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Tackling Bad Faith Trademark Applications or Registrations in China – Part IV


Tackling Bad Faith Trademark Applications or Registrations in China – Part IV

by Yan Zhang, Miao Tian & Austin Chang

In the last part of this series, we will share cases and our suggestions on two issues, one is the impact on bad faith assessment in the event of later trademark assignment, the other is the necessity to assess bad faith if the right holder’s interests have already been protected by applying other clauses of the Trademark Law.

1. Will a trademark assignment change the bad faith nature of a squatted mark?

An individual “A” applied for “” in early 2011 on computers, computer programs, handheld phones, etc. in class 9, secured trademark registration in January 2012, and assigned the mark to another individual “B” in February 2014.

Instagram filed an invalidation action against the trademark in April 2014 but the mark was sustained.  Disagreed with the decision, Instagram appealed to the Beijing IP Court in June 2016 and obtained a favorable judgment, which was later upheld by the Beijing High Court in March 2017 against the CNIPA’s second instance appeal.

In this case, we argued that the application date of the disputed trademark should be used as the time point for judging the bad faith because it is the subjective attitude of the original applicant that matters.  The subsequent transfer of the disputed trademark and whether the assignee is in good faith cannot clean the slate even if a valid contract has been signed and reasonable consideration paid.  To prove A’s bad faith, we submitted the trademark application list of A to show he filed for nearly 30 famous trademarks such as “Google,” “Twitter,” “SQUREUP,” “PINTEREST,” “FOURSQUARE,” “FREEMONEE,” “BLEKKO,” “QUORA”; the declarations condemning A for his bad faith squatter issued by Google, Twitter and other leading Internet companies; and overseas judgments against A for his squatting, etc.

With detailed arguments and convincing evidence, we managed to persuade the courts to find that:

The legislative intent of Article 44. 1 of the Trademark Law is to maintain a good trademark registration and administration order by means of holding the principle of public order and good customs.  When examining and determining whether the disputed trademark is registered by other improper means, it is necessary to consider whether it is a means, other than deception, that disrupts the order of trademark registration, harms public interests, occupies public resources improperly, or seeks improper benefits in other ways.

In this case, in addition to applying for the disputed trademark, the relevant right holders of the disputed trademark also applied for trademarks that are identical or similar to others’ famous brands in multiple classes.  These said trademarks show obvious intention to copy and imitate others’ trademarks with certain fame, disrupt the normal order of trademark registration administration, impair the market order of fair competition, and violate the principle of public order and good customs.  In accordance with the legislative intent of the Trademark Law to prohibit using deceptive or other improper means to obtain trademark registration, the relevant right holders’ registering the disputed trademark in bad faith should be prohibited. Therefore, the disputed trademark shall be revoked.

In this case, we also strengthened our arguments by proving that the current owner B acquired the disputed mark from A with full awareness of A’s bad faith.

Note, in practice, even if the assignee who may be the proprietor that had been squatted acquired the bad faith mark with good faith, the malice or illegality behind the act of applying for a squatted mark will not be eliminated by the assignee’s “bona fide” good faith.

In the last several years, with the SPC’s judgments, regulations or guidance, it now appears to be an acknowledged conclusion that ownership change will not affect the application of Article 4 and Article 44.1 of the Trademark Law.

For example, Article 7.4 of Beijing High People’s Court Guidelines for the Trial of Trademark Right Granting and Verification Cases stipulates that, if a disputed trademark violates the relevant provisions of the Trademark Law, and the only ground that the owner claimed for the trademark to remain valid is that the owner has no fault when the trademark is transferred, then such claim shall not be supported. The Action Plan for Combatting Bad Faith Trademark Registration has similar provisions as well.

Also, in the newly published Draft for Comments of the Trademark Review and Adjudication Standard, Chapter 2 Examination on the bad faith application lacking the true intention of use contains a rule stating that “trademark assignment shall not affect the determination of whether the trademark applicant has violated this article 4.”

In light of the above, on one hand the bad faith squatter cannot escape from being invalidated by means of assigning the mark to a less-malicious affiliate. On the other hand, however, if this rule is applied strictly, any trademarks assigned to their rightful owners could be vulnerable to invalidation due to their original applicant’s lack of intent to use at the time of filing.

Given the uncertainty, before purchasing any squatted marks, or where any such marks have already been purchased, brand owners should consider the following steps:

1) Conduct due diligence against the assignor – if assignor has filed for a huge number of trademarks, and the mark being assigned has never been used, the risks that the CNIPA would reject such an assignment are relatively high.

2) File back-up trademark applications – given the risk of rejection for the assignment, brand owners should file new applications of the squatted mark as a back-up plan, rather than relying entirely on the assignment.

3) Clarify consequences of rejection in assignment agreements – it should be clarified in the assignment agreement between the squatter and the proprietor that if the CNIPA rejects the assignment application, the squatter will agree to voluntarily revoke or cancel the mark instead of assignment.

4) Seek possible cooperation from squatter – the squatter should guarantee that it will cooperate with any office actions initiated by the CNIPA, including providing the evidence of use (if any) and responding to office actions.

2. Is it necessary to assess bad faith when another substantive article of the Trademark Law has already been supported?

A Chongqing company “K” applied in 2009 and registered in 2015 a US company’s core mark (Disputed Mark) for cosmetics, soaps, etc. in class 3. The US company “P” filed an invalidation in 2016 and received a favorable decision from the CNIPA. The company K disagreed with the decision and appealed to the Beijing IP Court, which dismissed the company K’s claims by affirming Article 32 and Article 44.1. The court found that:

Regarding whether the Disputed Mark constituted a pre-emptive registration by improper means of other’s mark already in use with high fame, the evidence submitted by the company P can prove that before the application date of the Disputed Mark, the licensee of the company P had sold cleansing milk, lotion, and other products branded the Disputed Mark in mainland China and the trademark had obtained certain fame on cosmetics through use. Considering that the Disputed Mark bears certain degree of distinctiveness when used on cosmetics, and that it is hardly a coincidence for the Disputed Mark and the Disputed Mark to be highly similar in mark composition and meaning, the company K is subjectively malicious in applying for the Disputed Mark. The goods designated under the Disputed Mark are the same or similar to cosmetics on which the company P had first used its mark and obtained high fame, so the registration of the Disputed Mark has violated Article 32 of the Trademark Law.

Regarding whether the Disputed Mark constituted a violation of Article 44.1, in addition to the Disputed Mark which is basically the same as the company P’s mark in use with certain influence, The company K has successively applied for more than 60 trademarks, including some copies that are the same or similar to famous brands like “Geely,” “Chrysler,” “U Key,” etc. The company K failed to give a reasonable explanation for its applications and failed to submit evidence to prove its true intention to use these marks. It can be concluded that The company K not only has obvious subjective malice of copying others famous trademarks, but also has an objective of seeking illegitimate profits by hoarding trademarks. Such behaviors will cause confusion and misunderstanding among the relevant public, disrupt the normal order of trademark administration and market competition, and impair the public interests of the society. Therefore, the registration of the Disputed Mark violated the Article 44.1 of the Trademark Law.

In this exemplary case, on top of the Article 32, the CNIPA and the court further applied Article 44.1 to invalidate the bad faith squatted mark. However, we have also received and studied many decisions and judgments where the examiners refused to further review and comment on Article 44.1 when they find either of Article 30 (similar marks on similar goods/services), Article 32 (prior rights), Article 15 (pre-emptive filings by agent or representative), etc. applies in a case.

Not only in the decisions, but also from the rules and regulations we can see this issue still appear to be disputable. For example, Article 17.5 of Beijing High People’s Court Guidelines for the Trial of Trademark Right Granting and Verification Cases sets some restrictions on application of the bad faith clause on “other improper means,” stipulating that when deciding an opposition appeal or an invalidation case, if the request of the petitioner can be supported by applying other clauses of the Trademark Law according to the documented evidence, Article 44.1 of the Trademark Law shall not apply.

In the Draft for Comments of the Trademark Review and Adjudication Standard, Chapter 16 Examination on the trademark registrations obtained by deceptive or other unfair means also contains a restriction, stating that “where other clauses of the Trademark Law could be applied to refuse or invalidate a disputed trademark based on the documented evidence, Article 44.1 of the Trademark Law shall not apply, with the exception that the bad faith is obvious.” From this newly published Draft, we can see that the government’s interests in fighting against bad faith in China is becoming increasingly strong. We look forward to a further improved trademark administration and mark competition environment.

In light of the regulations and practice that we shared, bad faith could not only make a case on its own, but also “outshine” the likelihood that the CNIPA and the courts would apply the non-bad faith related articles in the Trademark Law against squatted marks, such as the cases we have shared in earlier parts of this series. In summary, we suggest brand owners to consider spending the necessary resources to dig down into a squatter’s bad faith and to endeavor for a favorable outcome.

This is the end of this series. Follow us and stay tuned!

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