Yao Ming and Michael Jordan both played in the NBA, both made multiple All-Star Games, and both came together for this great picture that is currently used by NiuBBall’s Twitter account. But perhaps the two’s largest commonality comes not on the basketball court, but rather in the court of law.
Intellectual property rights, copyright infringement, shanzhai… All are problems in China, where fake knock-offs of almost anything can be found practically anywhere, including Air Jordans and Air Yaos. A superstar who’s name alone is enough to turn profits for a company, Yao has already been to court several times over the years to reclaim his name and his money. Now, Jordan is attempting to reclaim his as well.
In February, Jordan sued Qiaodan Sports, a basketball apparel brand based in Fujian province, claiming that the company used his name without permission. The lawsuit also alleges that the company tried to register trademarks using the Chinese names that match those of Jordan’s two children.
In China, Jordan is known by his Chinese name, “Qiaodan,” and remains as one of the country’s most recognizable celebrities nine years after his retirement from professional basketball.
In an online video posted onto his lawsuit’s official site, Jordan said: ”I feel the need to protect my name, my identity, and the Chinese consumers. It’s about principle — protecting my identity and my name.”
Qiaodan has 5,715 retail stores throughout China and is preparing to raise 1.1 billion yuan ($175 million) in a public listing in Shanghai, according to the Wall Street Journal. The company posted profit of 341.5 million yuan on 1.7 billion yuan in revenue for last year’s first half.
A spokesperson for Qiaodan denied the claim shortly after the lawsuit was filed, saying “Not everyone will think this is misleading. There are so many Jordans besides the basketball player – there are many other celebrities both in the U.S. and worldwide called Jordan.”
Answering in response to the company’s rampant use of the No. 23 that Jordan wore while he played, he added, “There is no connection, 23 is just a number like $23 or $230 dollars… I don’t think there is a problem at all here.”
Issues surrounding copyright infringement and property rights have been the norm in China. General Motors, Apple, Cisco, the IFPI have all sued various companies in recent years for unauthorized distribution, use of name and other IPR violations. That list also includes Yao himself, who sued Coca-Cola in 2003, accusing the company of violating his rights to his image by printing his picture on bottles. Yao won the case after symbolically asking for RMB 1 in compensation.
More relevant to Jordan, however, was Yao’s lawsuit filed last year when he sued Wuhan Yunhe Sharks Sportswear Co. for illegally displaying his signature and a “Yao Ming Generation” slogan on its products.
In a recent interview with Xinhua published on April 12th, Yao talked about his decision to sue Wuhan Yunhe, Jordan’s case against Qiaodan and the future of Chinese sportswear brands which “happen” to be identical with names of sports celebrities.
“Behind my name is my experience, and my blood, sweat and pain. I take this very seriously, and that’s why I’ve decided to defend my rights,” said Yao. “I am confident that Michael Jordan and many others like us feel the same way. And it’s important to help everyone understand this in order to protect consumers and stop companies that are purposefully misleading them.”
Though Yao officially sued Wuhuan Yunhe in May 2011, the case actually started in 2003 while he was playing for the Houston Rockets after the sportswear company attempted to use a “Yao Ming Generation” trademark on its shoes and clothes. Unsure whether or not to take the issue to court for fear of further encouraging copyright infringement, Yao ultimately decided to file a lawsuit once Wuhan Yunhe expanded its sales nationwide. Yao won and the company was ordered to pay a RMB 300,000 fine. But Yao and his legal team elected to appeal because the settlement figure was deemed not high enough.
“After winning the ‘Yao Ming Era’ case in the first ruling, we chose to appeal, because we thought a RMB 300,000 fine was not sufficient to punish or deter. The manufacturer would still think the price paid for law violation is low”, said Yao.
According to Xinhua, Wuhan Yunhe tried to negotiate with Yao, even going so far as offering offering financial rewards if a favorable settlement could be reached. In the end, however, he refused.
“The reason is simple. It’s just like when someone uses your belongings without telling you in advance and later comes back and says: let’s use it together and split the profit made. It doesn’t make any sense. The purpose of defending our rights is to stop the infringement by making them realize that the price for infringement is too high.”
Jordan’s case is still pending in Shanghai Second Intermediate Court.
Yao also had words for these types of infringement-based business models. While companies who infringe may provide short-term profits, he thinks brands will never be able to break through and create a long-term prosperity by stealing other peoples’ names.
“Although a settlement is yet to be made, it tells us a piece of truth – that is, to obtain vitality, an enterprise must be innovative. I remember an advertisement slogan which goes ‘it has always been imitated but never outshone’. If businesses continue to refuse innovation, they will fall into the awkward situation of “always imitating others and never being able to outshine,” Yao said while laughing.
“Rules are everywhere. Sports have rules and so does business. Only when everyone plays by the rules can we have positive competition and realize sound development. Therefore, relevant laws and regulations need improvements as well.”
Yao believes that recent cases of high profile athletes defending their name rights have increased awareness of the issue, which in turn will spur China to provide intellectual property rights protection through setting up better rules.
“I believe intellectual property rights will be very well protected within China’s legal framework.”