Sotheby’s wins Chinese trademark victory

  • a sign that China’s judicial system is giving greater protection to foreign intellectual property rights

International auction house Sotheby’s has won a rare Chinese court victory in a trademark infringement case against a local company, in a sign that China’s judicial system is giving greater protection to foreign intellectual property rights.

Sotheby’s said on Wednesday it won the judgment in a Beijing court against Sichuan Su Fu Bi Auction Company, which uses the same simplified Chinese characters in its name as the international auction house.
The court designated Sotheby’s name as “well known” and therefore protected in spite of the fact that its name in simplified Chinese characters had not yet been approved as a trademark in China.

Sotheby’s name, both in English and in traditional Chinese characters, has been registered as trademarks in China.

Legal experts said the victory showed Chinese courts were prepared to extend protection to well-known brands before they had completed the complex trademark registration process.

“In practical terms it is very important,” said Cedric Lam, a Hong Kong-based partner for law firm Dorsey & Whitney. “China is already the busiest trademark registration centre in the world and it can take more than three years from filing [to get a trademark].

“Even some Beijing Olympic partners have not yet registered all their trademarks, and this shows that [famous brands] can turn to the courts for protection.”

Foreign companies could not get a trademark designated as “well known”, which gives additional protection, until China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001. Even since then it has not been easy to get that designation in Chinese courts. Bloomberg, the financial news company, last year won a trademark case in Chinese courts against local competitors but judges said its Chinese name, Pengbo, was not widely recognised enough to be “well known”.

Kevin Ching, Sotheby’s Asia chief executive, said the victory was important because wealthy Chinese collectors played an increasingly important role in the company’s business.

“Financially, [the infringement] has a minimal impact on us but we don’t want to have our name associated with or confused with objects that are, frankly, not in our league,” he said.
Sichuan Su Fu Bi, which claims on its website to have auctioned artwork that has been to space with Chinese astronauts, was ordered to stop using the name, pay Rmb110,000 ($15,280, €10,500, £7,800) in damages and to publish an apology in a local newspaper.

The company could not be reached for comment on Wednesday but has appealed.

(Financial Time)

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