Disputes over GI wine trademarks

By Wang Yan and Zheng Xiaoxia, Wanhuida Intellectual Property

Foreign geographical indications (GIs) may be granted protection even without a trademark registration in China

GIs are indications that identify a good as originating from a certain region or locality, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to the natural or humanistic features of the place indicated. What if an indication is accredited as a GI in its country of origin – is it sufficient to be granted protection in China without being registered as a trademark?

On 10 January 2011, Fujian Longwang Trading filed an application to the Trademark Office for registration of Trademark No. 9037930 “罗曼尼·康帝” (disputed trademark, Chinese transliteration of “Romanee-Conti”) on class 33 goods of “Wine; Whiskey”. The application was approved for registration on 21 January 2012.

Wang Yan
Wanhuida Intellectual Property

In August 2016, the Institut National de L’origine et de la Qualite (known as INAO) filed a request for invalidation of the disputed trademark with the Trademark Review and Adjudication Board (TRAB, now part of the National Intellectual Property Administration). On 10 January 2017, the disputed trademark was assigned to a third party, Wu Liping.

The TRAB held that “Romanee-Conti”, as an accredited appellation of origin for wines in France, had not yet been registered as a GI in China, and the evidence adduced in the case could not prove that “Romannee-Conti” and “罗曼尼·康帝” had formed an exclusive corresponding relationship. Therefore, the registration of the disputed trademark did not violate the provisions of article 16 of the 2001 Trademark Law.

INAO challenged the TRAB decision before the Beijing Intellectual Property Court. The court held that the adduced evidence could prove that the region indicated by “Romanee-Conti”, featuring distinctive natural and humanistic characteristics, is a GI of wines, and that a stable corresponding relationship had been established between “Romanee-Conti” and the Chinese characters “罗曼尼·康帝”.

Zheng Xiaoxia
Wanhuida Intellectual Property

Therefore, “罗曼尼·康帝” should also be protected as a GI of wines. The disputed trademark, which contains the Chinese characters “罗曼尼·康帝”, having a stable corresponding relationship with the GI “Romanee Conti”, violates the provisions of article 16 (1) of the 2001 Trademark Law.

Both the TRAB and Wu Liping appealed the first-instance decision to the Beijing High Court. The Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the first instance court, holding that the use of the disputed trademark on wines and other commodities closely associated with wines is likely to mislead the public.

The TRAB reiterated in the invalidation proceeding and the court appeal the argument that given that “Romanee-Conti” had not been registered as a GI in China, it could not be granted protection. In fact, before the promulgation of the General Provisions of the Civil Law 2017, there had been controversy on whether to grant direct protection over GIs, a civil right not yet recognized in China. The nation’s recent legislative progress has prompted the evolution of the protection regime of GIs.

In 2015, the Beijing First Intermediate Court found, in CIVC v Sheng Yan Yi Mei, that article 16 of the Trademark Law is the legal basis to invoke protection over GIs in China, and on this basis, the Regulations for the Implementation of the Trademark Law have further clarified that GIs may be applied for registration as certification trademarks or collective trademarks. Nevertheless, the regulations do not exclude those GIs, other than collective trademarks and certification trademarks, from being protected.

The parameter in ascertaining whether legal protection is justified, and to what extent such protection is appropriate, lies in whether the indication per se has functioned as a de facto source identifier among the relevant public. Whether GIs have been registered as collective trademarks or certification trademarks in China is not a precondition to legal protection in China.

As to the GIs that have not been applied for registration in China, the Beijing High Court ascertains, in article 13.4 of the Guidelines for the Adjudication of Administrative Cases Concerning the Granting and Affirmation of Trademark Right, the principle where the prior protection of the GI by its country of origin shall be honoured in China.

The court provides that where a foreigner claims that the application for registration of the litigious trademark violates the provisions of article 16.1 of the Trademark Law, and thus this trademark should not be registered or should be declared invalid, he/she shall provide proof that the GI under his/her name is protected by law in the country of origin.

In this case, the courts of first and second instance, based on two articles in the Journal Officiel de la République Française, submitted by the INAO, determined that France had recognized “Romanee-Conti” as an appellation of controlled origin by decree, dated 11 September 1936. The courts examined the standards of wines from the area in the official journal (including the colour and type of products, the origin and region of various crops, all grape varieties, the processing, manufacturing, brewing, packaging and storage process, and the association with the place of origin), as well as the geographical region of Romanee-Conti and its natural and humanistic characteristics. Courts of both instances made a different finding by taking into consideration the evidence as to how such a GI is perceived by the Chinese public.

In particular, the Court of Appeal maintained the first-instance decision and quashed the TRAB ruling based on the finding that, “although Romanee-Conti has not been applied for registration as a GI trademark in China, the Trademark Law does not regard the registration as a prerequisite for protection of GIs”. The court noted that such a decision aligns with China’s obligation in protecting GIs after its accession to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.

GI is one of the intellectual property rights enumerated in article 123 of the General Provisions of the Civil Law. Although registration is not a precondition to invoke protection, the owner of a registered GI could be in a more advantageous position to challenge copycats/infringers in administrative and judicial proceedings. And a sound IP portfolio is not only the shield for self-preservation, but also the trump card in active defence.

Wang Yan is an associate at Wanhuida Intellectual Property. She can be contacted on +86 10 6892 1000 ext. 352 or by email at wangyan0@wanhuida.com.

Zheng Xiaoxia is a paralegal at Wanhuida Intellectual Property. She can be contacted on +86 10 6892 1000 ext. 8294 or by email at zhengxiaoxia@wanhuida.net.

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