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Jordan sues for control of his name in China

A pedestrian passes a branch of Chinese sportswear shop Qiaodan Sports in Shanghai on Thursday. Retired NBA superstar Michael Jordan announced that he has filed a lawsuit in China against Qiaodan Sports Company Limited over unauthorized use of his name.

BEIJING – Between Linsanity and Apple’s iPad trademark case, it seems like the only things on people’s minds in China right now are basketball and trademarks.

Leave it to “His Airness” to elevate that talk to another level.

Earlier today, NBA legend Michael Jordan issued a statement announcing that he has filed a lawsuit in Chinese court against Qiaodan Sports Company Ltd., charging the company with using his name and playing number without permission.

“A Chinese sports company has chosen to build a Chinese business off my Chinese name without my permission,” said Jordan in a video statement posted on a special website announcing the suit. "It pains me to see someone misrepresent my identity.”

“Qiaodan” is a transliteration of the name Jordan has gone by in China since he and the NBA took China by storm in the ‘80s and ‘90s, transforming the mainland into a nation of basketball diehards.

“It is deeply disappointing to see a company build a business off my Chinese name without my permission, use the number 23 and even attempt to use the names of my children,” Jordan said, referring to Qiaodan’s recent bid to trademark the name of his children in China. He continued by saying, “I am taking this action to preserve ownership of my name and my brand.”

Jordan’s announcement is a blow to Qiaodan, a Chinese sportswear and footwear manufacturer that has its roots in the 1980s but found tremendous financial success when it changed its name to Jordan’s Chinese moniker in 2000.

Company: Lots of people named 'Jordan'
Since that time, Qiaodan has borrowed heavily from the Jordan mystique to drive sales in China. His iconic number 23 is on much of their sportswear and advertisements and equipment often sport a logo which greatly resembles Nike’s iconic “Jumpman” logo, which accompanies virtually all of Jordan’s branded gear.

Still, the company denies any connection to the NBA legend and argues any resemblance is coincidental.

Speaking to Chinese media today, a spokesman for the company brazenly claimed, “There is no connection, 23 is just a number like $23 or $230 dollars… I don’t think there is a problem at all here.”

He continued by saying Qiaodan goes to great lengths to advertise that the company was a “China national brand” and that there was no need to tell every customer that they are not associated with Jordan since their brand is already unique to the mainland.

Bob Leverone / AP

Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan smiles as he announces a cash donation to the Second Harvest Food Bank on Feb. 20 in Charlotte, N.C.

“Not everyone will think this is misleading,” said the spokesman. “There are so many Jordans besides the basketball player – there are many other celebrities both in the U.S. and worldwide called Jordan.”

A bold claim by Qiaodan, but one that is seemingly refuted by a 2009 survey conducted by a Shanghai marketing company. They found that 90 percent of 400 young people polled in China’s small cities believed Qiaodan Sports was Michael Jordan’s own brand.

“We live in a competitive marketplace, and Chinese consumers, like anyone else, have a huge amount of choice when it comes to buying clothing, shoes and other merchandise,” said Jordan, “I think they deserve to know what they are buying.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Nike, who markets the “Jordan” brand in China under its English name, which the Oregon-based company registered in China in 1993. It failed, though, to register the Chinese name, allowing Qiaodan to take it in 1998. Attempts by Nike to legally halt Qiaodan from selling under that name were blocked by the Chinese government’s state trademark office 

Subsequently, one can walk into a sports store here in China and often find Nike’s official Jordan line of sportswear on sale just a few racks down from Qiaodan’s brand.

Why now?
In lieu of Nike’s previous experience in attempting to protect its trademark and the fact that Jordan himself has waited 11 years to make his first high profile attempt to stop Qiaodan, the question is: “Why now?”

The answer to that may be found in two recent legal decisions involving two other NBA players.

Stan Abrams of the invaluable China legal and business blog, China Hearsay, wrote about two cases involving Chinese basketball stars – Yi Jianlian and Yao Ming – and the parallels between their two trademark cases and the suit Jordan is bringing against Qiaodan.

In the Yi Jianlian case, a company unaffiliated with the player registered for the trademark of his name in 2005. Yi filed a complaint with the Chinese Trademark Review and Adjudication Board and won in 2009; he also won a subsequent appeal in 2010.

Yao Ming faced a similar issue when he filed suit and won against another Chinese sporting goods company, Wuhan Yunhe, which had attempted to trademark a name associated with the former NBA superstar.

In both cases, lawyers for the players cited Article 31 of Chinese Trademark Law which states: "An application for the registration of a trademark shall not create any prejudice to the prior right of another person, nor unfair means be used to pre-emptively register the trademark of some reputation another person has used.”

Perhaps seeing the trademark law now being more stringently enforced in cases closely paralleling his own, and already knowing the terrific economic potential for himself and his brand in China, Jordan must have seen this as the time to make a definitive move against Qiaodan.

Considering Nike’s failed injunction and the fact that Qiaodan is a purely homegrown Chinese company – a fact that should not be underestimated - Qiaodan must have appeared frustratingly untouchable to Jordan, who touched on fairness in his statement.

“When I was a former player, I played within the rules, I played off of honesty,” said Jordan. “Today, even in business, honesty is something that I truly, truly hold as a high value, and I stay within the guidelines.”

While the lawsuit is primarily for control of his Chinese name in China, Jordan has pledged that any money earned in the lawsuit will be “invested in growing the sport in China.”

“No one should lose control of their own name; China recognizes that for everyone. It’s not about the money; it’s about principle—protecting my identity and my name.”  

One person who should take heed of Jordan’s words? Current NBA phenom, Jeremy Lin, whose Chinese name was registered by a Chinese company back in 2010.

Watch Jordan's video statement