Michael Jordan Falls Victim to Trademark Squatting
For many years, trademark infringement and squatting have threatened the exclusivity rights brand owners, putting small and major brand owners at risk. Trademarks are important to the business of brand owners and bad faith trademark filing can affect the reputation of brands and cause consumer confusion. While there have been improvements in the legal avenues to challenge illegitimate trademark registrations, Chinese trademark squatting has increase and continues to be problematic. Squatters are now seen targeting less recognizable brands, but continue to target well-known brands as well.
Michael Jordan’s brand is a one of many victims of trademark squatting. He has recently prevailed in a trademark case where he won the right to use his name on shoes and sportswear in China. Exclusivity rights of the Jordan trademark was under threat when a Chinese sportswear company began using “Qiaodan” as its trademark, which is used to refer to Jordan in China. Qiadon Sports registered the trademark and began profiting off of the name almost twenty years ago. Michael Jordan brought this legal action in 2012 against Qiaodan Sports contending that the company had build its business around his Chinese name Qiaodan as well as his infamous “23” jersey number and “jumpman” logo as well. The lower court ruled in favor of Qiaodan Sports finding that there was insufficient evidence to conclude the sportswear company’s trademark was connected to Michael Jordan. This decision was later upheld by the Beijing Municipal High People’s Court. This did not stop Michael Jordan from appealing to the Supreme People’s Court.
Although Qiaodan Sports argued that it is impossible to link the Qiaodan name to Michael Jordan because the Chinese have been translating the Jordan Surname as Qiaodon since the 1970’s, it is clear that use of the name consumers understand to be associated with Michael Jordan on their merchandise, has significantly impacted their business as evidenced by their spike in sales. Jordan found that the “use of his name and the likeness on Qiaodan Sports merchandise has increased the company’s revenues from $45.6 million in 2007 up to $456.3 million in 2010.” The Supreme People’s Court held that Jordan’s Chinese name should be returned and re-awarded.
The decision by the Supreme People’s Court was a partial victory for Jordan, granting him rights to the use of his name in the Chinese consumer market. This required Qiadon to give up its trademark rights to the use of Jordan’s name. However, the right to use the “pinyin, or Romanize version of those characters” written as “Qiaodan” is still a trademark held by Qiaodan Sports. Jordan found it extremely disappointing to see a company build a business off his Chinese name without permission, so this ruling brings him peace of mind in knowing his trademark will not continue to be misappropriated.
Foreign brands in China like Apple and New Balance have often been on the losing end of trademark disputes, so this decision could help set a precedent for foreign brand seeking to protect their intellectual property in China.