Jack Ellis

One of the largest online marketplaces in China, JD.com, has signed up to the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) with a pledge to partner with international fashion brands “on issues surrounding IP protection”. While it celebrates being the first Chinese e-commerce company to become a certified member of the association, some may see parallels between this move and Alibaba’s brief membership of the International Anti-counterfeiting Coalition (IACC) – which, nearly a year ago to the day, resulted in considerable kickback from members.

Beijing-based JD.com announced its first quarter results earlier this week and noted that it had recently become a certified member of the AAFA, which it described as “the trusted public policy and political voice of the apparel and footwear industry”. Expanding on what the move could mean for the AAFA’s long list of members – which includes high profile brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors and New Balance – a JD.com spokesperson stressed it would involve partnerships on IP-related matters. “We will cooperate with international fashion brands on issues surrounding IP protection as the company continues its push to bring more top global fashion brands to Chinese consumers through the JD.com platform,” the spokesperson stated.

The hook-up might surprise some in the trademark industry, as the AAFA has been a vocal critic of the vast amounts of counterfeit goods sold on Chinese online marketplaces. Indeed, JD.com has fought a well-publicised battle against counterfeiters on its platforms, including shutting down its consumer-to-consumer marketplace to quell the trading of fakes.  In recent years, however, the AAFA’s criticism has been mostly focused on JD.com’s biggest (and significantly larger) competitor, Alibaba.

In December 2015, the association wrote a stinging assessment of the takedown procedures on Alibaba-owned platform Taobao. In a written statement to encourage the United States Trade Representative (USTR) to re-list Taobao as a 'Notorious Market' in its annual Out-of-Cycle Review, the AAFA accused Alibaba Group of lax IP protection mechanisms and of not engaging sufficiently with brand owners. A war of words erupted between the two parties, with Alibaba arguing back that it had “repeatedly requested the AAFA to have a direct substantive discussion without success”, further suggesting that the association “did not indicate a willingness to truly sit down and discuss substantive issues; it seems directed more at achieving publicity than at building a global system to fight counterfeits and protect the interests of rights holders”.

The AAFA appeared to be victor of that particular battle as Taobao was relisted as a ‘Notorious Market’ by the USTR last December.

When Alibaba sought more substantive ties with another US-based body, the IACC, last year, the backlash was marked. Numerous members quit the IACC;  while during the height of the controversy, JD.com CEO Richard Liu mocked Alibaba’s apparent “newfound belief in protecting IP, after years of enabling sellers to abuse rights holders” in a World Trademark Review op-ed.

In light of past events, then, the AAFA’s decision to more closely align with JD.com may run the risk of ruffling the feathers of some members. Time will tell. 

Additional reporting by Tim Lince

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