Chinese audiences want to see American movies (and don’t particularly want to see Chinese movies), and with thousands of new screens every year, Chinese movie theaters need movies people want to see. In other words, limiting the number of American movies hurts the Chinese economy.

Setting aside the fallacy that the Chinese government’s interests are aligned with those of Chinese theater owners, the success of Wolf Warrior 2 upends all of those arguments. Wolf Warrior 2 was released on the first day of a blackout period, and it is already the most successful movie in Chinese history. It is a Chinese-made movie, with purely (even exclusively) Chinese content, and Chinese theaters are raking in the money – and not having to send any of it overseas. The Chinese government will likely infer that Wolf Warrior 2’s success is not in spite of their protectionist policies, but because of them. And President Trump’s saber-rattling about a trade war isn’t likely to improve their attitude.

I certainly hope the U.S. negotiating team is able to make some headway, but U.S. studios and production companies shouldn’t assume anything. They need a backup plan, and right now the best one seems to be investing in and otherwise creating productions in China solely for the Chinese market. A number of studios and production companies are already going down this road, and I think it’s the smart play. Better to be an investor in the next Wolf Warrior than to be shut out completely.

China trademark registration
Do these look similar to you? Because they sure do to me.

We first wrote about the Under Armour vs. Uncle Martian dispute last May. At the time it seemed like just another story about a blatant Chinese ripoff, destined to be forgotten with the next month’s news cycle. But the story has kept on going, and was back in the news recently with the report that Under Armour had conclusively prevailed in its trademark infringement case against Tingfeilong Sporting Goods, the Chinese sports manufacturer behind the “Uncle Martian” brand.

According to Under Armour’s lawyers, on June 19, 2017 the Fujian People’s Higher Court issued an injunction requiring Tingfeilong to stop using the infringing “Uncle Martian” trademarks, destroy all infringing products, pay RMB 2,000,000 in damages, and publish a statement to “eliminate the adverse effect” of its infringement. This ruling followed a preliminary injunction issued on November 2, 2016.

The court’s ruling is surprising in two ways. First, it’s surprising that the court issued an injunction at all. Chinese courts are known for being reluctant to issue injunctions because they don’t have the same enforcement power as U.S. courts (China has no equivalent of the U.S. Marshals Service), and issuing an injunction that they know will be ignored just makes them appear weak.

Second, it’s surprising that Tingfeilong continued using its Uncle Martian logo — the infringement is about as blatant as you can get short of an outright copy, and the social media commentary in China was withering. When I wrote about this case last year, I speculated that Tingfeilong’s strategy was to get a bunch of free publicity for their cheesy product launch and the “Uncle Martian” name, then quietly drop the infringing logo and continue selling products using the “Uncle Martian” name. That may still be their strategy, but the penalty may be enough to put them out of business. Assuming they end up paying it. Tingfeilong has appealed the June 19 ruling, and I could imagine a settlement that involves Tingfeilong agreeing not to use the infringing logo so long as they can still use the “Uncle Martian” word mark. Or maybe other shenanigans are afoot – according to the CTMO website, the “Uncle Martian” word marks are now owned by another Chinese company, Quanzhou Changwan Trading Co. (泉州昌万贸易有限公司).

In an interview with Law360, Under Armour’s US counsel offered three lessons from the case. I’ve paraphrased those lessons below in underlined text, with my further comments afterward in italics.

  1. Chinese courts are willing to grant injunctions. Obviously this case is a step in the right direction, but one case is hardly enough to establish a trend. China is not a common law system and a ruling by the Fujian Higher People’s Court’s does not set a precedent. That we even have to discuss this point is noteworthy; in any court system providing meaningful injunctive relief, this case would be a slam-dunk. But it’s not the case that this sort of relief will be readily and easily available. As I understand it, the key to this case is the significant and indisputable evidence of infringement presented by Under Armour at the time it requested an injunction. To submit that amount of evidence takes a lot of time and effort – it’s not just pasting a bunch of screenshots into a complaint. Note that the Uncle Martian knockoffs were first announced last April, and the preliminary injunction wasn’t issued until November. I’m sure Under Armour would have loved to have a TRO in May – as would have happened in the US or EU — but there’s no way they could have prepared the evidence in time.
  2. Local counsel is crucial. Unquestionably true. Non-Chinese firms are not allowed to practice law in China, so it is legally impossible to proceed without a Chinese local counsel. And as with any case here in the US, the better the local counsel, the better your odds. But as the Law360 article implies, to an increasing degree in China what makes local counsel “good” is not their connections with local government officials or their guanxi but rather their expertise in the legal field at issue. That is: if you have a trademark infringement case, hire a firm that excels at IP and has a history with those cases. 
  3. Chinese courts outside Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen are issuing sophisticated, consistent legal rulings. Again, though this ruling is certainly a step in the right direction, one ruling does not make a trend. And the facts in this case were pretty much served up on a silver platter for the court. It would be a stretch to call this a sophisticated ruling, when it was obvious to just about everyone who commented on social media that this was trademark infringement. Another key point is that if you want any shot at enforcing a court ruling in China, you need to file your case in a court with jurisdiction over the defendant. If the company knocking off your products is based in Xi’an, you probably will need to file in Xi’an, like it or not. It should go without saying that you will be better off filing in a second tier city court that has jurisdiction than getting your case tossed out of a court in Shanghai for lack of jurisdiction. 

I would add one additional takeaway, which is implicit in the commentary on the Uncle Martian ruling and hopefully second nature to anyone reading this blog. The only reason Under Armour was even in a position to file this lawsuit was because Under Armour had already registered its trademarks in China. This was not a case of an American company trying to prove that its trademarks were famous in China; this was simply a company enforcing its trademark rights that already existed.

China AttorneysBecause of this blog, our China lawyers get a fairly steady stream of China law questions from readers, mostly via emails but occasionally via blog comments as well. If we were to conduct research on all the questions we get asked and then comprehensively answer them, we would become overwhelmed. So what we usually do is provide a super fast general answer and, when it is easy to do so, a link or two to a blog post that may provide some additional guidance. We figure we might as well post some of these on here as well. On Fridays, like today.

We work with a number of clients who have goods manufactured in China – everything from plastic beach balls to sophisticated home electronics. We provide those clients with a wide range of business and legal advice, and often also end up drafting agreements for them: NNN agreements, development agreements, mold agreements, manufacturing agreements, and more. In the course of assisting these clients, many will ask if we can help them find a factory to manufacture their products.

The answer is no. First, it could end up being a conflict of interest (or at least appearing like one) if we have a relationship with both sides of a transaction. Even if both parties agree with full disclosure, it’s rarely worth the hassle. Second, recommending factories is outside our expertise. Even though we have done deals with hundreds of factories in China, there are exponentially more that we haven’t even heard about. Why would we? We’re lawyers, not sourcing agents.That said, we are always happy to recommend to our clients sourcing agents with whom we have worked and respect.

But China factories? Nope.

China Due DiligenceLast week the news broke that Dalian Wanda, the powerful Chinese real estate developer and entertainment company, was selling off its half-built movie studio, a massive complex under construction near Qingdao.

It was the latest in a string of bad news days for Wanda, most of which have been precipitated by the Chinese government’s increasingly strict controls on outbound investment. Wanda’s $1B purchase of Dick Clark Productions fell through in March of this year. The chairman/CEO and the head of China operations of Legendary Entertainment, the film production company that Wanda bought in 2016 for $3.5B, both left this year and have yet to be replaced. Legendary’s recent films (with the exception of Kong: Skull Island) have tanked everywhere but China. Wanda quietly withdrew its attempt to fold Legendary into its existing film operations and list the reformulated company on a Chinese stock exchange. Wanda announced an ignominious sale of its theme parks less than a year after announcing Wanda was going to clean Disney’s clock.

And looming over it all, the Chinese government has made it clear – in increasingly public fashion – that Wanda’s ability to borrow money will be highly constrained.

Both Legendary and Wanda’s subsidiary AMC Theaters issued public statements in the past week that they were not dependent on Wanda for funding; the Western markets were not impressed.

No doubt many people in Hollywood are engaging in a bit of schadenfreude right now. Wang Jianlin, the founder and chairman of Wanda, is a bit like the LaVar Ball of Chinese entertainment (albeit with $30 billion more to his name). He was brash, but plenty of people wanted to do a deal with him when he had assets to burn and was talking about taking a stake in every major studio. Now they’re not sure what to think.

I don’t feel any joy at Wanda’s apparent retreat from the movie business, if that is in fact what’s happening. Yes, they’ve had substantial setbacks and remain highly leveraged, but Wanda is still a huge company and a major player in real estate development, which has always been its core business. It controls more movie screens than any other company in the world, and it still has a sizable film production division. Wang is a shrewd businessman and not to be underestimated. You don’t get to be the richest man in China without having a lot on the ball. Everyone thought he had overpaid for AMC Cinemas but the company has more than doubled in value since he bought it.

But Wanda’s proposed studio in Qingdao never made much sense to me. I lived in Qingdao, and it is a wonderful city. But it has scant connection with the Chinese film industry, and little to recommend it as the site of the world’s largest studio. Wanda promised moviemaking on a grand scale, including enormous soundstages, multiple backlots, and a 40% subsidy for anyone making a movie there. But the reality on the ground never seemed to match the rhetoric, and few (if any) filmmakers not associated with Wanda or Legendary have filmed there.

What was the reality on the ground in Qingdao, anyway? My colleague Steve Dickinson (who spent nearly a decade in Qingdao) and I could never figure it out. The studio complex is almost an hour’s drive south of the city proper, with nothing of note in between but for a few factories. When we visited the site a few years ago, you would never have known that a huge film studio was being built. It just seemed like a pure real estate play: swarms of agents descended on anyone who got close, thrusting brochures for as-yet unbuilt apartment towers. Tour buses stopped by regularly and disgorged passengers who had no knowledge of, or interest in, the studio. And this was well after the glitzy announcement with Nicole Kidman, Leonardo DiCaprio, and John Travolta in Qingdao.

The Qingdao studio complex is now being sold to Sunac, another Chinese developer. Will the studio be completed by Sunac? Was it ever going to be completed? Who knows? Wanda certainly had the money to build it, and Wang loves movies. The ultrawealthy have a long history of bankrolling films, from Howard Hughes up to Megan Ellison. Perhaps this is just a strategic retrenchment. Wanda’s strategy with the Qingdao studio complex wasn’t much different from that of many Hollywood players: if you can’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.

The recent headlines characterize Wanda’s troubles as if they were the result of poor business judgment. I don’t think that’s fair. This story isn’t about Wanda. It’s really a story about China’s reluctance to let foreign entertainment companies compete in a free market. Just look at what’s happening in Chinese movie theaters right now. A foreign movie blackout is in place, and the screens are being inundated with The Founding of an Army, directed by Hong Kong legend Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs, which Martin Scorsese remade as The Departed) and starring a cavalcade of Chinese stars both young and old. If history is any guide, The Founding of an Army is guaranteed to do big business at the China box office, regardless of how many people actually see it. For the previous two movies in this series (The Founding of a Nation and The Founding of a Party), state-owned enterprises bought vast blocks of tickets for their employees.

One takeaway from all of this is that foreign entertainment companies (and even just foreign companies in general) need to be more careful than ever when dealing with Chinese counterparties. If the Chinese government interferes directly there’s little you can do, but up to that point you can do a lot to protect yourself. Just look at all the lawsuits being filed in Los Angeles against Chinese production companies – lawsuits which may be doomed to failure, because even if the plaintiff wins, the judgment won’t be enforceable in China.

Conduct due diligence. Make sure your contracts are written in Chinese and enforceable under Chinese law. Get an upfront payment so you can be sure the Chinese side can actually pay under the contract. And if something sounds too good to be true (like the 40% subsidy for filming in Qingdao), it probably is.

China CopyrightWhen I was growing up, I watched a lot of television. A LOT. I was a latchkey kid and every day after school my brother and I would come home and turn on KTVU and watch TV Powww! and Captain Cosmic shows like Ultraman. Ultraman, if you don’t know (Philistine!), was a Japanese science-fiction show that ran from 1966-67 but, much like Star Trek, circulated widely in reruns (leading to numerous remakes, spinoffs and movies) and had an outsize influence on subsequent sci-fi pop culture.

So when I read last week’s China Film Insider story about an allegedly unauthorized Ultraman film being produced in China, it felt like a personal insult. A Chinese fan-created Ultraman movie a la Axanar would be amazing, but the producer of this film, Chinese film company Blue Arc Animation, is just making a blatant ripoff.

Or are they?

Japanese company Tsuburaya Productions Co. Ltd., the creator of Ultraman, alleges that Blue Arc Animation has no right to make an Ultraman film in China. But Blue Arc contends that they got the rights from UM Corporation, another Japanese company. And UM Corporation contends that they own all foreign rights based on an alleged 1976 agreement in which Tsuburaya’s president Noboru Tsuburaya granted to Thai filmmaker Sompote Saengduenchai the exclusive, perpetual foreign rights to Ultraman. Sompote’s rights were then assigned to his son Perasit Saengduenchai, who in turn transferred them to UM Corporation, who in turn has licensed the rights to a number of companies all over the world.

Tsuburuya has consistently held that the 1976 agreement is a forgery, not least because Sompote didn’t even mention the existence of such an agreement until 1995, after Noboru Tsuburaya had passed away. The dispute has led to a number of lawsuits between Tsuburuya on the one hand, and Sompote and his successors in interest on the other. Back in the mid 2000s, Tsuburuya won several victories in Thai and Japanese courts, which seemed to bring things to a close, but not so much. The victories were only partial victories, and the key piece of evidence in Sompote’s favor is that the 1976 agreement, despite having a number of inaccuracies and other indicia of inauthenticity, was nonetheless chopped with Tsuburuya’s company seal. And so the litigation has continued. Most recently, UM Corporation sued Tsuburuya in a Los Angeles federal court on May 19, 2015, alleging copyright infringement, breach of contract, and intentional interference with contractual relations. I just checked the docket and the case, staffed by a number of big-firm LA litigators, is still going strong.

What does all this have to do with China? First of all, this should be a wakeup call for anyone with a Chinese entity who thinks they don’t need to know where their company seal is at all times.

Second, it’s an example of how NOT to license copyrighted content in China. What sort of due diligence did Blue Arc Animation conduct regarding the rights they were allegedly getting from UM Corporation? We have conducted due diligence on numerous film projects in China and our efforts have saved more than one high-profile project from guaranteed litigation over the source material.

Chinese courts are getting better and better about enforcing copyrights. The dispute between Tsuburuya and Blue Arc Animation hasn’t resulted in a lawsuit in China – yet – but Blue Arc Animation has to be wondering what, exactly they have gotten themselves into. Are the Ultraman copyrights registered in China under either their name or the name of UM Corporation? Do they have a licensing agreement with UM Corporation written in Chinese and enforceable under Chinese law? Is the licensing agreement registered with the Copyright Protection Centre of China? Unless the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” Blue Arc Animation will be hard pressed to prove that they have any rights at all. (And meanwhile, if Tsuburuya hasn’t already registered all relevant copyrights for Ultraman in China, shame on them.)

If you’re going to spend millions of dollars on a film project (or even just tens of thousands, as may be the case here), don’t buy a pig in a poke.