Michael Jordan Looks for Off-Court Win in China Trademark Suit

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Michael Jordan.

Photographer: Hu Chengwei/Getty Images
  • Case is closely watched for intellectual property rights rules
  • Chinese shop registered to use transliteration of Jordan name

China’s top court could rule within days on Michael Jordan’s closely watched trademark suit against a Chinese sportswear company, a final decision that could set a legal precedent for other foreign companies seeking to protect their property rights in the world’s second-largest economy.

In the appeal hearing that started on Tuesday, Jordan’s lawyers argued that Qiaodan Sports Co. Ltd., a family-owned business with about 6,000 shops selling shoes and sportswear throughout China, has damaged the basketball star’s legal rights to his name, asking that the company’s trademark registrations be revoked. Qiaodan, pronounced "Chee-ow dahn", is a Mandarin transliteration of Jordan that was registered by the Chinese company more than a decade ago. Jordan first sued the company in 2012 and lower courts have ruled on behalf of the Chinese company.

The case illustrates the challenges of Chinese intellectual property law for some foreign companies in the world’s fastest-growing consumer market. The case could set an important legal precedent for trademark rights in China, and some legal scholars say the case offers the nation’s Supreme People’s Court an opportunity to present a positive image of the Chinese legal system.

Michael Jordan Goes for Chinese Court Win

"It’s an extremely influential case, and the final verdict from China’s top court would play a leading role in future similar cases," said Li Shunde, a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences research specialist in intellectual-property law. "China has been consolidating IP over the past years and apparently the authorities want to use this case to show that the country takes the IP issues very seriously and is devoting resources to protect the rights of foreign businesses."

Other international companies, including Pfizer, have been stymied by China’s trademark laws. China’s legal system generally protects whichever company that registers trademarks first. Pfizer Inc.’s faced a similar hurdle when a Chinese party registered a phonetic name for its popular Viagra drug, which the pharmaceutical giant has been unsuccessful in fighting in court.

Household Name

Li predicted that the top court will overturn the previous verdict that’s caused "huge debate," he said.

The top court typically issues its rulings within days of hearing cases. However, court proceedings in China remain secretive, and the exact timing is uncertain.

The public hearing "could further demonstrate the openness and transparency of the Chinese court and present a positive image of the Chinese legal system," according to a statement issued by the court Tuesday.

Qiaodan, one of the country’s top sports apparel makers founded in 1984, legally registered the Pinyin "Qiaodan" and Chinese characters of the name. Jordan’s lawyers say the company uses his basketball jersey number "23" to sell products, as well as created a similar basketball replica of Jordan’s iconic "Jumpman" logo that Nike Inc. uses for its Air Jordan brand. Jordan’s team argues that under China’s law, the company’s trademarks have damaged his legal rights and is asking the court to invalidate more than 60 trademarks used by the company.

"Qiaodan is a name that is well known to every household in China and refers to Michael Jordan," Qi Fang, a lawyer with Fangda Partners representing Jordan, told the court on Tuesday.

Lawyers for the Chinese company succeeded last July in arguing that Jordan is a very common English last name. Jordan’s lawyers appealed that case and the decision by the Supreme People’s Court will be final. 

"It is deeply disappointing to see a company build a business off my Chinese name without my permission, use the No. 23 and even attempt to use the names of my children," Jordan said in an online statement in 2012.

Chinese have been translating the Jordan surname as Qiaodan since the 1970s and it’s impossible to link the Qiaodan name to the six-time National Basketball Association champion, Ma Dongxiao, a lawyer representing the Chinese company, told the judge in the case on Tuesday. What’s more, Jordan’s fame in China has been decreasing while Qiaodan’s brand has been on the rise, said Ma.

Qiaodan filed a countersuit against Jordan in 2013, saying the lawsuit against the apparel maker scuttled its plans to raise 1.06 billion yuan ($163 million) in an initial public offering the previous year.

— With assistance by Keith Zhai

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