Jeremy Lin, Michael Jordan, Among Pro Athletes to Fall Victim to Chinese Trademark Copycats

Friday, September 14, 2012, by Michael Frongello

Former New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin took the basketball and sports world by storm last winter as his name and the term “Linsanity” became commonplace in American pop culture. Lin, capitalized on his newfound fame and fortune this summer when he inked a three-year, $25 million free agent contract with the Houston Rockets, as well as a lucrative endorsement contract with Nike. Unfortunately for the Taiwanese-American point guard, he may not be able to capitalize on his fame in China as Chinese ball maker Wuxi Risheng Sports Utility Co. beat everyone to the punch on the “Linsanity” craze and trademarked Lin’s name in China in July 2010. The trademark, which Wuxi Risheng purchased for a measly $708 (Lin’s brand is estimated to be worth in excess of $14 million), gives the Chinese sporting goods company the ownership of the trademark for 10 years and will the company to use both Lin’s American and Chinese name on shirts, hats, shoes, balls, toys, and other products.

Lin and Jordan aren’t the first to fall victim to Chinese copycats…

China’s trademark registration system is much different from that of the United States- “In China, first-to-register gets the rights. You may have an idea, and you can register its trademark without ever using it. Unlike in the U.S., where one must first show actual use or an intention to use before on can apply or a trademark. This trademark will be difficult to take from Risheng because Risheng applied for these trademarks… for use in the same product that Nike sells: a wide array of athletic apparel and sports equipment,” noted Horace Lam, a Beijing-based intellectual property partner of global law firm Jones Day. However, Nike and Lin could purchase the trademark from Wuxi Risheng, but that could potentially cost millions based on Lin’s current global worth.

Lin is not the only famous American professional athlete facing trademark issues in China; NBA Hall-of-Famer and current Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan has filed suit against China-based manufacturer Quiodan Sports Co.  (Quiodan translates loosely to Jordan in Chinese) for using his brand name without his permission. Jordan, whose endorsement deal with Nike is one of the most successful sports endorsements in history, said in a state, “It is deeply disappointing to see a company build a business off my Chinese name without my permission, use the number 23 and even attempt to use the names of my children. I am taking this action to preserve ownership of my name and my brand.”

Lin and Jordan aren’t the first to fall victim to Chinese copycats, as other businesses, including Apple, are having trademark issues in China with these Chinese copycats trying to capitalize and piggy back on the success of others’ established brands and products. While courts in China have tended to find favor of the Chinese copycat companies, Scotch whisky distiller Regal Chivas recently scored a rare win against a Chinese copycat company in Chinese court for violating its intellectual property rights. One way to quash these copycats, at least for professional athletes, may be to just bite the bullet and pay the measly couple of hundred dollars for the trademarks rights to their name, especially when the consequence is potentially losing out on millions of dollars.