Adjust your Yuletide calendars to 1st November because Christmas is coming early this year.
On the 23rd April 2019, China’s legislators passed significant amendments to their Trade Mark legislation to combat the scourge of bad-faith Applications, more commonly known as ‘Trade Mark squatting’.
Many brand owners will be familiar with the term, ‘Trade Mark Squatting’ and understand it to be the act of pre-emptively registering a Trade Mark in an available territory, before the ‘rightful’ owner secures registration. In the most extreme circumstances, Trade Mark squatting can undermine a brand to the extent that territorial expansion is impossible, and the only option is to migrate to an alternative brand, with all the costs and loss of reputation that would be associated with that.
Most infamously associated with this problem is, China. Unfortunately, it is common for brand owners entering the Chinese market to find their Trade Marks have already been filed or registered by an unrelated third party. Sometimes the illegitimate filing will be lodged within hours of the genuine owner publicising their impending launch, or at the stage when commercial discussions are being held with local distributors. As the official fees are low, squatters are not deterred from filing hundreds of Trade Mark applications, in the hope of receiving a ransom from at least some of the aggrieved brand owners.
Moreover, nor are they deterred by the deep pockets or celebrity of their victims. For example, the following are brand names that have been filed/registered by parties unrelated to the genuine owners: Bentley, Bosch, Hugo Boss, Macy’s, Michael Jordan and Viagra. To name but a few!
Whilst there are options available for brand owners to wrestle their Marks free from squatters, they are often onerous and costly. So much so, that it is sometimes easier to give in to the squatter’s demands, or rebrand entirely.
HOWEVER, all is not lost. As a welcome first step in combatting this unfair practice, and to restore confidence in their system, China intends to implement new legislation that will bring about the rejection of any new Trade Mark applications filed without a bona fide intention to use. Essentially, new applications can be refused during examination, if the Applicant does not demonstrate sufficient proof that they intend to exploit their Mark in commerce. The expected result is a decrease in the amount of Trade Marks being ‘stolen’ in China.
How this will work in practice remains to be seen. At present, it is unclear what body of evidence will be required to prove an intention to use, and whether this will be adequately evaluated. However, combined with other proposed amendments to the Chinese practice, victims of Trade Mark squatters will have further opportunities to oppose or invalidate these bad-faith Registrations. For example, if a malicious Trade Mark application is not stopped during the examination phase, there is still hope it can be terminated during Opposition or post-Registration. Moreover, coupled with new penalties against bad-faith registrations, and very hefty fines for those found to have relied upon a bad-faith registration in litigation; the system underlying Trade Mark registration in China could soon be a much friendlier environment for foreign Applicants.
What this Means for Your Brand
Whether these new legislative changes are effective or not, companies interested in expanding their brand portfolio to China should always endeavour to obtain a Trade Mark registration as soon as possible. It will remain a ‘first come, first served’ country, i.e., securing the earliest possible filing date will continue to matter.
Whilst we remain cautiously optimistic that the new practice will provide recourse against Trade Mark squatters, it has been reported that Chinese Trade Mark examiners have on average only 10 minutes of inspection time per Application, and in 2018 over 7 million Applications were filed in China. With such a small window to reject bad-faith Applications, registering your brand in China as soon as possible is, and will likely always be, the best practice for protecting your brand. Get there first, and deny others the opportunity of beating you to it!