The meteoric rise in the number of trademark applications in China over the last five years is a testament to the power and importance of China as a market for brand owners. In 2012, there were approximately 1.5 million applications filed in China, and by 2016 that number rose to 3.6 million. In 2017 applicants filed 5.7 million new applications[i]. That number dwarfs the 590,000 new applications filed in fiscal year 2017 at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the second busiest trademark office[ii].
Brand owners recognize that in order to do business globally, they need to devise a strategy in China, whether they will offer products or services directly there or not. Part of the reality of this brand protection strategy is a defensive attempt to prevent fraudulent filings by third parties in order to avoid either paying the applicant to get the brand “returned” to the rightful owner or paying steep legal fees for seemingly never-ending legal battles that may not go in their favor[iii]. China is a “first-to-file” country, meaning that rights in a mark are established through registration, not use. The filing date preserves the applicant’s rights in the mark, whether legitimate or not. U.S. business owners wanting to do business in China often find themselves facing a whole host of frustrations not only due to issues such as fraudulent registrations, but also because of other legal restrictions that impose undue burdens on evidence production and bringing claims in court.
Has Chinese trademark law and policy kept pace with China’s ever-increasing importance in the global marketplace for businesses wanting to protect their brands? After new trademark legislation was introduced in 2013, China announced earlier this year that it is considering further sweeping changes to its IP administrative structure and legal processes, including the creation of a single IP agency (the State Market Supervision Administration)[iv]. As part of this process, China has solicited public opinion on potential revisions to Chinese trademark law. Below are five recommendations for modifications to the current legal regime that would benefit U.S. business owners seeking to do business in or with China.
- Hire more trademark examiners
While not a change in the law per se, hiring more trademark examiners will help overcome some of the legal pitfalls that come with having too few examiners to keep up with the ever-increasing number of applications. The current wait from time of application to registration can run as long as 12 to 18 months even if no refusal issues, meaning that even though an owner can preserve a filing date, the status of registration and the rights that go with it are in limbo for a long period of time. Without a registration, a trademark owner cannot fight counterfeiters, particularly on sites such as Alibaba, TaoBao, and TMall, cannot record their trademark with China Customs, and will have a much harder time trying to file any type of unfair competition action in courts in China.
What’s more, each examiner gets about ten minutes to examine each application, which includes a determination of conflicts with prior registrations or prior-filed applications, examination of the application formalities, determination of distinctiveness, and examination of the proper identification of goods and services. With so little time to give to each application, the quality of examination is bound to suffer, resulting in frustrated applicants and a large number of registrations on the Register that may not belong there. With extra clutter on the register, trademark examiners are likely to cite these irrelevant registrations against future applicants, blocking their registrations.
- Institute a declaration of use requirement after three years
Some first-to-file jurisdictions, such as the Philippines, require the registrant to prove use of the mark in commerce in connection with the goods or services of the registration after three years in order to maintain the registration. This gives applicants the incentive to file applications for marks they actually intend to use, since there is extra cost involved in either submitting the declaration of use or refiling a new application before the third year is up. A lot of the “chaff” on a registry could be removed by instituting this requirement, allowing legitimate brand owners to have more options.
This type of requirement is not without potential downsides, however. Fraudulent filers can easily fake use specimens or declarations, as some have done in the U.S. to try to get around the strict use requirements for registration[v]. It also makes defensive filings more difficult and costly. And, it could add a burden to the trademark examiners who are already overburdened. Nevertheless, in combination with the third recommendation below, adding the declaration of use requirement could help combat fraud by making non-legitimate filing less profitable and more difficult.
- Formalize sanctions for lawyers, agents, and other individuals who knowingly file fraudulent applications
There are few if any consequences for fraudulent filers and for the lawyers and trademark agents who knowingly assist them. Monitoring repeat fraudulent filers and formalization of a black list would make it more difficult for trademark squatters to profit from registering multiple famous or well-known trademarks[vi]. Monetary sanctions or other legal consequences along the lines of censure or disbarment from practice before the trademark office for lawyers and agents who knowingly help squatters file the fraudulent applications would also help reduce these types of filings. While it’s certainly possible that clients aren’t always forthcoming with accurate disclosures to their counsel, it’s fairly obvious when someone other than Apple files an application to register the mark iPhone or iPad[vii] that something is not above board.
- Make evidentiary procedures more transparent and less onerous for foreign parties
Any foreign lawyer who has ever tried to work with clients to collect evidence to support a client’s opposition or any other administrative or judicial proceeding in China has had moments of significant frustration. Foreign witness declarations are not generally accepted in China Trademark Office (CTMO) proceedings, or are given little to no weight, even if signed and properly notarized. The CTMO does not have any formal guidelines for how to present evidence generated outside of China, and it is unclear as to how it may be treated in a proceeding[viii]. The Trademark Review and Adjudication Board (TRAB) has formalized guidelines to accept documents generated outside of China but requires such documents to be both notarized and legalized[ix]. The legalization process is both time consuming and costly if there are more than a few documents.
In addition, in a proceeding before the CTMO, such as a non-use cancellation proceeding (which is often necessary to try to cancel marks that have been on the Register longer than three years, do not appear to be in use, and are blocking a client’s application), the party bringing the action does not have the opportunity to examine the registrant’s evidence submitted to the CTMO until after the decision has been rendered[x]. The complainant must file a request to review the evidence with the TRAB, and then try to challenge the evidence. The process again becomes more time consuming and costly, which acts as a disincentive to any foreign trademark owner with legitimate claims.
Providing policy guidelines to the CTMO for how evidence should be treated will take some of the guesswork out of the process for foreign parties that need to present evidence from outside of China to support their case. Also, giving the complainant a chance to challenge potentially fraudulent or weak evidence in an ex parte proceeding before the decision is final will allow the CTMO to take that argument into consideration, and perhaps make decisions that will further help to prevent fraudulent or inactive registrations from cluttering up the Register.
- Streamline judicial and administrative, and make bad faith a sole ground for invalidation
It is common in opposition proceedings against fraudulent applications or non-use cancellation actions against inactive registrations for the defending party to not respond. In the U.S., the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board may issue a default judgment against the defending party, which can be appealed. However, in CTMO proceedings, the prosecuting party must continue with the case and present arguments and evidence through final determination, notwithstanding the lack of any response from the other side. Allowing for the issuance of default judgments would not only save time and money for the prosecuting party, but also save CTMO resources that are needed elsewhere.
Perhaps the most helpful change that would benefit foreign filers dealing with trademark squatters is allowing invalidation and opposition proceedings to be brought on the sole grounds of fraud or bad faith filing. In the current version of the China trademark law, there is no provision for bad faith as a ground for opposition or invalidation, although it may be considered in conjunction with other claims and as part of the supporting evidence presented[xi].
It is heartening that China is actively examining and proactively modifying its laws, procedures, and policies to reflect the issues and realities faced by both domestic and international brand owners and is addressing the exponentially increasing influx of trademark applications. The evolution of its intellectual property legal framework to match the demands of both domestic and international filers will only help to strengthen its position in the global marketplace.
[iii] New Balance learned a hard lesson about not filing an application for the Chinese character equivalent of its mark before using it: See https://www.wilsonelser.com/news_and_insights/insights/2329-chinese_court_stuns_new_balance_with_16_million
[vi] Currently, under the 2013 law, the CTMO may put agencies on a blacklist and issue monetary penalties, but do not have to enforce these restrictions. Kossof, Paul, “The New Chinese Trademark Law” The Trademark Reporter Vol. 104 No. 4, July-August 2014.
[viii] Various discussions with local counsel in Beijing, China, 2018.
[xi] Ferrante, Michele, “Strategies to Avoid Risks Related to Trademark Squatting in China” The Trademark Reporter Vol. 107 No. 3, May-June 2017.