OEM manufacturing in China with a China trademark – a changed landscape

OEM manufacturing in China with a China trademark was clarified by a recent decision of the Supreme People’s Court of the PRC which held, on the facts of the case before it, that OEM manufacturing in China with a China trademark but solely for export did not infringe the rights of the owner of the China trademark.

The judgment, issued on November 26, 2015, appears to be the first time that the Supreme People’s Court has directly addressed the issue of OEM manufacturing in China with a China trademark but solely for export.

This decision of the Supreme People’s Court clarifies a previously confusing array of local court judgments in cases regarding OEM manufacturing in China with a China trademark. Some local courts have issued conflicting decisions on apparently similar facts, others have consistent outcomes supported by materially different reasoning.

China is a civil law country and legal precedents have no binding legal effect. Despite this doctrinal position, it is expected that local courts in China will follow the decision of the Supreme People’s Court when facing similar cases regarding OEM manufacturing in China with a China trademark but solely for export, bringing a degree of certainty to this important part of China related business.

Background

The plaintiff, Focker Security Products International Limited (“Focker”) is a Hong Kong company and obtained the China registered trademark No.3071808 “PRETUL with an oval” from an individual on March 27, 2010. This trademark is registered on “hardware, hardware lock, padlock, metal lock and etc.” in Class 6 in China (“TRADEMARK”).

The defendant, Pujiang Yahuan Locks Co., Ltd. (“Yahuan”) is a Chinese manufacturer of locks and other hardware in Zhejiang Province, China.

In 2010, Yahuan signed two contracts with a Mexican company, providing that they wouldmanufacture 684 dozen padlocks for a total price of USD 3,069.79 and 10,233 dozen padlocks at the total price of USD 61,339.03. As required by their Mexican customer, Yahuan would affix “PRETUL” as a trademark on the locks.

Trial at first instance

On January 30, 2011, Focker filed a lawsuit at Ningbo Intermediate Court (“Trial Court”) claiming that Yahuan infringed its TRADEMARK rights by using an identical mark in the manufacture and export of locks. Remedies sought included:

  1. an order that Yahuan immediately stop the infringing activities;
  2. forfeiture of the infringing locks, packaging materials, and tools used in the manufacture of the infringing locks; and
  3. RMB 450,000 (a little more than USD 70,000) compensation to Focker.

Findings of fact

The Trial Court found the following facts:

  1. “PRETUL” was affixed and used on the body of the locks manufactured and exported by Yahuan, the keys of these locks and their product specifications.
  2. “PRETUL with an oval” was affixed and used on the sales package of locks.
  3. In the sales package, the Mexican customer was identified as the consignor with its address, telephone number, fax number, etc. indicated on the package. The words “Made in China” were also shown on the package but there was no information about Yahuan.
  4. The Mexican customer had registered “PRETUL” and “PRETUL with an oval” as trademarks in Mexico in Class 6 and Class 8.
  5. The Mexican customer issued a written authorization to Yahuan on March 24, 2011. In the authorization, it confirmed that it was the legitimate owner of the relevant “PRETUL” trademarks in Mexico and Yahuan was engaged to manufacture locks bearing this mark on its behalf for export only to Mexico.
  6. Yahuan agreed with the Mexican customer that: it should not sell any of the locks in China; the Mexican customer owns all trademarks and related IP rights; it should not apply for or register any trademark or copyright, directly or indirectly; and the Mexican customer was entitled to terminate the transaction at any time.

Trial Court judgment

The Trial Court held that:

  1. Yahuan was an OEM manufacturer for the Mexican customer; and
  2. its use of “PRETUL” on the body of locks, keys and product specifications should not be regarded as infringing the trademark rights of Focker with respect to the TRADEMARK because the mark used was not identical to the TRADEMARK and the goods would not be available in the China market.
  3. Yahuan’s use of “PRETUL with an oval” on the sales package of locks should be regarded as infringement of the TRADEMARK.

The Trial Court ordered Yahuan to immediately stop the use of “PRETUL with an oval” on the lock package and to pay compensation of RMB 50,000 (almost USD 8,000) to Focker.

Appeal of the Trial Court Judgment to the Zhejiang High Court

Both Focker and Yahuan appealed to Zhejiang High Court (“Zhejiang HC”) for review. No additional evidence was submitted by either party and no new facts were found.

Zhejiang HC overturned the decision of the Trial Court regarding the use of “PRETUL” on the body of locks, keys and product specifications holding that it did infringe the TRADEMARK but let the other part of the Trial Court’s findings stand.

Accordingly, Zhejiang HC revoked the trial judgment and held that Yahuan should immediately stop all use of “PRETUL” and “PRETUL with an oval”, and compensate Focker with RMB 80,000 (approx USD 12,500).

Supreme People’s Court review and judgment

Yahuan applied to the Supreme People’s Court for review of the Zhejiang HC judgment. The Supreme People’s Court approved the application on January 2, 2014, set the hearing date for April 11, 2014 and issued its judgment on November 26, 2015.

In its judgment, the Supreme People’s Court held that, OEM manufacturing in China with a China trademark should not be regarded as use of the trademark under the China Trademark Law because the basic function of a trademark is identifying the source of goods.  It cannot be infringement because there is no possible confusion in the China market.

The use of an identical or similar mark on the same or similar products in OEM manufacturing in China with a China trademark should not be regarded as infringing the rights of the owner   of the China registered trademark, because the goods are not available in the China market.

Based on its findings, the Supreme People’s Court revoked the trial judgment and the judgment of the Zhejiang HC, and rejected all claims by Focker.

Commentary

This decision, although apparently logical is not in accord with the position in some other jurisdictions and to that extent may not be welcomed by many that have their products manufactured in China.

Anybody having goods manufactured in China should ensure that their trademarks are registered in the likely destination jurisdictions because that will probably have to be relied upon if counterfeits are manufactured in China.

Customers with China registered trademarks being applied to OEM goods solely for export may need to develop a strategy to keep their trademarks alive as this decision suggests that they would not meet the “use” test if their trademark is challenged.

It remains to be seen whether this decision will be followed in local and other courts and also whether it will be applied in practice by China Customs.  In the latter case, there is a potential question of liability if goods solely for export are detained at the request of the owners of a China registered trademark.  This is an area to be watched closely.

Take away points

  • Overall, the effect and scope of this decision will take some time to work through the China courts and China Customs.
  • Despite that, we suggest that anyone involved in OEM manufacturing in China needs to reconsider their trademark strategy and OEM documentation to ensure that they are still relevant in the changed China OEM landscape.
  • Action should be taken now because the consequences of inaction are serious.

© 2016 Graham Brown And Wei Xin. All rights reserved. The assistance of Peng Wei is gratefully acknowledged.

 

A Chinese language China trademark is really important. This was emphasised by the recent New Balance case.  In addition to the award of damages amounting to RMB 98 million (approximately USD 16 million), a New Balance affiliate was ordered to publicly apologise to the Chinese plaintiff and to refrain from using the infringing China trademark on its products. An embarrassing and costly result for New Balance, and presumably its advisers.

Importance of a Chinese language China trademark

One of the more interesting aspects of the New Balancde case is that it was about the infringement of a Chinese language China trademark. Many foreign companies have paid too little attention to the Chinese language version of their China trademark, and the Chinese language trademarks of others.

There are many reasons for this, one of them possibly being the use of offshore China trademark agents that lack sufficient direct understanding of the China trademark regime. Another is the lack of understanding of the China business environment and the importance of a Chinese language China trademark. Finally, China trademark agents operate in a very competitive, price driven market.  As with many things in China, low prices often equate with service and advice to match.

Every foreign company should protect its foreign trademark by registering it as a China trademark in China. It should not stop there however. In China every product and service becomes known and identified in the Chinese language. It is good practice for the foreign company to control this process by registering a Chinese language China trademark for use in China.

Meaning and sound of a Chinese language China trademark

To date, most Chinese language renditions of foreign trade marks have followed one of two paths:

  • the Chinese language China trademark is translated phonetically to sound as much like the foreign trademark as possible.  This can result in a China trademark that is meaningless to the reader, or at worst, sends the wrong message about the product or service.
  • the Chinese language China trademark is translated by meaning – an attempt is made to convey the “message” of the product and service in Chinese, even if it sounds totally different from the foreign trademark.

Sometimes a hybrid path is chosen. For example the offending use in the new balance case was 新百倫 pronounced “Xin Bai Lun.” “Xin” means “New” in Chinese and “Bai Lun” is a phonetic translation of “Balance.”

The best, but less used path is to spend the time and effort to choose Chinese characters that sound like the foreign language China trademark and have a good meaning in Chinese. To be done successfully this requires an understanding of the underlying “message” of the product and a detailed knowledge of Chinese language.  Skills that are not readily available at the “bargain” prices that are often sought after by foreign trademark agents and their clients.

“Use” not necessary to register a China trademark

“Use” of a trademark is not required to register a China trademark. China has a “first to file” trademark regime and it would be prudent for any foreign business to consider immediately registering their foreign trademark as a China trademark.  At the same time they should spend the time, money and effort to choose Chinese characters that convey the appropriate brand message and also register that as a Chinese language China trademark.

China is a huge market for many foreign goods and services but without protecting the brand and its image by registering a suitable China trademark that market may be closed to you. If someone else, including your China distributor or agent, controls your Chinese language China trademark, they control your China business.

A good Chinese language China trademark is a real asset

A good Chinese language China trademark is a real asset to a business and it is worth spending the effort to get this now.  The opportunity may not be there in the future.

Take away points:

  • Now is the time to register your trademark as a China trademark.
  • All products and services end up by being known by a Chinese language name in China – best to register your Chinese language China trademark too.
  • Ideally your Chinese language China trademark should sound like the original and have a good meaning in Chinese. It is worth taking the time, money and effort to achieve this.
  • It is important to act promptly – if you do not register your China trademarks, someone else is likely to and then you will not be able to use your trademark in China.

© 2015 Graham Brown and Wei Xin. All rights reserved.

Chinese media reports that on April 24, 2015, the Guangzhou Intermediate Peoples Court ordered New Balance Trading (China) Co Ltd to compensate a Chinese individual, ZHOU Yuelun, with RMB 98 million (USD 16,029,572 approx at publication) because of trademark infringement. The trademark involved in this case is “新百伦” – a Chinese transliteration of “New Balance”.

ZHOU Yuelun (“Plaintiff”) is the owner in China of the Chinese character mark “新百伦”in Class 25 on “clothes, leather clothes, sport shirts. T-shirt, sandals, boots, shoes, socks, ties and belts” in China. He also owns in China the Chinese character mark “百伦”which was registered on “clothes, hats, socks and shoes” in Class 25 in China.

According to China Trademark Office (“CTO”) records, registration of “新百伦”was applied for on June 4, 2004 and it was registered on January 7, 2008. Registration of “百伦”was applied for on August 25, 1994 and it was registered on August 21, 1996. Both trademarks are still valid.

New Balance Trading (China) Co., Ltd. (“Defendant”) was registered in Shanghai on December 27, 2006 by New Balance International Limited for import and export, wholesale and retail of shoes, clothes and bags, including sport products and leisure clothes.

Plaintiff found the Defendant had been using “新百伦”on shoes without his authorization, so he filed a lawsuit to Guangzhou Intermediate Peoples Court (“Trial Court”) for infringement of his trademark.

Defendant responded that it had been using “新百伦”in good faith as a part of its company name and “新百伦”is the direct transliteration of “New Balance”. It also accused the Plaintiff of squatting the Chinese character mark “新百伦”.

Findings of fact

The Trial Court held in favour of the Plaintiff based on the following findings of fact:

  1. Plaintiff has been using the trademarks “百伦”and “新百伦”on men’s shoes in its business;
  2. Defendant has used “新百伦New Balance” as a trademark in online and offline advertisement and promotion, on invoices to customers etc. for the sale of its New Balance brand shoes.
  3. Defendant is fully aware of the Plaintiff and his registered trademarks “新百伦”and “百伦”because one of Defendant’s affiliates objected to the registration of “新百伦”in Class 25 by the Plaintiff in 2007 but the objection was not upheld.

Verdict

Trial Court ordered the Defendant to publicly apologize for the harm caused to the Plaintiff, pay court costs and compensate Plaintiff with RMB 98 million (USD 16,029,572 approx at publication) .

The total profits of the Defendant from Year 2011 to 2013 were RMB 195.8 million. The Trial Court decided that half of the total profit, RMB 98 million (USD 16,029,572 approx at publication) should be paid to the Plaintiff as compensation.

The case is still within the appeal period and an appeal is expected.

Take away points:

  • Trademarks are very important in China.
  • Every product and service becomes known by a Chinese name – it is best to control this by registering and promoting a Chinese version of the trademark.
  • If someone else owns the Chinese version of “your” trademark the consequences can be really serious.
  • Registering both versions of a trademark is the only sensible option.

© 2015 Graham Brown And Wei Xin. All rights reserved.