A snow leopard by any other name would smell as sweet… unless you’re Apple. Then, perhaps another name would be sweeter right about now. Apple’s use of the Snow Leopard name has resulted in a trademark lawsuit filed by the Chinese company, Jiangsu Xuebao.
The chemical company apparently trademarked “Snow Leopard” in the Chinese language in 2000 and has filed as many as 42 different registered trademarks in China under the name for a variety of products. Apple introduced its operating system by that name in 2009. The case is scheduled for a hearing in Shanghai on July 10th.
Apple has been plagued with trademark lawsuits lately. The company recently settled with China’s Proview Technology for $60 million over the use of “iPad” and has been sued by another Chinese company that claims Apple’s Siri voice technology infringes on that company’s patent, which was approved in 2006. That case is also set to be heard in Shanghai “soon,” according to authorities.
Some have speculated that Apple may endure additional trademark suits after its settlement with Proview. China has experienced more patents in recent years, and this fact may spell trouble for companies in other parts of the world, as these lawsuits set a precedent for international trademark infringement actions.
Jiangsu Xuebao’s demand is modest compared to most trademark suits. It is asking for an apology and 500,000 yuan, which is the approximate equivalent of $80,000US. It is also suing four other companies based in China that have been selling Apple’s Snow Leopard system.
The Chinese word for Snow Leopard is Xuebao, and since Apple has only used the English words and never any Chinese characters in its advertising or packaging, it is questionable whether the company will prevail against the American corporate giant.
Nevertheless, while the majority of Jiangsu Xuebao’s products are household items such as laundry detergent and shoe polish, it reportedly sells touchscreens and mobile software under the Xuebao trademark, putting it squarely in the technology sector. This fact could cause the Shanghai court to rule in its favor and may provoke Apple to settle, as it did with Proview.
Jiangsu Xuebao claims that Apple filed for a trademark of the name in China in 2008 and was rejected due to the fact that the Chinese company already owned the mark. Therefore, according to the plaintiff, Apple was aware of its infringement.
Jiangsu Xuebao also claims that its lawsuit was not motivated by the settlement with Proview, stating that its demand is much smaller and simply wants Apple to stop using the trademark. Some writers on the Internet are skeptical, however, wondering if some Chinese companies will take the Proview case as an invitation to make money from the American mega-corporation.
Apple maintains a significant market share in Asia where its products remain popular. In fact, the corporation reports that its sales have increased 600 percent in the Asia-Pacific region since 2009, and its sales neared $8 billion in greater China alone during its last reported quarter.
While fighting such suits may simply be the cost of doing business in China, Apple’s representatives have reportedly complained that the Chinese court system favors the country’s businesses over those based in other parts of the world.
The Proview settlement, for example, was reached only after bitter negotiations between the two companies. The Chinese courts were clear that they wanted Proview and Apple to use mediation to come to an agreement. Since Apple employs a lot of people in China and the case was publicized throughout the world, the courts no doubt felt pressure to act in a way that would hold up to international scrutiny. If the case proceeds, and the Chinese court rules against Apple, it would be expected to provide a detailed and fair ruling that would satisfy the international business community. A detailed written ruling is rare in China but would be necessary in such a high profile dispute.
Two things are clear: (1) Any outside company that operates in the Chinese market must ensure that the trademark is viable there and register that trademark with the Chinese authorities in an effort to protect against these types of suits; and (2) the international business world will be watching the outcome of this one closely.