China e-commerce law
Earlier this week, in China E-Commerce: Resistance is Futile, we set out what will likely be the new rules for foreign.

I could not have scripted better responses to that post as I personally received emails from what I would describe as “both ends of the spectrum.”

The first email is from a European businessperson I know who has been doing business with China for 25+ years and living in China for at least a decade. He has become pretty cynical about China and the focus of his email was on how China is setting everything up to “screw us foreigners”: Here is his email:

Great post as usual. It nicely encapsulates what I see happening here with everything. China is re-writing its laws to make its own companies rich and to screw us foreigners.

On the flip side, I got the following email from a very experienced China lawyer essentially saying nearly the opposite:

Exactly. The intelligent way to approach China is to figure out what is their plan and then work that plan to your advantage. Fighting against the plan is futile. Working with the plan can result in a lot of money. Google decided to fight, and they are gone. Microsoft finally decided to go with the plan and they are still in the middle of the China system.

When I say these sorts of things I get accused of being too negative and I would bet you will get that reaction to this post. But I do not view it negatively at all. It outlines a clear plan to success in China. It’s just that the plan follows a basic path outlined by the PRC government and Alibaba and the other rules of the PRC Internet. There is lots of money to be made and there are many things to be done to make the deals and to protect IP and similar.

That was our exact point with the post. There are great opportunities to make money on China e-commerce but to do so you must follow China’s rules. You can complain about those rules all you like, but the real issue is whether you are going to jump in and seize the opportunity (flawed though it is) or not. What’s your answer?

Earlier this year, I attended Alibaba’s Gateway ’17. The theme of that event was that there is easy money to be made by Western companies selling their products on Tmall and on Taobao. There is most definitely a lot of money to be made but it is debatable how easy it is to make it. I don’t know about you, but I doubt that any of our long list of clients who are making money in or from China — be it via China e-commerce or otherwise — would ever claim it to have been easy. And yet, I also doubt that any of them would say that it has been so difficult as to not be worth it.

The bottom line is that selling your products to China consumers via e-commerce will not be as easy or as cheap as selling your products to U.S. or EU consumers. But is that enough to stop you? In our next post, we will talk about what you should do to protect your IP before you start selling online to China.

 

China trademark registration lawyersLabbrand, a leading Chinese brand consultancy, recently published an article discussing the naming work they’d done on behalf of Haribo, the German confectionery. (For those who don’t know, Haribo is the first and best manufacturer of gummi candies: all gummi candies in the world are derived from Haribo Gold-Bears, the ur-gummi.) I have been a huge fan of Haribo since I was a kid, and was interested to read how Labbrand had adapted Haribo’s brand names for China. I’m excerpting their descriptions below, interspersed with my own commentary.

Since 2012, Labbrand has been working closely with HARIBO to validate and create over 20 Chinese names for its brand and products, as well as for the tagline and Jingle of the Haribo brand. Chinese names 萌桃仔 [méng táo zǎi] for Peaches, 趣缤纷 [qù bīn fēn] for Supa Mix and 甜莓狂想 [tián méi kuáng xiǎng] for Berry Dream were amongst the first new releases from the brand.

The verbs in the first sentence are essential: Haribo’s Chinese brand names were not just created but also validated. Brand creation without brand protection is meaningless. As I wrote back in 2015, “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 will 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.

I did a quick check of the Chinese Trademark Office (CTMO) database and am happy to report that the three brand names cited above are all registered already or will be soon. (Had the results been otherwise, this would have been a short blog post!)

The three new products launched are:

Peaches, a peach flavor two-toned, sugar-dusted gummi. The Chinese name 萌桃仔 [méng táo zǎi] (cute/ peach/ young) personalizes the sweets as a cute little person by putting 仔 [zǎi] at the end. Originated from cyber language, 萌 [méng] conveys a cute and lovely feeling.

Supa Mix, a mixed collection of fruity gummies. The name 趣缤纷 [qù bīn fēn] (interesting/ colorful) brings fun and joy at the same time translating the ‘mix’ concept.

Berry Dream, a collection of berry-flavored sweets. The unique, eye-catching Chinese name 甜莓狂想 [tián méi kuáng xiǎng] (sweet/ berry/ fantasy) triggers curiosity and imagination with a good fit with product and brand attributes.

I won’t comment on the above names, except to note that they are thoughtful combinations of literal translations and characters with positive and appropriate connotations. This is the value of hiring branding professionals. Sometimes clients will come to us with a Chinese name derived from Google Translate and ask us to opine, which always brings out my inner DeForest Kelley: I’m a lawyer, not a branding specialist. Still, you don’t need to be a brand specialist to know when a machine translation goes wrong, which is often enough.

Besides the product names, Labbrand also created the Chinese tagline of HARIBO’s signature jingles – “Kids and grown-ups love it so, the happy world of HARIBO” – to help the brand better communicate with its Chinese audience. The Chinese brand tagline 大人小孩都说好, 快乐品尝哈瑞宝 [dà rén xiǎo hái dōu shuō hǎo, kuài lè pǐn cháng hā ruì bǎo]” can be translated as “grownups and kids all say it’s good, and happily enjoy HARIBO”, which is straight-forward, rhythmic, as well as easy to read and remember. The two-part structure, each ending with the same rhyming syllable [ǎo], makes the tagline melodic, attractive and unforgettable. The simple and memorable Chinese tagline stays true to the original English jingles.

I find it funny that Labbrand worked so hard to capture the rhythms and meaning of the original English tagline: “Kids and grown-ups love it so, the happy world of HARIBO.” I had always found the latter a bit stilted, and assumed it was the result of a decades-old translation from German that had over time become memorable, even cute. That’s what a phenomenally popular product can do – make the uncool cool.

Sometimes the best brands are the ones that happen by chance. Haribo was founded by Hans Riegel in Bonn, Germany in 1920, and the name Haribo is simply a portmanteau of the first two letters of HAns, RIegel, and BOnn. Now Haribo is an internationally known trademark, with registrations in multiple classes all over the world.

One final note: the official Chinese name for “Haribo” is the sound-alike “哈瑞宝” (hā ruì bǎo). Haribo has duly registered this name as a trademark in China, but they have also applied for a number of similar-sounding Chinese-language trademarks, including 嗨乐宝, 哈莱宝, and 好乐纷. Not because Haribo intends to use these marks, but because they want to prevent third party trademark squatters from doing so. Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. See “Chinese Brand Names, Copycats, and Soundalikes.”

China IP lawyersI had essentially the same call recently involving European IoT start-up companies that might at this point better be termed “wind-down” companies.

Their stories are an old one and one we have covered and warned about at least a dozen times on here, including in a post directed specifically at Internet of Things companies, entitled,  China and The Internet of Things and How to Destroy Your Own Company. These two companies either did not read that post or they failed to take it seriously. To make a long story short, these two companies were working with Chinese companies to produce two internet of things devices and both companies eventually succeeded. Problem is that when they did, the Chinese companies essentially told them “adios” (I am right now in the Madrid airport on my way to Lisbon for a big lawyer conference) and left these two European companies with pretty much nothing at all.

To make a long story short, these two companies were working with Chinese companies to produce IoT devices and both companies eventually succeeded with their products. Sort of. The problem is that when they wrapped up development on the IoT products, the Chinese companies with which they were working essentially told them “adios” and left these two European companies with pretty much nothing at all.

I am going to digress a bit here, so please bear with me. One of my favorite poems is called “beware:” do not read this poem, by Ishmael Reed and that poem nicely encapsulates what happened with these two European companies. Here is that poem and below that, I explain the connections. Enjoy.

tonite, thriller was
abt an ol woman , so vain she
surrounded herself w/
many mirrors
it got so bad that finally she
locked herself indoors & her
whole life became the
mirrors
one day the villagers broke
into her house , but she was too
swift for them . she disappeared
into a mirror
each tenant who bought the house
after that , lost a loved one to
the ol woman in the mirror :
first a little girl
then a young woman
then the young woman/s husband
the hunger of this poem is legendary
it has taken in many victims
back off from this poem
it has drawn in yr feet
back off from this poem
it has drawn in yr legs
back off from this poem
it is a greedy mirror
you are into the poem . from
the waist down
nobody can hear you can they ?
this poem has had you up to here
belch
this poem aint got no manners
you cant call out frm this poem
relax now & go w/ this poem
move & roll on to this poem
do not resist this poem
this poem has yr eyes
this poem has his head
this poem has his arms
this poem has his fingers
this poem has his fingertips
this poem is the reader & the
reader this poem
statistic : the us bureau of missing persons re-
ports that in 1968 over 100,000 people
disappeared leaving no solid clues
nor trace     only
a space     in the lives of their friends
I cite to this poem because I am desperate to get people to stop essentially losing their companies to their Chinese counterparts and I figure listing out a full poem and then analyzing it will help people remember. I will admit to being desperate here and just plain tired of having to pass on horrible news to what once were up-and-coming start-up companies.
Just as the woman in the poem gets so enamored with herself that she loses her existence, these two companies became so enamored with their technology and their work on their technology, they too lost their existence. The woman was swallowed by the poem and the European companies were swallowed by the Chinese companies with which they worked. Neither the woman nor the European companies really think about what they are doing until it is too late. Not until the Chinese company had taken
the European companies figurative head, arms, fingers, and fingertips did it think about what it had done, but by that point they had essentially ceased to exist.
The final paragraph of the poem describes what happens every day to tech companies that go into China unprepared and all willy-nilly. Their attempts to fuel their dreams destroy their reality. They disappear, “leaving no solid clues nor trace only a space in the lives of their friends.”
Let us now return to the facts and discuss some relatively easy solutions.
Both these European companies had what they saw as great ideas and they both started working with Chinese companies to realize those ideas. One company worked with its Chinese “partner” for more than a year. The other for about a year. Both companies seem to be (have been?) made up of 2-4 people who had dedicated the last year or so of their lives to getting their devices off the ground and to market. Yet right before their products became ready to launch, their Chinese factories jettisoned them and chose to go it alone with the European companies’ devices.
The European companies wanted to know whether the China lawyers at my firm could help. I told them that was “both doubtful AND expensive.”

Technology companies dealing with China tend to make more and bigger mistakes than companies in other industries. The ethos of tech companies is to focus on building things (be it software or hardware or some combination of both) as quickly as possible, and not worry much about anything else. In an effort to preserve oftentimes limited funds, tech companies tend to be reluctant to spend money on anything (including legal fees) that does not directly help them develop their product and get it to market. I completely understand this, including how this usually makes sense when operating purely domestically in the United States and in Europe. But this way of doing business can and too often is disastrous when dealing with China, where it is usually impossible to “fill in” a legal foundation later.

Internet of Things companies are the new poster children for how to operate incorrectly when doing business with China.

I say this with regret because our China attorneys LOVE Internet of Things companies. We love IoT companies because we so often love and use their products and because the work we do for them is typically so cutting-edge and interesting. IoT companies looking to manufacture in China often require assistance with the following:

If you need more proof on how much our China lawyers love IoT companies, check out China and the Internet of Things: A Love Story. The best thing (for us anyway) is that just about all IoT products are being made in China — more particularly, in Shenzhen.

But back to the sad part. What is so terrible is that IoT companies seem to relinquish their intellectual property to Chinese companies more often, more wantonly, and more destructively than companies in any other industry I (or any of my firm’s other China lawyers) have seen. Ever, and by a stunningly wide margin. And the thing is, it is not as though these are big companies with a whole host of other products or IP they can turn to in a storm. No. Most of these IoT companies shrivel up and die after their IP goes “poof” in China.

In describing IoT companies and their problems to others, The following interaction, taken from at least a half-dozen real-life examples in just the last few months (and the last few months before that and the last few months before that and the last few….) should be at least somewhat instructive:

IoT Company: We just completed our Kickstarter (sometimes Indiegogo) campaign and we totally killed it and so now we are ready to get serious about protecting our IP in China.

One of our China Lawyers: Great. Where are you right now with China?

IoT Company: We have been working with a great company in Shenzhen. Together we are working on wrapping up the product and it should be ready in a few months.

China Lawyer: Okay. Do you have any sort of agreement with this Chinese company regarding your IP or production costs or anything else?

IoT Company: We have an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) that talks about how we will cooperate. They’ve really been great. They told us they would enter into a contract with us whenever we are ready.

China Lawyer: Can you please send us the MOU? Have you talked about what your contract with the Chinese company will actually say?

IoT Company: Sure, we can send the MOU. It’s one page. We haven’t really talked much about the contract beyond the obvious and what we need to do to get the product completed.

China Lawyer: Okay, we will look at your MOU and then get back to you with our thoughts.

Then, a few days later a conversation like the following ensues:

China Lawyer: We looked at your “MOU” and we think there is a good chance a Chinese court would view that MOU as a contract. For why we say this, check out Beware Of Being Burned By The China MOU/LOI. And the Chinese language portion of the MOU (which is all a Chinese court will consider) is different from the English language portion. The Chinese language portion says that any IP the two of you develop (the IoT company and the Chinese manufacturer) belongs to the Chinese company. So as things now stand, there is a good chance the Chinese company owns your IP, at least in China. Therefore, there is no point in our writing a Product Development Agreement because your Chinese manufacturer will almost certainly not sign that.

IoT Company: I’m not worried. I think you have it wrong. I’m sure they will sign such an agreement because we orally agreed on this before we even started the project. (We get some sort of variation on this response at least 90 percent of the time).

China Lawyer: That’s fine, but I still think it makes sense for you to first make sure the Chinese company will sign a new contract making clear the IP associated with your product belongs to you, because if they won’t sign something saying that, there is no point in our drafting such a contract and, most importantly, there is no point in your paying us to do so.

So far not a single such IoT company has come back to us saying their Chinese manufacturer will sign such an agreement. Not one.

The situation with the two European companies has also become par for the course. In this situation, the IoT company is farther along in its product development and actually ready to sell what it perceives to be its product. This situation is exemplified by the email below, which is an amalgamation of various emails received by my firm’s China attorneys:I am hoping your firm can help us figure out the best course of action going forward. [A description of their company and their IoT product then follows, along with how they ended up going with a particular Chinese manufacturer and why they failed to seek out the advice of a China lawyer until now. This description too often involves their domestic attorney having said he or she would turn them over to a “China specialist” as soon as that “becomes necessary.”]

I am hoping your firm can help us figure out the best course of action going forward. [A description of their company and their IoT product then follows, along with how they ended up going with a particular Chinese manufacturer and why they failed to seek out the advice of a China lawyer until now. This description too often involves their domestic attorney having said he or she would turn them over to a “China specialist” as soon as that “becomes necessary.”]

We do not have any contracts in place with our current manufacturer. We started our relationship with our current manufacturer a year ago. He told us that POs are contracts in China and our lawyer confirmed that. We sent our Chinese contract our design and we paid for the molds and he shipped us the products. We recently learned that he has been using our product pictures as marketing material on Alibaba and selling our products all over the world. I also just learned that he has filed for a design patent for our design in China.

When I confronted him about this he basically admitted to everything but essentially said he had no intention of changing and if we go to a new factory to try to make our product, he will shut that down.

We’re filing design patents in the US. If we continue to work with him during this period, which agreement would help us get the best protection?

Since he already claimed our designs in China, will that prevent us from working with a new manufacturer? Do you advise we work with a new manufacturer at this point?

Our response is usually something like the following:

A PO is not really a contract in China; it is the placing of an order. Unless your PO speaks to IP (which would be unusual), it probably will not help us much. On top of this, some Chinese courts do not see POs as a contract at all and some Chinese courts will not even look at a document not in Chinese. The ideal is a Chinese language contract sealed by the Chinese company.

Our biggest concern is that this manufacturer has filed for a design patent for your product. This will no doubt pose problems for you and for any new Chinese manufacturer you might seek to use. Depending on how far along your present manufacturer is in the patent process, it may be able to sue you and your Chinese manufacturer for patent infringement damages and to force production of your product to cease. At a minimum, your Chinese manufacturer will be able to cause you all sorts of problems unless you can stop or invalidate his design patent. There is a good chance this Chinese manufacturer “owns” your product in China and it can use that ownership to control what you do there.

If you seek to go to a new manufacturer you can be pretty sure your old manufacturer will NOT give you the molds you think you bought from it and it will use its design patent to try to block your products from leaving China. It also very well may sue you for patent infringement in a Chinese court. In the meantime, making your product in China will be a high-risk proposition.

Did you register your company or brand name or logo as China trademarks? If not, there is a good chance your Chinese manufacturer registered those as well, but for various reasons under the name of what appears to be an unrelated company. If it did that, it will probably be able to stop anyone from making your products in China with “your” company, brand name or logo on them or on its packaging. No matter what else you do, you should consider retaining us right away to see whether it is not too late for us to secure key China trademarks for you. I urge you to read this on China trademarks.

We usually (but certainly not always!) end up advising these IoT companies to seek to do some combination of the following, none of which are great ways to go and some of which do not work at all for some companies:

  1. Leave China entirely and start manufacturing in some other country.
  2. Seek to block or invalidate the Chinese manufacturer’s design patent.
  3. Try to strike some sort of deal with the Chinese manufacturer whereby the Chinese manufacturer assigns the patent(s) and trademarks to our client who in return agrees to keep using that Chinese manufacturer to make x amount of product for x number of years.
  4. Try to get the Chinese manufacturer to sign a contract that makes clear what IP belongs to our client and makes clear the Chinese manufacturer’s limitations on using our client’s IP. We typically do this with a China-centric OEM Agreement.
  5. Go to a new manufacturer in China. If you do this, you almost certainly will not have your molds and there is a good chance your existing manufacturer will cause you a lot of trouble by suing or threatening the new manufacturer.

Don’t let the above happen to you. For more on how you can prevent this, you should, at a minimum, read and heed China NNN Agreements and China Product Development Agreements. NOW!

 

How to stop counterfeit products from China
Wall out counterfeits of your products

When American and European and Australian companies would come to my law firm for China trademarks to protect their brand names from Chinese copycats, we would tell them that applying for such a trademark would take about a week, but actually getting that trademark could take more than a year. We would then say that until they actually get their Chinese trademark we would be pretty much powerless to stop companies in China from using their brand name. Most didn’t bat an eye at this

E-commerce has changed that, such that now when one of our China trademark lawyers tells a client that securing their China trademark will take a year, those who are selling their product online (which these days is almost everybody) push back and want to know what to do in the meantime to protect against copycats.

Our response, simplified a bit, is to say that they need to focus on “building IP walls outside China.” So for example, if they are selling their product in the United States and in Spain (where I am right now, having just attended a conference put on by our Barcelona lawyers) they should focus on protecting those two countries. The way to do this is to, among other things, secure trademarks in those two countries as quickly as possible.

Though a U.S. and a Spain trademark will not, technically, do a thing in terms of trademark protection in China, it can still be valuable in getting offending ads taken down off Chinese websites such as Alibaba. If “your” product shows up on Alibaba and you have no registered IP, the odds of your getting Alibaba to take it down from an Alibaba website are slim. If your product shows up on Alibaba and you have a registered Chinese trademark that is being infringed by something on an Alibaba website, the odds of your getting that offending ad taken down from Alibaba are good. If you have a Spain trademark and there is an ad on Alibaba clearly targeted at Spain that infringes on your Spain trademark, your odds of getting that ad taken down from Alibaba are not bad, which is a whole lot better odds than if you did not have the Spain trademark at all. The same holds true for the United States.

Of equal importance though is that if you have a United States trademark on your product you can use that trademark to try to keep the offending product from China from reaching the United States. You can do this by working with US Customs and Border Protection, which is authorized to block, detain and seize incoming products that violate U.S. intellectual property rights. The EU and Spain have similar procedures.

One of the best ways to get US Customs on your side to block incoming infringing goods is to secure a registered US trademark and then record that trademark with US Customs and Border Protection. If you record your trademark with US Customs, it will go into its database and if US Customs spots incoming product that infringes on a trademark in its database, it will usually not allow the offending product to go through customs and it will alert you to its arrival. The notice to you from US customs will usually include the names and addresses of the manufacturer, exporter and importer.

And all this for the low low cost of around $200. Once you get your China trademark, you should consider registering that with China Customs to get that government agency working for you on the China side to help prevent infringing product from leaving China in the first place. See How To Register Your China Trademark With China Customs.

For effective IP protection, think 360°.

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 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.

I speak often on China IP before all sorts of groups and companies and after I give my spiel on the topic, I always (if at all possible) open the floor up for questions. Both live and via webinar, the one question I am nearly always asked is some variant of when I think China will “start improving its protection of IP.”

My answer is usually something like the following:

First off, China is already improving on its IP protection and it has been doing so for at least the last decade, slowly but surely. China’s trademark protection is already pretty good and its protection of copyrights and patents has consistently improved. But what do you mean by IP protection? Do you mean government enforcement against counterfeiters? Do you mean the laws as written that allow a private party to sue for infringement? Because China’s IP laws as written have been pretty good for quite some time? When I say China’s IP enforcement has been consistently improving, I am usually referring to the whole package in terms of what a foreign company can do against a Chinese company that has been violating the foreign company’s IP rights.

What I said long ago is that when China’s powerful companies start caring about their IP rights will be when China as a whole will really accelerate in its caring about IP rights. And here’s the thing. There are plenty of powerful companies in China that now do care about IP rights and that number just keeps rising and for that reason alone I expect IP protections to improve substantially in China over the next 2-5 years.

Your thoughts?

China IP protectionOf course they do, but not always and not for every company doing business in China or with China.

Let me explain.

I just read an article on Engadget, entitled EU withheld a study that shows piracy doesn’t hurt sales, and subtitled, “The $430,000 study’s conclusions perhaps didn’t fit what it wanted to hear.” To grossly summarize, the study indicated that of books, movies, music and games, only blockbuster movies were negatively impacted by piracy. The study indicated that game sales may actually be aided by piracy.

I have from time to time been known to question the dollar losses often attributed to counterfeiting as well. The most commonly cited number is that United States companies lose $600 billion a year to counterfeiting. But the problem with this number is that it is based at least in part on an analysis that says every counterfeit purchased gives rise to a dollar lose equivalent to the real item that was counterfeited. This is usually true (especially when the buyer does not realize it is buying a counterfeit), but is this really true when someone buys a fake Rolex watch for $55 or a fake Gucci purse for $15? I don’t think so.

But let me be crystal clear here. I am not in any way condoning piracy or counterfeiting as both of those things are not only economically damaging, they can reduce innovation and be downright dangerous. Do you want fake brakes in your car? How does counterfeit medicine sound to you? No, all I am saying is that the extent and the damages caused by these things — as a whole — is sometimes over-dramatized. And that, as I will explain below, can have real-world business consequences.

Piracy and counterfeiting and the lack of strong IP protection in China are huge issues. They are a huge issue for some companies, a big issue for some companies, an issue for some companies, and really not much of an issue at all for other companies. Nonetheless, for most (not all) companies they are not a valid reason for ignoring China entirely.

Really, only a small percentage of companies need to worry much about IP theft in China. It exists, of course, but how much impact does it really have on your business? With very few exceptions, my firm’s China clients have either not been hit with piracy/counterfeiting or are too focused on making money from their own products to worry about it much. It is not nearly as much of an impediment to profits as believed.

Too often companies are so afraid of being copied that they fail to do things they should be doing. I can tell you that far more of my law firm clients have expressed the wish that they had gone into China to manufacture or sell their products sooner than have suffered negative IP consequences from having done so.

And on the flip side, every few months a company will come to one of our China lawyers overly concerned with their China IP protections after having read our blog. Oftentimes, they will believe they are too late and other times they will give us a long list of the IP protections they are convinced they need, usually including one or more of the following:

  1. NNN Agreement
  2. Product Development Agreement
  3. Contract Manufacturing Agreement
  4. Trademark Registration
  5. Trademark Registration with China Customs
  6. Design Patent Registration
  7. Copyright Registration
  8. And much more

And maybe 10 percent of the time they are coming to us with an astronomical quote from some other law firm for all of the above contracts and IP registrations. But here’s the kicker. Well under 1 percent of the time does a company need all of the above, and even less than that does it need all of the above immediately. Most of the time, in fact, the typical company doing a typical China deal or transaction usually needs less than half of these. And guess what? Probably 25 percent of the time none of the above makes sense for the company either because none of these things will be effective or because the company is too early (or worse, too late) or because the company would simply be better off spending its money elsewhere, at least in the short term.

So the point of this winding post is simply this: there is no one size fits all when it comes to best practices for protecting your IP from China and you should not let scare tactics and big numbers scare you into believing otherwise. Instead, treat China and China IP protection the way you treat the rest of your business and weigh the costs and the benefits of your IP actions accordingly.

 

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 IP lawyers
Elephants are so noble. Trade wars far less so.

I have been called by reporters at least a half dozen times in the last couple of weeks regarding the Trump Administration’s planned investigation of China’s IP practices. But what I tell these reporters fits so badly with THE narrative that my name is not showing up in print. Sorry, but I can’t help it.

Here’s the situation. The Trump Administration is claiming that China’s government forces American companies to relinquish its IP to China and my problem is that despite my firm having worked on literally hundreds of China transactions that involve IP, I have very little proof of this. So no real story there.

Here though is the story as seen from my eyes and from the eyes of the China attorneys at my firm, readily conceding that we have not seen even close to everything.

We have never been involved in a China transaction where it has been clear to us that the Chinese government has forced our client to relinquish its IP to China. We have though been involved in a million transactions where the Chinese party on the other side — sometimes a State Owned Entity, but way more often not — has vigorously and aggressively sought to get our client to part with its IP for a very low price. Is the Chinese government behind this sort of pressure? Don’t know? Probably sometimes, but probably most of the time not. If the transaction involves rubber duckies, we can assume not. If it involves next generation computer chips, well that is probably a very different story.

Anyway, as we write on here so often, there are many terrible technology transfer and other sorts of IP deals to be had with Chinese companies and we have too often — even against our China attorneys’ clear counsel to our clients not to do it — seen our clients make bad deals that will involve them turning over their IP with little to no chance of receiving full value for it. But these companies have not been forced, not in the sense that any government was forcing them to do anything. These companies were simply willing to take huge risks either because they could not grasp the risks or because they felt they had no other choice for financial reasons.

In Three Myths of China Technology Transfers, we wrote about how our clients all too often forge ahead with bad deals and why, and we nowhere mention government compulsion:

A Chinese company that intends to violate a licensing agreement and run off with the foreign company’s IP will usually have a very clear plan. What the China lawyers in my office call the Standard Plan works as follows. First, the Chinese company will negotiate in a way that guarantees a weak license that cannot be enforced against them by the foreign party. The tricks used to do this are quite standardized. Second, the Chinese company will ensure that it does not make any (or else it makes very few) payments until after it has already received the technology. If the Chinese company makes any payment at all, it will make a minimal number of payments, usually late and in violation of the agreement and then once it has received enough of the technology it seeks, it will cease making any payments entirely.

When our China attorneys encounter a Chinese company clearly working on the Standard Plan, we warn our clients. However, it is also typical for our clients to nonetheless want to forge on ahead. The client will usually explain how their situation is unique and that means the Chinese could not possibly be planning to breach.

We discuss again in China Technology Transfers: The Relationship and Deal Structure Myths how it is that American companies lose their IP to Chinese companies and we again leave out government force:

Due to a partnership relationship, the foreign side often wrongly believes it is somehow better protected against IP theft. The foreign side then lets down its guard, only to learn that its China partner has appropriated its core technology. This sense of partnership is most common with SMEs and technology startups, especially those companies whose owner is directly involved in the relationship with the Chinese entity.

In China and The Internet of Things and How to Destroy Your Own Company I rant about technology companies that literally destroy themselves by failing to do enough to protect their IP from China:

Well for what it is worth, I will no longer describe technology companies as a whole as our dumbest clients when it comes to China. No, that honor now clearly belongs to a subset of technology companies: Internet of Things companies. And mind you, we love, love, love Internet of Things companies. For proof of this, just go to our recent post, China and the Internet of Things: A Love Story. Internet of Things (a/k/a IoT) companies are sprouting all over the place and they are booming. Most importantly for us, they need a ton of legal work because just about all IoT products are being made in China, more particularly, in Shenzhen. And just about all IoT products need a ton of complicated IP assistance.

So then why am I saying they are so dumb about China? Because they are relinquishing their intellectual property to Chinese companies more often, more wantonly, and more destructively than companies in any other industry I (or any of my firm’s other Chinese lawyers) have ever seen. Ever. And by a stunningly wide margin.

I then list out the following as “my prime example, taken from at least a half dozen real life examples in just the last few months”:

IoT Company: We just completed our Kickstarter (sometimes Indiegogo) campaign and we totally killed it and so now we are ready to get serious about protecting our IP in China.

One of our China Lawyers: Great. Where are you right now with China?

IoT Company: We have been working with a great company in Shenzhen. Together we are working on wrapping up the product and it should be ready in a few months.

China Lawyer: Okay. Do you have any sort of agreement with this Chinese company regarding your IP or production costs or anything else?

IoT Company: We have an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) that talks about how we will cooperate. They’ve really been great. They have told us that they would enter into a contract with us whenever we are ready.

China Lawyer: Can you please send us the MOU? Have you talked about what that contract will say?

IoT Company: Sure, we can send the MOU. It’s one page. No, we haven’t really talked much beyond just what we need to do to get the product completed.

China Lawyer: Okay, we will look at your MOU and then get back to you with our thoughts.

Then, a day or two later we a conversation like the following ensues:

China Lawyer: We looked at your “MOU” and we have bad news for you. We think there is a very good chance a Chinese court would view that MOU as a contract. (For why we say this, check out Beware Of Being Burned By The China MOU/LOI) And the Chinese language portion of the MOU — which is all that a Chinese court will be considering — is very different from the English language portion. The Chinese language portion says that any IP the two of you develop (the IoT company and the Chinese manufacturer) belongs to the Chinese company. So what we see is that as things now stand, there is a very good chance the Chinese company owns your IP. This being the case, there is no point in our writing a Product Development Agreement because your Chinese manufacturer is not going to sign that.

IoT Company: (And I swear we get this sort of response at least 90 percent of the time) I’m not worried. I think you have it wrong. I’m sure that they will sign such an agreement because we orally agreed on this before we even started the project.

China Lawyer: That’s fine, but I still think it makes sense for you to at least make sure that the Chinese company will sign a new contract making clear that the IP associated with your product belongs to you, because if they won’t sign something that says that, there is no point in our drafting such a contract and, most importantly, there is no point in your paying us to do so.

So far not a single such IoT company has been able to come back to us with an agreement from their Chinese manufacturer to sign.

Again, no government force, just an overzealous and insufficiently careful foreign company.

Now before anyone excoriates me for ignoring reality, let me say that I have read about instances where the Chinese government has “forced” foreign companies to turn over their IP to China; high speed rail is an often cited example of that. And I do not doubt that it happens in critical industries (nuclear power would be another example). And I am also not unaware of how China is increasingly forcing foreign companies to store their data in China, which absolutely puts technology at risk. But even in these instances the foreign company has some choice. Not good choices, I know. And arguably it is no choice at all when the decision is between doing business in China or not. The last thing I want to do is get all philosophical on anyone regarding what constitutes choice so I will leave it to our individual readers to determine for themselves where on the continuum of force and choice they want to put any and all of the above.

There is plenty to complain about how China protects IP and there is plenty to complain about how China protects foreign companies that do business in China or with China, but I am just not sure complaining about forced IP transfers goes at the top of that list for most American companies. When I talk with American and European and Australian companies about China their biggest legal complaint is invariably how expensive it is for them to comply with China laws and how they resent that their Chinese competitors generally are not held to the same legal standards.

A couple of years ago, I gave the following testimony before The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission of the United States Congress:

I was introduced as an expert, and I’d like to qualify that by saying do not think of myself as an expert. I am just a private practice lawyer who represents American and Australian companies and some European and Canadian companies as well in China.

I’m going to tell you a little bit about what we do so you can get a little bit better perspective of where I’m coming from on this. The bulk of my firms’ clients are small and medium-size businesses, mostly American businesses, but some European and Australian and Canadian businesses as well. Most of them have revenues between 100 million and a billion a year. Our clients are mostly tech companies, manufacturing companies and service businesses.

About 20 percent of our work is for companies in the movie and entertainment industry. We have some clients in highly-regulated industries, like health care, senior care, banking, insurance, finance, telecom and mining, but those companies make up less than ten percent of our client base.

Most of the China work we do for our clients is relatively routine. We help them register as companies in China. We register their trademarks and copyrights in China. We draft their contracts with Chinese companies. We help them with their employment, tax and customs matters. We oversee their litigation in China, and we represent them in arbitrations in China. We help them buy Chinese companies.

For our clients, the big anti-foreign issue is whether they will be allowed to conduct business at all in China as that is certainly not always a given. Certain industries in China are shut off or limited to foreign businesses acting alone. For our clients, publishing and movies are most prominent.

Essentially anything that might allow for nongovernmental communication to or between Chinese citizens is problematic, but it is not clear to me that these limitations are intended to be anti-foreign, as China does not really want any private entities, foreign or Chinese, engaging in these activities without strict governmental oversight.

So do these limits against foreign companies arise from anti-foreign bias or just the Chinese government’s belief that it can better control Chinese companies? To our clients, that distinction doesn’t matter.

On day-to-day legal matters, our clients are almost invariably treated pursuant to law, and so long as they abide by the law, they seldom have any problems. The problem for our clients isn’t so much how the Chinese government treats them; it’s how they are treated as compared to their Chinese competitors who are less likely to abide by the laws and more likely to get away with it.

I have no statistics on this. I doubt there are any statistics on this, but I see it and I hear it all the time.

I see it when one of our clients buys a Chinese business that has half of its employees off the grid and has facilities that are not even close to being in compliance with use laws, and I know foreign companies cannot get away with that.

And I hear it from Chinese employees of our clients who insist that there is no need for our clients to follow various laws. They insist there is no need to follow various laws and to do so is stupid. Is this disparity due to anti-foreign bias or is it due to corruption? Again, for our clients, the answer is irrelevant.

Is the Trump administration’s IP investigation a negotiating ploy done as much to get at disparate treatment as it is to get at forced technology transfers? I do not think it is, but some who know more about such things tell me it may be.

CNN was the only one of the media companies that both interviewed me on the above issues and ended up quoting me and I like how it handled the issue in its article, President Trump is set to crank up the pressure on China over trade:

Beijing has other ways of getting its hands on valuable commercial information. Officials often insist on taking a close look at technology that foreign companies want to sell in China.

“Chinese government authorities jeopardize the value of trade secrets by demanding unnecessary disclosure of confidential information for product approvals,” the American Chamber of Commerce in China said in a report published in April.

Some experts say that handing over technology has effectively become a cost of doing business in China — a market too big for most companies to ignore.

“Many Chinese companies go after technology hard and the tactics they use show up again and again, leading us to believe there is some force (the government?) teaching them how to do these things,” said Dan Harris, a Seattle-based attorney who advises international companies on doing business in China.

“The thing is that the foreign companies that give up their technology usually do so at least somewhat of their own volition,” he told CNNMoney. “Yes, maybe they need to do so to get into China, but they also have the choice not to go into China, right?”

Closing the stable door?

Other analysts say that the U.S. administration is coming to the problem too late.

“Intellectual property (IP) theft is yesterday’s issue,” wrote Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“In part because of past technology transfer and in part because of heavy, sustained government investment in science and research, China has developed its own innovative capabilities,” he wrote.

“Creating new IP in the United States is more important than keeping IP from China.”

These are really complicated issues and I realize the above is more of a stream of consciousness “thoughts dump” than a coherent position paper. So more than ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.