The Trademark Woes Of Michael Jordan (And Many Others) In China The NBA superstar's brand is one of many mired in copyright trouble in China. An unrelated shoe company with an Air Jordan-esque name and logo is making millions — and under Chinese law, it's legal.
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The Trademark Woes Of Michael Jordan (And Many Others) In China

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The Trademark Woes Of Michael Jordan (And Many Others) In China

The Trademark Woes Of Michael Jordan (And Many Others) In China

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TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

Copyright law is complicated enough as it is. But many U.S. companies have run into extra trouble trying to do business in China, where trademark laws are completely different than they are here. NPR's Becky Sullivan has this story of one high-profile dispute, where a Chinese company is trying to be a little too much like Mike.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: At this store outside of Shanghai, bright lights shine on brightly colored sneakers for basketball and running - neon shades of pink and green and orange. On every pair of shoes, every piece of clothing and blown up huge on the wall is the store's logo - the silhouette of a basketball player mid jump, his outstretched arm holding a basketball. Sound familiar? Here's the name of the chain.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Qiaodan.

SULLIVAN: Qiaodan - it's the Chinese transliteration of Jordan, as in NBA superstar Michael Jordan, who, as you may know, has a famous line of shoes called Air Jordan. But the shoes and the logo here aren't exact replicas. In fact, the Chinese Qiaodan has no relation whatsoever to the American Jordan brand - none. They're totally different companies. Many customers don't even think to ask if there's a connection; they assume there is one, like Alex Kong did before the lawsuit made headlines.

ALEX KONG: (Speaking foreign language, through translator) We used to buy Qiaodan because of Michael Jordan, but later we found out that Qiaodan is a Chinese brand.

SULLIVAN: Another customer, Ms. Lu - and by the way, Chinese people are often reluctant to use their full names with the news media - she also thought that they were the same company at first, and puzzled when we asked her about it.

LU: (Speaking foreign language, through translator) Why did they use the same name? Are they allowed to use it?

SULLIVAN: They are, and here's how. When Nike and Jordan expanded the Air Jordan brand to China back in the '90s, they only registered the English version of Jordan.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Air Jordan from Nike.

SULLIVAN: A few years later, a family-owned shoe company came along and registered Qiaodan, the Chinese version of Jordan. So Jordan sued the company in 2012 and posted a video explaining his take on the case.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL JORDAN: I've always thought my name means everything to me. And it's something that I own. When someone take advantage or misrepresents that, I think it's left up to me to protect that. I have no other choice but to turn to the courts.

DAN HARRIS: And he has lost at least twice.

SULLIVAN: This is Dan Harris. He's an attorney at a law firm called Harris Moure. They specialize in helping American companies navigate the Chinese market. Earlier this year, a court in Beijing ruled against Michael Jordan. He asked for a retrial, but lost again in June. Harris says Jordan ran into a common problem that Americans have with trademarks in China.

HARRIS: Most countries, including China, give trademarks to whomever files for it first. But the United States it's whoever uses it first.

SULLIVAN: Harris' firm gets calls about this all the time, usually from American companies complaining that a Chinese company is ripping them off.

HARRIS: And they become very unhappy when we have to tell them that instead of hiring us to sue that company, they should hire us to negotiate with that company. That is not what they want to hear.

SULLIVAN: This has actually happened to some really big companies - Gucci, New Balance, Tesla. Even Apple had to pay $60 million to a Chinese company who owned the trademark to the iPad. Since 2001, China has had a law that protects international trademarks that are well-known in China. But the bar is really, really high. Starbucks won a case this way. But Harris thinks now that Michael Jordan has lost twice, he has a long row to hoe.

HARRIS: He says he's not totally finished yet and that he intends to keep pursuing it.

SULLIVAN: Jordan plans to appeal to China's supreme court. Maybe that shouldn't be a surprise from the guy who's famous for saying I can accept failure, but I can't accept not trying. Becky Sullivan, NPR News.

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