The notorious “Jordan vs. Jordan” (NBA legend Michael “Air” Jordan and sons versus Chinese company Qiaodan Sports) case is now grinding slowly through the Chinese courts.
Here’s a quick update from Illuminant’s Beijing-based research team — and it looks like Michael Jordan is fighting an uphill battle.
Beijing court dismisses Jordan sports infringement case; will move to Shanghai courts [QQ News, February 29, 2012]
Beijing courts refuse to take the Jordan vs Jordan case, because: the name “Jordan” (“Qiaodan”) is “not a unique name, and is shared by thousands of Americans” [NB: The pronunciation of Michael Jordan is transliterated to “Qiaodan” in China's mainland, and “Zuodun” in Hong Kong]. Hence, the Beijing courts have ruled that Michael Jordan has no right to sue Qiaodan Sports. The report states that Michael Jordan and his lawers are moving the case to the Shanghai courts.
Jordan Case: legal experts say it will be difficult for Michael Jordan to win his lawsuit [QQ News, March 4, 2012]
Chinese legal experts are not optimistic for Michael Jordan. This article quotes several senior lawyers and summarizes the following conclusions:
- The most likely ruling is that Qiaodan Sports infringed Michael Jordan’s “name rights”. However, Chinese civil law has never extended any of such “name rights” to foreigners. Experts expect an uncertain mess if Michael takes this approach.
- An important legal technicality is that Qiaodan Sports didn’t actually infringe any of Michael Jordan’s rights, because “Jordan” alone doesn’t specify “the Michael Jordan” [NB: regardless that Qiaodan Sports brand identity is a dead ringer for Air Jordan].
- Experts suggest that Michael Jordan’s best chance is to plead that Qiaodan Sports infringed his “image rights”, which covers elements including his name, voice, look, and “business value”. This approach seems to fit Jordan’s case precisely. The only problem is that Chinese law does not define what is exactly “image rights” [NB: a great deal of Chinese law is highly ambiguous; some experts believe this is a deliberate strategy stemming from the 1949 founding principles of the People's Republic of China by Mao Zedong).
- The Chinese experts speculate that the judges won’t view Michael Jordan's case as valid. In their opinion, on one side is the bigger-than-life Michael Jordan, and on the other is a company with 3 billion Chinese renminbi annual revenues [USD475M] and substantial employment. The experts predict that the courts will favor Qiaodan Sports due largely to this key characteristic of the Jordan complaint.
In the end, the lawyers concluded that Michael Jordan’s case isn’t hopeless, but it’s still a wild shot.
Illuminant feels that this is an important cautionary tale of how messy things can become in Chinese copycat complaints. China’s civil law is largely ambiguous and not based on legal precedent. Judges aren’t expected to always follow law, given the fluidity of the national and provincial legal corpus.
For almost a decade, lluminant has advised early copyright and trademark registration, combined with a minimal level of media and PR activity to keep names active in the Chinese marketplace of ideas.