Copyright a trademark?

Copyright can be a valuable adjunct and enhancement to China trademark protection. Copyright does not automatically apply to all trademarks. Word marks, for example lack the essential creative and original aspect that is needed to be a “work” as defined in China’s Copyright Law.

A logo (device in TM speak, but logo here) may satisfy the requirements. Fine art is not needed, just a work with original creative input. When this is satisfied, the logo may be protected as a “device” product or service mark and also by copyright.

Why would you want both? A real world example. We alerted our client, a global supplier of alcoholic beverages, that a Chinese company had applied to register its logo as a trademark for children’s toys. Although trademarked in all relevant classes, our client had no legitimate interest to cover that category with its trademark applications. We successfully opposed the Chinese company’s application on the basis of copyright infringement.

The legal grounds are in the Trademark Law – registration of a trademark shall not infringe the prior rights of others, and that includes prior copyright.

Copyright in China

China is a signatory to the Berne Convention and the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). In general, copyright in China operates very similarly to other places.

Copyright in a work comes into existence when it is created. It is very important to note this because it has “first to file” implications.

If a logo meets the criteria to be a “work” according to China’s Copyright Law, copyright in that work came into existence at its creation. That is almost certainly before anyone successfully registered, or applied to register it, as a trademark in China! This is very important for China – a “first to file” jurisdiction.

If an application is made to register an identical logo as a trademark, it is relatively easy to apply copyright in opposition. (Assuming that you can establish that it is a “work”). Similarity is more difficult to deal with and the evidentiary burden greater, but it is also a viable option to consider and act on.

Copyright ownership

Copyright ownership must be proved in an infringement case. A logo as a “work” is not enough. Proving that you own the copyright can be more problematical than establishing a work. If you are the artist or creator of the logo, that makes life simple, but in the corporate world that is rarely the case. More usually an outside agency or studio has been engaged to provide the logo as part of the overall branding. It is important that the copyright interest is formally transferred to the brand owner.

It is now quite common for a brand owner to also register a Chinese language version of a logo as a trademark. If the only Chinese input is to add Chinese characters to an existing logo that is probably not enough to make it a work. If it is effectively a separate work then it is likely that copyright will belong to the creator. The contract for this is very important and should formally transfer copyright to the brand owner.

A Chinese court will typically want to see documents recording the formal transfer of the copyright in the work to the claimant. Unfortunately, in many cases this formal step has been omitted or the documents have been lost. China’s Copyright Law allows for works created during employment or under a contract, but the burden of proof is on the claimant. In China, these arrangements are most commonly reduced to writing and that is what a Chinese court expects to see. Attention to detail in this aspect of copyright enforcement is very important.

Copyright registration

Copyright registration is available in China, but is not a requirement for action against an infringer.

Registration, however, is accepted as prima facie evidence of the existence and ownership of copyright in a work. The registration process itself needs to be carefully done, but it can avoid the need to translate a lot of secondary material to be put before a Chinese court to commence an infringement action.

We generally recommend registration of copyright in China and this can be very important for trademark protection.

Copyright registration is also a requirement to record copyright with China Customs. Recordal (as it is known in China) allows China Customs to stop apparently infringing inbound or outbound goods at the border.

Recordal is not just for copyright. It extends to all China IP rights, including trademark. A China Trademark Registration Certificate is needed fot recordal and some brand owners will need to take additional steps before they can do this.

Benefits of Copyright in brand protection

  1. China has 45 classes for trademark registration and protection. If you register a trademark in relevant classes in China, you will be only able to stop others from registering or using the same or a similar trademark on goods or services in those classes. This is not China specific and is the usual situation with trademarks.
  2. Copyright can protect across all classes if the trademark meets the China copyright requirements for a work.
  3. Allegations of trademark infringement are commonly made against Internet sales portals. In our experience copyright can give you protection in circumstances where trademark infringement may be difficult to readily establish.

Take-aways

  • Copyright can be a valuable adjunct to trademark registration in China.
  • Not every trademark can be subject to copyright protection – it must be a work as provided in China’s Copyright Law.
  • Proving copyright ownership of a work is essential for a copyright action against an infringer.
  • Registration of copyright is not essential but has very real practical advantages.
  • As always, it is much less expensive to protect rights than it is to try to recover them from someone else.
  • Copyright is not a “one size fits all” solution. Seek advice on your specific situation before acting.

WEI Xin & PENG Wei

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