The lawsuit filed against New Barlun in 2016 comes to a head as sportswear brand New Balance reclaims its renowned ‘N’ symbol in late April 2020.
New Barlun, a Chinese firm involved in multiple disputes against New Balance spanning a time frame of 16 years, has been ordered to pay damages of 10.8 million yuan (US$1.54 million) to the Boston-based sportswear company. The Shanghai Pudong People’s Court has ruled that New Barlun’s use of the ‘N’ symbol would mislead customers due to its similarity to New Balance’s trademark logo.
Battle against copycats and counterfeits
New Barlun poses little competitive threat to New Balance, a company that has solidified its position as one of the top 10 sportswear brands in China. The weight in New Balance’s victory lies less in commercial interests but more in fighting back against the poorly regulated counterfeit market in China – a market of which, according to reports from OECD and the EU’s IP Office in 2019, was worth US$509 billion, or approximately 3.3 percent of all worldwide trade. The majority of counterfeit goods were discovered to be originating from China and Hong Kong. New Balance’s win against New Barlun is perhaps a reflection of China’s increasing capacity to take active control in protecting intellectual property rights.
An Issue with Sportswear Brands
Just two weeks prior to the judgement of the New Balance case, NBA star Michael Jordan prevailed in a copyright infringement case against Fujian-based Qiaodan Sports (SCMP, 2020). The verdict from China’s highest court indicates that the Chinese company was found guilty in the unlawful use of Jordan’s Chinese name, Qiao Dan.
However, international companies have repeatedly failed to protect their trademarks in China in the past. Jordan himself has struggled against Qiaodan Sports in other copyright infringement cases, such as similarities shared between the ‘Jumpman’ logo used by both Qiaodan Sports and Nike, the sportswear company representing Jordan. It is recorded that Qiaodan Sports has registered 200 trademarks associated with Jordan.
The end of China’s counterfeit market?
The two cases appear to be an active implementation of the phase one trade deal signed with the United States back in January 2020. As a result of the trade deal, China is in the process of formulating a strategy on intellectual property protection, one that is predicted to call upon US interests such as trademarks and enforcement against counterfeit goods.