Bruce Lee's Chinese name rejected as trademark for Class 12 goods


Many of the most famous and valuable trademarks, particularly in fashion and sports and entertainment, stem from use of the personal names of individuals. Fashion fans can name Alexander Wang, Giorgio Armani, Stella McCartney and Victoria Beckham; in sports and entertainment the names of David Beckham, Leonardo di Caprio and Stephen Spielberg are known to many.

However, many jurisdictions around the world hesitate to automatically grant trademark registration rights in an individual’s personal name without a combination of established reputation and long-standing continuous use in a commercial context. From a trademarks perspective, the key issue affecting personal names as trademarks is the right of consumers to be free from confusion as to the source of goods or services.

While many may not have seen Bruce Lee’s films, the name Bruce Lee should be familiar to most readers. Bruce Lee, the action film actor and martial arts master, is a pop culture icon of the 20th century. He adopted the screen name 李小龍, which when transliterated/translated into English becomes 'Little Dragon Lee'.

In China, a recent trademark piracy case brought before the Beijing Higher People’s Court involved the pre-emptive registration of Bruce Lee’s Chinese name as a trademark for promoting automobiles and cyclecars in Class 12 of the Nice Classification. The applicant was an individual by the name of Chaoqin Zhang. The application was accepted for registration by the China Trademarks Office, although it was opposed during the statutory opposition period by Shannon Emery Lee (daughter of the late Bruce Lee) and Bruce Lee Enterprise LLC. The opposition was initially rejected by the China Trademarks Office. The opponents then pursued an appeal before the Trademarks Review and Adjudication Board (TRAB), which squarely disapproved of the registration of the disputed trademark application.

Dissatisfied with the TRAB decision, Chaoqin Zhang appealed to the Court of First Instance, Beijing Number 1 Intermediate People’s Court and failed. He persisted with an appeal to the Beijing Higher People’s Court. At the trial of the case, the courts recognised the martial arts achievements of Bruce Lee and its entwinement with his film career in Hollywood and Hong Kong. The name Bruce Lee, while being a relatively common personal name and Lee being a common surname among the population of China, could still be associated with the martial arts master and late actor. If the disputed trademark were permitted to be registered in China, public confusion would result as the automobiles or cyclecars promoted under the mark BRUCE LEE in Chinese would be associated with the late actor. Given that Chaoqin Zhang had no authorisation from Bruce Lee Enterprises LLC or Bruce Lee’s family, the appeal was rejected and the TRAB’s decision to refuse registration of the disputed mark was upheld.

Despite Bruce Lee’s sudden death in 1973, his legend and his name clearly live on.

Katherine Lai, Marks & Clerk, Hong Kong

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