Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Trademarks in China: The Toblerone® Case

Further progress in China's IP system is reflected in recent trademark litigation in China. See Vanessa Zhou's article on three-dimensional trademarks in China in a recent issue of World Trademark Review. She discusses the success that Kraft Foods experienced when suing to protect their trademark for the triangular 3D shape of their famous Toblerone® chocolate brand.

Along the way, she discusses the nature of trademarks on 3D shapes. Though unusual, they can be obtained.
A three-dimensional mark may consist of the configuration of the goods, the package of the goods or other three- dimensional designs. Popular examples of three-dimensional marks include the ridged Coca- Cola bottle, the Rolls-Royce figure of the Spirit of Ecstasy and Ronald McDonald, the McDonald’s clown character. In practice, however, not all three-dimensional signs can be registered and protected as trademarks.

This is because three-dimensional marks must not be merely functional. Article 12 of the Trademark Law states that "where an application is filed for registration of a three-dimensional sign as a trademark, any shape derived from the goods itself, required for obtaining the technical effect, or giving the goods substantive value, shall not be registered".

She continues to explain further details in deciding if a 3D trademark registration is possible.

Kraft prevailed against a Swiss competitor in protecting their Toblerone® brand. Given the track record of foreign companies increasingly prevailing against Chinese companies in IP litigation, when the facts are in their favor, I suspect and hope that the outcome would be similar if the infringer had been a local Chinese company. There may yet be cases of this kind to observe.

One of the challenges for 3D trademarks arises from related design patents, which may be held by other parties. Ms. Zhou gives a recent case in China where Nestlé sought to sue a Chinese soy-sauce manufacturer for infringement of their 3D trademark of a particular brown bottle shape for their soy sauce product. The competitor, Weishida, actually received a design patent for their bottle shape in 1991 and have been selling the product since 1983, and have sales far greater than Nestlé. Ms. Zhou says that these facts will make it very difficult for Nestlé to prevail.

A related problem occurs in patents, when companies doing business in China find that patents on their products have been filed and issued by others in China. Sometimes their own published patents have been filed by someone else, or in other cases someone has drafted a new patent that may seem to be based on the company's original patent or at least their internationally protected products. These problems are correctable, but can add to the challenges. It's important to have careful searches of Chinese patents done to detect such problematic patents and take appropriate action. As the Chinese IP system becomes more sophisticated and strengthens its resources, questionable patents will become much less of a problem.

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